Outlaw one

Defending identity in the native title area

‘THE WIND IS my hairdresser,’ says Sue Coleman Haseldine, known locally as Aunty Sue, stepping out into her dusty yard and letting the hot north wind rush through tangled thick black hair. A wire clothesline stretches across the dirt yard, tractors and car carcasses rust away in a nearby paddock, dogs run out to greet approaching cars, and in the middle of this scene Sue stands with a cigarette in a curled hand. She lives on a wheat farm with her whitefella husband, Gary, near the small, isolated South Australian town of Ceduna. From her yard, a strip of flat grey-blue sea can be glimpsed to the south. North of the chip-dry paddocks, ‘out the back’, lies a vast stretch of bush – stunted mallee shrublands roll away on sandy waves.

The task of the hairdresser is to subdue and shape hair, human hands and tools bringing this naturally occurring stuff under their control. But Sue styles herself in conscious opposition to this, subverting the hierarchy of human will/natural forces. She is drawn to images of wildness and rebellion, joyfully submitting to the wind, which here represents the unpredictable and powerful forces of the natural world and its capacity to overpower human designs.

Sue embodies a kind of refusal to have her passions tamed. She has taken up a position ‘against native title’, despite the fact that native title legislation is designed to recognise Indigenous connections to land, and subsequent rights and interests in it. Her experience of native title claims over recent decades ultimately proved disempowering, spurring her to reject native title on the grounds that it fostered divisions and conflict within this rural Aboriginal community. She is ‘against mining’, even if it purportedly promises the economic salvation of remote and regional Aboriginal worlds such as hers. Mining might well mean jobs, Sue concedes, but it also involves extracting monetary value from ‘country’, which Indigenous people regard as vitally alive. ‘Out the back’ lies a realm of significance, dotted with specific Dreaming sites, as well as an intact natural environment that was the familiar home of Sue’s mobile ancestors, even if it is uninhabited today. To travel out the back is to renew contemporary relations with country and recall this ancestral past: Sue is determined these landscapes remain protected from material imperatives.

Yet for all her toughness, Sue both refuses and embraces. While she is well known locally for the things she is against, in this moment she also playfully meets the wind.

I FIRST MET Aunty Sue in November 2006. Throughout my twenties I was involved in various environmental and social justice campaigns in Melbourne; a close friend from those activist days suggested I seek her out.

At our first meeting, Aunty Sue slung an arm across my shoulders and gave me a firm squeeze.

‘Welcome to our country,’ she said gruffly.

As a white Australian – ‘born of the conquerors’, as poet Judith Wright put it – I have long been afflicted with a variety of postcolonial anxiety about inheriting the white legacy of inflicting violent dispossession on Australia’s First Peoples. Aunty Sue’s welcome warmed me.

That November I slept on a rusted-spring bed frame and thin foam mattress out on the veranda at Sue and Gary’s farm. Aunty Sue spent the week acting as a guide for me and two friends; we picnicked out bush, lost money on the Melbourne Cup, waded into warm water at low tide to claw razor fish out of the mudflats, and camped with around twenty members of Aunty Sue and Gary’s extended family behind steep cliffs.

I returned to Ceduna in March 2008 as an anthropology PhD student, and lived there for twelve months. It was as a grassroots environmental activist and potential political ally that I was welcomed; ambivalence and occasional suspicion surrounded my role as novice fieldworker.

Most importantly, I shared a commonality with many of the Nunga and whitefella locals whose lives soon became enmeshed with mine: I returned that March as a sleep-deprived new mum, with a ten-week-old baby in tow. I dragged minya (little) Ned with me everywhere: he gnawed gummily on a gristly wombat bone, crawled into rock pools and was mesmerised by ‘bush telly’ – the fire. He was, Gary liked to muse, a ‘little bush baby’.

Aunty Sue remained the central figure in my doctoral research, consistently directing my attention to her critique of the native title claims process, which I came to write about. Her warmth and humour, as well as her ability to craft a narrative and generate insights out of ordinary occurrences, made a lasting impression on me.

