Enduring traditions of Aboriginal protest

Truth-telling amid the dark shadows of history

NOBODY SEEMED QUITE capable of distinguishing John Noble from Jimmy Clements when the pair turned up for the royal opening of the new Commonwealth Parliament building in Canberra. It was Monday, 9 May 1927. And as far as European Australia was concerned, the original inhabitants of the Limestone Plains, upon which Canberra was imposed, were extinct – vanished.

As Frederick Watson wrote in his Brief History of Canberra, timed to coincide with the inauguration of the new Parliament House in 1927, ‘virtually nothing remains to indicate the former existence of the Aborigines, the original inhabitants of Canberra, except a few place names’.

There had been some vague suggestion that the Duke and Duchess of York’s grand opening of the imposing parliament – a glowing white monument to Anglo-Australia, standing with sculptural distinction on those wide brown plains – might just include a corroboree. In the end, though, the ceremony carried no hint that the land had ever been anybody else’s.

Until, that is, John and Jimmy strode on in.

Descendants and other Aboriginal people with claim to their story will tell you the pair may well have arrived in Canberra together on the Sunday, having walked from down Gundagai way. But most whitefella journalists weren’t really interested in when or how they’d arrived. They couldn’t even tell them apart, despite how different they looked – their black skin enough, apparently, to justify blithely rendering them into a composite character. The reporters confused their names and appearances, portraying a single man seemingly as stereotypically half-touched, befuddled and wanting in sympathy as any purely fictitious figure the bush bard, Banjo Paterson, might have conjured for his colonial yarns.

The reporters at the opening bequeathed their versions to the professionals – academic historians, writers and later journalists – who, despite the anomalies between original newspaper accounts, rehashed a story that one unfortunate old black man had attended the opening.

Even the eminent seemed accepting of a flawed first draft. Manning Clark, in his A Short History of Australia (Penguin, 1963), wrote: ‘A solitary Aborigine demanded to see the “whole plurry show”, but as he was deemed to be inadequately clad for the occasion, a policeman led him away.’

Time’s eroding sands have a way of exposing fact, if not necessarily truth. And so considerably more raw archival material that illuminates past lives and events is now available thanks to Trove and other digital repositories of early newspapers, colonial records and photographs, and Indigenous voices and art. Today, it is possible to paint a more complete picture of John ‘Marvellous’ Noble and Jimmy Clements (also known as Nangar and ‘King Billy’) than those who considered and wrote about them – or ‘him’ – earlier. Critically, this enhances the capacity to appreciate a more culturally nuanced, complex Indigenous story. It challenges the white trope of an unfortunate ‘ancient’ dusky bloke on walkabout stumbling blithely into the ceremony in favour of the more likely narrative about two very old blackfellas who spent some of what little life remained determinedly tracking hundreds of kilometres to Canberra to reassert Aboriginal sovereignty to a government that had trampled on it.


NOBLE AND CLEMENTS were Wiradjuri men from central-west and central New South Wales.

Clements, it has been said by descendants, was probably born at Mandagery or at Eugowra Station, Mandagery Creek, east of Forbes and Parkes. Hanbury and Edith Clements, a white settler couple, made their home at Eugowra in 1857 – about the time Jimmy was conceived. It is plausible, given the tendency then for white authorities to impose the names of settler families on Indigenous people whose ancestral lands the imposters had taken before ‘permitting’ the blacks to camp on it, that he was named after Hanbury and Edith. Similarly, the whites of the Limestone Plains would bestow upon him in later life the title of ‘king’: King Billy. The sobriquet ‘king’ – along with the copper breastplate that sometimes accompanied it – supposedly indicated the white man’s respect for the subject. But it was often little more than another testimony to the Indigenous man’s subjugation to the invader.

