I meet Uncle Kevin “Gavi” Duncan at The Coolamon. He softly tells me about a murder. It’s late afternoon, and the gunmetal-blue gums have blown the café cool and empty.
It’s not like this in the mornings. The Coolamon is a place where government officials rub shoulders with young people at risk of disengaging from education and where the budding mavens and moguls of the neighboring media center grill mechanics and carpenters. It’s also a training space, run by a group of Aboriginal women, who volunteer five days a week, for young people studying hospitality for their Higher School Certificate. Some of the women also have an offshoot catering business based at The Coolamon called Gunya Flavas. They make bush tucker for corporate functions—think lemon myrtle scones and succulent roo with dipping sauces. Amidst the mayhem, there are always Aboriginal community members present, planted on the intricately hand-painted chairs, yarning, planning, being.
Uncle Gavi is usually around, speaking evenly and holding his table captive. If you don’t catch him in the morning, when The Coolamon is awash with wattle-warm light, you’ll probably find him there in the afternoon.
I found him, and we’re here, two hours north of Sydney. The Coolamon is on a site called Green Central in the Mt. Penang Parklands on the NSW Central Coast. There’s nowhere else like The Coolamon on the Central Coast—no cafe run by Aboriginal people, for young people, where “blackfellas” and “whitefellas” can yarn together and share stories, histories and coffee.
It’s a fledgling step toward reconciliation in a country where history is buried and where an unspoken apartheid is still practiced through segregated drinking spaces in outback pubs.
The fight for equal rights for indigenous Australians has been the central cause of much of Uncle Gavi’s life. Around this, hangs a constellation of quiet achievement. Gavi’s an artist. In 1987, he was commissioned to do the artwork for the music video of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”; two years later, he exhibited in New York. Gavi’s also a dancer. In 1986, he graduated from the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre, which was the first school of contemporary Aboriginal dance in Australia. He’s currently training young indigenous people on the Central Coast, with the view to employing them in his new tour company, Nianga Wallang. Through this training, the young people learn about Aboriginal philosophy, dance, art, spirituality and local history. This isn’t half of Gavi’s vast experience—when I ask Denise, one of the women who runs The Coolamon, how old Gavi is, she replies jokingly, “Oh, he’s about 10,000 years old!”
But long before this—before the art, before the dance, before the tireless work for his community—there was the murder.
“I had a year off with what happened,” he tells me. “I couldn’t talk for a year. I couldn’t talk to anyone.”
What happened was a long way from the Central Coast, from Darkinjung land. “Darkinjung” is the name of one of the tribal groups that traditionally lived on the coast, and Gavi has ancestral connections with those people, but he’s also a Gomilaroi man, from a tribe in Moree, where he grew up. It’s flat country. The land of the black soil plains. There’s wheat, cattle, cotton, sunflowers, sorghum, pecan nuts and hot pools. Gavi remembers being soaped up and scrubbed down before he was allowed to swim at the pools. He didn’t think anything of it. There were separate lines for blackfellas and whitefellas at the tuck shop at school, but he didn’t think anything of that, either. In Moree, in the ’70s and ’80s, everyone knew their place. No one thought anything about those things.
How much has changed, and who remembers? Why isn’t Aboriginal Studies compulsory in our schools? How come I’ve never heard about what happened in Moree in 1982, never heard the name Ronald William Cheeky McIntosh?
I’ve never been to Moree.
It’s pouring when I begin sliding north along the freeway. I accidentally left the back window of my car open, and my doona, mattress and pillows are soaked. Jumpy as hell, I pull off after 10 minutes for a mocha at a servo-cum-roadside café. It isn’t comparable to the mochas at The Coolamon, but it sharpens me up.
I look out at a strange, inverted aquatic world: blurred whites, wet-wheat grays and gully-blues; rapids churning up asphalt; my toes wrinkled from the water leaking onto my foot above the accelerator.
I guess I won’t be sleeping in the car tonight.