Sue spent her childhood on the Koonibba Lutheran Mission, located approximately forty-five kilometres west of Ceduna. As a young woman she met Gary, whose family has farmed in this wheat-growing district since the early years of the twentieth century; in the late 1960s they danced together to the jukebox in a Greek café in the adjacent port town of Thevenard.

Sue has raised six of her own children (one deceased), as well as ‘growing up’ a host of other kids, and is now a grandmother and great-grandmother. In her most recent phase of life she is proud to have earned a public identity on South Australia’s west coast as an activist and rebel – or, as she puts it, ‘outlaw one’.

A PERMANENT EUROPEAN presence was established atop the Eyre Peninsula in the 1860s with the founding of the pastoral station Yalata, west of Fowlers Bay. The region’s early pastoral economy was labour intensive; Aboriginal people were engaged as builders, fencers, shepherds, well sinkers and outstation keepers. By the 1880s, kangaroo hunters had set up camps on and around the Nullarbor Plain with the aim of eradicating kangaroos, which were then considered vermin. Historians Peggy Brock and Jim Faull both note that kangaroo hunters also employed Aboriginal people, valuing their hunting and tracking skills as well as their detailed knowledge of the country. Brock also reports that Aboriginal women were frequently abused in the hunters’ camps, and that by 1894, when the hunters left the area, Aboriginal people were starving as a result of increased pressure on their food sources.

When the pastoral leases granted in this region expired in 1888, a new generation of South Australians was granted land. Subdivision of larger pastoral properties began, giving rise to agriculture – mostly wheat cropping – which worked the land much more intensively than pastoralism, and encroached further on Aboriginal ceremonial and economic life. By the turn of the century, the food supply situation for local Indigenous groups was critical, and the period, as Faull documents, was punctuated with violent encounters between Aboriginal people killing sheep for food on the one hand, and shepherds, the new farmers and their families on the other.

At this critical juncture, Lutheran missionaries arrived to found Koonibba Mission in 1898.

Sue’s great-grandfather, Micky Free, began gathering Aboriginal people to the site selected for the mission to begin the task of scrub clearing. Around half a century later, in 1951, Sue was born, the fourth daughter of a Kokatha mother and a white father – a local farmer with another, older white family of his own who played a limited role in her life until his death.

While he never lived with her mother, Aunty Sue remembers him bringing his ute to the mission loaded with fresh food. One of Sue’s sisters told me their father did not like the fact his supplies were then shared out among kin. He sometimes stood by his truck to watch his children eat, an image that speaks of both his familial affection and his distance from Aboriginal cultural mores.

Sue also vividly remembers hiding in the scrub with other fair-skinned kids, then termed ‘half-caste’, to escape the reach of ‘welfare’. As is well documented, twentieth-century state-based assimilation policies resulted in the permanent removal of many Aboriginal children from their families. Fair-skinned children were particularly vulnerable to removal by state welfare authorities, as these policies aimed to absorb Indigenous children into white society, resocialising them as members of the mainstream of Australian citizenry. Out bush, Sue remembers, fair-skinned kids learned to survive for days at a time. Aunty Sue continues to relish the eating of bush foods, such as gulda (sleepy lizard) and wardu (wombat), which nourish her physically and spiritually as she draws a connection with the times of plenty enjoyed by ‘the old people’, as well as her own memories of evading ‘welfare’.

Sue’s grandparents assumed an important role in teaching her to speak Kokatha, ‘behind the backs of the missionaries’. She remembers her days in the mission with ambivalence – the kindness of individual Lutheran pastors and teachers is tenderly recollected, but she also stresses the ultimate failure of their attempts to sever Koonibba families from their Indigenous identity, cultural traditions and languages.

In 1963, the missionaries departed and the South Australian government assumed responsibility for the settlement. Sue remembers the sudden end of a whole world as the mission’s gates were ‘ripped’ down. ‘I thought [it] was sacrilege, because they were really pretty.’