Noble was born at Muttama, not far from Gundagai, where he lived intermittently throughout his long life. Newspaper reports say Noble was eighty when he died in March 1928. But according to the death certificate in his descendants’ possession, he was actually in his hundredth year when he passed on. This would make his birth year 1828 or 1829 – just forty years, give or take twelve months or so, after European invasion in 1788. Both men, as children and youths in that part of the NSW colony would, therefore, inevitably have been touched by the violence that erupted between the various tribes resisting the explorers, soldiers and settlers as they pushed the pastoral frontier settlement south-west through New South Wales into the Limestone Plains and beyond.

Both men were born into a time of large-scale dispossession and upheaval (first Wiradjuri–white contact was about 1813), of massacres and of mass poisonings. The stories – and perhaps experiences – of frontier violence, including the exploits of resistance fighters such as Windradyne, the Wiradjuri warrior who led his people’s fight in the Bathurst War during the 1820s, were intrinsic to their formative years. They were also later impacted by the forced removal of Indigenous people from tribal lands to state-run settlements and reserves where liberty was curtailed and the life choices available to others (for example, the freedom to choose who to marry and where to work, the right to live with one’s own children and own property) were denied.

Both men at various times lived at Brungle reserve between Gundagai and Tumut at the foot of the Snowy Mountains. Brungle opened in 1887 in response to concerns from white settlers that the Wiradjuri were constantly moving through their properties on the highland tracks en route to the south coast, down through Bega. While the aim was to forcibly segregate the Aboriginal people (which Brungle did, sometimes quite brutally), the reserve also held the advantage for white settlers of providing an ample black labour supply whereby residents would work in return for often meagre rations.

Somehow, Clements managed to repeatedly come and go from Brungle, which operated on a pass system whereby only the manager could give residents permission to leave. Noble’s descendants paint a picture of a man who, even in his nineties, was constantly on the road.


CLEMENTS AND NOBLE had much in common besides their Wiradjuri blood. They were both showmen, experts with the boomerang and other Indigenous weapons.

In 1912 Clements was photographed at an Empire Day celebration in Orange. According to the research of David Kaus, who oversees the repatriation of ancestral remains and sacred objects at the National Museum of Australia, Clements was dressed traditionally and carried weapons. The museum has one of his clubs in its collection.

He also had the authority to oversee Wiradjuri burbong or initiation ceremonies. He was a ‘clever man’, a custodian not only of initiation ritual but also of Wiradjuri law and lore. He was often in and around Canberra and Queanbeyan. He had family links to the Ngambri and those of the Ngunnawal language group, who both claim and contest custodianship of the Limestone Plains.

Noble, according to his great-granddaughter Wendy Bunn, a Yuin woman descended from the far south NSW coast and an Aboriginal health worker, was also a clever man, albeit one of a slightly different character to Clements. He was a ‘shape shifter’ who was known to transform into various birds and other animals, including a wallaby. Perhaps it’s why he was so elusive in his comings and goings from Brungle.

She says, ‘Old Uncle John Noble was a featherfoot man – a bugeen, a clever man. They reckoned he could transform himself when needed into all sorts of different animals.’

She explains how he got the name ‘Marvellous’:

Everyone used to call him ‘old Marvellous’. It’s a name he got because when he greeted people he used to like to say to them, ‘Well ain’t that marvellous?’ or ‘That would be marvellous, wouldn’t it?’ – and he’d throw back his head and he’d laugh.

Like Jimmy Clements, Marvellous was an initiated man with ligatures on his chest and arms. He, too, was well known in the Canberra region. In the early 1920s, when Parliament House and the new federal administration buildings were under construction in the fledgling capital, he was photographed sitting cross-legged outside the bachelor’s quarters at Acton (on the banks of today’s Lake Burley Griffin) with what was, of its day, a quite distinctive dog – an English setter commonly used as a hunting retriever in Britain. The photograph was published on the front page of The Canberra Times in 1926, captioned ‘A resident of other days’.

He made money as a shepherd and through his boomerang demonstrations at football matches and agricultural shows across New South Wales.

‘To my knowledge he frequented Brungle Mission, Tumut, Bega, Wollongong, Wallaga Lake [on the New South Wales south coast, close to where, slightly inland, he was initiated] and even Sydney. John would have been more likely known as [from the] “people of the mountains – [the] Mountain People”,’ Wendy says.

