Barrie Pittock had been questioning government approaches to Indigenous communities since joining Abschol as a student at the University of Melbourne in the late 1950s.
A hitchhiking tour of New South Wales Aboriginal settlements in 1958 impressed upon him the serious consequences of discrimination, Aboriginal poverty and a widespread apathetic response to these problems.
In 1959 Barrie Pittock joined the Society of Friends (Quakers), an organisation with a record of active opposition to slavery and racial discrimination.
As a Fulbright Scholar in 1964, he went to Colorado where the National Center for Atmospheric Research was located.
A bigger drawcard for him, however, was D'Arcy McNickle, an American Indian sociologist and co-author of Indians and Other Americans, who lived in Boulder.
In this extract from an interview in 1996 he speaks about the basis of his involvement in Aboriginal affairs.
Yes, well, you can go a long way back. I guess I was coming from a loosely New Testament Christian sort of position as a student. And I became a conscientious objector. And, I guess it was 1964 — no, no, it was 1956 sorry, long way back, time of the Suez crisis — and when I appeared before the magistrate he eventually decided, yes, I was a conscientious objector. But he gave me a lecture saying, you know, 'Young man, you really ought to do something for your country. If you're not going to be willing to fight a war for your country then you've got to do something'. And at that time because I was a conscientious objector I got involved with the Society of Friends, the Quakers, and the Young Friends group and we'd sort of theorised about race relations and equality and all that sort of thing and I guess what the magistrate said made me think, 'Well I really ought to be doing something about it and not just saying it's a good thing.' I'd started as an undergraduate at Melbourne University at that time and there was in existence an Aboriginal Scholarship Scheme [Abschol]. So I got involved in that, and basically this was a group of students who thought it was a good idea to raise money to help pay for Aborigines to go through university. But what we quickly found was that there were no Aborigines getting through high school so they couldn't go to university anyway. And so we became sort of radicalised as to why this was. We went out and into the countryside and particularly round the fringe dwelling settlements, places like Mooroopna and then up further north into New South Wales.
Moree — I remember Moree because we went there just a few months after Alan Ashbolt's radio documentary on racial attitudes in Moree was broadcast (June, 1957) and everybody was still uptight. And, went up as far as Cherbourg [north of Brisbane] so we didn't really get into the outback but amongst the part-Aboriginal communities who were largely living out of town or beside the riverbank or by rubbish tips and so on, using scrap material for housing and terrible conditions. It was obvious why students were not getting through high school so they couldn't get to university because they had an extended family of ten or fifteen people in a hessian and tin shack with an earthen floor. I remember at Armidale, New South Wales I think that time there would've been about 150 people and there was one cold water tap for the whole community — no electricity. So the idea that any student could do their homework and get through high school was ludicrous with those sort of conditions. And so Abschol very quickly started to develop policies on housing and health, and I'm not sure when land rights came in with Abschol but it did eventually. I guess about the same time Ian Spalding's group started — well, it was really a group that supported Ian Spalding in doing his research and his writing and it was called On Aboriginal Affairs — and I got involved in that as well. Ian was a great stimulus with bringing in examples and ideas from New Zealand or Canada or the United States and also a much greater realism from the tripping round he did amongst Aboriginal communities around the outback.
I didn't get to the outback until many years later, so a lot of my involvement was theoretical except that I did get to meet a lot of Aboriginal people through the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), and I guess I listened and learnt. But anyway, I went through three years of undergraduate study and five years of postgraduate study at Melbourne University and at the end of that I was still involved in Abschol. I went to do some postdoctoral work and I actually chose to go to Boulder, Colorado in the United States because that's where an American Indian sociologist, a Flathead Indian by the name of D'Arcy McNickle lived. It also happened there was a research lab there that I could get some postdoctoral experience at. But the real reason I went was to meet D'Arcy McNickle. And he wrote a book; I think it was called Indians and other Americans, if I remember rightly, which I couldn't find when I looked through my shelves again now.
Sue: And that title was actually used by Charles Rowley later, wasn't it?
