Small Aboriginal communities in The Kimberley are working hard to keep the lights on, but the Western Australian State Government’s road map for remote settlements could see many close for good. SBS travelled to the Fitzroy Valley to meet the people who call these tiny desert towns home.

Words by Debra Jopson
Photography & Videography by Ella Rubeli

The Western Australian State Government has announced ten remote Aboriginal communities where it will concentrate resources. Residents of one small, peaceful settlement away from Fitzroy Crossing’s dysfunction wonder what that means for them.

One late afternoon at Ngurtuwarta, a tiny Aboriginal community deep in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, Emma Bear takes her three grandnieces to visit the daughter she has lost.

The cemetery is a short walk along a dusty road from eight corrugated iron bungalows occupied by Bear’s extended family. The girls, aged five to nine, gambol in the slanted orange light as the heat leeches out of this 42ºC day.

Bear, a short, round-faced woman with liquid eyes and a soft voice, pulls up a white plastic chair and sits beside the red-dirt grave of her daughter Layla. It is marked by a black headstone, etched with angels, butterflies and a photo of Layla. Her apple-cheeked smile mirrors her mother’s.

“She used to love going to school, fishing and hunting... playing basketball. She used to love singing and dressing up. She wanted to be like Jessica Mauboy,” Bear says.

Layla died in 2015 aged 12, when a 15-year-old boy crashed the car in which she was a passenger near Fitzroy Crossing - the only town within 150 kilometres - where she went to school. One of her five brothers laid her uniform T-shirt over the pink, orange, yellow and mauve artificial flowers heaped on her grave. It’s faded, but the school motto is still legible: “Strong Minds, Strong Culture.”

Layla Middleton's grave.

Layla Middleton's grave.

Bear, her partner Barry Middleton and their sons have only recently returned from the community on the Gibb River Road to which they withdrew after the tragedy.

“It was too much for me losing my only girl,” she says.“[But] I decided to come back to my mum’s family and stay closer to my daughter. Memories are still here. We can be happy sometimes and sad.”

This small settlement, 12 kilometres along a bumpy, unsealed dirt road southwest of Fitzroy Crossing, is a haven for Bear’s extended family, home sometimes to about 30 people, sometimes 40, depending on season and circumstance. They are Walmajarri people, whose huge lands extend southwest from Fitzroy Crossing into the Great Sandy Desert.

The community’s leaders believe Ngurtuwarta is one of many remote Indigenous settlements at risk of closure.

Bear’s grandmother Emily Forrest, a sturdy bushwoman whose grave lies next to Layla’s, pushed for this land to be given to her family in the 1980s. The management of Jubilee Downs Station, with whom she had a good relationship following years of service as a domestic and pastoral worker, agreed to allow an “excision”.

They were responding to a drive by Kimberley Aborigines to “return to country”. This Indigenous push followed the turmoil of the 1890s when pastoralists began to occupy their lands, the late 1960s when Aboriginal pastoral workers were tossed off stations which would not pay equal award wages and the following decades when alcohol seized hold of Fitzroy Crossing.

Layla’s triplet brothers Barry and Dallas Middleton shoot hoops in the late afternoon.

Layla’s triplet brothers Barry and Dallas Middleton shoot hoops in the late afternoon.

Initially, Bear’s mother and aunts lived in tents and humpies, carting water from the river, until the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission provided houses about 20 years ago so the families could live more comfortable lives there.

But the community’s leaders believe Ngurtuwarta is one of many remote Indigenous settlements at risk of closure as the Western Australian Government overhauls services. It’s on a 2010 federal government list of 192 remote Indigenous communities which might receive no further development.

“If under 50 people live on a community, it’s probably deemed not viable and essential services will probably be taken away,” says Bear’s cousin Anthony Yanji McLarty, Ngurtuwarta community’s appointed spokesperson.

Claude Forrest and Anthony Yanji McLarty.

Claude Forrest and Anthony Yanji McLarty.

A lanky, smooth-voiced former radio announcer aged 43, he worries that government funding to fuel the diesel power generator and keep the bore-water running could be cut, forcing the impoverished residents to buy their own electricity and water – or move out.

McLarty is fighting any future cuts, which he believes are being planned by public servants and politicians in Perth 1800 kilometres to the southwest.

Along with Marra Worra Worra Aboriginal Corporation, the region’s peak Indigenous body for which he is chief community engagement officer, he is suspicious of a “road map” for remote areas which the government released in July.

Fitzroy Valley Aboriginal leaders say the move could leave small settlements struggling.

