A Brief History in Yuendumu

The new service from the National Library of Australia, Trove, is a marvel whose gifts I’m just beginning to explore. It offers a single search that will retrieves matches from over 93 million books, magazines, newspaper articles (dating back to 1803!), diaries and archives, photographs, maps, sound recordings, and archived websites. Want to peer inside the men’s painting shed at Papunya in 1972 or study the photographs of Central Desert artists by Greg Weight that were recently on view in Sydney? Or listen to Tom Calma’s address “Still Riding for Freedom“? You can do it all through Trove. (And there’s a permanent link to the site in the right-hand sidebar of this blog.)

One of the amazing, serendipitous features of Trove is that links to results from searches continue to pop up in my Google Alerts, which is how I discovered a rather obscure little monograph entitled Yuendumu: Betrayal of Black Rights, by Chris Raynal (Blue Water Publishing, 1990).

Raynal went to Yuendumu in May 1988 as the Administrator of the Community Council on a two-year contract. He left a little over fourteen months later. His book is his record of his times, of what he saw as his accomplishments, and of the bitter fighting and politicking he endured during his tenure. It is a fascinating story, first of all of politics in an Aboriginal community: the infighting among families and factions within the Warlpiri world as well as the tense relations between black and white and among the Europeans themselves. More than that, it describes the fraught connections between the community and the larger world of Territory politics, the conflict between Darwin and the bush, the conservative government and the still-nascent sphere of self-determination.

Raynal’s story is not always easy to follow. He was a young man when he wrote it and the writing of the book was at least in part a therapeutic exercise that emerged from his bitterness, stress, and disillusionment on leaving the community and after battling with the Office of Local Government. He apparently went to Yuendumu shortly after leaving university and the voice we hear in these pages is one of youth, naivete, and self-righteousness. If never exactly arrogant, Raynal is utterly convinced of his purity of intention and his moral superiority to the other Europeans who lived in Yuendumu at the time. This isn’t always an endearing voice, and occasionally he slips and reveals his unexamined sense of superiority to the Warlpiri to whom he otherwise professes to be the humble servant.

For a number of sensible reasons, Raynal names no names in this book. Everyone is referred to by a title. There is the President of the Council, the Essential Services Officer, the Powerhouse Operator, the Outstations Coordinator. This has the dual effect of making the story into even more of a morality play than its narrative might otherwise create, as everyone becomes a role if not an archetype. It also leads to a fair amount of confusion for a reader like myself not well acquainted with these roles and the people likely to fill them. At one very simple level, it’s hard to tell the blackfellas from the whitefellas on occasion, which makes sorting the black hats from the white hats even harder.

By and large, though, the Europeans are the villains in the piece, far more concerned with protecting their own way of life in Yuendumu that supporting the principles of self-determination or even enabling the Warlpiri to manage the most insignificant of their own affairs. Raynal sees himself as the champion of Indigenous desires, and if balancing the Council’s budget means reducing hours at the bank and the post office, and setting those reduced hours to accommodate Indigenous rather than European schedules and convenience, he never thinks twice. It is somewhat sad to watch him, early in his career at Yuendumu, win battle after battle without ever quite realizing that he is losing the war.

By his own account, he early on alienated the white community, and he takes this as a badge of honor. When later on, he is caught in the web of Indigenous politics, when the drinkers begin to gain a foothold in the Council, when family politics wearies his allies and they retreat from the fray, he finds himself alone and adrift. When the Office of Local Government steps in to investigate the parlous state of the Council’s budget, Raynal’s fate is sealed. 

But Chris Raynal is nothing if not a fighter. When the OLG attempts to withhold a final payment to him, he settles in from Alice Springs for another battle and in the end is victorious, if pyrrhically. (“Another victory like that and we’re done for”, jokes Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses.)

Apart from its intimate if perhaps slightly unreliable portrait of infighting and politics in an Aboriginal community in the wake of Whitlam’s reforms, Raynal’s book stands as a welcome historical record of the cyclical struggles to find a way forward in the mire of Aboriginal affairs more generally. In the wake of Howard’s intervention and the rhetoric of “thirty years of failed policy” it is more than useful to see what that policy looked like on the ground when it was attempting to break free of the nightmare of history, if I may quote Joyce once more. Leaving Yuendumu, Raynal writes “If we expect history to judge us kindly on our humanity to Aborigines, then we had better use the time still available to us to accomplish something. It is evident that we have wasted two hundred years” (p. 166).

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