Barrie: Yes that's right — Aborigines and other Australians. So when I went over there, in the first few weeks I met up with D'Arcy McNickle and he gave me an introduction to John Collier, who had been the US Commissioner of Indian affairs under FD Roosevelt at the time of the New Deal in the 1930s, and so he ran the Indian New Deal. John Collier had actually been a stirrer and activist in the south west trying to protect the rights of particular Pueblo Indians in Arizona and New Mexico. Roosevelt actually appointed him to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And so I went down and visited him. He was retired and living in New Mexico and he gave me contacts with lots of people round the United States on Indian reservations where I spent my last three months in the States. I drove about 15,000 miles in a VW, mainly going to national parks and Indian reservations and had this great network of contacts that John Collier had set up. And he also introduced me to the writings of Felix Cohen who was the lawyer in the Interior Department under FD Roosevelt who in fact developed a lot of the legal theory, traced back the history of rights to tribal self-government and Indian land rights in the United States. Really codified, I suppose, the international law as it related to those two issues with Indigenous people.
Sue: That would've been fairly new work at the time then.
Barrie: Ah, yes, as far as white lawyers were concerned it was pretty new stuff. But he used that as a way of developing the new legal status of Indian reservations in the United States and tried to make them more self-governing and actually increase the land holdings. They allocated money from the US federal budget to buy up more surrounding land and consolidate and increase the land holdings, because there had been attempts earlier to break up the Indian reserves which mostly had been land which the Indians had retained after they had signed treaties with the United States government, because Indians were treated differently. They were treated as sovereign states although inferior to European countries. The relationship between the United States government and Indians originally went through the War Department. So you know they were actual wars that were fought, whereas in Australia during our settlement, because of the lack of recognition of Aborigines, the authorities dealt with Aborigines through the police rather than through the military. And so you had the Native Police forces where they recruited detribalised people from Victoria and took them up to Queensland to fight Aborigines up there. And so you had the guerrilla warfare in Australia but it wasn't really recognised as warfare. It was police actions. So the whole terminology and attitude was different in the United States. Although things were pretty bad in the United States, they were worse here.
On his return, Barrie Pittock was ready to become an activist for Aboriginal rights. He joined the Legislative Reform Committee of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), becoming the convenor of this Committee in 1966.
Among non-Indigenous FCAATSI members Pittock, along with General Secretary Stan Davey, Reverend Frank Engel of the Australian Council of Churches, and Ian Spalding, editor of On Aboriginal Affairs, was in the forefront of writing about the importance of an Aboriginal right to land.
Pittock did much of the ground work for FCAATSI's 1968 national land rights campaign.
I think because I saw it [land] as an economic base. It seemed to me when you looked at how people prosper in our society that it's either through inheritance or through land — which of course is also associated with inheritance in our society — or good educational opportunities. And the combination of poverty and living in remote areas meant that most Aborigines didn't have good educational opportunities. But if they actually owned the land then one would hope that they would be able to get some income from it. Or at least be able to maintain their traditional lifestyle. But, one of the problems of course with land rights in Australia was that we followed the British system rather than the American, that mineral rights did not go with surface land rights. And, it was one of the key breakthroughs, I think, in the Northern Territory legislation that royalties were actually — at least partly — went to the Aboriginal owners. Because that was contrary to what happens in the rest of Australia. And it was more on the American — following the American law. But that provided a sort of independent income which Aboriginal groups, in this case the land councils in the Northern Territory, could actually use to employ non-Aboriginal experts — lawyers or doctors to do things, which they weren't themselves trained to do. And the power of money is very important in Australian society. And it enables people who are not doctors or lawyers to employ doctors or lawyers who can then argue the case or do things for you. And I think that's when Aborigines started to get a power base in European-Australian society. And, I guess, thinking ahead, that's what I was thinking about: That there had to be some way in which Aborigines could get power. And it could come through land and through the income you could get from land.
Sue: Yeah, yeah. You weren't actually at that '63 meeting when Edgar Wells' telegram was read out?
Barrie: Oh no.
Sue: That must have been fairly sort of stunning, mustn't it? It read: '583 semi-nomads now squeezed by the bauxite land grab into a half a square mile'. And I suppose that must have been, I guess, the beginning of people sort of recognising just how bad it was going to be for them up there. Would you like to talk then about your involvement in the Yirrkala Land Rights case?
Barrie: Yeah. I'm not sure I've got the years right anymore but Stan Davey of course, I knew through FCAATSI and through the Advancement League and Arthur Ellemor was a retired Methodist missionary who'd been a missionary at Gove, at Yirrkala. And they had, I guess, conceived the idea that there ought to be the possibility of mounting a legal challenge against Nabalco taking over the land up there. And I was brought into that I suppose through my involvement in FCAATSI and what I'd brought back about international law from my contacts in the United States. And I guess the other person that was brought in to some extent was Elizabeth Eggleston, who was director of the Aboriginal centre at Monash and whose father was a judge. Between us and using Judge Eggleston's library — he was very sceptical and said that we were wasting our time, that terra nullius was the law and that we weren't going to change that but we were welcome to look up his law books — we elaborated on what international law said about native land title and developed some sort of outline of a case. And then I guess Arthur and Stan mostly hunted around for lawyers who might be interested to take it up. They found a solicitor in Werribee by the name of Frank Purcell who took it up and eventually he found some barristers who would take the case to court. So that was really the origins of that case.