It’s considered a less radical plan than the one announced by WA Premier Colin Barnett two years ago, involving possible closure of 150 remote Indigenous communities, which led to street protests and an outcry from human rights organisations.

However, government provision of infrastructure such as water, electricity and sewerage to remote Indigenous communities is under review and the road map aims to favour larger communities within easy reach of jobs and schooling, which may become regional hubs.

In the week before Christmas, as a tropical cyclone threatened The Kimberley, the WA Regional Development Minister Terry Redman announced the ten communities his government has chosen to upgrade. Ngurtuwarta, being tiny, was not one of them.

The ten chosen communities have committed to strong leadership and children attending school, with access to business or work opportunities, Redman says. A progressive update of essential infrastructure will take place in these and other larger communities, where 80 per cent of remote Aboriginal residents live.

Fitzroy Valley Aboriginal leaders say the move could leave small settlements struggling.

Relaxing under a bough shelter near Ngurtuwarta’s meeting ground, where a sprinkler coaxes reluctant grass from the vermilion pindan earth, while small children play on the concrete basketball court, McLarty fears kids will be less safe in the “super-communities” envisaged in the road map.

Anthony Yanji McLarty, Spokesperson of Ngurtuwarta community talks about the benefits of raising children in a remote community setting.

“[Here] they’re away from trucks, cars, alcoholism, drug abuse, predators. It’s their home. It’s their nursery. You’ve got to grow them up, teach them well and hopefully they’ll be a good leader one day,” he says.

“You’ve got a spiritual connection. You feel like you belong. It’s not like non-Aboriginal society where a family has to leave home. You can do it in your own backyard. Everything can happen here, like that constant contact, constant care,” McLarty says.

McLarty sees his people as refugees displaced from their own country, who survived by holding family close, living in tents until they could make new homes for themselves.

McLarty considers the prospect of a state government withdrawing services to small, poor communities an insult in this rich nation.

He grew up in humpies on the Fitzroy Crossing “Old Mission”of Burawa where hundreds of people from five different language groups were thrown together when they were forced off pastoral stations.

“Some walked. Some came by big trucks and were loaded on, dropped off along the Fitzroy River and left for somebody else. We were somebody else’s problem.”

McLarty considers the prospect of a state government withdrawing services to small, poor communities an insult in this rich nation.

“We’ve just come from a big mining boom in this country. Everyone prospered from it, but for the Aboriginal people as soon as that money dried up – ‘let’s take some more money out of these small people. We need to put some back in the money kitty.’ What’s fair?”

Redman confirms “some smaller remote communities that receive modest government support, such as a diesel fuel subsidy to run a generator, may not be eligible for continued support, due to their size and sustainability”.

Emily Forrest's daughter Josephine Forrest.

Emily Forrest's daughter Josephine Forrest.

Emily Forrest’s aim, when she won her small corner of the huge Jubilee Downs station, was to give her descendants a home on their traditional country away from the social strife of Fitzroy Crossing.

When members of Fitzroy Valley’s five Indigenous language groups were pushed together in town in the 1960s, they kept hunting and fishing to make ends meet. They’d never lost this cultural knowledge and now it helped them survive. But their dispossession led to overcrowding, conflict and social disintegration caused by drink, drugs and gambling.

Ngurtuwarta was set up as part of the “homelands” movement, in which leaders acted to help their own by establishing small communities away from the troubles.

“We don’t like people drunk and things, that’s why my mother been think like that. That’s why we get this community to stay,” explains Emily Forrest’s daughter Josephine, 74, a slight, shy woman with a white bob.

Josephine Forrest explains her mother’s vision in creating Ngurtuwarta community.

She and her sister-in-law Bernadette Williams are camping out tonight. Williams says she wants to hear birds, not the drunken screams which often pierce the night air in Fitzroy Crossing.

“When you wake up, there’s a kangaroo there, watching,” she says.

As evening falls, Josephine Forrest lies on her side on a thin mattress laid on the river sand at the community’s edge and promptly falls asleep. This is how she grew up.

“We just started with tents and sleeping under the stars,” says Williams, whose generous head of wavy white hair and toothy, impish grin are familiar sights at Fitzroy Valley District High School, where she liaises between the teaching staff and Aboriginal families.

"We will survive, even if no blankets. We know what to do. That’s what our ancestors have been teaching us."

A moon just beyond full rises and Williams wants to yarn. She tells of the daredevil boys who jump from the Fitzroy Crossing bridges when the river first roars during the Wet, of the explorer whose bones were found in the desert while her people thrived and of a white woman terrified when local children yelled “Crocodile!” even though it was a harmless freshie.

