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Passing of Kakadu elder Big Bill Neidje.



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Joint Media Release Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP & Philip Ruddock Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs

24 May 2002

K083

Passing of Kakadu Elder Big Bill Neidje

The Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp and the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Philip Ruddock, today noted with regret the passing of Big Bill Neidji, a senior elder of Kakadu National Park and a traditional owner of the Bunitj estate in northern Kakadu.

Although Aboriginal cultural tradition normally prohibits it, Big Bill's name is being used at the request of his family. He died at his daughters' home at the East Alligator Ranger Station in Kakadu National Park last night.

Big Bill Neidji was called "Big Bill" by those who knew him because of his physique and physical strength probably gained through his time working on the luggers transporting stores and supplies to remote island communities in the Northern Territory.

He was born just after the First World War and in his long life, saw much change occur in his traditional lands in the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park. As a young man Big Bill assisted in the defence of Australia during the Second World War, working at the radar station at Cape Don. He was in Darwin during the bombings in 1942 and is remembered as assisting Aboriginal people during and after the devastation.

After many years of working outside his traditional lands, Big Bill was a central figure in their establishment as a National Park in 1979, after which he returned to Kakadu to commit the rest of his life to supporting the joint management of the Park.

Mr Ruddock said, "This man saw enormous change in this region and for all of his long life proudly sought to share with others the deep affection and connection that indigenous custodians have for their traditional lands."

Dr Kemp said, "He was instrumental in the establishment of Kakadu National Park and was deeply committed to sharing his love for his country, his respect for the heritage of his country and his indigenous culture with countless thousands of park visitors and all who shared his love for the natural world."

He is widely known as 'Kakadu Man' - after the title of his first published book of prose and philosophy. Later, in 1989, he published a second volume of prose entitled 'Story about Feeling'. In both works he spoke of his deep feelings for his country and his indigenous culture. "His wisdom and insights embodied in these works will continue to be valued for years to come," Dr Kemp said.

He was also the last surviving speaker of the Gagudju language (pronounced gar-ga-djoo), an indigenous language from northern Kakadu after which Kakadu National Park is named.

In 1989 he was awarded the Order of Australia for his services to conservation.

Dr Kemp and Mr Ruddock expressed their condolences on behalf of the government, to his family, the traditional owners of Kakadu National Park and to the park staff to whom he was well known.

Media contacts: Dr Kemp's office Catherine Job (02) 6277 7640 or 0408 648 400 Mr Ruddock's office Jeremy Chitty 0418 971 042

Related Information Passing of Kakadu Elder Big Bill Neidji ●

Kakadu Man Celebrates a Life ●

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PARKS & RESERVES Kakadu National Park

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On 3 July 2001 family, friends and admirers of Mr Bill Neidjie gathered

together to celebrate the life of one of the region's most respected men.

This is the story of that day and of the life of this most extraordinary man.

KAKADU MAN CELEBRATES A LIFE - 3 July 2001 Article by Chips Mackinolty ©

Aboriginal dancers perform at the celebration

The Aboriginal boy from Alawanydjawany has seen a few changes in 80 years.

At the time of his birth in the 1920s there was but a handful of whitefellas - mostly buffalo shooters. Today upwards of 250,000 people visit his homelands in Australia's Kakadu National Park - mostly tourists. A lot has happened over the years. So a day in July 2001 was a good time for Big Bill Neidjie, known internationally as the Kakadu Man, to celebrate a long and rich life.

Better still, to have your mates around to praise you.

Best of all, to have a memorial service while you are still around to witness it. Especially if you've been a bit crook lately. After attending the memorial service for a deceased Kakadu elder last year Big Bill expressed the view that he "wanted to be around to hear the nice things said about me".

And so it was, on Tuesday 3 July 2001, on the Nardab floodplains. Yellow, red and purple Macassan funeral flags flapped against purple dark clouds lowering over the escarpment of Namarrgana as 500 people joined to celebrate "a living memorial" for the old man of Kakadu.

Always quietly spoken, the wheel chair ridden Bunitj clansman's characteristic deep, gravelly voice still rumbles strongly. "I may be getting old now but I get everybody in to look ...plenty of people...there's room for everyone here. What I do reckon? It's good!"