He had eight children with his first wife Ada (a Yuin woman from Eden on the NSW south coast, and Wendy’s great grandmother). Like his three initiated sons – Henry (‘Choc’), Hugo (‘Sago’) and Ernie (‘Weenie One’) – he often travelled to Sydney, including to La Perouse (said to be the oldest continuously occupied Indigenous settlement in New South Wales).

Wendy says there is no question within her family that Jimmy Clements and her Uncle John were mates. ‘I often think about them and wonder if they were actually family, kin, or just two old warriors from the same language group. There’s so many stories about these two old men walking around together, miles and miles, always barefoot – like they were brothers almost,’ she says.

And there is another undeniable truth in her family: John Noble and Jimmy Clements didn’t just happen to wander into the pageantry of the opening of Parliament House in May 1927. They went there to make a point.

Wendy says, ‘The story in my family is that they didn’t just go to Canberra for a look or happen to pass through when parliament happened to be opening – they went there to protest, to assert Aboriginal sovereignty on that land to the highest people in the Empire. They went there to claim their sovereign rights, to make it clear sovereignty was never ceded to Britain… They were in Canberra protesting for their people.’

In an explainer to a black-and-white photograph – one of many taken of Clements on the day the royals opened parliament – the National Archives
of Australia says the image ‘depicts what is possibly the first recorded
instance of Aboriginal protest’ outside the building that non-Indigenous Australia still, perhaps, regards as the heart of its democracy. Clements stands – or poses – with his hair rolling over his shoulders and his great unruly beard flowing over his shirtfront. He holds a shapeless hat in one hand and what might be an Australian (that is, a British) flag in the other. He may just be smiling. There are several other photographs of him with police.


DESPITE THE ONGOING cringe in the infant Australian federation about isolated, rural Canberra becoming the capital and the stage for the new parliament, media – if not public – interest in the opening had been intense in the preceding months. The official opening on the Monday and the royal meet and greet on the Tuesday were a celebration of royal pomp and officialdom that, while well publicised, failed to draw the anticipated crowd of eighty thousand. Ultimately, perhaps thirty thousand turned up.

The viewing area for the uninvited public was inadequately sized (many had camped over the frosty preceding night) while the official stands were replete with space due to the mass non-attendance of guests. The punters were invited to fill the official stands and, despite the decorum anticipated of such a royal occasion, public patience was tested during the wait for the Duke (who was to go on to become King George VI – the stuttering subject of the movie The King’s Speech) and Duchess.

Such was the atmosphere when either Marvellous or Clements – or both – tried to enter the stands.

Of the 9 May opening, The Argus reported that an ‘old and grey and ruggedly picturesque’ Aboriginal man was ‘determined to go his own way in spite of the arguments of two inspectors and one sergeant of police’:

Immediately and instinctively the crowd in the stands rallied to his side. There were choruses of advice and encouragement for him to do as he pleased. A well-known clergyman stood up and called out that the Aborigine had a better right than any man present to a place on the steps of the house of parliament… The old man’s persistence and the sympathy of the crowd won him an excellent position and also a shower of small change that must have amounted to 30/ or 40/.

Both men were photographed around parliament, probably on each day. While the response of the crowd to the old man might seem egalitarian (at a time in Australia when massacres were still occurring, and when Indigenous rights to citizenship were shamefully non-existent and black franchise, civil and legal rights, largely denied), this apparent support might well be more illustrative of the crowd’s general frustration with authority. Like so many white tropes, some of which have stubbornly persisted (pioneers ‘rescuing’ Indigenous children from massacre scenes involving native police; boss men showing kindness or giving extra rations to Aboriginal domestic servants or stockmen, for example) this would deny Marvellous/Clements considerable agency.

But the reality was likely more complex. Both old men were showmen, performers before country audiences with traditional shows of culture. What happened with the crowd that day might well, from their point of view, have been far more transactional.

