Henry Lawson’s “The Bush Undertaker” tells the story of an old shepherd who respectfully reburies a white man after digging up the bones of a black man. “I’ll take a pick an’ shovel with me an’ root up that old blackfellow.”
Little has changed more than a century later. At Fitzroy Crossing in northern Western Australia, for example, the persistence of Australian racism even in death meant that until the 1990s there were in effect two cemeteries: the Fitzroy Crossing Pioneer (i.e. white) Cemetery, and largely unmarked Aboriginal grave sites in the non-gazetted areas surrounding it.
Two decades ago the Fitzroy River started to erode the cemetery. So in 2001, the local shire organised to relocate remains to a new cemetery away from the river – the remains of the “Pioneers”.
For years, local Aboriginal people have raised complaints about why the unmarked graves of their relatives were left behind to wash away. The racist double standards that damage Aboriginal lives in so many ways are on full display here. Disregard and disrespect follow Aboriginal people from life into death.
Walmajarri elder Justine Brown said more Aboriginal remains had been destroyed in the 15 years since the largely white remains were relocated. “We feel sad you know, we don’t like to let the water carry our family away. I don’t think that’s nice”, she told the ABC.
Work finally began last year to move the Aboriginal remains. But it has been a classic case of too little, too late. Not only have about 20 sets of remains been lost to the river, but Aboriginal residents of Fitzroy Crossing have been treated to the sight of half-buried body bags hanging out from the river bank. Last year, children found a human skull while playing.
Even now that work has begun, the double standard continues. About 50 skeletons have been boxed up and are being kept in an unmarked shipping container.
Neil Carter, repatriations officer from the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, outlines the simple demand of the Aboriginal people subjected to this indignity.
They will not feel satisfied until they have reburied the remains at the new cemetery, and had a proper burial ceremony, or have returned those people to their traditional country. Not much to ask, yet governments have so far been unable to do it.