Hidden Histories of the Pilbara

(Photo: Allbrook 2012)

In 2011, Dr Malcolm Allbrook and Dr Mary Anne Jebb, of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the ANU, were awarded a research grant by AIATSIS to conduct part two of the ‘Hidden Histories of the Pilbara’ project in association with Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre, a community based organisation based in South Hedland. Started in 1987, Wangka Maya has worked to record the thirty-three Aboriginal languages of the Pilbara, and to publish language resources and oral histories. The history and work of the organisation is described on the Wangka Maya website.

The grant followed earlier historical research between 2008 and 2009, also funded by AIATSIS, on the responses of Pilbara Aboriginal people (‘Marlpas’) to initial European exploration, the subsequent arrival of pastoralists and pearlers, and the establishment of a colonial government infrastructure at Roebourne in 1866. The Board of Wangka Maya sponsored the research because members believed that the Marlpa history of the region was not being adequately recorded. They were keen to continue the earlier work of Wangka Maya in oral history and story-telling, and to provide Aboriginal people throughout the region with an opportunity to record their rich histories for the benefit of their families and descendants, as well as to inform the public record of their experiences of colonisation. Key episodes include the conflicts of the ‘early days’, station and pearling times, the station workers’ strike action of the 1940s and its aftermath, and the more recent past of large scale mining and native title. Members were concerned that, in the context of the rapid and all-encompassing industrial development of the Pilbara, these stories would be swamped by triumphal histories of this development, and lost to future generations.

Senior Banyjima woman Elizabeth Dowton with Mary Anne Jebb

Senior Banyjima woman Elizabeth Dowton with Mary Anne Jebb, Onslow, June 2012 (Photo: Allbrook 2012)

Part Two of the Hidden Histories project was designed to re-start the recording and storage of oral histories, stories and songs and, more importantly, to establish a structure to continue this work as a longer term project which is largely managed and directed by the community and family members. During a two week stay in June, Malcolm and Mary Anne spent time with Wangka Maya board members and staff to map out a future recording project and the development of a compilation CD of Aboriginal stories for possible sale and broadcast. A series of story and song workshops will also be held around themes such as the Port Hedland to Marble Bar railway which operated between 1911 and 1951, the war years and Japanese bombing of Port Hedland and Onslow, the overseas and domestic war service of Pilbara Aboriginal families, including the air base at Corunna Downs station, the Montebello Islands nuclear explosions of 1956, the station workers’ strike, Aboriginal involvement in alternative industries such as tin mining, and the short-lived mission at White Springs.

Malcolm and Mary Anne recorded a number of extensive interviews in Carnarvon, Onslow and Hedland with senior men and women from the Tharrkari, Kurrama, Banyjima, Kariyarra and Nyamal language groups. CD copies of these interviews will be sent to the interview participants, with copies to be held by Wangka Maya and AIATSIS. The researchers will return to the Pilbara later this year to complete the project.

Updated:  21 June 2012/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications