Indigenous Australia

‘Hard Yakka’: Yuggera people fight for sovereignty over Deebing Creek

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Banner outside of the Deebing Creek Mission site (Image by author)

"Your system fails us, we gotta protect our kids — and our dead,” says Karen Goori. Michael R Williams interviewed the protestors at Deebing Creek.

ALONG GRAMPIAN DRIVE, in Ipswich, Queensland, a banner is spread across a road sign: ‘Colonisation is Cooked’. Pull over and you will find a camp of friendly people who just want to have a yarn.

The camp is on the old Deebing Creek Mission site, an historical location where thousands of Murri people of all kinds, from all over the State, including Stradbroke Island, were incarcerated, enslaved and likely murdered. The land is now littered with graves. 

It was almost lost to time, until former mission survivor Les Davidson began digging into his past. Once he learned the full brunt of what happened here, he began lobbying to create a space 'for both Blacks and Whites that recognises the history'. This is documented in the book Remembering the forgotten: a history of the Deebing Creek Aboriginal mission in Queensland 1887-1915, by Bill Thorpe, one of Davidson’s trustees.

Les Davidson camped a short way away from the current camp site and declared himself "the guardian of Deebing Creek". His house has since been destroyed by storms, but many of the current campers wish to rebuild it. 

The space Davidson barracked for was only 15 metres square — however, this was before the discovery of more graves. 

“The men were forced to work. They were told that their pay would go towards buying the land off of the government,” says documentarian Terry Royan (Image by author)

Protestors have been occupying Deebing Creek since Frasers Property were, in 2015, sold the rights to develop on the southern end of Grampian Drive by the Queensland Government, as part of the Ripley Valley Development Scheme. Frasers have been willing to work with the protestors on fulfilling their wishes based off of the work of Les Davidson, but a consensus has not been met on how. 

Since then, a second camp has opened up next to the Ipswich Pony Club, in protest towards the devolopment of that land by the AV Jennings corporation. Despite not being a part of Davidson's original plan, this land was used by the mission site and likely has graves.

AV Jennings have, over the last month, used a ground-penetrating radar to look for the graves, but the results have not yet been made public. The campers say they did find bodies, though the official results yet to be confirmed.

Frasers have also been willing to use these sophisticated radars but it’s not as simple as proving whether the bodies exist. In June 2019, DATSIP were able to show strong evidence that there were bodies, however, they simply recommended that Frasers build in areas where there is less likelihood of there being bodies.

“We want answers for our dead. Wouldn’t you want to know what happened to your grandparents — to see them returned with a proper burial," said activist Karen Goori.

Protestors also claim the area has significant ecological value, including an endangered paperbark tea tree (Melaleuca irbyana). It also begins to encroach on koala habitat.  A species we all know is struggling.

Frasers completed an ecological survey, in which it was suggested the site did not contain a significant number of these trees. The survey was conducted by the Saunders Havil Group — the team behind approving the new Gladstone coal ports.  

You know, these guys: 

Over time, the camps have learned to look after themselves, having community meetings with jumping castles and their own garden.

The end goal of the Deebing Creek Mission site, however, is still disputed. Some have been willing to sell the site, so long as the developers are willing to work with the campers' wishes; some believe it shouldn't be up to the Government to decide what happens on land where sovereignty was never ceded. 

According to Indigenous legal experts, such as Michael Anderson, Indigenous sovereignty was affirmed by Queen Victoria in 1875. In addition, the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Protections (UNDRIP), both of which Australia has remained "lukewarm" toward. Both of these factors indicate Indigenous people have the right to make claims over the sovereignty of their land. 

IA has since questioned the Queensland Labor Government as to the legality of selling sovereign or mission land; we are still awaiting its response.

Members of many different communities have been showing solidarity with the campers at Deebing Creek — providing port-a-loos, food, or maybe just an ear for their story. This includes Greens member for Gabba ward Johnathon Sri.

In Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe makes the claim that Australian First Nations people were able to live harmoniously with the land and with each other. With the recent fires and the march of climate change, we need to rethink our relationship with nature and with history.

You can help the campers at Deebing Creek by either visiting at Grampian Drive or liking their Facebook page.

You can also follow IA sub-editor Michael R Williams on Twitter and Instagram @editorscribble.

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