Sue and her family dispersed at this time, ending up in Adelaide and Port Lincoln, while many other mission families began moving into Ceduna.

Historians and anthropologists working in this region agree that throughout most of the twentieth century, Nungas of the west coast of South Australia organised and expressed their collective identity around the shared experience of life on Koonibba Mission; they were ‘Koonibba people’, and used ‘Koonibba’ as an identifying label when they moved into the region’s towns to live in fringe camps and work in places such as Port Lincoln and Wudinna.

This has changed.

ACROSS THIS REGION, Aboriginal people primarily identify with the ‘tribal’ labels of Kokatha and/or Wirangu and/or Mirning – as well as Pitjantjatjara. What’s important to note is that on the west coast of South Australia, as elsewhere in Australia, the native title claims process has played a role in nurturing the return to differentiated land-based and language-group identities, a process of reclamation that can have profound social consequences.

Native title legislation followed the celebrated 1992 High Court Mabo case. The High Court affirmed that prior to colonisation Indigenous peoples across Australia held title, in common, to their land under their own laws and customs. Indigenous people seeking recognition of their contemporary native title rights and interests partake of a claims process that involves amassing information that will hopefully verify claimants’ continuity of connection to the country of their ancestors.

This process can drag on. At the end of 2013, nearly eighteen years since native title claims were first lodged in the region, the Federal Court found that Aboriginal people on the far west coast of South Australia held native title rights and interests over approximately eighty thousand square kilometres.

Over those decades, many Ceduna Nungas drew on colonial records to revive an identity as ‘Wirangu’, an appellation that had largely fallen into disuse by the mid-twentieth century. There is no doubt engaging in this research was richly rewarding and revelatory for many. A wealth of archival information was brought to light as part of the research necessary to the formulation of a native title claim; in turn, many Indigenous people redefined themselves more strongly in ‘tribal’ terms, either electing to embrace a ‘tribal’ identity more fully than they had in the past, or changing the ‘tribal’ term to which they attached themselves. Aunty Sue’s family, however, were reluctant to revise the terms of their self-understanding via engagement with the historical and anthropological records of the colonial period. They see themselves as Nungas who also ‘always knew’ themselves to be Kokatha people, living out their lives on Kokatha country and speaking the Kokatha language. As more and more Ceduna Nungas have (re)discovered their Wirangu-ness, to be Wirangu attained a kind of local moral and practical authority because, in narrow terms, Wirangu people were deemed ‘traditional owners’ of the coastal area where Ceduna is located.

The native title era, scholars agree, has intensified a process that began with the 1976 passage of the earlier Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory): ‘traditional owner’ status is elevated, coveted and can be bitterly fought over. Experiences of movement and dislocation, common to the colonial era, can render certain Indigenous groups unable to fulfil the legislative definitions of traditional owner, or to embody broader public expectations of what this category should mean. In Ceduna, Kokatha-identifying people, whose histories, families and genealogies are intimately bound up with those people who now identify as Wirangu, found themselves positioned as people who lack traditional connections to the coast and to many specific places – including where they were born and brought up, as well as specific sites to which they express deep attachments and of which they have hold cultural knowledge. Aunty Sue perceives she has been asked to accept that the ‘traditional’ country of Kokatha people in fact lies far north of the familiar places she understands as her own.

The whole process, Sue says, divided ‘sister against sister’, and at its height saw opponents cross Ceduna’s main street to avoid contact with one another. Aunty Sue came eventually to eschew contact with the whole native title claimant group, which continued to meet both in order to finalise resolution of the claim and to negotiate with development interests. Importantly, this group was an amalgamated group, which joined together Wirangu, Kokatha and Mirning interests in recognition of the impossibility of disentangling a shared history and advancing a successful claim in exclusive terms: it was the primacy accorded to the category of Wirangu that Aunty Sue could not accept.

