In parts of the Kimberleys, usually those where outstations are excised from large pastoral leases, Aborigines refer to excisions as ‘matchboxes’ because of their small size. When speaking in a possessive sense Bardi most commonly refer to an outstation as a ‘block’. The outstation or homelands movement has been a visible trend amongst Aborigines in many parts of Australia for at least three decades (Coombs et al. 1980: 1). As well as returning to traditional country, Aborigines have chosen to form small outstation groups to avoid social problems in larger communities. The timing of the trend was concurrent with the provision of welfare benefits to Aboriginal people (Smith 2000: 62), and with government policy shifts, from assimilation to self-determination (later self-management) formulated in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Coombs et al. 1980: 5; Altman 1986: 477).
There are significant differences between outstation movements in different regions of Australia. Sexton (1996) compares the outstation movement in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, concluding that one of the most significant differences is in relation to the tenure of the land available for outstations. In the Northern Territory, the operation of the Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act since 1976 has resulted in the return of significant amounts of land to Aboriginal people. Aborigines who successfully claim land under the Act obtain a title that is an estate in fee simple (Sexton 1996: 5). Altman (1987: 1818) similarly identifies ‘a correlation between the growth of the outstation movement and security of tenure’ gained under this Act in the Northern Territory. In Western Australia, where there was no land rights legislation prior to the NTA, secure tenure of this kind was not available. Many outstations were formed on vacant Crown Land (now called ‘unallocated’ Crown Land). Some were excised from pastoral leases, in which case the outstation group obtained a Special Purpose Lease for periods of 25–50 years, though these ‘guarantee free entry to the holders of a mining tenement’ (Sexton 1996: 6). The third possibility was for an Aboriginal group to obtain a 99-year lease from the Aboriginal Lands Trust, although in the northern Dampierland Peninsula these seem usually to be issued in relation to the creation of Aboriginal reserves under the Western Australian Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority Act 1972 (such as the One Arm Point reserve), rather than outstations. The consequences of the Western Australian system were that Aboriginal land was ‘much more a product of government discretion’ than in the Northern Territory, with its statutory regime for claiming land (Sexton 1996: 6).
There are regional differences in outstation movements within states as well as between them. In the Kimberley region, there are marked differences in the outstation movement between Bardi and other nearby groups. While there are outstations south of Bardi in the Beagle Bay Reserve among Nyul Nyul and Jabirr Jabirr peoples, and south of Broome among Yawuru and Karajarri peoples, the density of outstations in these regions is not the same as amongst Bardi. The factors Smith (2000: 450) identifies with respect to variation in the outstation movement in the Coen region — local organisation, the environment and historical factors — are equally salient to the explanation of such differences between Bardi and other nearby groups.
In Western Australia the outstation movement has been in progress since the 1980s, and in 1999 there were some 225 outstations across the state (Muir 1999: 11). The outstation movement coincided with an era in which Aborigines began to receive wages or cash welfare payments instead of rations, and the transition ‘from rations to cash’ reflected ‘a change in the rationalities of government, from tutelary/pastoral to liberal/contractual’ (Rowse 1998: 86). In remote communities, integration into the cash economy was accompanied in many instances by the transition from mission-dominated institutions to secular self-governing towns, resulting in a ‘dramatic shift in the nature, structure and moral economy of these Aboriginal communities’ (Peterson 1998: 109).
Moizo relates the introduction of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme in Fitzroy Crossing to the movement of Fitzroy Aborigines out of the town and into smaller (outstation) communities. He says that this movement occurred ‘since they had the opportunity to be financially autonomous, an opportunity that did not exist prior to the introduction of CDEP’, which was implemented in Fitzroy Crossing in 1988 (Moizo 1990: 36). CDEP provides an important source of income for outstations, and this is augmented by pension monies, one-off grants, and cash earned through various means (Altman 1986: 478; Spicer 1997: 32–3; Smith 2000: 397). In 2005, government debate about the economic viability of remote Aboriginal communities was specifically linked with a view that communal landownership and lack of economic opportunities for remote area Aboriginal people were causally linked (Dodson and McCarthy 2005).