They were photographed on 9 and 10 May 1927 in interactions with police, who were, there can be little doubt, urging them to move on. On 10 May, one of them – most likely Clements – had brief contact with the royals as the public paraded past them in front of the newly inaugurated building. The Sydney Morning Herald reported it was ‘Marvellous, the uncrowned king of Queanbeyan’ who ‘aroused the amused interest of the Duke and Duchess and the waiting crowd’. But judging from the newspaper description of the man, it was much more likely to have been Clements than Marvellous.

The Herald continued:

His beaming black countenance was almost hidden beneath a shock of hair and beard. Barefooted and carrying a sugar bag in one hand and a tiny Australian flag in the other, he at first mistook a policeman at the foot of the steps for the Duke. To his great embarrassment, and to the vast amusement of the onlookers, the policeman became the object of a hearty salutation. However, ‘Marvellous’ was quickly shepherded back to a position in the procession and, as he passed along, brought his hand up to an approved military salute for the benefit of their royal highnesses. The Duke returned it with a special wave.

The Argus described him as ‘an ancient Aborigine, who calls himself King Billy and who claims sovereign rights to the Federal Capital Territory’. The reporter appears to have spoken to Clements. Why else would the paper – which like most of its epoch was largely non-conversant with Indigenous rights – imbue his presence at the opening with such political significance had Clements (with his strong familial connections to the Ngambri and Ngunnawal) not, at some point during the festivities, have asserted Aboriginal sovereignty?

A few days later, The Canberra Times – again with an emphasis on Indigenous connection to country – reported: ‘Where his dusky forebears have gathered in native ceremonial for centuries past, a lone representative of a fast diminishing race saluted visiting royalty. Despite the grotesque garb and untamed mane, the Aborigine comported himself not without dignity. With his three faithful dogs, he made an immediate target for a battery of cameras.’ Noble had shorter hair and a more closely cropped beard. This certainly describes Clements and paints a man whose act was performative – letting it be known sovereignty was never ceded, eyeballing the Duke and courting the cameras.

In 2009, for the International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies, Monash University’s Maryrose Casey wrote of how the Indigenous presence at the event was ‘spectacularised’:

The photos give a sense of the large crowd and yet his presence was known and noted across a wide area, large enough to include most of the journalists present and a remarkable number of personal accounts. This implies to me, at the least, a strong performance element where the man chose to play to the crowd and, specifically, or at least, finally, to the vocal and anti-authoritarian part of the crowd. …both Indigenous men worked public events and thoroughfares, in a context where the Indigenous racialised presence was marked and vulnerable. Therefore, reading the audience and knowing how to woo them…would be critical for survival as well as income.

Both men seemed to understand the power of image, posing for numerous photographs: ‘Regardless of whether they were as unaware or indifferent to the meaning of the event as is often suggested, their presence was a powerful act, contesting claims of the erasure of Indigenous people from the land and place,’ writes Casey. ‘The same newspapers, that for months had carried articles about the dawning of a new era for White Australia [with the imminent opening of Commonwealth Parliament in the new capital], all featured photos and reports of Clements claiming rights and sovereignty.’

One especially evocative picture taken from the north-west depicts him sitting on the grass with his bag and dogs. He sits to the left of the Parliament House steps, between the road and the lake. Forty-five years later and perhaps twenty metres to the right on New Year’s Day 1972, activists would establish the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, still extant today.

In 1997 there was some talk of erecting a modest plaque in roughly that spot out the front of the old house for Noble and Clements. But, like the mooted corroboree at the 1927 opening, it never happened. The tent embassy, however, flourishes defiantly in the imposing shadow of the monument to King George V, who officiated at the opening of the first federal parliament in Melbourne in 1901.

One simple truth: the reign of George V at Australian Federation 1901 is memorialised in this part of the capital’s sculptured landscape. But a far more fundamental one, embodied in the visit of Noble and Clements to Canberra on 9 and 10 May 1927, remains, officially at least, neither celebrated nor commemorated in masonry or brass.