I found this fast-changing situation impenetrable for some time. Now that I have some understanding of it, albeit from an outsider’s perspective, I sometimes find myself explaining it to people who ask about my PhD research or the time I spent living in Ceduna. Anyone privy to local Aboriginal polities in the native title era – whitefella or blackfella – finds the scenario I describe depressingly familiar. However, others find Aunty Sue’s objections excessively obstinate or obscure. What’s at stake for Sue is best understood in the context of its longer historical resonance. As a girl, Sue was defined by the state as ‘half-caste’, and the spectre of removal stalked her childhood. In the 1950s, it was the Indigenous capacity to change, to emulate white social norms and to assimilate into white Australian society, that was most valued by the state. In response, Aunty Sue’s grandparents and others proudly instilled in her a strong self-understanding: she was Aboriginal, a Koonibba Nunga, as well as Kokatha. In the native title era it is the Indigenous capacity to satisfy the requirement of cultural ‘continuity’, to remain relatively ‘unchanged’ as it were, that is valued and rewarded through the native title claims process. Aunty Sue is intent on remaining loyal to the terms of her self-understanding and remains wary of invitations to fulfil the state’s revised image of desired Aboriginality. Sue sees native title as another cruel state intervention into her self-understanding, which grants outsiders a role in defining her identity. In response, she staked out a local position ‘against native title’, insisting ‘we know who we are’.

And Sue is a critic of more than the legislation’s effects on Aboriginal people’s identities and relations: on the one hand, the Native Title Act’s ‘right to negotiate’ statutes compel mining companies to account for Indigenous interests in land, yet on the other compels Indigenous people to compromise on these interests as they accommodate extractive resource industry designs.

The Native Title Act’s passing in late 1993 ushered in a period in which ‘tribal’ identities emerged as ascendant in Ceduna and were then concretised: ‘tribal’ affiliations became the basis of defining differences between family groups, who were previously defined in common as members of the ‘Koonibba mob’. This period also saw an increased interest in exploring for minerals in the region. As legal scholar David Ritter has shown in The Native Title Market (UWAP, 2009), native title legislation provides claimants and holders with no rights to veto or consent to resource extraction and development. However, under the act, mining, among other land uses, triggers the opportunity for native title claimants or holders to negotiate compensation or ‘benefit’ packages with developers. The instruments of these rights are called Future Act Agreements and Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUA). From Aunty Sue’s perspective, native title is a system that has served to facilitate and expedite the expansion of the mining industry in her region at the cost of the destruction of precious country.

While Australia’s latest and most lucrative mining boom is widely accepted to be over, the extensive exploration of the Ceduna region resulted in the development of one mine, Jacinth-Ambrosia, on the far western edge of the Yellabinna Regional Reserve, which started extracting the mineral sand zircon in 2009. In Febuary 2016, the mine’s owners, Iluka, announced a temporary suspension of mining activities at Jacinth-Ambrosia due to flagging global demand.

The atmosphere was optimistic, however, in December 2007, when the local native title claimants, whose interests were by then represented by an incorporated body called the ‘Far West Native Title Group’, signed an ILUA covering Jacinth-Ambrosia. ILUAs are commercial and confidential, and as such are difficult to scrutinise in detail. What is publically known about this particular agreement is that the package of benefits included a target of 20 per cent Nunga employment at Jacinth-Ambrosia, which media releases state has been met since 2012.

Aunty Sue’s family members staged a silent protest at the local footy oval where the signing took place in 2007. ‘We don’t have a political voice,’ Sue told me. ‘We don’t have any rights at all because we won’t join up with native title.’

What then?

AUNTY SUE DIRECTS her considerable energies into organising a twice-yearly cultural event. Every September, as the Seven Sisters first blink in the southern sky, and again in March, before they slide beyond view, she leads a camping trip ‘out the back’, into a series of ‘multi-use’ conservation parks, which also allow mining exploration. The trips, known as ‘rock-hole recovery’, entail six, sometimes seven days of four-wheel drive travel and involve visiting a series of rock-hole sites. Rock holes are permanent water sources scattered among semi-arid malee woodlands and shrublands – some comprise a series of shallow pools, others are akin to deep wells.

