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Patrons & riders: Conflicting roles and hidden objectives in an Aboriginal development programme

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Product Description

By Peter Willis

Published: 2003
ISBN: 978-1-876682-40-8
Pages: xxvi+267
Imprint: Post Pressed


In the early 1970s Australia elected a populist left-wing government (the 'Whitlam government'). Official attitudes and policies were overturned. One sweeping change sought to reverse some of the terrible harm inflicted on Australia's indigenous people.

Equal pay for indigenous people and the first 'land rights' policies were granted. Government funding was introduced for local Aboriginal self-development schemes. And at the top end of Western Australia, a young Catholic priest named Peter Willis found himself a new role as a would-be 'patron' of the local Aboriginal people. Along with other white do-gooders in the town, Peter encouraged the Miriwoong Aboriginal people to apply for a federal grant to fund gardens and orchards and a general purpose truck at the Mirima Reserve. But while going along for the 'ride', the Miriwoong people had their own, often unspoken, priorities. The ensuing debacle was both hilarious and painful for all concerned.

Looking back (on what went wrong), Peter utilises 'exchange theory' to demonstrate how the Aboriginal strategy of selective collaboration ('riding' with their white patrons was also a method of resistance. This had ensured their survival during times of white brutality. But the strategy also facilitated growth under more humane regimes, allowing them eventually to re-claim and re-settle parts of their traditional lands.

About the Author

Peter Willis was a Pallottine priest and missionary at Kununurra during the time of the Mirima garden project. He is now a senior lecturer in Adult Education at the University of South Australia where he teaches in the School of Education and researches for the Centre for Education, Equity and Work.

Table of Contents


Part One - Background

  • The Eastern Kimberley/Ord River area - history of settlement
  • The end of the station mob (1950-1967)

Part Two - Life in Kununurra

  • The white regime
  • Community development at Kununurra
  • The reserve mob

Part Three - Case Studies: Patrons and Riders

  • An Aboriginal management model: Trader/sharers and kinship riders
  • Harry and the hay contract
  • The Mirima Council Garden Project 1971-1974


  • Demography
  • The welfare assessment
  • Changes and exchanges
  • Copies of relevant documentation
  • Press cuttings


List of Plates

  • The 'Catholic Mob' on the reserve
  • Ration day at Mistake Creek
  • Aboriginal mass at Newry Station
  • Initiation on the Kununurra Reserve, 1973
  • The Mirima truck and riders
  • Mirima council meeting
  • Fencing the Mirima garden
  • Working the Mirima garden
  • The arrival of the Mirima Truck

List of Maps

  • North Eastern Kimberleys
  • Ord irrigation project
  • Kununurra and environs
  • Kununurra Reserve

List of Tables

  • Aboriginal population distribution in the North Eastern Kimberleys between 1962 and 1976
  • Composition of Kununurra population 1963-1976
  • Kununurra Reserve: Monthly population 1975 & 1976
  • Variations in camp population on the Kununurra Reserve
  • Mobs and camps on Kununurra Reserve
  • The income of permanent reserve residents
  • Population and income of top camp mob and bottom camp mob

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