Before I left, I watched footage of Gavi taken outside Moree on the 2011 Freedom Ride. The protest was inspired by Charlie Perkins’ original 1965 Freedom Ride, which, in turn, was inspired by the American Freedom Riders of the early ’60s. Unlike the protests of the ’60s, which were about racial segregation, the 2011 Freedom Ride, undertaken by a group of high school students from the Central Coast, was about recognition in the Australian Constitution.
In the footage, Gavi’s got a cap pulled over his hair—it’s a gorgeous mass of curls as tightly spiraled as the patterns on seashells. Once, it would’ve been black, but now it’s shot with gray. His eyes, soft and dark, look past the camera. But without direct challenge. Without aggression.
He wasn’t always this calm.
“I had this hate in me, this deep down hate for non-Aboriginal people at that time … for their ways, their ignorance. For the way they exert their authority and their customs and their beliefs.”
You wouldn’t guess he ever harbored this kind of anger. Now, to spend half an hour with Uncle Gavi is to spend half an hour wisely; you always come away feeling calm, feeling humble and feeling charged with responsibility. There’s still so much to do.
In the footage, the big river unbraids in the background. Gavi starts by saying, “Yaama Yaama. Welcome. This is one of my special places along the Gwydir River. This place is called Yarraman. This is the place I was born and bred.”
The rain eases. I pass a First Fleet memorial garden, a white fence of caravans backing onto a creek. Ten minutes farther along, a red sunset throws into darkness the stormy valleys around Tamworth. The edges of the gum leaves gleam gold.
At Tamworth, I lose the keys to my pub room.
Gavi was born in the McMaster Ward in a segregated hospital in Moree in 1960. Back then, Aboriginal babies weren’t allowed to be born alongside white babies.
I sneak away from my pub room at 7 in the morning so I don’t have to pay the $50 lost key fee. I don’t brew up a coffee. I don’t chop up my quietly fermenting mangoes. I sneak out and leave Tamworth behind in a hail of loose gravel, hoping the young bloke who let me check in last night without putting down a key deposit doesn’t cop it too hard.
As I drive, I’m overtaken by 4WD utes flaunting sticker-sprays of the Southern Cross, the “Aussie Swazi,” a symbol for a type of nationalism that often includes intolerance of anyone non-white. I’m starting to feel self-conscious about the decorations on the back of my car. One of my stickers reads, “Afghanistan. A country, not a war.” Tied around my back windscreen wiper (which cuts sporadic swathes across the dust—something’s up with the electrics), ribbons snarl and lock: red, black, gold. They’re left over from an event a few weeks ago when I was part of a convoy trailing the 2011 Freedom Riders to Sydney University to meet the panel for constitutional change, organized by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Now, as I’m tailgated hard, I wonder if I should have taken them off.
I speed over Halls Creek. Somewhere before or after, I pass a turn-off to the ominously named Gins Leap. “Gin” is an out-dated derogatory term used to describe Aboriginal women. The leap is a high, treacherously rocky outcrop. I wonder if an Aboriginal woman was pushed here, if a woman jumped. Perhaps a group of women and children were herded, chased, off the edge. I shiver.
“So, the McMaster Ward. It depends how you want to look at it,” Philippa Morris tells me. She’s a library assistant in Moree, runs cattle at Warialda, wears gorgeous high-waisted, old-fashioned skirts and moonlights as a researcher and fervid historian. “You can perceive it as segregation and diminishing people. Or you can see it as a place that was created for people with special needs. … My experience of the Northern Territory, wishing no disrespect to the people I was with, there were an awful lot of people—” she means blackfellas, “—I wouldn’t like to be in the same ward with.”
I think about this.
I reckon there are an awful lot of people—I mean whitefellas—I wouldn’t want to share a ward with.
The main street of Moree is lined with dress shops and cafés and real estate agencies. A chick clicks past in heels and a revamped Akubra hat with a boutique dress floating above her knees. It strikes a chord; I think of the wife, utterly out of place, in Olaf Ruhen’s “Naked Under Capricorn.” On my run along the river this afternoon, I stumbled across Mary Brand Park. She was the first European woman to settle in Moree. What would it have been like, in these frontier places, for a woman alone? What is it like now? I notice the servo doesn’t stock your average surfing and soft-porn selection in the magazine rack; instead, there are about six different magazines on various aspects of horsemanship and farm life. A couple of young cowboys saunter awkwardly down the sidewalk, shirts tucked in, shirt collars up. I almost laugh; I’m a saltwater girl. I’ve never seen a cowboy before. I grew up on the coast north of Sydney, spent my childhood bursting blueys in bare feet and braving the surf on inflatable pool toys. My world was defined by the bushy gullies we played in, a circumscribed space. There were limits: that ridge, that tidal lagoon.