THE PRESENCE OF Noble and Clements coincided with an arousal of broader Australian consciousness of the suppression of Indigenous rights, thanks to the emergence in 1924 of the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association. Anthropological and ethnological engagement with Indigenous Australia hinged, at the time, on a largely unedifying race to chart – materially, linguistically, culturally – a supposedly vanishing people amid the pervasive view among academics and policy-makers that the race was sliding inexorably towards extinction. In the post-massacre phase of settlement expansion, the philosophy of eugenics underscored the ‘dilution’ of Indigeneity through ‘breeding’, the forced removal of children and the broader protection/reserve/mission system. All this was the bedrock of the assimilationism that drove federal, state and territory policies towards Indigenous people that denied franchise, economic and social security, the right to marry or keep one’s family together. It’s little wonder then that in such social circumstances, Noble and Clements were portrayed as relics.

Their activism preceded by a decade the national Day of Mourning on 26 January 1938 – a hundred and fifty years to the day since Arthur Phillip’s fleet arrived. Clements sat with his three dogs and his sugar bag just to the left of the Parliament House steps. While the whitefellas, dressed to the nines, walked around – and looked down upon – him, he directed his gaze out across the steadily trickling Molonglo towards Black Mountain, just forty years ahead of the 1967 citizenship referendum and forty-five years before another generation of younger, equally proud and defiant activists would establish their embassy with no less performative flair and intent to catch the media eye.

The lives of Noble and Clements were close to over. For all their experiences travelling the land and performing at country shows from La Perouse down to the Victorian border, descendants – and others inspired by the duo’s example in activism – view their visit to the opening of Parliament House as a signal moment. But so much pain that would form the truth of other Indigenous lives, including those that stemmed from theirs, was yet to follow.


JOHN NOBLE AND Ada did not stay together. He travelled while Ada coupled with a red-haired Englishman, Sydney Cunningham. One of their daughters, born in 1914 was Ruby, Wendy Bunn’s great aunt.

At seventy-seven, Ruby told her story to another family member, who transcribed it into a neat seven-page, manually typewritten document with an ink drawing of Ruby in profile as its frontispiece. For a non-Indigenous person, it is a story striking for its sadness, remarkable in its account of a stolen childhood and youth, and a life lived under the buckling weight of state and societal racial discrimination. But for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Ruby’s life – early mission years, stolen from her parents and put to work as a domestic for wealthy white families – was anything but exceptional.

The typescript is Ruby’s testimony to her – and her people’s – survival, and is a simple truth that she wanted shared. Speaking in the early 1990s of her younger self, she said: ‘I have had an interesting life, living through times of sadness, fear and discrimination. Life is always hard for Aboriginal people but in those days it was much harder than now, and I want other people to know just how difficult it was to be an Aborigine in the early part of the twentieth century. I also want to write this down so that my children can keep it for my grandchildren.’

She recalls living at Minnamurra mission near Port Kembla. When she was five, her father disappeared after her mother went away to have another child. She never saw her father again, and didn’t see her mother for about fifteen years. ‘The sign of police on a mission was always cause for alarm and the old people knew just what things these government people could do to the families on missions,’ she writes.

[We] ran into the bush as fast as we could as Aunty Mary told us to. All Aboriginal children frequently did this every time the police or protector came onto the mission. I learned many years later that this was happening on all missions and all the old people would send their children into the bush until it was dark or the police were gone.
The [Aboriginal Protection] Board’s aim was to take these children away from the influence of their parents and train them to work as servants for white people, doing household chores for the girls and farm duties for the boys. They implemented a policy that would ‘pave the way for the absorption of these people into the general population’. The policymakers did not take into consideration the immense damage done to the children and parents when these youngsters were stripped away from their family.

Victimhood has no part in Ruby’s recollection of an experience common in many aspects to that of tens of thousands of other Indigenous boys and girls. Indeed, optimism distinguishes it. ‘I have many happy memories of my early years but so many sad ones as well,’ she writes.

