Don Rowlands is a park ranger and Wangkangurru elder and Yarluyandi people of Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert). He lives in Birdsville, in the far south-west of Queensland.
He worked as an unpaid worker breeder on cattle ranches in the successful 1967 referendum, which gave the Commonwealth the power to legislate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and removed the exclusion which meant they were not counted in the census . Here he looks back on his younger years, the impact of the referendum and the way forward.
I grew up in Birdsville, on the river, at a time when indigenous people were treated as flora and fauna.
We spent a lot of time on the river catching fish, yellow bellies and yabbies, and playing with each other.
When you leave the river, it’s just big sand dunes. This is what the name Munga-Thirri means: large hill of sand.
At every sand dune you see something different, it’s never the same. When you’re camping, even on a hot day, it’s still cool at night. And when you own it, you can almost hear the footprints on the ground, where the crowd is dancing somewhere.
I always remember the presence of my people in the desert.
Over the past 30 years, it has been a great privilege to manage a country owned by the Wangkangurru people. Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert) is a wonderful place, it is the soul of our nation, of our people.
When I started working, it was suggested to me that it was such a harsh environment that no one could live there. What I like now is when I come to a site I’ve been looking for for years and it’s still intact, as if people left yesterday.
This is something I can show to prove that we lived there and had a good reason to live there. When the rest of the country is in the grip of drought, the desert still has much to offer because it is protected by the seasons.
Growing up in Central Australia
The pub was also the shop – the shop was at the back and to get to the pub you had to go down the front.
The children from the station would run in and out of the store, but we native children were not allowed near the place at certain times. You had to arrive early, if at all.
You’re sitting on the street and you’re looking at all this, and in your head you’re like, “Well, I’m not a real human.”
It was a very humiliating life. Bad things were happening at school, we went to tell the elderly people, and they went to the policeman and he locked them up for saying bad things about the teacher.
We had nowhere to go.
Working on the stations, there seemed to have been three classes of people: the whites, the ringers and the owners, then there were the mixed-race people, who I fit in with, the yellow guys as they were called, and then there there were the real ones. Black men.
In the stations, we yellow people had a kitchen and a dining room reserved for us and we went there and all the black brothers who worked alongside us, every day, all day, 24 hours a day, had to go there. go. sit down near the woodpile.
It took a long time for local properties to accept that these people deserve the same as everyone else because they did the same amount of work, or even more in some cases.
There was nothing I or anyone else could do – we just had to go with the flow as it was.
In 1967, I don’t remember much. But I was working and not getting paid, so it meant a lot to me to see how successful it turned out to be.
I don’t think I was voting at the time, it took us a long time to get registered to vote here. But we were all pretty happy, me and all my native colleagues, especially the uneducated ones.
They were very happy to be paid for their service after all this time. Some of them were in their 60s and 70s, so they hadn’t received any pay for most of their lives, their whole lives basically.
It wasn’t until the 70s that we started getting paid. Finally, the salaries arrived and it was a big plus for the community, because we were spending money in town, we were renting houses, we were paying electricity to the municipality, so there was a big boost. thumb for the economy.
We were finally part of the community.
A different approach
Where I am now, I have led the fight here in Birdsville for many years – mostly alone on the front lines. And I now discover that too many of our members have been persuaded, sucked in, by non-Natives.
The work is really, really hard. So my path forward is to focus on my family, my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren and try to leave them a legacy that will remind them of the fight, but also empower them to hold their heads high and be who they are.
I think The Voice is going to give us a seat at the table. It is a way for us to atone for past atrocities.
John Howard got up one morning and canceled ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which operated between 1990 and 2005), and it all disappeared with a flick of his thumb and finger . The government cannot wake up one morning and close everything, that would be enshrined in the Constitution.
But it would also give Indigenous people the ability to manage their own affairs, across the country.
In Birdsville, in particular, I would like us to be part of the legal structure, so that we can go there and speak our own speech without having to send it to another non-Indigenous person for approval.
We all see the current situation, in Alice Springs for example, as a problem. But I think that collectively – with a different approach that the Voice could offer us – we can help. This won’t happen overnight, it will take time.
It’s just ridiculous that a once in a lifetime opportunity presents itself and all we want to do is play politics.
Charlie Perkins is my hero from the past. I thought about the trials he went through and how he continued to walk despite being alone most of the time.
He was in front of the crowd and that got things moving. It’s people like him that we should reflect on and try to do the right thing for our people.
I hear all the time, “We need to do this for our young people.” Well, here’s your opportunity: talk to your young people and vote yes.
We deserve to move forward. If we control our own destiny, our own life, it can only be for the better.