Art and Law in Darwin, Part 2

The most majestic artwork in the Darwin Supreme Court is a group of nine larrakitj, or ceremonial log coffins presented by the Dhudi Djapu clan of Dhuruputjpi during an emotional reconciliation ceremony held at the court in 2003. The story behind these poles reaches back to the early years of the twentieth century. It still has important implications for relations between Yolngu and Australian law in the twenty-first.

It was the first meeting of these two laws, and they couldn’t recognize each other.
–Wuyal Wirrpanda, from the film Dhakiyarr vs the King, 2003

It is a complicated history, often told, and from many points of view. The most comprehensive account is given in Ted Egan’s A Justice All Their Own: the Caledon Bay and Woodah Island Killings 1932-1933 (Melbourne University Press, 1996), which I recommend for its lucid style and historical perspective. Donald Thomson’s role in mediating between the Yolngu and the government is presented in Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land (Miegunyah Press, 2005). The policemen’s point of view can be found Vic Hall’s autobiographical Dreamtime Justice (Rigby 1962) while more emphasis on the Yolngu perspective is provided in Andrew Macmillan’s An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land(Duffy and Snellgrove, 2001).

The National Archives of Australia has an excellent website, Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda: Appeal for Justice, assembled by Peter Read, that provides a good introduction to the story. But by far the best presentation of what these events meant to the Yolngu people is the film Dhakiyarr vs The King (Film Australia, 2004). It presents the history of the killings that set the tragedy in motion and continues through the eventual reconciliation effected by the installation of the nine poles in the Supreme Court.

The story began in the 1930s with the murder of five Japanese fishermen who had entered the waters off the eastern coast of Arnhem Land, despite such intrusions having been prohibited by Australian law 25 years earlier. Complaints from the Japanese government resulted in police being sent out to look for the killers.


Eventually, the police tracked a group of Aboriginal men to Woodah Island, which lies northwest of Groote Eylandt at the edge of Blue Mud Bay. The men vanished in the bush, but the police were able to capture and enchain a group of women, one of whom was Djaparri, the wife of the elder Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda. The women were left in the charge of Constable Albert McColl. 

Many hours later, attracted by her cries, Dhakiyarr approached through the bush and speared McColl to death. Fears of an all out war of black upon white spread panic in the north. But plans to send out more police in punitive raids raised alarms as far away as London, and resulted in Thomson being sent to Arnhem Land to try to secure the peace.

In the end, 17 indigenous people were brought back to Darwin, though Dhakiyarr alone was tried for the murder of McColl. Confined to jail for eight months, Dhakiyarr was not provided with a translator, understood nothing of the legal proceedings against him, and was most likely not even informed of the death sentence passed against him. The patently unfair legal proceedings and the obvious prejudice of the presiding Judge Wells resulted in the High Court overturning the conviction. In the words of Dhakiyarr’s grandson, Wuyal Wirrpanda, this was “the first time the High Court stood up for the black man.” 

Dhakiyarr was released from Fannie Bay Gaol in Darwin–and never seen again. Ted Egan reports that a woman living in Darwin at the time saw police shoot Dhakiyarr, but she had a stroke before she was able to offer evidence of the killing. The question remained unresolved, and Dhakiyarr unburied, for the next seventy years.

Dhakiyarr vs the King takes up the story in 2003 with the resolve of the Wirrpanda family, led by Wuyal and Dhukal, to bring about a final reconciliation. They determined they would conduct a wukidi, the ceremony by which bones are brought back to the homeland of the deceased so that his power, strength, and identity may reside in the country. Since they could not literally bring Dhakiyarr back to Dhuruputjpi, they brought the larrakitj, to represent his bones, to Darwin where he died. Writing to the Court to propose the ceremony, Dhakiyarr’s descendents made this statement:

We believe that he was shot and his bones are left in Darwin Harbour. To us Yolngu people, these bones are very important to our ritual because the bones have grown from the land and contain the strength of the land. Because these bones are in Darwin, it leaves us feeling empty without the strength they contain. We know that bones are also important in your culture and you will understand. We remember that when Constable McColl was killed at Woodah Island that his bones were later collected and taken back to Darwin where they had a big funeral for him. This never happened for our leader and all we have left of him is a photograph.

The film, which is narrated by Wuyal and Dhukal in turn, shows the creation of the larrakitj: the selection of the trees, the painting of the designs that tell the story of the country, their transport to Darwin. Along with the larrakitj, dozens of Dhudi Djpau clansmen traveled there to meet with the family of Albert McColl, who themselves had never gathered formally at his gravesite.

There is a series of beautiful and highly affecting scenes of the two families coming together, first by telephone, and then at McColl’s grave, where each group in its turn lays flowers and addresses their loss. Then the scene shifts to the grounds of the Supreme Court building, where lines of Yolngu, the men painted with the white clay and red ochre of their homeland, the women in sea-blue shirts and flowing skirts, dance on the lawn outside the Court building before moving inside for the final ceremony.

The ceremony is extraordinary in power and affect. The tension rises as the painted Yolngu dancers unveil the larrakitj, as they face the red-robed justices (including David Angel on the far right) and the family of Albert McColl. And then suddenly, with a snap of wood followed by an instant of silence, the tension is released, a young teenage boy of the McColl family grins, and the Yolngu embrace in the joy of their achievement. The entire group, Yolngu and balanda alike, take part in the wind dance that blows the footsteps of Dhakiyarr away from Darwin. 

On the right, the cover of an issue Balance, the journal of the Northern Territory Law Society, in which the wukidi ceremony was reported.

In the film’s final voiceover, Wuyal sums up the wukidi ceremony in this manner:

It is where we are working for reconciliation. That’s what we’re looking for. Dhakiyarr fought for our Law and this is what we are fighting for. Our journey continues.

And so the two Laws met again. Throughout the film the anger, anguish, and humiliation that Dhakiyarr’s descendants had felt was painfully evident. But equally clear was their pride in their culture, the ferocity of their attachment to the land and the sea. Confronted with the power of the wukidi ceremony, the white faces in the crowd betrayed a wide range of emotions as well. There was consternation and confusion and curiosity. 

Eventually there was recognition, and on a few faces, anguish as well as understanding dawned. And finally there was a tentative, awkward willingness to take part in the wind dance, a moment when the two groups came together, although this time Yolngu Law led the way. 

Let us hope, indeed, that the journey continues. If nothing else, the art collection of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, under the care and curation of David and Anita Angel, has provided an important symbolic locus for the work of reconciliation and the work of law.

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