Disclaimer: This article uses names and images of people who have passed.
It was a powerful and potent moment in Australian history.
In 1996, the foreground of The High Court —a place most often associated with austerity; suits, lawyers and white wigs— became a stage for Wik woman and activist, Gladys Tybingoompa, who celebrated a win for her people against the government in the way she knew best, singing and dancing.
In some ways, Gladys’ euphoric performance represents the case itself; fiery women taking on the Commonwealth.
From an outsiders point of view, it should have been a clear cut case: pastoral land leases that had been granted at the turn of the century were being reviewed by legislators, against the right to ownership of the the original occupants of the land.
However, it was a challenge that brought the communities of the Cape York together as never before. In the fight to defy the Queensland Government's plans to keep all of their communities living in centralised towns such as Aurukun and denying their access to their traditional homelands, Wik elders such as Gladys Tybingoompa, Geraldine Kawangka, Norma Chevathun and Alison Woolla stood at the forefront of the fight, also alongside community leader, Stanley Ngakyunkwokka who initiated the case to have their connection to their homelands recognised formally.
Many in the Aurukun community experienced a harsh upbringing in missionary institutions. But in light of this brutality, the tenacity of the elders who stood up to fight for the Wik communities to oppose mining and development proposals was admirable. Marcia Langton AM, who was one of the case's key negotiators, described these community members as, "People [who] had a very clear understanding of the injustice that they had suffered in regards to their land rights and in so many other ways. They were hardened by years of abuse, they were tough people. As a result, their oratory gave me goosebumps."
Changing the face of the legal system
The Wik vs Queensland case stands out amongst others. Up until this game-changing decision, predominantly male led action —including the gamechinging Mabo decision— was the face of Australia's legal system. It was colonial, it was white and it was politically connected. But in the early '90s we saw not just one, but several Aboriginal women from a remote community taking a stand against what can be a very intimidating prospect; the government and it's lawyers.
In particular, Wik Vs Queensland had over 12 barristers leading arguments on behalf of the government against the Wik peoples —a number that is hugely disproportionate and speaks to the threat that the government felt from Traditional Owners. Many have made comments that at the time, the government knew that they had a big fight on their hands.
We know that statistically when women are empowered, the benefits travel far beyond her immediate gain, and positively impact her family and wider community.
Seeing women take the stand, travelling to Canberra for hearings and also speaking their minds in front of media and the courts is a powerful image, not only for their communities back home, but for other women, who also feel fiercely protective of their land, culture and communities.
Woolla's daughter, Kerri Tamwoy recalls her mother's strength and determination, that was passed on to her,
"Mum used to always say, 'You can do anything you want. Anything you put your mind to. Don't let anyone tell you that you cannot do it.' They believed that they had to leave the middle-man and go straight to the source."
The Principal Legal Officer of the Cape York Land Council, James Fitzgerald remembers walking into the High Court in 1996, "It was a great honour to accompany the Wik elders and their representatives to Canberra," he recounts. "It was cold. Not a pleasant environment from people who come from the tropics, but they played a very important role in showing the court and the country that there were real Aboriginal people still living in remote areas."
Gladys Tybingoompa: The Bushfire Woman
After the High Court ruled that the issuing of pastoral leases did not extinguish native title, Gladys Tybingoompa is famously quoted as saying, "My name is Gladys. I'm the hot one. The fire. Bushfire is my totem. And I'm a proud woman of Cape York today. It is for me, here today, a historic moment as a Wik woman. I am not afraid of anything."
"My name is Gladys. I'm the hot one. The fire. Bushfire is my totem. And I'm a proud woman of Cape York today. It is for me, here today, a historic moment as a Wik woman. I am not afraid of anything."
In NITV's new documentary, Wik Vs. Queensland interviewee Marcia Langton recalls her admiration and trepidation at the fierce spirit of Tybingoompa, in particular.
"At one of the Laura Festivals, I actually saw her do one of those women's sorcery dances, to show the men that she meant business. I was so astonished," Langton says. "I had read about this and there she was doing it and i thought 'Wow' This woman has some real fire.
"We became close friends after that. She was terrifying in many ways as well.
"She had been raised in the mission at Aurukun, and that had been tough and made her keenly aware of the injustice that she had suffered. She was afraid of no-one. Absolutely fearless, and honest. Brutally honest."
Tybingoompa's sister, Maree Kalkeeyorta also remembered her sibling's unique strength and dedication to her people.
"She moved in both worlds. She knew about the white man society, and also the Aboriginal ways from the five clans. She said to me 'Sis i'm not confused. I'll follow the line with them no matter how long it takes, no matter how tough it gets. I'll follow it through to the end. We need our land. There is a future for our young ones.'" Kalkeeyorta said.
For our children and for the future of our children
Women are recognised for having a uniquely different perspective when it comes to fighting for their culture and way of life. While both men and women are equally important when addressing systems that seek to dismantle cultural ways and take away land rights, women hold knowledges on certain aspects of country, medicines, bush foods, songs and ways of being on the land that are integral to the strength of their community. As such, these are voices and knowledges that should not be left out of the conversation and decisions, especially regarding Native Title rights.
Women like Tybingoompa set a benchmark for politics, demonstrating the magnitude of commitment Aboriginal women have in order to achieve justice.
Wik case lawyer, Noel Pearson described the win at the High Court as "tectonic", though it eventuate in a motion of a series of events which caused upheaval within politics and the communities.
When Tybingoompa addressed the continued battle and the swell of misinformation about what the Native Title rights actually meant for both the pastoralists and the Aboriginal community, she stated, "They are afraid to let go of what they have always held in themselves. What they think belongs to them but what they don't realise belongs to both parties."
Though ultimately the Howard Government ran a successful campaign to overturn the Wik decision, the strength of those that fought for their lands has not been forgotten.
The former Deputy Mayor of Aurukun, Phyllis Yunkaporta says that she will always be grateful for the contribution of those women who stood up,
"I have the utmost respect and i'm privileged to know that they were there for me, for our community, for our children and for the future of our children. So they can gain some knowledge that these special people have left."
Emily Nicol is a Sydney-based presenter, writer/journalist. She has Birri Gubba and Murray Island heritage. Follow Emily @emb000
Wik Vs Queensland airs Sunday, 8 July at 8.30 on NITV (Ch.34) and will be available On Demand after broadcast. Join the discussion #WikVsQueensland #NAIDOC2018