ROSEMARY O’GRADY. Lost leaders.

Jul 5, 2019

The first words addressed by the Hon David Hurley AC as Governor-General were to the Australian First People and their successors, including, specifically, ‘future leaders’.

On the eve of NAIDOC Week I offer some memories of a past leader, once well-known in Western Australia – a character of such quality he deserved to have been acknowledged by the nation.

Eric Keith Hunter died some 10+ years ago – reportedly on a bush road on the Dampierland Peninsula north of Broome near his peoples’ communities of Djarindjin-Lombadina, Kooljamun (Cape Leveque), Ardyaloon (One Arm Point) and his home ‘camp’ of Bulgin from which he ventured in aqua- and horticulture, developing indigenous enterprise for his family and community.

By the time he was in his ‘40s Eric Hunter, like others of his generation, was already a grandfather. He had married Shirley Ejai, whose father was, later, joint-chief-claimant, with Tigan, in the Bardi-Djawi tranche of the claim to territory at common law which began to be listed as Action No P18/1991 :Utemorrah’s Case.  Himself a descendant of notorious pearler, Harry Hunter, whose reputation for cruelty among Kimberley divers  was legendary, Eric identified with the  indigenous side of his  heritage. He applied his acute intelligence and integrity to working to unify his Ardyaloon community, to sharing experiences, as a mentor, with a younger generation, and to advocating, bargaining, and negotiating as an elected spokesman for his people. In the 1980s he had been a Chairman of the young Kimberley Land Council (‘KLC’) but had grown to distance himself from the activities of so-called Aboriginal Associations and Corporations, financed by Governments, because of their members’ ambitious, disrespectful attitudes and manners towards the elders of their tribes. He left the KLC and directed his efforts to community development and enterprise. This made him a natural ally of Dicky Cox, hero of Noonkanbah (1978-1980 et seq.) who, along with most of the Aboriginal founders of the KLC, at Noonkanbah, soon deserted it for the same reasons.

Several politicians made bids, over the years, to recruit Eric to their parties, but he resisted all attempts to seduce him away from home and country, whilst continuing as liaison and scrutineer between under-schooled communities and those who sought to control them. If the memory of Eric Hunter has begun to fade, even in the North-West, it is not least because, like Dicky Cox, who ‘passed’ 2 years ago, he often got the better of powers in the so-called ‘Aboriginal industry’.

As a child, in Broome, as he told me preliminary to a submission to the Stolen Generation Inquiry, his evening bath-time one day was rudely-interrupted when, without notice, he was burst-in-upon and swept-up to be roughly removed from his family’s custody and placed in a mission school (Pallottine, I think). There, his parents could come and visit their children through the barrier of a cyclone fence. For clothing the boys were given trousers made of sacking. ‘We could stand them on the sand,’ he’d say, ‘And they’d stay standing up on their own!’. His eyes would mirror the eyes of the wise throughout history when he told that story,

He went ‘out’ after school, away from the Kimberley, on a quest to discover his absconded mother, and return her to her family home. He succeeded. It was typical of his determination – but also one of his proudest achievements.

Without formal higher education or training, he applied his skills and spirit to what opportunities there were to develop commercial enterprise whilst at the same time devoting himself to traditional duties in family and community. He was a genius communicator and negotiator, logical, reasoned and persistent, both ‘straight’ and shrewd. He was a born ‘leader’. He had a quick wit and ready laugh and a deep instinct for what it means really to live a life. Whenever he felt the intimations of mortality or despair nudge him towards a ‘waterhole’ he would take himself ‘off’ from country or family so that there could be no domestic consequences from over-indulgence.

In spite of recurrent or chronic pain from damaged hips, which led to replacement surgery, eventually, he was strong and healthy, ‘tho’ over-worked, always, at the beck-and-call of his people. He was impervious to admirers, wholly-focussed on the work of his life; of living – to community and culture. He was under-appreciated. Often he worked his boat solo, a job for at least twice the manpower.  Sometimes he travelled through ‘sea country’ beyond farthest reefs and shoals, and return to report to authorities at Fisheries in Perth when he found reefs and rocks infected by contact from overseas trespassers.  He knew what it was to belong ‘in’ Nature – in that intimate way that we understand as spiritual.

I owe to him one of my own deepest experiences of Nature. At Xmas, 1992, I travelled to Kooljamun, to take statements from Plaintiffs, from Ejai’s family, and Eric arranged for my accommodation to be in a bough shed on the beach at the north-westernmost point of the continent, facing Asia. The site was a few yards east of a significant ceremonial site. There was no freshwater visible, and I was to spend the nights there quite alone.

Rising on the first morning after a night of drifting in and out of sleep to the sound and sense of sea winds crossing the coast and sounds in the darkness, I found that the shelf which was my bed was surrounded and covered-over with patterns, every millimetre of the space, marked with the tracks of birds, snakes and other creatures. It seemed impossible that the denizens had not crossed my own person as I dreamt, for there was only the merest sliver of sandy shelf not-affected by the evidence of their presence. The beach was home to, amongst others, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. The sense of survival was refreshing. I was filled with wonder and gratitude.

It is not necessary to speak about such an experience. Those who have shared it – just ‘know’. The quality of life has become Ineffable.

Eric was a No-Bullshit man. It was a great honour of my life when, in the mid-1990s, he confided to me his accurate analysis of the mixed politics about the destruction, by what can only be called forces of evil, of his peoples’ heroic act of self-determination in presenting themselves to the courts to assert their claim. He and Dicky Cox were like-minded. So, they had to be stopped. The land – recognition each gained under ‘native title’ could have been settled many, many years earlier, while Old People still lived, had it not been for the menacing, dystopic control of people ill-suited to value and work-with these original, gifted Australians. I feel, strongly, it would be a further injustice if these  strong men and women were forgotten, just because they are no part of what Drs Catherine and Ronald Berndt called the ‘advertising’ culture of the Barbarians.

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