Aunty Sue’s family jointly undertake these rock-hole trips with urban-based conservationists, recruited through social media networks.

‘I used to always go out the back and clean rock holes as we could,’ she says.

When the volunteers became involved in 2006, ‘we started the rock hole cleaning and maintenance in earnest then’. Volunteers are enjoined to assist in these practical tasks and, in the process, learn about the threats facing country. Over the years, this has served to build a non-local support base for Aunty Sue’s opposition to mining, drawing in resources from afar.

Aunty Sue stresses the continuity between past practices and the present. In pre-contact times, these stores of water would have been vital to sustain mobile Indigenous groups living in a semi-arid region and were carefully nurtured. Sue, just like her forebears, clears rock holes of debris, such as animal remains, leaving them clear to be replenished by rainfall.

I came to see, however, that the rock-hole trips also arose as a response to Aunty Sue’s family’s frustration and disappointment with native title. When Aunty Sue and her family undertake trips out to country, they signal their rejection of what they see as the passive, even submissive, role of ‘claimant’. Aunty Sue is defiantly assuming that she is entitled to enjoy and express her relationship to country, refusing to wait to be recognised and authorised to do so. Second, rock-hole recovery involves Aunty Sue’s family group realising this relationship via physical activity. This sensory, sensual experience stresses a contrast between the process of outlining people–country relationships to satisfy the state’s requirements in words, and the process of expressing and living this relationship with bodies. Finally, the tasks undertaken over the course of rock-hole recovery are highly symbolic. Rock-hole trip participants clean out permanent water sources, maintaining the ecological health of significant cultural sites they see as neglected by other Aboriginal people who assert a privileged relationship as ‘traditional owner’ with these places.

In September 2008, Aunty Sue first set participants the task of uncovering the edges of a small, partially obscured rock face. This was intended to unsettle the confidence with which the native title claimant group, from whom Aunty Sue separated herself, declared rock-hole sites identifiable and protected: a buffer surrounds them, prohibiting exploration within a zone proximate to the sites. But over the course of Aunty Sue’s life, she says she has seen this particular rock hole shrink. She has watched a line of trees come ‘marching down the hill’ and start encroaching on the rock face. Indeed, other rock holes she remembers from her childhood, when Koonibba men took her on long hunting expeditions to supplement the mission’s inadequate ration supply, can no longer be found at all.

That September, a ute loaded with shovels, brooms and kids trundled back and forth along the track from camp to the rock hole. The kids quickly set to work scooping the dirt out of what appeared to be superficial ponds. As it turned out, the ponds proved to be deep rock holes filled with compacted red sand, and rehabilitating them was heavy, hard work. A few of us started work on the edges of the rock face, scraping and digging away the layers of dirt, trying to trace its contours.

With brooms, trowels, shovels and even the jagged plastic remains of a broken bucket, trip participants scraped away layers of fine, red-brown dirt. Heavy mounds accumulated on tarps, which were spread out at the rock-hole’s edge. Dirt was driven away.

On one occasion, Aunty Sue paused her sweeping and shook her head, feigning exasperation. ‘Housework!’ she exclaimed, leaning on a broom.

Two long afternoons and then a full day, from sun up to sun down, were spent digging out the rock hole, gradually seeing a pool emerge and the rock face take form. This immensely satisfying process is still underway, eight years later.

In digging out this specific site, Aunty Sue’s actions symbolise a more general condition, which underlines her family group’s opposition to mining. The country that sustained and was sustained by ‘the old ways’ is still there – it lies submerged rather than lost.


Brock P. (1993) Outback Ghettos: Aborigines, Institutionalisation and Survival, Cambridge; Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Faull J. (1988) Life on the Edge, Adelaide: District Council of Murat Bay, Ceduna, SA.

Lucashenko M. (2013) Mullumbimby, St Lucia, Qld: Queensland University Press.

Ritter D. (2009) The Native Title Market, Crawley, W.A.: UWA Press.

Wright J. (1991) Born of the Conquerors: Selected Essays, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review