The real Bunji


Bunji: A story of the Gwalwa Daraniki movement
By Bill Day
Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994. 156 pp.
Reviewed by Deb Sorensen

There is a consistently unfunny comic strip which appears in the Northern Territory News titled Bunji. On first hearing of it, you could be forgiven for thinking this book has something to do with that comic strip. It hasn't. Bunji: A story of the Gwalwa Daraniki movement is a much better read, and although the story it tells is not a comedy, the humour with which some of its passages are written is undeniably wittier.

Gwalwa Daraniki means "our land" in Larrakia language. Bill Day's Bunji is the title of an uncompromising newsletter for Aboriginal land and other rights edited by him between 1971 and 1983. This book tells many stories about those years, but it is primarily concerned with the injustice suffered by the Larrakia and the fight for recognition and some form of compensation.

Darwin is built on Larrakia land. Like the rest of Australia, it was never surrendered or the subject of a treaty with the white invaders.

Bill Day quotes from the diary of the leader of the British expedition which had come to expropriate the land in the late 1860s. After recording how Larrakia people attempted to drive the invaders away, George Woodroffe Goyder wrote, "I had also to bear in mind that we were in what appeared to be unwarrantable occupation of their country, and territorial rights are strictly observed by the natives".

For 12 years Bill Day, along with a determined group of Larrakia and their supporters, lived the struggle for land rights. Specifically they fought for Kulaluk, a stretch of coastal land which is roughly mid-way between Darwin's central business district and outer suburbia.

It was always going to be an uphill battle. Long-term Darwin residents had seen what had happened with the land which is now the Bagot Community. Originally at least twice its size, the land "reserved" for Aboriginal people had been whittled away as the white population increased.

Kulaluk, too, was seen as prime development land. Day records how politicians, town planners, developers and judges asked each other "what right do the Larrakia have to claim such a central stretch of land in a growing city?". Indignantly they answered each other: "None!".

In 1978, on the heels of the 1976 Land Rights Act (NT), and intent on whipping up racist hysteria, then minister for lands (now chief minister) Marshall Perron declared the Darwin town boundary to stretch way beyond its actual limits in an effort to thwart possible land claims. The Land Rights Act stipulates that no Aboriginal land claims can be made within a town boundary.

Bunji the newsletter and now the book also tell stories of the imposed legal and administrative system being and remaining stacked against the original inhabitants of this country. The injustices go beyond the denial of land which for thousands of generations had belonged to the Larrakia which was taken from them a mere two generations previously and alienated from them forever.

Perhaps the most telling illustration of the gulf between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal quality of life was the 1978 invitation from then Darwin Mayor Dr Ella Stack addressed to all southern Australians who had helped rebuild the city after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy. She gushed for them to "come and see our northern city, our lack of racial discrimination, our varied people".

The invitation must have been extended in either ignorance of or indifference to the conditions for many Aboriginal people living in Darwin and the Northern Territory. Many did not have access to housing, running water or sewerage. It was not so much that Aboriginal people had been forgotten in the mammoth reconstruction task after Cyclone Tracy; rather they hadn't been "remembered" in the first place.

Ironically, almost the self-same invitation was issued to southerners leading up to the 20th anniversary of the cyclone. Conditions for many Aboriginal people have not improved.

Bunji is an important contribution to the history of the struggle for Aboriginal land rights. It is, as the newsletter always strove to be, very accessible and easy to read.

In what is generally a beautifully written book, my only frustration is that at times it tends to jump from one issue to the next and the reader is left unclear as to the how the previous issue was resolved. Nonetheless, Bunji makes compelling reading and is a must for students of the NT land rights movement and anyone interested in justice for Aboriginal people.