• An emotional procession for Kumanjayi Walker's funeral (NITV)Source: NITV
The family of Kumanjayi Walker have finally laid him to rest, nearly one year after he was fatally shot by an NT Police officer in his home in Yuendumu, 300km north-west of Alice Springs. Trigger Warning: This story contains images of a deceased person.
Rachael Hocking

23 Oct 2020 - 2:43 PM  UPDATED 11 Nov 2020 - 11:54 AM

Kumanjayi Walker’s family and community want you to know who he was. 

They want you to know he had a cheeky side, that he made them laugh and that he loved his people as much as they loved him.

Kumanjayi belonged to many families and communities in the central desert: He was a Walker, Lane, Robertson, Brown and Dixon. He was Warlpiri, Luritja, Pintupi.

He was a brother, son, grandson and partner. Kinship way, he was also a grandfather, an uncle. 

What you might already know is that Kumanjayi Walker died in police custody on November 9 last year, and that an NT police officer is currently charged with murder in relation to his death. A decision on whether he will stand trial is expected on October 26.

Yapa [Aboriginal people] take their time to say goodbye to loved ones. Sorry Business begins immediately, but the funeral might be months after someone’s passing.

The circumstances under which Kumanjayi died, as well as complications caused by coronavirus, meant the ceremony commemorating his life was held much later than usual. 

“It should’ve been done long time ago,” Senior Warlpiri Elder and family representative Robin Granites said at Kumanjayi’s funeral on Saturday.

“We just been waiting for this time, and this time has been, has come today,

“Today we are now happy.”

“He was cheeky, you know, funny,” 

His farewell over the weekend - nearly one year after his death - was shared with thousands of friends, family and supporters. Community had decided to broadcast it live through Facebook via PAW Media and invited other First Nations media to record the event. 

This meant the world was able to catch a glimpse of the often private way Yapa say goodbye, which can involve a combination of western religion and traditional ceremony.

On Saturday, the service began at the site of Kumanjayi’s death: the place in community known as “the red house”, and the place where his pirlirrpa - or spirit - had remained.

“It was really just to honour the significance of him passing in that location, but I think also as a family, reclaiming that location,” Kumanjayi’s cousin Samara Fernandez explained.

“Cause a lot of the times in community if there is a passing in that house, you know, it’s sometimes bulldozed or something like that.

“But I think we just really want wanted to reclaim that space and take that strength back.”

A procession of hundreds carrying one thousand Aboriginal flags walked from the red house to the community’s basketball court.

White ochre painted the foreheads of close family members as a sign of their mourning and many wore t-shirts with Kumanjayi’s face with writing that read simply, “We Miss You”.

In front of the procession a ute carried Kumanjayi in a white coffin, hugged either side by his brothers. His grandmothers lead them onto the basketball court with a banner reading, “We Stand with Yuendumu”. 

Inside, the crowd circled Kumanjayi, with his immediate family sitting either side of the coffin and Senior Warlpiri people at the top of the court.

Behind them signs decorated a fence: ‘Justice for Walker’, ‘Our Lives Matter’, and one which read, ‘Don’t Shoot’.

Near the entrance to the court was featured a large piece of artwork with a brown raised fist and the words, “Yapakurlangu Warnkaru Matters” – the Warlpiri translation of Black Lives Matter. Senior Warlpiri man Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves’ granddaughter Mahalia Hargraves painted it earlier in the week.

The proceedings – like all Yapa funerals – saw family walk towards Kumanjayi’s coffin where they would touch and hug it. Young babies were laid atop, while many embraced it multiple times.

“That’s a really significant part, is that touch and move on so they can feel your presence still,” Samara explained.

In between the emotional procession, community sang church songs, performed tribute dances and shared stories.

“When someone passes on it is a time of mourning but it’s also a time for celebration,” Samara said.

“I think we have our Sorry Business and we cry together and mourn as much as we can, but if there’s an opportunity to celebrate and do action like dance and singing and celebrate that way we do because as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we have a lot of art embedded into our systems into our culture.”

Both the funeral and memorial held in Yuendumu the night before heard stories of the person communities knew Kumanjayi to be, “to keep his memory alive and strong”, Samara said.

“He was cheeky, you know, funny, loved music, stick to himself as well but just loved his family and loved to be around his family and laughing and enjoying company,” she said.

Senior Warlpiri woman Valerie Martin remembered Kumanjayi rocking up to her house, "a regular visitor".

“As I got to know him, he had a spark, always with his shoulder bag,” she recalled.

“Always got a smile on his face when he used to come and see us, see his uncle.”

One of his grandmothers remembered his sense of style, “He always wore good clothes, he looked after himself”, while some of his Walker family shared yarns they'd had with Kumanjayi about bush medicine, and his plans to open a furniture store in Yuendumu.

Kumanjayi’s teachers and school principal at Yuendumu said he was funny, kind and talkative. They said he loved to play basketball, and that he was proud of himself.

“In Country and surrounded by family and love,”

Among the speeches was a series of solidarity messages read out from across the country – including from the families of Aunty Tanya Day and David Dungay Junior, who both died in custody.

At sunset Kumanjayi was transported to the cemetery for his burial where family threw dirt into the grave and sat together peacefully as he was finally laid to rest.

Hours later that night rain fell on Yuendumu.

The next day, reflecting on the long journey leading to that moment, Samara said it was time for their healing to begin. 

“Even though we’ve laid him to rest it doesn’t mean it’s over for us, you know, that’s just a stepping-stone in us finding peace and in us having a little bit of reassurance,” she said. 

“Laying him to rest ‘cause he deserves that, and in country and surrounded by family and love,

“That doesn’t mean the fight’s over, we’re still here we’re still fighting – and it’s actually strengthened that fight, because everyone was here together for him.”