May 2013


The Aurukun blues of Peter Sutton

By Catherine Ford
Peter Sutton at a Wik outstation in 1977: “That period seems a little innocent now”. Photo courtesy of David Martin

Peter Sutton at a Wik outstation in 1977: “That period seems a little innocent now”. Photo courtesy of David Martin

An anthropologist hits the skids in Cape York

In October 2012, Peter Sutton, the Adelaide anthropologist, linguist and author, flew into Cairns en route to Aurukun, Far North Queensland, as a guest of the Cape York Land Council. The following day, the Federal Court would sit in the small town to deliver its fifth and final native title determination to the Wik people of western Cape York, thus settling the longest-running native title claim in the country. Sutton, the claim’s advising anthropologist, had a hand in founding the land council in 1990, with Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton. He would stay overnight in Weipa, be driven some 200 kilometres south to Aurukun for the deliberation, and fly out on a charter plane the same day.

Trips to Aurukun are not a casual, neutral affair for Sutton. His work in the area, from the mid 1970s on – recording language and cultural landscapes, documenting social structures and systems of land tenure – has left him with lifelong relationships, most significantly with the Wik people who adopted him. As he boarded the flight to Weipa on a heat-hazed afternoon, Sutton, a tense, quietly spoken man, told me how it all came about.

“I was a teetotalling, non-smoking virgin at the age of 23,” he said of the moment he left Sydney for remote Aboriginal communities. “You could say I missed the ’60s.” He also felt he’d “not yet fully lived”. After a Christian Scientist upbringing combined with a decade-long scholarly infatuation with metaphysics, he found his classical questions on the subject of evil in the world weren’t resolved by the philosophies of the church’s idiosyncratic founder, Mary Baker Eddy, so he “got out”.

As a “bearded atheist” and postgraduate student of linguistics, he gravitated towards “a people whose societies had undergone catastrophic damage” – the Aboriginal people of Cape York. “I was deeply sympathetic to their condition,” he recalls. Did his experiences as a Christian Scientist predispose him to life up north? “Definitely,” he says. “I was among co-outsiders.”

In 1976, Victor Wolmby, an Aurukun resident and lawman of the Apalech tribe, the biggest of Aurukun’s five clans, took the anthropologist as his son. Wolmby died shortly afterwards but the elder’s wife, Isobel, became Sutton’s adoptive mother and main teacher in Wik Ngathan. (Aurukun people also speak a lingua franca, Wik Mungkan.) Through the complex formal codes of Aboriginal kinship, Sutton was embraced by a “new and huge family”.

Sutton took his Wik adoption very seriously, as did the Wolmbys. His kinship ties were, and remain, preciously guarded, even if they have often been demanding and sometimes characterised by what he terms a “high emotional pitch”. They have also brought him unprecedented trauma and anguish.

Between 1985 and 2001, Aurukun went from a place of relative cohesion and functional civility to a town seemingly intent on self-annihilation. A staggering number of Aurukun men and women were dying tragically, often as a result of violence; Sutton found himself in the midst of a frightening devolution. 

“I remember it being so different,” he says. “That can be nostalgia, of course. There certainly were [tribal and clan] tensions, and occasionally there were riots in the ’70s, when I was first there, but people would sit in their front yards next to a fire in the evening, and people would drop by and have a cup of tea and a talk, or you could be walking by and someone would call out, ‘Hey, come over.’

“Fast forward to the ’90s,” he says, “and people are locking themselves up behind 12-foot mesh fences at night with guard dogs – savage dogs. A radical shift in relationships.”

In 1989, a few years into this precipitous fall into lawlessness, Isobel died in a fight with another Aurukun resident, Gladys Tybingoompa. In 2000, Sutton’s two sisters, Grace and Marjorie Yunkaporta, died, one of them of a seizure as she intervened in a brawl. Ursula, Sutton’s niece and Marjorie’s daughter, had committed suicide in 1998, at 27, after enduring harrowing domestic assaults and a gang rape in early adulthood.

These losses had a profound effect on Sutton. “Some of my friends, in the same sort of situation … they just develop a thick skin. One of them said, in an unguarded moment, ‘Shit happens.’ Well, you know, you can lose your sensitivity to these things when time after time after time you get a phone call saying so-and-so’s been killed.”

He wanted to speak, and write, not only about the deaths in his adoptive family but about the many other homicides and suicides occurring in town, in order to reckon with whatever forces had produced them. He was riven with self-doubt, he tells me, and crises of conscience. “I had to think very carefully about this, because you can be accused of base motives for using tragedy. On the other hand, I didn’t think readers who’d never been in such places would get the realism of it without some kind of true account. You can read figures, statistics and so on, but these are cold – they don’t really give any sense of what it’s like.”