What happens when there’s no limit? When the edge of town crumbles into a property it takes two days to cross? When the horizon wobbles with heat, as deceptively beautiful and dangerous as jellyfish? Does it extend the spirit? Do your soul and thoughts stretch thin to fill the space? Do you miss it wildly, as an adult, when you’re drawn to the claustrophobic alleys of Sydney or Brisbane for work?
“Sometimes, I feel sorry for the kids in this town,” the lady at the Moree Woolworths says to me.
I’m standing there, smiling inanely, oblivious to whatever mischief the young Aboriginal kids behind me are getting up to. I sort of laugh. And take my stuff. And on my way out pass a woman with two punch-shadowed eyes. She looks at me with a cockiness, a defiance, a challenge. And I know the kids are hers. And know I could be in Gosford, or Kempsey, or Batemans Bay, or Moruya—in any Woolworths in any town in Australia.
But I’m not. I’m in Moree.
Land of the black soil plains.
“What will make your story different is the angle,” insists the library assistant. She is pushing the socio-economic factors behind the riot. “Think about the sociology of the different hotels and who drinks where. Think about the lineage of the perpetrators.”
We’re talking 1982.
We’re talking the time of Cheeky’s murder.
“The jobs that had been the mainstay of the Aboriginal people, which were the shearing and the railways—well, the shearing vanished very quickly in 1974, and the railways were vanishing in the late 1980s … to try and get rid of a lot of the entrenched labor force. The failure to replace these with other things was significant.”
I’m nodding, but thinking that I don’t want to put a spin on history. I don’t think it’s about an angle. Or framing the discontent in terms of unemployment. I think it’s deeper than that. It’s about the straining suture of race relations—something the Moree Champion, the local rag, in all its editorial wisdom, attempted to avoid.
A morning coffee to kick-start a day of interviews. I find a table in the sun on the main street, grab my wallet and leave my handbag on the chair as I go inside to make the order. There’s nothing in the handbag I couldn’t live without: broken pens, flaking makeup sponges, memory cards and a notebook. As I’m coming back to the table, I’m almost barged over by a woman with an uncanny resemblance to the actress who plays Peach in “Lonesome Dove”—10 wobbling chins the color of marbled bacon. Trouble.
“Is that your gear there?” She shakes a meaty finger at my handbag. “That’s somethin’ you don’t do in Moree.”
I drink my coffee. Leave a voicemail message and a text message on the phone of Steve Ritchie, a bloke from the Moree Historical Society, who had agreed to meet me this morning. In fact, it was on the basis of this tentative interview that I drove more than seven hours from the Central Coast to be here. I tried again. This time the phone rang. And nup. Today wasn’t gunna suit. He was too busy. Maybe tomorrow.
Moree, land of the locked archive.
Then I called Gavi’s cousin, Lloyd Munro, who comes from a proud family of leaders. His older brother, Lyall Munro, Jr., earned national recognition for his activism. His dad, Lyall Munro, Sr., was an executive member of the (now dissolved) National Aboriginal Conference of Australia.
“Lloyd, any chance I could catch you for an interview in the next couple of days?”
“No worries. Swing past tomorrow.”
“We had to make a stand,” Gavi tells me. “My grandma would always say, ‘Just do as they say. Don’t make it worse by protesting. Don’t make it worse for the family or yourself. Be good to them. …’
“It was hard to do that. I thought: I’m gunna speak out. I’m gunna say something. I’m not just gunna say all the time: yes, yes, yes, yes.
“A lot of my generation said, we can’t just sit back.
“So in my childhood, right through my teenage years, we became very militant. Militant in the way that we physically fought against racism. Against not being allowed to go into a pool, not being allowed to go into a shop. …
“It had been boiling up to that point for many, many years.”