She finds non-Aboriginal people’s discomfort in the wild amusing. She says the elders taught her generation “what sort of animal … we’ve got to look for. Waterholes and birds. What little scrub, what food is hidden underneath. We know. We will survive, even if no blankets. We know what to do. That’s what our ancestors have been teaching us. We’ve got it all up here.”

She taps her head. “That’s why we take more kids out to the desert.”

The Ngurtuwarta public phone.

The Ngurtuwarta public phone.

During the night, the community’s public phone rings several times, as it does during the day, sometimes answered, sometimes not. A cat howls, dogs bark and at 4.30am the great mesh of stars disappears and the birds start calling. Forrest and Williams don’t stir.

At 5am when the sun comes up, a dog bats a plastic bottle around the concrete basketball court. It makes a noisy clack clack.

Bernadette Williams prepares a place to sit and yarn in the shade on the basketball court.

Bernadette Williams prepares a place to sit and yarn in the shade on the basketball court.

Forrest rises and returns to her bungalow. Williams reads notes she has made on her family history. A genealogist is visiting this morning and she is hoping he can trace lost branches of her late husband’s family.

It’s so peaceful here compared with town, where relatives and members of her own skin group – to whom she owes kinship obligations – regularly wake her up and “humbug” her for favours, she declares.

“All through the night, they’ll be coming. ‘I want food. You got food? I want a blanket. You got a blanket? I want a feed. Any money? Any smoke?’” she says.

“This house here, every time it’s raining time, water drips all over inside. We need funding to fix the houses. We are overcrowded.”

“But out here, your home, you don’t get all that... You get a good sleep. You get up in your own time to cook your feed. Your feed is there... In town, you won’t have any feed, because everybody will be there all the time.”

Cars are prone to becoming bogged on the road to town as soon as it rains. There is no public transport and between them, community members only own a couple of cars, which have been beaten up by the road conditions.

The houses have aged and leak. “This house here, every time it’s raining time, water drips all over inside. We need funding to fix the houses. We are overcrowded,” says Josephine’s 34-year-old grandson, Claude Forrest, pointing at one.

Whenever he can, Kevin Bunyardi hunts goannas, bush turkeys, kangaroos and river wallabies – sometimes with the bullbar of his car.

The community has needed helicopter drops of food, medicines and water when it is cut off in the Wet from Fitzroy Crossing and becomes an island to itself. Across the Fitzroy Valley, groundwater becomes contaminated during floods, so residents must boil it, or get supplies flown in to prevent them falling ill.

But Claude Forrest vows that he will hang in, even if the government cuts off the diesel subsidy for the generator and reduces municipal services such as waste collection. “We started with nothing, came here with a swag. I think we could still survive here. We’ve suffered for that many years.”

Kevin Bunyardi.

Kevin Bunyardi.

Retired stockman Kevin Bunyardi, 60, says he and his wife couldn’t afford electricity. “We’d just go back to the lamp, Tilley lamp or something,” he says, using the generic term for a kerosene light.

In Bunyardi’s front yard, his visitor Patrick Jones is cooking soup over an in-ground fire using a slab of beef, a gift from Leopold Downs station. But these elders can quickly switch to the survival skills which sustained their ancestors. Whenever he can, Bunyardi hunts goannas, bush turkeys, kangaroos and river wallabies – sometimes with a bullbar, he says, deadpan.

"People want to stay on their country because that is their culture."

While many in Emily Forrest’s family are devout Christians like her, they can live in two cultures. They also hold traditional Walmajarri ceremonies during the summer wet season.

“The wet time is plentiful. The floods push the turkey and everybody up to high water... All there for the taking like a supermarket,”says McLarty. “[We] do all the men’s business. Women do their own stuff. It’s been happening all my life, so hopefully it will continue past my days.”

The people want to stay on their country because that is their culture, says Marra Worra Worra chief executive Dickie Bedford, who has family at Ngurtuwarta.

To them it is not remote, and while governments talk of closing the gap, the biggest gap “is the distance between here and Perth and here and Canberra”.

“I say to the government, the reason that community is way out there in Woop Woop is because those people come from there. They don’t come from anywhere in between. That’s why they live at Woop Woop.”

Ngurtuwarta residents prepare for a meal, using meat donated from the nearby cattle station.

They are custodians, with an obligation to look after their country, which has always provided for them and their ancestors, who also cared for it, he says. “Trying to describe that to the government … they don’t understand, do they? That is why we are in this situation.”