Sue: Because it became a very historic case, didn't it, and from then on things have, I suppose, improved?
Barrie: I guess to me one of the fascinating things about that was that the case was lost in law sort of on a technicality. If I remember rightly, the case was brought on behalf of the clans because there had to be some demonstration of genealogical descent from the original tribal owners, et cetera, and the clans were the ones who had the spiritual connection with the land. The way Aboriginal tribal society is organised is through the clans who care for the land, but the land is actually exploited in economic terms by extended families that cut across the clans. What they were able to establish in court, if I remember rightly, was that, yes, they did have an economic interest in the land, but it wasn't the clans as such who had the economic interest. The clans had the spiritual interest in the land. But the court would only recognise economic interests. So if the case had been brought by Aborigines as extended economic units they would've established that they had a connection, but the clans were an abstract group — abstraction — a group of people who didn't have an economic interest as such. They had the spiritual interests. So the court said, 'You've got an economic interest, but the wrong people have brought the case'. Oh it was such a — you know, in commonsense terms it was such a ridiculously unjust outcome! It was a technicality. I think that's what led to an actual legal move to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory. And so, out of losing the case on a technicality that made the law look ridiculous, the law was in fact changed.
Barrie spoke about the influence of the Black Power movement in the Victorian Aborigines' Advancement League in 1969.
I don't know if you've heard this one before, but there was a debate at the [Aboriginal Advancement] League on Black Power and Doug Nicholls was chairing that meeting. And I just went along because I was interested in seeing where the various Aborigines I knew stood on the issue. The meeting — the whole hall (now is that hall still there? I haven't been over there for ages. I don't think so.)
Leanne: Cunningham Street.
Barrie: The one that had the fancy roof. Yeah, I thought it had gone. But it was packed. It was standing room only, and I just sort of snuck in the back to listen. The conflict and the tension was so great that eventually Doug or somebody said, 'Oh, there's Barrie Pittock over there! Barrie, would you come down and chair the meeting as a neutral chair person?'
So I agreed to do that — ended up with Doug on one side and I forgot who was on the other, it might have been Bruce [McGuinness] or somebody. Anyway I'd never really known Doug very well until then, but I guess I'd thought of him as a bit old-fashioned and maybe conservative and not really with it. But he impressed me enormously because, chairing that meeting I had to try and give equal opportunity for people on both sides of the question to say something. Doug just sat beside me and would whisper 'ask him!'. He knew which side everybody that spoke that evening was going to speak from before they spoke. The meeting went on for about two or three hours — I forget, you know. I don't even remember what the result was. But it was such a tense meeting and there was so much feeling. And probably what was actually decided at the meeting didn't matter very much because I think they ended up deciding that only Aborigines could vote. Is that right?
Sue: Yeah, yeah, in '69.
Barrie: I can't see that it really made all that much difference because of the sort of people who'd been involved at any rate on the non-Aboriginal side. I don't think it changed directions very much. But the message to me was quite clear that it was a major issue in Victoria, and that Aborigines did want to run their own show.
In 1970, anticipating debate on this issue at the federal conference, Barrie proposed two amendments to the FCAATSI constitution.
The first was that the executive 'shall consist of the following, all of whom shall be of Australian Aborigine or Island descent ...'. The same motion proposed that 'in addition the executive committee may co-opt, as non-voting consultants, any persons, irrespective of racial descent, whom it considers qualified to help and advise it upon request'.
The second proposed change was that 'only individuals of Australian Aboriginal or Island descent may exercise the vote at the annual general meeting'. These amendments occupied most of the debating time at the annual general meeting.
They were lost but the issue led to bitter division between those who favoured an increase in Indigenous decision making in FCAATSI and those who argued for a continuation of the status quo which opposed discrimination on the basis of race in any form.
This conference marked the effective end of FCAATSI as a racial coalition. Pittock outlined the events leading up to what become known as the split in FCAATSI in a document 'Easter 1970 and the Origins of the National Tribal Council'.