Thursday, Nov. 4, 1982, Gavi and 12 of his mates gathered at the Ned Kelly Bar inside the Imperial Hotel. They were refused service.
“Nah, we’re not serving youse tonight. You’ll have to leave,” they were told.
They weren’t gunna swallow it. They’d had a gutful. Someone threw a chair.
I spend midday on the Mehi River, listening to the trumpets and trills and blasts and bursts of a thousand birds. A group of children scratch across to the far bank. It’s as if their cries are intrinsic to the landscape; it’s as if they, too, are some kind of strange pale water bird. The river enfolds, unfolds then passes, slow and silty beneath a reflective blue lacquer. Gavi tells me of a time when the river was bigger, much bigger—an ocean. In stories handed down through generations, Moree’s black soil plains were once an ocean-bed; the crests of the Nandewar mountain range, islands. The inhabitants used to canoe between them.
“The storytelling is for making sure you don’t forget it. That’s how we learn.”
Lloyd Munro was at the Imperial Hotel, standing by Gavi—he calls him “Kevvy”—that night. He tells me the story on his balcony as we overlook a gray, rain-swept street.
“You know how it is yourself, in the city. You generally do a pub-crawl. You start at one pub and probably end up at the fourth or fifth pub through the night. And that’s how it was in Moree: You’d go to a pub; then you’d go to a pub that had music and pool tables. And the Imperial had that. It was the only one that had a jukebox and pool tables. And a lot of our people drank at the Imperial.”
Lloyd says the night Cheeky was shot, the pub was packed.
“There was a mob of us … but there were a lot more non-Aboriginals. … And I don’t know, to this day I still don’t know, why there wasn’t service. Why they were serving other people but not serving us. So it got into words, and one thing led to another.”
In 1982, the Moree Champion hadn’t been swallowed by the Rural Press. The paper came out (and still comes out) Tuesdays and Thursdays. The brawl, murder and subsequent riot erupted Thursday night and carried on into early Friday morning, so there were four whole days before the Champion could cover the event. During those four days, the national media descended on the town and sensationalized, dramatized and fictionalized the riot. Some television reporters purportedly plied local Aboriginal people with alcohol before conducting their interviews. Perhaps this is why the Champion’s editorial space was dedicated toward playing watchdog rather than offering a thorough analysis and explanation of the event.
Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1982, on the front page of the Champion, the facts about the situation in the bar are almost too thin to spread:
“Groups of white and Aboriginal people started fighting, and then a group of Aborigines was allegedly chased. …”
That’s it. We learn nothing about what happened in the Ned Kelly Bar. We learn nothing about what sparked the brawl. We don’t even learn that Gavi and his mates were refused service. But the Champion does offer its own perspective on the cause of the incident.
It is generally agreed that problems started to brew after a number of visitors came to Moree on the Thursday afternoon train and visited the Victoria Hotel, opposite the train station. Among drinkers at the Victoria was Mr. Lyall Munro, Jr., who had come to Moree Monday. Mr. Munro … had been barred from Moree on Feb. 2, 1981, when he was sentenced over his part in the disturbance at the Post Office Hotel on Dec. 2, 1980. …
The clientele at The Victoria is predominantly Aboriginal; the sly implication is that the problems were caused by the arrival of Aboriginal people from out of town. Reinforcing this implication is an adjacent headline posing the question: “A matter of outside influence?”
So let’s get this straight. A whitefella has just shot dead a young blackfella. And it’s the blackfellas’ fault.
Gavi and his mates were chased from the pub to the ironically named Endeavour Lane. Endeavour Lane is sandwiched between a primary school and tennis courts. The lane isn’t marked on the tourist town map of Moree—an omission that, if accidental, is not without symbolism. On the other side of the tennis courts is an oval.
The original 13 were joined by a swelling number of young Aboriginal people, and they built a barricade in the lane. Set it on fire. When police and elders came to break it up, they wouldn’t budge.