Redman responds that his government recognises the importance of land, cultural practice and family to Indigenous Australians.

“Aboriginal people can choose where they want to live and will not be prevented from living remotely or continuing to access country for cultural purposes,” he says.

Claude Forrest is already devising ways the community can make money to pay for its own water and power if the feared cuts proceed.

Through their successful Ngurrara claim, the family group at Ngurtuwarta and other traditional owners have won native title over about 100,000 square kilometres of mostly desert. While SBS is there, Ngurtuwarta swells with scores of visitors for the annual general meeting of their body corporate,Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation.

An entrepreneurial streak is evident; it manages rangers who look after the native title lands, runs a contract earthmoving and roadworks business and is planning how to oversee tourism on the Canning Stock Route.

“Back in the slave days... all black people were slaves.”

In Ngurtuwarta, Claude Forrest is already devising ways the community can make money to pay for its own water and power if the feared cuts proceed. His ideas include land-leasing, a caravan park and a soil-quarrying enterprise.

He laments that the community which was once home to about 100 people in the late 1990s, in the eight bungalows and other makeshift houses and humpies, has shrunk through lack of new housing. Forrest also believes the end of the Community Development Employment Projects program in 2007 – and the move to “work for the dole” – has made it harder for Ngurtuwarta residents to earn a living.

Ngurtuwarta children contemplate Emily Forrest's grave.

Ngurtuwarta children contemplate Emily Forrest's grave.

In the cemetery, community founder Emily Forrest’s grave is a shrine to resourcefulness. A simple white metal fence on flat red earth is decorated with horseshoes, a stirrup and horses’ bits, its corners marked by four vases of artificial flowers.

“She was a really top cowgirl,” says Bernadette Williams.

Josephine Forrest says: “My mum is rest in peace in here and I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

Claude, her great-grandson, says he is grateful that she taught her family to shun alcohol and drugs and that she gained this land for them after working as a nanny, gardener and horsewoman “back in the slave days, when all black people were slaves”.

“One day I’ll be free,” he says.

Tiny hamlets like Biridu offer Aboriginal Australians a haven in the country far from alcohol abuse and dispossession – and an opportunity for entrepreneurship. So why is the State Government considering starving them of funds?

Denise Andrews Macale is unperturbed when she learns of a black snake in the shed where she was planning to sleep, way out in the heart of Western Australia’s wild Kimberley region.

Macale, a 35-year-old Aboriginal Bunuba woman, grew up in this little community, inland from the Great Northern Highway, and there are greater dangers for her back in the town of Fitzroy Crossing. She hauls three narrow bed bases onto the sandy red soil, beneath a tree which will shield her eyes from tomorrow’s sun, and covers them with a wide mattress.

Moonlight picks out a white scrolled pattern on her plump pillow. She sits tall, queen-like, imposing, on her fold-up camping chair, surveying the small settlement of Biridu which her grandfather Adam Andrews founded.

Denise Andrews Macale

Denise Andrews Macale

“We can treat ourselves like royalty out here,” she says, indicating the wide spinifex plain and low serrated hills fading into night. On the other side of a large house with wide verandas, members of her extended family lounge near a fire, munching giant barbecued beef ribs.

This is Bunuba country and friends from a nearby Bunuba-owned cattle station brought the animal here on the back of a truck the previous day, butchered it and cut it up. Such gifts are common around here, where Aboriginal people remember working on pastoral stations for not much more than flour and tea.

"You feel fresh when you're out of town."

A tank sits on struts 15 metres high, delivering pressurised bore-water to the scattering of about a dozen houses and rural sheds. A generator throbs gently, powering the community’s house lights and electric stoves.

Tony Abbott’s remark as prime minister last year that taxpayers should not subsidise Indigenous people’s “lifestyle choices” to live in remote communities flummoxes Macale. “That’s coming from a white brain,” she says. “We are connected to land in a spiritual way, we feel that our ancestors are with us, all our lost loved ones and this is a place that we feel close to them, being out on country…You feel fresh when you’re out of town.”

At the entrance to Biridu, a string of pulsing white party-lights gyrate outside a tin shed at the community entrance, but this is a party with no booze. The peace in this alcohol-free hamlet is palpable compared with the atmosphere in Fitzroy Crossing, 37 kilometres to the southeast, where Macale lives during the week to be close to work. Gamblers and drinkers were already sitting in large groups beneath wide shade trees for the Friday party as she left.

“Alcohol is becoming our culture, which is sad.”

A year ago, Macale was one of them. She started drinking alcohol aged 18 in Fitzroy Crossing and became so hooked that she would start her morning with a beer.

