by staff writers
Aurukun, a name that instills fear in some communities, disgust in others and hopelessness among white people continues its decades-long tribal clashes with no end in sight.
More than 60 police officers still remain at the community to quell the foment after two youths stabbed a 37 year old resident to death on New Year’s day.
The town remained in lockdown for a week as an angry mob went from house to house and government buildings seeking retribution.
The community of 1200 is home to five spiritual clans, the Wanam, Winchanam, Puch, Apalech, and Sara.
Since the latest rioting it is believed 300 of its members have departed to Cairns, Mareeba, Coen, Mossman and other locations, some say never to return.
Police Superintendent Geoff Sheldon said a mob had targeted the health clinic at 6:00pm on New Year’s Day, before moving on to the airport and the homes of the accused men.
“They were seeking vengeance for the stabbing that occurred and they were going house to house looking for what they believed were two offenders responsible for the death of the man,” he told the ABC.
“It become a violent confrontation at each and every residence.
“There were 250 people wandering the streets of Aurukun — all armed, all aggressive — and it became a dangerous situation, not only for our staff, but members of the public and other government staff.”
Cape York Inspector Mark Henderson blamed illicit alcohol for fuelling the unrest. The week before 65 bottles of rum were seized on their way to Aurukun. Bottles of rum can fetch up to $250 each on the black market, which makes sly-grogging a lucrative enterprise for those willing to run the periodic road blocks between Mareeba and the Aurukun turn-off.
Hundreds of residents fled into the bush after the violence started. Six homes were burnt down and other property wrecked. Some Cape York residents firmly believe the destroyed houses should not be rebuilt.
The replacement cost of these homes will be more than $600,000 each, based on the average building cost of a community home on Cape York. Removal of the wreckage will be at least $50,000 each.
A female Traditional Owner from the community told this scribe three years ago following another similar outburst of violence, the ailing community should be closed down and its members disbursed among other communities or relocated to Cairns.
“This would solve a lot of problems,” said the Wik tribal member.
Aurukun has been pandered to by the Labor Party for decades, having a disproportionate amount of money spent on infrastructure and flowery social programs designed by Brisbane bureaucrats.
Three years ago Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk funded a new fibre optic cable from Weipa to Aurukun costing $2.5m because phone and internet reception was not, what she described as “up to scratch” in Aurukun.
Furthermore she said television and internet programs would help quell the violent atmosphere in the community.
Phone and video games actually made the residents worse as it turns out.
Decades of drug and alcohol-fuelled in-fighting and assault of contractors, government employees and police should have been sufficient evidence that the airy-fairy ALP programs including a ban on alcohol were not working.
The five Northern Peninsula Area communities would like similar largesse. They have suffered from poor to no phone reception for many years and have not been sprayed with government gifts like the bottomless pit of Aurukun.
Nearby grazier and long-time Peninsula resident John Witherspoon said like all other communities there were some good people and some “not so good” living at Aurukun.
He said ever since the missionaries left Aurukun in the 1960’s the community started falling apart and marriage between clans usually started trouble when elders did not agree with some cross-tribal marriages.
“The community should be opened up to outside businesses and people instead of being too locked up and isolated. They could have a dairy farm with suitable cattle and grow fruit and vegetables and start commercial fishing,” Mr Witherspoon said.
“Businesses should be given funds but not as handouts and starting up money should be loans which have to be repaid just like everybody else.”
The recent trouble could have started because the normal police officers were away on vacation and relieving police may not have an understanding of local issues. Experience shows the presence of female officers in the community has not always worked well after a serious rape some years ago.
“It’s a hard one,” he said.
“They have a lot of country so why not start up a proper cattle business instead of getting in contractors to harvest feral cattle once a year?
“In the 70’s and 80’s Bill Whiteman and Bill Kelly were managers there who kept the men on the outstations like Blue Lagoon and Piccaninny and their own blocks of country.
“There were good houses built on these outstations but some burnt down because the yards were not kept clean of grass.
“The trouble is the state government gives them all this land that they can’t do anything with. They can’t borrow against it to buy cattle and there are far too many environmental rules that stop grazing.
“They used to have Wathaneen outstation south of the Archer River and they had an army duck for transport but when one of the Aurukun boys was crossing the river he forgot to put the bung in and it sank. It is still there on the bottom today.”
On a more disturbing note 12 months ago a group of locals from Aurukun arrived at a grazing property south of the community and demanded the white property owner leave the place within a week or they would move in and take it over themselves.
If he didn’t leave the group inferred the homestead could be torched.
“They were quite menacing when they arrived in an old Toyota out the front of the house,” the property owner said at the time.
This group has not returned to the property.
The origins of Aurukun from the State Library of Queensland
‘Aurukun was originally known as Archer River Mission Settlement. It was originally established in 1904 for the Presbyterian Church by the Reverend Arthur and Mrs Richter who were assisted in the early settlement period by T W Holmes. The Richters led the establishment of the settlement up until 1913 when they returned to Germany, apparently for a short visit or holiday, intending to return in due course. However, due to the outbreak of the First World War, they were unable to return to Australia and were eventually replaced by Mr and Mrs Holmes. The reserve was expanded in 1922 to include the Kendall River area located to the south. The town eventually became known as Aurukun which is said to have local meaning associated with a large lagoon on the Watson River, to the south. At the beginning, the majority of the buildings, including the church and mission house were constructed of local materials by residents using a range of traditional skills. Over time however, stronger and more permanent buildings were constructed using materials brought in from elsewhere.’