“We said, ‘We’re not moving. We’re gunna make a stand here. We’re gunna make a stand, and we can’t just let this continue. Our parents have put up with this all their lives. And if it means fighting for our life, well, it means fighting for our life,’” remembers Gavi.
Lloyd was near Gavi, behind the blaze. Suddenly, he thought crackers were going off. Then he realized it was bullets. He hit the ground.
“Moree was recognized right across Australia as a radical town,” Gavi says. “A radical town in the sense that Aboriginal people wouldn’t take shit from no one. … I was 5 years old when Charlie Perkins and them did arrive. My dad told me he saw this group of people all dressed in black and white, with ties and no shoes, coming up the road. And they came to my house here in Moree. And they sat on the porch with my dad and my mother, and they asked how they were being treated in the town and did they experience any racism at that time. My mum and dad said no, they didn’t, because they had good neighbors who weren’t racist. But certainly racism did exist.”
“It should have been a massacre,” says Gavi.
“It could’ve been my brother,” says Lloyd. “A few of our blokes were walking back up the lane, and Cheeky was one of them, with my brother Keith. … And they were both cuddled up, and the bullet caught him. … Cheeky was on that side of it, and the bullet hit him.”
In Moree’s new library, I’m barred access to any historical documents but privy to rich, historical opinion. Philippa Morris tells me she takes a rather Marxist view on the riot. “Those people—” the murderers, “—were almost forced into a role that, as individuals, they might not have been in had circumstances been different. I mean, let’s face it: only a tiny, tiny error of target. … I mean, we don’t even know whether he was actually aiming at him! A tiny, tiny difference in the way that bullet ran, it would have been nothing for anyone to remember.”
Ronald William “Cheeky” McIntosh’s family were close to the Munros. He came from Toomelah to play football for the Moree Boomerangs. He was a junior, 19 years old, one of the club’s most dazzling young footballers.
“He could’ve went on and done anything. He could’ve been another Ewan McGrady and ended up playing with the Bulldogs. He had that much talent,” Lloyd tells me.
Cheeky was a good-looking young fella, too. All about family. All about the Boomerangs. All about his mates.
When he was shot, the gunmen cut a track. And Cheeky was sped to the hospital.
“We were very worried ’cause he lost a lot of blood,” Lloyd says.
Lloyd tells me they raced to the hospital to check on him.
“When we got over there, we found he had lost too much blood and passed away. Word got around real fast. And we all just lost it. Everyone lost it. Not just us, the whole town lost it.”
“Then we marched on the town,” Gavi says.
Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1982, the Moree Champion’s front page was soaked in editorial opinion, most obviously evidenced in the defamatory comments about Ms. Patricia O’Shane, then head of the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs:
Ms. Pat O’Shane … is acknowledged as a highly intelligent woman. There are grounds for suspicion that she left some of her judgment behind when hurriedly packing her bags for the 24-hour Moree trip. On Page 1 of Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, Ms. O’Shane was quoted as saying of the group which smashed shop windows in Balo Street on Friday morning: “The fact that they smashed windows was perfectly justifiable under the circumstances in which one of their numbers had been shot.” The Champion showed this passage to Ms. O’Shane at about 3:30 p.m., Saturday afternoon, expecting (hoping, perhaps?) to be told that it was a misquote. Not a bit of it. Ms. O’Shane told the Champion she stood by every word of that statement. … This woman stands condemned as a disruptive influence—both for the potential she has shown to get her department offside with Moree’s business community and for her lack of appreciation of how to effectively put the Aboriginal people’s case for understanding. … She deserves every brickbat skied her way.
Gavi says the town was physically polarized. It was around 2:30 a.m. At one end of town, the non-Aboriginal people were armed with guns to protect their businesses. At the other end, the Aboriginal people were armed with sticks and words.
“We had no guns. Not one gun, and the police stood with them and said, ‘If you come any closer, we’re gunna shoot youse.’ One elder said, ‘Don’t trust them ’cause they probably will shoot.’ So we pulled back.”
And then police. And police and police, from Grafton and Tamworth and Brisbane and Armidale, dressed like Rambo, roaring at the young Aboriginal men and women to lie face down on the road, jamming guns into their necks and backs, and the Uncles screaming their heads off to let them up. And then being marched home by helicopter spotlights. And then the aftermath.