“When you wake up and there’s everybody that drinks around you in the house, obviously you’re going to reach for that can instead of making a cup of coffee... I felt like I wanted to get out of it, but I couldn’t because of what was around me.” She adds, “Alcohol is becoming our culture, which is sad.”

Denise Andrews Macale describes how her addiction to alcohol affected her children and why she wants to run rehabilitation programs at Biridu.

Bootleggers cart full-strength beer to the town from Broome and Derby, thwarting a 2007 ban hard-won by community activists limiting takeaway alcohol to light beer. The black market rate is $150 for 30 cans, Macale says.

To her, Biridu (pronounced “Breedy”) has been a healing haven on her Bunuba family’s traditional lands, which under native title cover 6500 square kilometres of the Fitzroy Valley. In the 1990s, her parents and grandparents lived here permanently, but residents drifted away because the trip to Fitzroy Crossing – over 100 kilometres, mostly on bone-jarring roads – made work and school travel exhausting and at times impossible.

Macale's bed for sleeping under the stars.

Macale's bed for sleeping under the stars.

And others quit, she says, after 2007 when the federal government ended the CDEP program which paid them to do work for the little community. Now, between 30 and 40 people, mostly members of her extended family, visit regularly. However, none were able to live there permanently when SBS visited, as there were no paid jobs and the daily commute to Fitzroy Crossing was too onerous.

Macale has a dream of bringing Bunuba people back to live full-time. She hopes to lead a return by starting a market garden and getting agencies interested in running programs there to help families struggling with addiction or violence. This would bring the jobs back.

The Department of Housing is contemplating cutting services back at Biridu.

Expansion of tiny communities like Biridu, however, runs counter to the state government’s plans to remove essential services from remote Indigenous settlements it deems too small and distant from work and education.

In the week before Christmas, WA Regional Development Minister Terry Redman named ten communities in the state which will be funded to upgrade essential and municipal infrastructure. The government has made it clear in its “roadmap for regional and remote Aboriginal communities” that the bigger ones will get the bucks.

Bunuba settlements Biridu and Galamanda are on a federal government list drawn up in 2010 suggesting which remote Indigenous communities should receive no further development help.

State government support for regular maintenance of the bore-water supply and gravity-fed tank, airstrip, roadworks and rubbish collection may also be stripped away. The Indigenous peak body for the Fitzroy Valley, Marra Worra Worra Aboriginal Corporation, has learned that the Department of Housing, which maintains these services, is contemplating cutting them back at Biridu.

A simple kitchen in one of the residences at Biridu.

A simple kitchen in one of the residences at Biridu.

“The reality for very small communities like Biridu and Galamanda, which appear to have fewer than 20 residents, is that they may not be eligible for continued support due to their size and sustainability,” says Redman. However, his government will consider options to assist small communities which lose state-funded services to become self-supporting “where applicable”, he says.

If the government deems Biridu unviable, it could lose the diesel fuel subsidy which keeps its 22-kilowatt generator running. This possibility infuriates Macale, who works with mothers and children at Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre in Fitzroy Crossing. She opens her laptop and reads from a speech she gave at Biridu in July as community spokesperson.

Grahame Searle, who heads the government’s regional reform unit which is overhauling service delivery to remote Aboriginal communities, was in the audience. Macale doesn’t know whether her words affected him in the way she hoped.

Macale lived with feelings of depression and confusion and used alcohol to kill the pain.

“My grandfather wanted his children and grandchildren to learn to love living on country away from the distractions of town life. He got Biridu community so that the children can develop it into a great place to live and share with others,” Macale told the audience.

“This is where prevention starts, when babies are nurtured with love, cultural discipline and respect, this is where the seed of independent, strong, well-educated leaders must be planted. In the beginning and at home by parents and the community,” she added.

In the past, when governments have favoured big communities over smaller ones, Aboriginal people have lost their independence. The result has been confusion, frustration, depression and loss of identity, she said.

Macale lived with those feelings herself and used alcohol to kill the pain. Last Christmas, her grandmother passed away. Her own mother already gone, she realised that as a single mother, she was her two teenage daughters and 11-year-old son’s only role model.

“I woke up and I thought, no, this is enough, my kids been suffering all these years and my eldest is 15 … I cried to them, asking them to forgive me, and I told them that life I lived is not a very good life: ‘I want something different for you mob and I want you to see that there is too much hurt in that area.’”

Macale at Biridu: "This is where prevention starts..."

Macale at Biridu: "This is where prevention starts..."