Those eight pages are a microcosm of a vast post-invasion Australian history that, while its players are both non-Indigenous and black, has never really – in a literal sense – been shared. And this will remain so until non-Indigenous Australians acknowledge the parts played by some of their ancestors in those thousands upon thousands of stories that chronicle what Ruby called the intended ‘absorption’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

They are stories – histories, herstories – that are central to the truth-telling component of the call for Makarrata from Uluru in May 2017. While federal politicians – especially those in government, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – have (wilfully or otherwise) misconstrued and subsequently dismissed Uluru’s call for a ‘voice to parliament’ as an Indigenous request for a third legislative chamber, even less serious consideration has been dedicated to what a formal ‘truth-telling’ process could or would look like.

The world has seen numerous examples of formal truth-telling processes as part of post-conflict reconciliation and related punitive/legal process. Most recently notable, perhaps, remains the Truth and Reconciliation Commission implemented after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, where victims of violence and oppression, and their oppressors, publicly told their stories in community halls, schools and legislature buildings. The state and individuals were granted immunity from prosecution to the chagrin of victims’ families, such as that of activist Steve Biko. Could this or a similar process aid conciliation between black and non-Indigenous people in Australia?

Given that so many crimes against Indigenous people in Australia – such as shootings, massacres and poisonings, the theft of Indigenous land and deaths in custody – reverberate generationally to manifest in pervasive poverty, economic and social disadvantage, should any truth-telling process be punitive or restorative in its intent? Is it possible for it to be both?

Sol Bellear, a leading Indigenous activist who was instrumental in establishing Aboriginal health and legal services in Sydney, and was the man who introduced then Prime Minister Paul Keating when he delivered his seminal Redfern speech in 1992, has said that truth-telling is critical to black–white conciliation in Australia.

When we met in Redfern Park a few months before his death in November 2017, Bellear said Keating’s speech had offered the basis of a truth-telling process that Australia had, sadly, negligently, failed to embrace and develop. ‘I went repeatedly to the Reconciliation Council,’ he told me ‘and tried to push through a type of truth and justice commission – you know, public hearings in cities and at town halls in schools in small towns across Australia, in communities where terrible stuff happened, and where the descendants of victims and others [perpetrators] still lived. Where the memories – and even some of the victims and those responsible – still actually lived. But no takers.

‘They talked about reconciliation…and my point was always that you couldn’t have that because blacks and whites had never had the initial conciliation – and truth, truth in history, a public kind of process to bring that about, was critical to that. History is everything… But they weren’t going to back it.’

John Braithwaite is a criminologist who has specialised in the role of restorative justice in international peacemaking, including in Indonesia. He says that any truth-telling process in Australia would naturally need to consider ‘rightful ownership and unrecognise things like [Captain James] Cook’s [purported] discovery [of Australia]’. But, he says, it is important such a process goes to contemporary disadvantage such as deaths in custody and Indigenous imprisonment rates.

‘Also,’ he continues, ‘[that it goes] to what are we to do to put right the fact that the land on which our homes are built, our workplaces and schools and universities, is stolen land? Maybe we need what Cass Sunstein calls an “incompletely theorised” new contract with Indigenous Australia. That might mean, no we do not go for the politically infeasible demand of asking white people to give up their homes. But it might mean a restorative treaty of healing that guarantees every Indigenous family their own privately owned piece of Australia if that is what they choose, or their own collectively owned piece of tribal land if that is their choice, as in the considerably autonomous Navajo lands in the US.’

Braithwaite points out that because the ‘worst offenders’ who committed historical violence against Indigenous Australian are ‘mostly dead’, the inclusion of truth-telling in punitive justice has limited relevance.

‘Hence, part of what reparative justice is about is compensating for the impossibility of criminal justice… There are really big contemporary human rights abuses in our prisons that also affect non-Indigenous prisoners. For both types of victims perhaps institutional reform and prevention of future abuses is the bigger justice imperative – justice as a better future – rather than backward-looking punitive justice.’

