Larrakiya and the ‘long grassers’

In the mid 1990s the perennial issue of illegal camping in Darwin, with its portrayals of drunken ‘long grassers’ begging, fighting, and defecating in public, by an act of media convenience, public ignorance, and government collusion, became in part attached to the native title debate and hence conveyed negative portrayals of Larrakia as being a people without culture.

The Darwin fringe dwelling population is a diverse group which is predominantly Indigenous, and consists of short-term visitors, and medium to long-term migrants deriving from a variety of Top End communities. It is thought that the itinerant population, which fluctuates seasonally, is in the vicinity of 150 to 200 people, although some estimate that the figure is as high as 1000 (Memmott and Fantin 2001). A number of the temporary camps, or ‘Starlight Motels’ as they are sometimes called, are well established and have been populated by Indigenous migrants for many decades. As Bill Day notes, in relation to the residents of Fish Camp, a long term camping area on the Kulaluk special purpose lease, these migrants not only maintain links with their original country, but over time have forged new links with Larrakia people and their land that legitimate by agreement their presence on, and use of Larrakia country (Day 2001: 11). The political support of the fringe dwelling community for Larrakia assertions of traditional ownership has been an ongoing feature of the relationship with Larrakia.

The native title process however, has impacted this informal relationship. Larrakia through their involvement in the native title process were increasingly gaining legitimacy through the advocacy of the NLC, but more critically through the corporatisation of the Larrakia polity in the form of the Larrakia Nation. The fringe dwellers, however, were excluded from the consideration of native title, and as they came under increasing pressure from the Northern Territory government and the media, they were not supported by the NLC, ATSIC, North Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, or the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation.

The fringe dwellers became increasingly politicised in response to forced evictions of Barada people from a long-term informal camp at Lee Point.[8] The Northern Territory government rejected their request for title of the area on the grounds that the Larrakia native title claim prevented the granting of third party interests. This is despite successful negotiation of the native title process by the Northern Territory government with Larrakia to allow for the construction of the East Arm Port and the granting of land title to Conoco-Phillips for the construction of the Wickham Point liquid natural gas plant. The negotiations in relation to these projects ultimately all resulted in positive and potentially lucrative economic outcomes for the Larrakia Nation.

The establishment of the ‘Darwin Longgrass Association’ by prominent Larrakia woman June Mills assisted the politicisation of the fringe dwellers (see Fig. 8.1), and also demonstrated that the informal relationship between some members of Larrakia and the fringe dwelling community still existed. However, the intense consultative load associated with development and native title, disputation within Larrakia and the disengagement of Indigenous representative organisations from fringe dwelling issues, greatly reduced the capacity of Larrakia to respond as a group and in a formal sense to the needs of the fringe dwelling community.

Fig 8.1. Itinerant protestors in DarwinItinerant protestors in Darwin

Photo: Courtesy of W. Day

Harassment of fringe dwellers increased under mandatory sentencing laws introduced by the CLP government in 1997. A Darwin City Council ‘by-law’ made it an offence to sleep in a public place and attracted a $50 fine for contravention. Under the mandatory sentencing regime unpaid fines of this nature became a property offence and attracted a mandatory jail term when brought before the courts (Howse 2000).[9] In response to such harassment fringe dwelling communities around Darwin became increasingly politicised. The Darwin Longgrass Association, and community advocates campaigning on their behalf, were able to project positive images of fringe dwellers as ‘traditional people’ living off the land, both in the mainstream media and the newsletters Longgrass and Kujuk (Figs 8.2 and 8.3).

In a perverse twist, such images were incorporated into the discourse of Larrakia having lost their culture, and therefore having no claim on Darwin. Newspaper articles highlighted the assumption that Indigenous people from elsewhere utilised the natural resources of Darwin to a greater extent than Larrakia. In addition non-Indigenous Darwin residents on occasion proclaimed that they too were more engaged in the activities of hunting and in particular fishing, than those asserting native title rights. The notion of ‘anti social behaviour’ which became a euphemism for being black and being in town, however, was conflated by media and politicians with native title to create negative representations of Larrakia and fringe dwellers alike. Chief Minister Shane Stone, well known for his opposition to Larrakia claims in the Darwin area advocated ‘harsh retribution’ for itinerants, and stated that Aboriginal people with drinking problems deserved to be monstered and stomped on.[10]

Fig 8.2. Cover of Kujuk Cover of Kujuk
Fig 8.3. Cover of Longgrass Cover of Longgrass