Mitchell Plateau History


General History

The Mitchell Plateau region has been home to the Wunambal people since the "Dreaming". Before the 2nd world war the missions at Kalumburu and Kunmunya were used by the government to house and feed many of the Wunambal people, convert them to Christianity, and teach them Europen culture & law. However, many of the Wunambal tribesman continued to live traditionally, independently from the mission stations.

With the coming of the 2nd world war, the army located the remaining "bush people" to ensure their "protection" in mission stations. As a result during this time they were moved in several stages, through government sponsored initiatives. Eventually the Wunambul people ended up at the settlement of Mowanjum, on the outskirts of Derby, West Kimberley.

Some of the Aboriginal people in the Mitchell Plateau region were employed by the army as equals during the war years, due to the shortages of labour. During the second world war the commanders and the federal government believed the Aboriginal people in northern Australia posed a security risk in the event of a Japanese invasion. The "scorched earth" policy which was to be employed in the event of an invasion, would have been catastrophic for Aboriginal people in the north, and the results would have been horrific for the "bush people". Thankfully no such invasion ever occured.

Throughout these times there were four "bushmen" and their kinsfolk from the Mitchell Plateau or Ngauwudu, who were of the "Kandiwal Tribe". These men were brothers and they were born and raised in their ancestral lands. The continued to live the traditional bush life which had sustained their people for tens of thousands of years. They were inheritors of the ancient stories, protectors & custodians of the land, and timeless laws. They managed to survive the great transitions; the adventures, the tragedies and journeys, and the wholesale movement of the people to Mowanjum. Throughout all the changes, and all the years, the brothers remained faithful to their vow to return to the Mitchell Plateau and bring the Wunambal people back to their traditional lands.

Up until the mid 1960's the Mitchell Plateau was unoccupied crown land. At this time a large bauxite deposit was discovered under the ground throughout the region. In 1966 When the news of bauxite mining reached Mowanjum the brothers were firstly excited to hear that their country was accessible via road. But this excitement was obliterated by the fact that their sacred lands were now precious and meaningful to miners and the government. The power of the bulldozer and the law of buearocrats were now the new custodians of Ngauwudu. Their traditional law and custodianship was without legal standing.

By the time the referendum was won for aboriginal equal rights the mining lords, had pushed their bulldozers from one end of the Mitchell Plateau to the other. The cost involved in mining so much land for such little outlay, temporarily delayed the Bauxite project, until the government made up a new law. This new law gave the mining lords a "Temporary Reserve" as well as complete custodianship of areas of the Mitchell Plateau for thirty plus years (or until the company made enough money to mine). In 1980, the onset of "Land rights" prompted the mining lords to invite the brothers and their kinsfolk to come to Ngauwudu and tell their stories, their secrets and their law. The Brothers were now growing old, and promises of "new laws" only brought disappointment to them, as they kept changing to suit the mining lords and relevant stakeholders. Their ancient law, the sacred custodianship, remained secondary to the new law of the mining lords. Eventually the brothers left this world, but their traditional law remains in the hearts of their children, and their children's children.

Please think of the spectacular natural beauty of the Mitchell Plateau - let the politicians know that this region IS WORTH SAVING ... There is nowhere else on God's earth quite like Ngauwudu and for that she should be saved ... forever.


Land Ownership

The Ngauwudu, Mitchell Plateau region, is largely divided between two main stakeholders, both ultimately controlled by the state government at this point in time. The Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) are responsible for the land management of the whole region and the direct management of the national parks and conservation reserves in the region.

This includes feral animal and bushfire control. The department works with the Aboriginal people in some of these projects. The ranger station is situated adjacent to the Mitchell Falls camping ground and there is an information booth at the start of the falls walk. Rangers regularly patrol the campground so further information is at hand.

A significant area (almost 2,000 sq. kms.) covering the central section of the plateau region is held by mining interests, principally Rio Tinto, at this point, under a bauxite mining agreement with the state government. This agreement dates back to 1971 and has never included the Traditional Owners in its legal form. This agreement cannot be affected by native title as mining leases, national parks and pastoral leases all extinguish native title in Western Australia.

Kandiwal kids by Chris BrownThe Traditional Owners live at the Kandiwal community at Mitchell Plateau. There are three small reserve areas that were set aside for the Traditional Owners in 1987. These reserves are currently held by the state government’s Aboriginal Lands Trust, a section of the Indigenous Affairs Department of W.A. (DIA).

The control of these reserves is currently under dispute as the Traditional Owners wish to seek autonomy in order to establish their own businesses that will help them stabilize and build their community. Their community reserve is only 2 sq. kms. and is affectionately called “the matchbox” by community members, the main track to Mitchell Falls passes around the community reserve. The community is not open to the public so please respect the local people’s privacy.

Information and Kandiwal photo generously supplied by Chris Brown (Browney). Copyright:Chris Brown & Kandiwal community - 2009