Louise Vella is a researcher and international development consultant who specialises in peace-building and transitional justice processes in the Pacific. She worked as a researcher for the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established in 2008 to investigate the causes of ethnic violence that erupted on Guadalcanal in 1999, resulting in the deaths of some two hundred people. The TRC’s basis involved provision of testimony at public hearings and of statements to formal recipients who travelled to most affected parts of the small Pacific country.

‘For some deponents, the process of truth-telling appeared to be cathartic,’ Vella says. ‘It was an opportunity to voice what they had experienced and, most importantly, how the consequences of the conflict were continuing to affect them. This was at the heart of a lot of the testimony – how the conflict had continually disadvantaged or affected people, and what needs were currently being unmet. The TRC was seen as an opportunity to express their needs to the government, in the hope that they would be met through reparations.

‘That said, there were circumstances where the opportunity to give testimony was a meaningful process to the deponents, in and of itself. It provided the opportunity to be heard, and to sometimes offer forgiveness for what had been perpetrated against them. It was an emotional process for many. Whether this translates into healing, peacebuilding or productive change, however, depends on the circumstance.’

She says that one of the commission’s most effective processes centred on the exhumations team, which researched, uncovered, identified and repatriated bodies to families. ‘This…was only a small part of the TRC’s overall work, but perhaps one of the most meaningful.’

The repatriation to Australia and return to country of ancestral human remains – often involving the bodies of frontier conflict victims, those stolen from burial grounds or institutions, upon death, for medical experimentation – are central to the reckoning of historic white–black violence and injustice in Australia. The National Museum of Australia has, at any one recent time, held a collection of body parts belonging to up to six hundred Indigenous individuals. The South Australian Museum, meanwhile, has the remains of up to four thousand Indigenous people in its vaults.

Few resources are allocated to repatriation and return to country of Indigenous remains. None have been officially dedicated to recovering the remains of mass victims of colonial and post-colonial frontier violence, many of whom were burnt and buried in shallow graves at remote massacre sites.

Vella says: ‘The classic argument against truth and reconciliation processes is that it is “opening a can of worms”. Whether this is useful or not depends on the readiness to which the community or government is prepared to manage what comes out. The analogy of “healing a wound” is often used – that you need to clean it up so it can heal properly. To take that analogy further, you could say that what you clean it with needs to…not risk infection – that is, the commission needs to be ready to manage the process to productively deal with the emotions and issues that arise.’

Instructively, the Solomon’s government has not officially released the TRC’s report, which included the names of perpetrators who are still active in public life today.

With the exception of some police and prison staff, perhaps, this is unlikely to be the case with any truth-telling process consistent with the call for Makarrata in Australia today. As Braithwaite points out, most of the perpetrators are long gone.


JUST THREE MONTHS after the two old men took their protest to Canberra, the newspapers reported the death of Jimmy Clements. The Barrier Miner of 31 August 1927 typically – and incorrectly – said he belonged to the last of the ‘tribe of Aborigines who roamed the plains and hills of Canberra long before the Federal Capital was dreamed of. With “Marvellous” his old abo friend, another nonagenarian, he was presented to the Duke and Duchess of York at the opening of parliament and his pride in that incident lightened his closing days.’

Late in March 1928, meanwhile, Marvellous was admitted, seriously ill, to Cootamundra Hospital. Says Wendy Bunn: ‘Old Uncle John died out the back of the Cootamundra Hospital. They put him out under a gum tree out the back to die. He’s buried in the Roman Catholic section of the cemetery in Cootamundra.’

They buried old Jimmy Clements in an unmarked grave on the edge of Queanbeyan Cemetery, just beyond the consecrated ground, because many white people still believed a black man could not be put to rest in blessed earth. There was no headstone for Jimmy.

Wendy says: ‘Uncle John and Jimmy Clements really founded the spot where the more recent tent embassy went up as a place of protest. I think that they were the ones who took Indigenous protest to parliament in Canberra – the first ones… There ought to be bronze statues in recognition of them. There was talk of that once. But it never happened.’

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