The Guardian May 24, 2000


Book Review:
How Aborigines are Robbed

by Vic Williams

At a time of a great controversy around land rights, stolen generations and 
exploitation of Aborigines, no book is more topical than Faces in the 
Sun by Sandra Le Brun Holmes. It tells of first hand experience with 
the people, how they are being robbed of their paintings, their religion 
and myths, their children and tribal lands. It is a blueprint of how to 
work for reconciliation, not didactic but written with day-to-day details 
and compassion from the heart.

It is the life story of a girl who began taping the songs and dances of 
Aborigines and for the rest of her life became deeply involved in their 
many struggles.

At Kurrawang mission outside Kalgoorlie she first saw the stolen generation 
inside the fence, being beaten for contacting their people outside the 
fence and for the crime of using their own language.

Later, at the native camp, she recorded their song, "Where are the 
Children?"

Sandra went to Sydney to study anthropology. There she met and worked for 
and married Cec Holmes, the renowned film maker.

Together they made films for missions, the ABC and Australian Institute of 
Aboriginal Studies. When stationed in Darwin, Sandra became more deeply 
involved with Aboriginal problems.

At Yirrkala mission she watched Mawalan painting, and showed interest and 
understanding of his work. When finished he offered her the painting, but 
the mission head snatched it away and voiced his anger with Mawalan.

Some time later Mawalan and Mathamen were taken interstate with exhibitions 
of their paintings, with them sitting on the floor to paint. But a young 
literate relative went with them, saw the paintings sold for hundreds of 
pounds when the painters received only one or two pounds for big paintings.

When they returned he told them, and they demanded better pay.

Refused, they went on strike.

After weeks the mission was frantic, and called in a Melbourne dealer. The 
painters finally took his offer at the original deal as they had no money 
to buy store goods.

The missions were opening their pension cheques and controlling the money 
going to the Aborigines.

When Sandra met Yirawala, the outstanding painter who was awarded the MBE, 
he told her that for ten years he had painted his sacred books, with the 
ancient designs preserving the myths in the absence of a written language.

He believed his paintings would be stored. But she told him nothing was 
saved, but had been sold to the dealers, who mostly sold them overseas. He 
was devastated.

"All my law, all my power, finish no more."

He asked Sandra of she could save some of his paintings, and she said she 
would establish a museum for his work where it would be preserved.

Yirawala smuggled some of his paintings out but when he was blocked, he 
stayed in Sandra's yard in his cottage, painted and was paid for them. 
Sandra did what she could in saving his paintings.

Finally, she sent 200 of them south for safe-keeping, but 60 of them 
disappeared. The others were finally exhibited, but her role was not 
acknowledged until she protested.

Sandra had very good relations with the Tiwi people of Melville Island and 
two leading Tiwi leaders, Alie and Polly were her classified parents.

When in 1972 a Japanese consortium applied for a licence to fell forests 
for woodchipping on Melville Island, they asked Sandra for information. She 
told them woodchipping destroyed whole forests and left only bushes behind.

Geoffrey Mungatapin, law carrier and leader, summoned all people on 
Melville Island and spoke to a meeting that rejected woodchipping with one 
voice. With her contacts in the Aboriginal Rights Council and unions, 
Sandra organised support for the Tiwis in the May Day procession.

Their colourful protests made national television and with protests all 
around Australia the woodchipping proposal was abandoned.

Yirawala and the elders led the move for the Gunwinggas back to their 
country. In June 1973 at Maningrida they put their case to the Woodward 
Commission for a 100-year lease with independence from mission and welfare.

Sandra was there to help them with the submission, with tapes, documents 
and maps.

Missionaries were there to make claims for land; Sam, an Aborigine, spoke 
for the claims of the Oenpelli mission. But when the elders went back the 
next day for a decision Woodward had flown.

He later recommended Land Councils with a representative from each 
settlement, including missions, with government appointed advisors and 
funded by mining royalties, to control the permits on mining exploration 
and use of land.

After experience of Land Councils, Aborigines were disappointed. An old man 
said, "No good that mob. Him only worry for money, no more for country".

A young man said nobody from land council consulted them. Power had been 
taken away from traditional councils.

Sandra pointed out that the 1976 Land Rights Law couldn't stop mining if 
the land council agreed to exploration, and they were pressured by their 
funds coming from royalties.

Sandra commented, "Real ownership of land by tribal people and recognitions 
of their religion and customary laws seemed unacceptable to any Australian 
Government".

Sandra was asked did she feel regret for wasting her life on a lost cause.

"I did not waste my life. It is my life's work."

She had done excellent research, with anthropological details, written in a 
passionate, simple and very readable style. With this outstanding book she 
is continuing her work for Aboriginal people.

* * *
Faces in the Sun by Sandra Le Brun Holmes. Published by Viking, 1999.

Back to index page