In the dry season from May to October, the Bunuba people’s magnificent lands are a drawcard for tourists. They encompass Geikie and Windjana gorges and Tunnel Creek, where their resistance hero Jandamarra fought the pastoral expansion of the 1890s and was eventually shot dead.

The Fitzroy River is thin and sinuous, threading its way through spinifex steppes and greyish-brown clay plains, parched sand-beds shadowing its 700-kilometre course. But during the Wet, it can metamorphose into one of the world’s fastest flowing rivers. Each second, up to 20 Olympic swimming pools worth of water surged past Fitzroy Crossing at peak flow during the 1993 floods, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

In the Fitzroy Valley, there’s an uncomfortable belief that when the Wet arrives, the river rises until it takes at least one human life, according to Aboriginal leader Dickie Bedford.

The floodplains around Fitzroy Crossing become an inland sea, transforming the scores of Aboriginal communities like Biridu into islands.

One year, Douglas Brown’s family ran out of food at Biridu during a flood. He reminisces, in the quiet Biridu night, that there was no working phone and the road became an impassable bog. “Me and another fella walked from here… We had to sit and rest our legs. The black soil was full of water. It hurts your feet,” he recalls.

They struggled to the Great Northern Highway where they were able to call for help from another Aboriginal community. “It took us one full day and one full night,” Brown says. A small plane landed on the Biridu airstrip and picked up his wife Monica Ida and their children.

A former stockman now on a disability pension at 54, Brown is a sometime caretaker for Biridu. Despite that past trauma, if they can get hold of a car so they have the mobility needed to survive in this remote location, he and Ida hope to spend this year’s Wet there.

“We like staying because it’s a good hunting ground … Now the big goannas are all inside the ground. When it is full from the rain, they go up. It’s white meat. Very good,” he says.

“We try so many ways to get help from services …but there’s always something ... blocking us,” Macale says.

The road from the Great Northern Highway to Biridu is rough and can be cut off in a flash anywhere along its 62-kilometre length. Macale hopes to solve that by getting a much quicker gazetted road through nearby Brooking Springs pastoral station reopened, with the state government required to bear some of the maintenance cost.

She sounds like a frustrated tourism entrepreneur as she shows us the community’s visitor camp ground and the full commercial kitchen where she once prepared bush turkey stew and chilli freshwater mussels for NITV’s Kriol Kitchen.

Actors Bryan Brown and Deborah Mailman and athlete Cathy Freeman have been here as tourists, but Biridu’s potential as a haven for others to enjoy is unrealised. “We try so many ways to get help from services… but there’s always something there that’s blocking us,” Macale says.

Selina Middleton explains why people eat better living on remote communities.

At Fitzroy Crossing, people line up at takeaway outlets for fried chicken, Chiko rolls, cheese kransky and chips, and meatballs wrapped in bacon.

“Our people used to live off the land. Now they’re living off the shelves,” says Selina Middleton, a Bunuba director of Marra Worra Worra.

Down by the river, a couple of hours’ drive from Biridu over dirt roads and tracks on the Bunuba-owned Leopold Downs cattle station, the sweet breeze lifts the midday heat as Peter Wilson describes the thrill of hunting goannas as a kid.

“You’ve got to catch them on the side of the bank because they’ll hit the water. They only swim one way. They swim upways and hide in the shallows.” His dog would track it down. “We all used to race, jump off the Toyota off the back, go and get the first goanna. Get the first fish...”

The 27-year-old remembers learning as a child to pull out the goanna’s guts, shoving a leaf down its throat so the fat wouldn’t fall out and cooking it covered in coals.

On this day, after a cool dip, while red dragonflies cruise and a sea eagle hovers, Wilson and his mother Janet Herbert, girlfriend Bianca Barney and nine-year-old niece Jiniel Bradshaw are fishing.

Janet Herbert and her nine-year-old granddaughter Jiniel Bradshaw.

Janet Herbert and her nine-year-old granddaughter Jiniel Bradshaw.

They catch four black bream, which they wrap in foil and cook over bloodwood coals, while Herbert kneads dough in a bowl on the ground. She makes damper which accompanies the juicy fish beautifully.

Her parents were pastoral station workers, who brought her here as a child and taught her the traditional ways of surviving off the land. Herbert works as an artist at Ngaringga Ngari, a women’s co-operative, creating tablecloths and other textiles using bush dyes.

Three years ago, she got a shock when she was handed a $20,000 cheque for her textile artworks. She bought the dark blue Nissan Patrol which her son drove here today. Cars are hard to come by in these impoverished communities and this is what Herbert wants most – to teach the lessons from her elders to her young family.

