Law in Lajamanu

The Lajamanu community was in the news last week after reports of a serious breach in Warlpiri Law. Although the incident in question occurred on January 10, it apparently didn’t make the news at the time because the lawbreakers were white police. What finally made a newsworthy story was a press release from the Central Land Council followed by a video posted on YouTube by a group of Warlpiri men. 

I haven’t been able to track down a lot of detail on what actually happened on January 10, but in broad outlines, it seems that a group of five police, one of whom was a woman, were engaged in a “traffic matter.” This is a euphemism that falls on deaf American ears, but my guess is that they were chasing someone. In the event, the police stumbled onto a camp where young men had been taken, out bush, for a three-week period of initiation ceremonies. For anyone to have intruded on secret men’s business like this would be a serious matter; that one of the intruders was a woman caused great upset in the community.

It appears that the police promptly made themselves scarce when they realized what had happened, and that they have since offered formal apologies. They’ve also offered to work with the community to make sure that such an accidental violation of the Law doesn’t occur again. 

The YouTube video is a simple set of speeches from Warlpiri men, talking-heads style, lamenting the intrusion, explaining its offensiveness, and asking for an increased respect on the part of the police for Warlpiri Law. There is deep sorrow and a hint (no more) of anger in what these men have to say.

There’s been precious little else reported. The story was picked up at, and the responses there and on the YouTube site seem to be the extent of commentary on it so far. Sadly, a great deal of that commentary congratulates the Internet for allowing marginalized communities to raise a voice in the media.

So, in the end, I don’t know what happened, what was seen that shouldn’t have been seen. But the reactions of the men in the video allow one to judge the seriousness of the offense that occurred. These are men who are old enough, for the most part, to have been through the Law at a time when Lajamanu or Yuendumu barely existed as government settlements, in the days before there was a great deal of territorial control by whitefellas in the Tanami.

That would have been a time when an intrusion like this might have been engendered serious consequences. And to me, that’s the story that’s being kept silent today: the way in which blackfella Law has been rendered powerless.

After all, no one has raised the question of whether the police should be in some way punished for breaking the Law. I don’t know how a transgression of this sort would have been met fifty or a hundred years ago. Would the offender have been speared? Exiled? No one’s said.

The press has applauded the police for apologizing; and it’s good that the police have done so. But Warlpiri Law cannot punish them. The old men can only ask ” why can’t the police … respect our sacred sites and our law?”

The police say that the area was not posted. Whitefella law says that ignorance is no defense, but.

This is not so different from the way things were in 1971 when when the High Court decided against the Yolngu plaintiffs in Milirrpum v Nabalco on the grounds that neither Crown Law nor common law had provisions for recognizing a claim made under Yolngu Law.

The next time the hue and cry is raised over “lenient” sentences for black offenders, over how “traditional culture” excuses child abuse, or how powerful old black men control their communities in tight-fisted and oppressive regimes, remember the story of the police who violated sacred ground at Lajamanu. How they were never arrested, arraigned, or held accountable for their actions, let alone judged or sentenced. But mostly, ponder how inconceivable such a scenario seems.

For despite all the rhetoric about justice and law, despite talk of “two laws,” and despite the comments at Crikey and YouTube about two legal systems working together, there’s really only one law at work here, and it’s not blackfella Law.

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