Sue: So when did you first start talking publicly about the possible motions that you then put in 1970?
Barrie: I started off, I think, talking in more general terms about Aboriginal autonomy, than actually applying it to the constitution of FCAATSI. I think it only came up about six months or three or four months before the Easter conference. So that would've been sometime in 1970. But knowing that Kath Walker had a very strong position on it, that the Victorians did, that at least the young Queensland people did, that it had been aired in Sydney at that Aboriginal autonomy meeting that John Baker was instrumental in running, I thought well at least the FCAATSI executive people there have been exposed to the idea. And I seem to remember, in a telephone hook-up at one of the executive meetings, one or two before the Easter conference, advocating that, and saying I thought it should be put up as a motion. And that it might be most appropriate if it came from a non-Aborigine who was on the executive. And I don't recall any strong vehement opposition at that executive meeting. So I put the motion in writing and sent it. Now there was, apparently, a very concerted move against it amongst FCAATSI executive people which I didn't know about until I got to the meeting. Well, no I did know something about it. I partly re-read that thing [B Pittock, 'Easter 1970 and the origins of the National Tribal Council'] this morning before you came but I can't remember the details now.
Sue: There was some politicking, wasn't there?
Barrie: There certainly was some politicking but I didn't have a great deal to do with it, I don't think. I suppose I was being a bit naive, but I thought it would be debated on its merits and would probably be accepted at the meeting. And I was a bit surprised that firstly there was an attempt to relegate a discussion of it to the end of the meeting, which was eventually overthrown by the body of the meeting. The really top executive nucleus of people which must've been John Baker and Gordon Bryant and, I don't know, Joe McGinness maybe, maybe Faith. Somebody had decided that they should stick with the long business agenda and this constitutional amendment would be considered very near the end of the conference. And, I think it was late on the first day, about then that somebody — I don't remember who it was — moved that it should be brought forward in the business because it was an important issue. And there was opposition to that but it was eventually voted that it should be considered early in the conference. And it ended up, I think it was at least one full day, it might have been two full days, of debate for and against.
Sue: Sounds as if it dominated the conference.
Barrie: Yeah, it dominated the whole conference. But the debate was prolonged to the point where a number of bus loads of Aboriginal people who'd come from country New South Wales and Queensland had to leave before the vote was taken. And when the vote was eventually put, the count was practically 50–50 I think. I don't know whether it was exactly 50–50 or almost. Anyhow it needed a two-thirds majority so it was lost. And the whole thing'd gone quite beyond anything I'd (chuckling) imagined was possible! You know I just thought it would be a reasonably friendly debate about how the constitution should be changed but it really became very antagonistic. The Brisbane Tribal Council people had come with a supply of red headbands, which they wore and handed out to supporters of the Aboriginal control motion. And gradually the number of these in the hall just kept increasing.
Sue: So that was something of a visual indication of support?
Barrie: Yes, yes. It was quite an interesting sort of symbolic dramatisation of the whole thing. And eventually when the motion was put and lost because they didn't have a two-thirds majority, if I remember rightly, it was Kath Walker and Doug Nicholls who in fact went up to the microphone and said, 'Well, we've lost the vote but we think it's too important and we ask all our supporters to move to the side of the hall and we will conduct another meeting and set up a tribal council'. And so they did it on the spot.
Barrie commented on what he saw as the achievements of FCAATSI from 1958 to 1972.
I think they were to a large extent the conscience of the nation in terms of Aboriginal affairs. I mean, obviously there had been, right from first settlement, Aboriginal groups who were fighting for their rights and so on, but in terms of the European society FCAATSI was the group that became the public focus of attention and got the media attention. In so far as they were genuinely representing grass roots concerns, that was great. And their achievements — well obviously the referendum. Getting Aborigines — I don't know whether being counted in the census was necessarily terribly important, although getting the statistics taken seriously is important. And that was one of the things I tried to do before then. But Aborigines getting the vote in 1962 was very important. Having Aborigines counted and voting created pressure, which certainly increased the funding for Aboriginal affairs and led to what improvement there has been in living conditions. And the pressure they put on for land rights, obviously was — I mean something must've carried the day in terms of getting the law changed, and clearly as the most public body arguing for land rights they obviously did have a strong influence. But I think it was more raising the conscience of people, getting people to re-examine where Australian society was coming from and where it should be going, and that Aborigines couldn't just be ignored. They were a significant part of the population.
Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Barrie Pittock conducted by Sue Taffe and Leanne Miller on 16 November 1996