In the hot afternoon, there’s a shout from the riverbank. Wilson has caught a fat 45-centimetre barramundi on a bream hook. As the adults pack up, Jiniel Bradshaw guards the catch from the sea eagle, which swoops a few metres above her head.

Peter Wilson remembers visiting the river as a child and learning to fish.

Biridu has a bank of solar panels which no longer work. Computers sit idle in a building fitted out about four years ago to train office skills to young people who no longer live there.

One building holds disintegrating kitchen equipment bought under the now defunct Homemakers CDEP work program in which women cooked for the community. The store where Macale helped her mother sell lunches to pastoral station workers in the 1990s is empty, having become unviable as community workers left.

“Every child has the right to live in a safe environment that nurtures early childhood development."

“The government has all these ideas, but … what I see now is we all aim for failure. That’s the sad part about it,” she says.

Redman argues that his government is trying to ensure a better future for Aboriginal families.

“It’s always challenging when you put forward a case for change, but in all my conversations with Aboriginal leaders there is a strong recognition that change needs to happen… we have not found anyone prepared to defend the status quo,” he says.

“Every child has the right to live in a safe environment that nurtures early childhood development. Every child should receive an education to equip them to make life choices and adults should have access to employment opportunities.”

He says that residents will not be driven from remote communities and will be able to choose where they live.

But Macale believes the changes will cause people to move to bigger centres, which would be disastrous in Fitzroy Crossing. “Where are they going to be housed? … We’re trying to say to the government, you’re spending so much money in detention and hospitals, why don’t we use communities like this to prevent all these things from happening?”

She still plans a market garden at Biridu, where she believes hope can bloom.

A small Aboriginal outpost near Leopold Downs cattle station illustrates the struggle for independence for remote communities.

Kevin Oscar needs to catch 66 wild bulls. He already has 34 in the pens on the massive Leopold Downs cattle station, which covers 4000 square kilometres of Western Australia. When he has 100, he will sell them and buy diesel to fuel the generator for the station homestead and home paddocks.

Oscar, a stocky 59-year-old who speaks with a firm, loud voice and an unusually direct gaze, is munching on a steak sandwich in shade cast by the homestead veranda, flanked by eight Aboriginal “young fellas” he is training as cattlemen.

Kevin Oscar.

Kevin Oscar.

“The plan is we need to catch as much feral bulls [as we can] to fill this fuel tank up. Otherwise, if this engine stops, we got no water. We can’t keep tucker,” he says. It’s lunchtime on a sizzling day, as the blue heavens over the Kimberley region ooze humidity in the lead-up to the Wet.

The cattle enterprise on this pastoral lease owned by the Bunuba people “requires a first-aid kit urgently”, Oscar says when SBS visit before the Wet. The live cattle export crisis of recent years - and several other factors - has left the station with little stock. The Bunuba Cattle Company, which owns Leopold Downs station, owes millions in loans. Plus, Oscar says: “We’ve got a phone bill for $15,000. We’ve got a $9000 fuel bill.”

“The station was bought to bring the people back to country.”

As station caretaker and chair person of the Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the area’s native title holders, Oscar has drafted grandsons and nephews into the cause of keeping this pastoral property. Making a living is only one reason they’re there.

“The station was bought to bring the people back to country,” he says.

He was just 10 in 1967, when he says the Bunuba stationhands were kicked off Leopold Downs because the managers would not give them the equal pay Australian courts had awarded them.

“I can remember the day. They said, ‘Aboriginal people, the award rate is on [its way] now, we can’t afford to pay you.’ They said, ‘Get off,’ so we followed the river down all the way to a place called the old bridge and set up camp there… we had to lead all the cats down on chains. And dogs,” he says.

Oscar remembers that as a child, his family members working at Leopold Downs were paid a pittance, plus tea, flour and sugar.

The Federal Government allowed a missionary organisation to gather together hundreds of the thousands of Aborigines cast off the land on the Fitzroy Crossing “Old Mission” of Burawa. Oscar lived there for five years until the Bunuba set up their own town settlement, Janjuwa.

He remembers that as a child, his family members working at Leopold Downs were paid a pittance, plus tea, flour and sugar. They were given maybe one shirt a year, having to patch clothes with flour bags, he recalls.

Oscar supervises his team of young men as they fix one of the bull buggies.

Oscar supervises his team of young men as they fix one of the bull buggies.

So when the Bunuba bought the station in 1991 through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission as part of the “homelands” movement, the freedom was delicious, he says.