"I'm getting old now but I followed my tracks when I was young, hunting. There's wasn't many people, no vehicle and I followed tracks when I was a young boy with my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle and aunties."

For one so immersed in the land of his Aboriginal ancestors, it is no surprise that his accounts of early life with his grandfather Yarranglanya and his mother Lucy Wirlmaka, both of the Wulbu clan east of Kakadu read like a map. From his birth place at Alawanydjawany to camping spots on the floodplains of the East Alligator River such as Bindjilbindjil and Kapalga to escarpment rock shelters such as Wurrurrgurrurrma, Awurrnbarna and Yirrwalatj, Big Bill's early years were about learning how hunt and fish, and above all how to read his country, the rhythm of place names crisscrossing the landscape. It was knowledge gained through the practicalities of participating in ceremonies, as well as the necessities of survival.

Bill Neidjie attending the celebration

"My grandparents looked for food all the time. We used to get jabirus, ibises, spoonbills, egrets, diverbirds, burdekin ducks, jungle fowl, flying foxes, bandicoots, blue-tongue lizards, porcupine, as well as magpie geese and all kinds of fish," he recalled.

But it was also a life of the casual violence of the frontier between black and white Australia. His father Nardampala was shot and wounded in the back by buffalo hunter Rodney Spencer. Big Bill later witnessed the fatal shooting of a relation by another buffalo hunter Joe Cooper. It was a hard life, too. He and his mate, Mirrar clansman, Toby Gangale, often ran away from the shooters' camps as "we were too young". In any case, payment for the hard life of a buffalo camp offered little: "only a little bit of flour, little bit of sugar, tea and tobacco."

"The big fight", as Big Bill describes World War II, saw him working on boats between Darwin and Gunbalanya - once on the East Alligator being accidentally shot up by an Australian fighter plane. He survived by "sinking in the mud like a crocodile". Another time, moored off Nightcliff beach in Darwin, he was threatened by Australian soldiers with shooting, in the mistaken belief he was from Indonesia.

 

In the post war years Bill Neidjie worked a variety of jobs away from Kakadu, mostly on boats plying the Arnhem Land coast and as far away as Kalumburu in the Kimberleys, but also as a gardener in Darwin, and as a forester on Cobourg Peninsula. But "as I always said, when my hair starts to go grey, I will go back to my country".

 

Kakadu National Park rangers join in the celebration

He went back in 1975 on the eve of the inquiry into uranium mining in Kakadu, and it was as "Kakadu Man" he was praised at the celebration. A principal claimant in the Alligator Rivers Stage II land claim, he helped win back part of Kakadu for its traditional owners. As a ranger and cultural adviser to Kakadu, he has done much to focus visitors on the Aboriginal heritage of the park - and was instrumental in having Kakadu receive World Heritage status for its cultural as well as natural attributes.

Local Kakadu personalities who attended the celebration

Sir Edward Woodward speaks of Bill Neidjie's valuable contributions toward reconciliation

There were many old friends, including former justice Sir Edward Woodward, the man who unsuccessfully argued the first terra nullius case in 1971, but who was to go on and draft the Northern Territory's land rights legislation. In discussing proposals for shared management with traditional owners of parks such as Kakadu he was one of the first to use the word "reconciliation" in the context of indigenous affairs in Australia. Former Australian minister for Aboriginal Affairs Clyde Holding joined former and current environment ministers Barry Cohen and Senator Robert Hill. There was praise for this singular man who was able to profoundly influence those in power - "keeping us honest"- as one put it.

But his enduring influence is on his countrymen and women in Kakadu and beyond. In part it was a celebration of the other elders of the national park, especially those who have passed away. Local communities have attended three funerals in the last three weeks for senior, knowledgeable women. But it was also a celebration of the future, and the generations to come. Forty members of his family came together with "the old man", all descendants of him and his three sisters for what may be the last such reunion. Young and old, men and women and little kids, they share Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal heritages - a reflection of the diverse influences on the ancient lands of Kakadu.

As one of those family members, local Aboriginal leader John Christopherson put it: "This is real reconciliation in one family ... And Big Bill is responsible for it."

Article - © Chips Mackinolty 2001

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