Three men were charged with the murder of Ronald William “Cheeky” McIntosh and for the intent to cause grievous bodily harm to Miss Stephanie Duke and Warren Tighe: Warren John Ledingham, 28; Stephen Gregory Delamothe, 22; and Geoffrey Leigh Willmot, 22.
The Moree Champion, when it wasn’t “condemning” other media outlets or Aboriginal leaders, was careful to present the views of its readers. On page 2, Thursday, Nov. 11, it reports:
The telephone ran relatively warm yesterday with messages of congratulations on our editorial stand—and on our presentation of the event before, during and after the unfortunate Ronald McIntosh was murdered.
By lunchtime, we had received three calls of criticism. It is worth recording their sources and the manner in which the criticism was delivered.
The editors go on to congratulate the first two callers “for not allowing emotion to overshadow the true purpose of their calls” and to thank them for keeping their calls from becoming “overheated.” The third caller was Lyall Munro, Sr.; the editors regret to report that “his case was weakened by an at-times abusive tone.”
Why was it worth noting the manner in which the criticism was delivered? Why is there no respect for grieving? How would it have been different if a group of blackfellas had shot dead a whitefella?
Months after, things were still rough.
We’re in The Coolamon, and the shadows are lengthening. Gavi’s voice lowers as he tells me about what happened to him and a cousin in the aftermath of the riot.
“Aboriginal people were being bashed. They were taking them out bush and bashing them. We were taken out. We were arrested on the street. Even though we couldn’t see out the windows of the paddy wagon, we knew where we were heading. We were out near the river. We were in the middle of nowhere. The police started whacking in to us.
“‘You can do what you want,’ we said. ‘You can shoot us. You can leave us here. But we’re not gunna admit to nothing we haven’t ever done. Yeah, I was scared. They held the guns. They could just shoot us and drive off. We both thought, ‘This is it. This is the end.’”
Then something shifted. The police officers started to laugh, uncomfortably.
I’m outside the old library, chasing Tracy, a lady who’s working on an exhibition of historical information for the new pool. Pools, theatres and pubs: all contested and symbolic spaces out here. Tracy’s sick, so I have a quick yarn to her co-worker. We stare at the main street through a cold, steel-wool drizzle. She sits a wary four bums’ widths from me. I’m yakking on about how I reckon people here are heaps nicer than in the city and what a “deadly”—awesome—town Moree is.
She scoffs. Cuts me down. “Nup. I left for a while. …”
The rain chips away at the asphalt. She flips the end off her cigarette.
“Then I came back.”
“Let us now, in the words of the hippy community, ‘cool it.’ Unless extenuating circumstances arise, the Champion sees no need to refer to the disturbances and murder again this year.”
The light is diffuse. Last night’s flying ants and the hot smell of jasmine have blown west. I head in the opposite direction, stop at Myall Creek en route to Armidale. I almost don’t. Is it gratuitous? Is it voyeuristic? Is it unbearable? But the story of Myall Creek has haunted me since I was 16 and stumbled on a copy of “Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and Maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians Since 1788.” The story still haunts me. Aboriginal women and children buckling under the wet swing of machetes. One girl, two girls, the most beautiful, kept alive to be raped.
I’m the only one at the memorial. By the end of the walk, my thongs are heavy with soil, deliberately the color of dusky, antique blood.
“You gotta know your history before you can move on,” Lloyd had said, his cap shadowing his face.
He’s right. To understand the riot in Moree in 1982, we need to know about Charlie Perkins and the Freedom Riders, the Stolen Generations, the missions. We need to know about places like Myall Creek, where the land is still heavy with grief and blood. And when we have shaken off our collective amnesia, our hard-boiled indifference, when we begin to listen to the old stories, to acknowledge this past, then we’ll be able to create new narratives, narratives of hope and reconciliation. Then spaces like The Coolamon—the antithesis of our still-segregated pubs—won’t just be one-offs, but will be commonplace. It’s in these kinds of spaces that blackfellas and whitefellas can sit down together over strong coffee and ask the question: Where next?