“Oh, we went everywhere on it. Because we missed it that long. When white man was here, from the time we left to the time we came back, you weren’t allowed to go anywhere. All the gates were locked … now we can just go and roam the country,” Oscar says.

Oscar's wife Helen Thomas calls it their “million-dollar mansion”.

With this independence, Oscar and his wife Helen Thomas have established their own small community, Warrangarri, near Leopold Downs Station homestead, which has between two and 30 people living there.

Thomas calls it their “million-dollar mansion”, built with scratch from their own money. They began with a tin shed, put in a bore for water, then added a caravan and ablutions block.

The open-air bedroom is shared by Oscar's team of young cattlemen.

The open-air bedroom is shared by Oscar's team of young cattlemen.

“My husband built this home kitchen just out of scraps,” she says. She planted coconut palms, flowers and vegetables. Now they have a small goat herd and guinea fowls. There’s a set of swings and a boxing bag hangs from a tree.

Two of their sons care for it when Thomas is working in Fitzroy Crossing and Oscar busy at the station. They receive no government funding.

Many outstations on pastoral stations across the Kimberley stand to lose power, water and sewerage services.

“We’re trying to get our community self-sustainable. Not with money. Mainly with meat, eggs, beef. So we can live there. We’re trying to get vegies, but we just love it back on our own soil,” Oscar says.

“Being out in the bush is the future of the mob … These little communities are someone’s homeland, someone’s ancestral grounds,” says Dickie Bedford, chief executive of Marra Worra Worra Aboriginal Corporation, Fitzroy Valley’s peak Indigenous body.

Dickie Bedford explains his strong rejection of the government's road map.

But the state government’s “road map” advocates winding back assistance and services to small remote Indigenous settlements to concentrate funding on larger communities.

“The road map is not designed to support the homeland movement. It’s actually designed to take away everything that could make that possible … to send you back into town to larger communities where all the major problems are,” Bedford says.

Many outstations on pastoral stations across the Kimberley stand to lose power, water and sewerage services, he says, despite evidence that these are healthier, happier places than townships.

Bedford argues that perpetrators of violence or abuse should be dealt with in remote areas just as in a major city suburb.

Bedford, who camped at Warrangarri the night before with about 30 Bunuba family members, says it is wrong to try to push people to live in Fitzroy Crossing. Where problems such as domestic violence or child abuse arise, government agencies should tackle them as elsewhere in Australia, he argues. Perpetrators should be dealt with in remote areas just as in a major city suburb.

Oscar is teaching the young men to be mechanics.

Oscar is teaching the young men to be mechanics.

“You don’t just see them closing down that whole suburb, for instance, when there’s major issues there … bring about those support services to these remote locations. We’re citizens here too and we deserve some citizenship rights,” he says.

Separately, SBS has learned that essential and municipal services provided by the WA Housing Authority are already being withdrawn in the Fitzroy Valley.

Bedford accuses the state government of “closing communities by stealth”.

A source connected with service delivery to remote communities in the Kimberley claims that there has been “a significant withdrawal” of some services. Galamanda, a small community on Leopold Downs only has its water and power supply serviced and waste removed half-yearly instead of every few months, according to the source.

Isaac Hale, who lives in a shed at Galamanda with his wife Selina, says there are regular visitors and that a local Indigenous tour operator operates from there during the Dry. When there are meetings at Leopold and Fairfield stations, a lot of people stay at the community, he says.

Oscar is an accomplished bush mechanic and he directs them as they repair one of the Mad Max-like “bull buggies” lined up for action.

The WA Regional Development Minister, Terry Redman, does not deny that services have already been reduced there.

Bedford accuses the state government of “closing communities by stealth”, but Redman says his government has made a commitment not to close any remote Aboriginal communities.

“Residents will not be asked to leave their communities or be driven out… [They] can choose where they want to live,” he says.

Meanwhile, Oscar continues the struggle for independence. That afternoon, he spots several feral bulls.

“We’ve got to catch those bulls now. Black ones. Brown ones. Red ones,” he announces.

His young apprentices must fix the tools for rounding them up first. Oscar is an accomplished bush mechanic and he directs them as they repair one of the Mad Max-like “bull buggies” lined up for action.

“When we had all these white men on here, it was very hard for young boys like this to get work here. Now we got back and we seriously need to hold onto this place to educate this younger generation,” Oscar says.

Whipping through the red dust, three to a buggy, the young blokes catch four bulls, driving up close, pushing them over and tying their legs so they can be transported back. Oscar is a few hundred dollars closer to keeping the power on.