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West Kimberley, Western Australia

Bunuba country

Singing out across time

This history teaches us that no matter how much we lost ... we were not defeated. When a stand is made that was as strong as the Bunuba’s, it is never final. Their call for justice, freedom and equality sings out across time.

June Oscar, Bunuba Elder, 2015

A grassy landscape with trees and a large rocky outcrop. The view is framed with a large boab tree on each side of the photo.
Bunuba country, West Kimberley, Western Australia. © Cephas Picture Library/ Alamy.

Hundreds of people travelled to the Sydney Opera House in 2014 to perform Jandamarra: Sing for the Country. They were paying tribute to Jandamarra (known as Pigeon), a heroic figure from the Kimberley’s frontier conflict. Violence had erupted in the Kimberley in the 1890s between Bunuba people and colonists over land. Lives were lost, black and white. Police Sub-Inspector Craven Harry Ord was sent to hunt down Jandamarra.

Pigeon and party must be got rid of forthwith. The fact of his being at large is a disgrace to the police. Head the party and let us hear no more of Pigeon.

Telegram from George Phillips, Police Commissioner, 29 February 1896

A former police tracker, equipped with British weapons and Bunuba knowledge of country, Jandamarra baffled and terrified the colonists by the effectiveness of his campaign. In an 1890s police report, Ord noted, ‘It would not matter if the whole British army were sent here, [Jandamarra] would still laugh at them from the top of the range’. Eventually, the police brought in an Aboriginal tracker called Micki from the Pilbara. Jandamarra’s fight ended at Tunnel Creek on 1 April 1897, when he was shot dead by Micki. The police then beheaded the body.

As far as we’re concerned, Jandamarra lives on. His spirit lives on, his people still live on. His spirit is carried in this country by people who speak the same language as he did.

June Oscar, Bunuba Elder, 2013

Old objects

Upper part of spear consisting of wood foreshaft ending in pale green glass point attached with gum and tendon binding
Spear, Bunuba people, west Kimberley, donated by Craven Harry Ord in the late 1890s, 152 x 3.1 x 1.5 cm. British Museum Oc1899,-461.

Sub-Inspector Craven Harry Ord was in charge of the police at Derby, in north-west Western Australia, during the late 1890s. Much of the police’s time was spent out on patrol, often searching for Kimberley Aboriginal people who had attacked the new settlers as they pushed further into Bunuba country.

Ord sent this Bunuba spear and the bowl and axe also on display in Encounters to Charles Hercules Read at the British Museum in 1899, noting in a letter accompanying the objects:

I had managed to accumulate a quantity of native weapons & thought they might be of value or interest to the museum ... In any case, the weapons are genuine native weapons of the day taken by police from native camps.

New objects

An acrylic painting on canvas depicting an Aboriginal man standing amidst a landscape. The man is wearing a white, grey and black brimmed hat, with a light grey shirt and dark grey pants. He is also holding spears in both hands. The landscape features a blue sky and grey black mountains with trees in the background. The foreground consists of orange brown grassland with trees that are green, grey and white in colour. Also to the front right side of the painting is a grey rock.
Preparation for Battle at 6 Mile Creek, 2014, painting by Jack Macale, Bunuba, Walmajarri, Djaru and Gooniyandi peoples, west Kimberley, 105 x 135 cm. National Museum of Australia.

Like Bunuba objects made of wood and iron, Jack Macale's painting references the entangled worlds people like Jandamarra inhabited. Macale shows Jandamarra wearing British clothes with his face painted before his final battle with the police. He carries a boomerang and spears, pistols and a rifle.

June Oscar Bunuba talking with Peter Yu
From left: Peter Yu, Yawuru Man and Chair of the National Museum of Australia's Indigenous Reference Group, interviewing June Oscar AO, Bunuba Elder, during field work for Encounters. National Museum of Australia.
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