In 2000, he found himself “on the end of a shovel” burying his two sisters. “There we were, in the blazing sun, and there was Ursula’s cross, just a few feet away, the one who’d suicided, and I took part in the service and had to give a little commentary in Wik Ngathan,” he says. “I had to write it down, because I wasn’t sure I’d get through it on my wits.”

He returned to Canberra, where he was on a fellowship at the Australian National University, and underwent “a conversion”. “Things had accumulated, and I snapped,” he recalls. “I was walking around the house crying, and I thought, I’m not going to be silent about this any more.”

In a white heat of resolve, he wrote the Berndt address, a public lecture delivered in Perth in 2000. It shortly grew into a published essay, ‘The Politics of Suffering’, which in turn grew into the 2009 book of the same name whose blunt introductory passages give a sense of the struggle taking place inside the writer.


In my time with the Wik people up to 2001, out of a population of less than 1000, eight people known to me had died by their own hand, two of them women, six of them men. Five of them were young people. From the same community in the same period, 13 people known to me had been victims of homicide, eight of them women, five of them men. Twelve others had committed homicide, nine of them men and three of them women … In almost all cases, assailants and victims were relatives whose families had been linked to each other for generations. They were my relatives, too, in a non-biological “tribal” sense, because of Victor.


Peter Sutton in Aurukun, October 2012, with Silas and Rebecca Wolmby © Brian Cassey

Sutton set out, in searing detail, the ways in which certain Aboriginal communities – Aurukun in particular – had disintegrated into ghettoes of violence. He argued that this deterioration was, in the main, the consequence of decades of misjudged liberal ideology and progressive rights-oriented policies. He also accused fellow anthropologists of being silent about the dysfunction around them to the point of negligence.

“I was emotionally het up,” he says of the Perth talk. “I had difficulty getting through it. Somebody came up to me after it, saying, ‘Have you got the flu?’ I said, ‘No, I was crying.’”

After the speech, two young white female anthropologists approached to thank him, and to tell him of the violence they had experienced in their own field work. One had had her jaw broken in a pub in Cowra, New South Wales; the other had worked in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory with women who were frequently beaten. The women told him they had always felt obliged to keep quiet about it. “A lot of people had seen these things, up close and nasty,” Sutton says, “but they had never spoken up.” He pauses, searching for precise words. “They felt they’d be accused of providing hate material to other people.” As he’d write later, Sutton was attempting to “draw back the veil over the extent of brokenness, anxiety and violence in the communities we [anthropologists] purport to describe”.

As expected, there was a critical backlash, particularly upon publication of the book. Some of his peers accused him of abandoning his scholarly faculties and indulging in memoir; others said he was blaming the victims. He had dared to “ascribe negative consequences to some indigenous Australian practices that derived from the ancient past, including the legitimation of men’s violent power over their women … and a customary permissiveness in the raising of children that at times included a casualness about their health.” The reaction was so hostile – “ad hominem stuff … a hatred, spewed out against me, by people of extreme views” – that he began to disengage from the debate he’d started.

After our plane lands in the mining town of Weipa, eclipsed, this day, by an apocalyptic haze of bauxite dust and smoke from outlying fires, Sutton settles in to a chilled motel room, fitted out with baroque Thai furniture. I ask him how he feels about returning to Aurukun. “I find the Aurukun connection devastating still,” he admits. “But it’s there forever, because kinship is kinship. I wouldn’t say I’ve managed my grief,” he adds. “I’ve survived it, but not without permanent loss. A psychiatrist once diagnosed me as having PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and suggested a change of occupation. But there are enough positives to keep me at least on the edge of the Aboriginal world these days.”

His connection with his brother, Ron Yunkaporta, remains especially deep. He describes Yunkaporta as “tall, once very handsome, and gloomy, like a lot of hunter-gatherers”. Sutton hopes Yunkaporta will dance at the native title determination. “He’s the last one who knows the Apalech song series,” he says warmly. “This begins at Love River, goes south over sacred sites, and is about salmon appearing like clouds. It’s very poetic.”

His relationship with Yunkaporta darkened in 2008, when Yunkaporta’s daughter, Moira, died at the hand of her boyfriend, Bill Morris Walmbeng. Sutton last visited Aurukun in 2010 to attend and dance at her house-opening ceremony, the mortuary ritual common to the Wik people. Soon after a death, the spirit of the deceased is sung back to its homeland, and the dead person’s house is cleansed of bad spirits so relatives are able to return to it, unharmed.

“It was horrible,” Sutton says. Yunkaporta drank a lot of rum beforehand, for one thing. More disturbingly, the interior of the house still bore the stain of murder. “There was blood still spattered on the walls.” He tells me the awful details two more times over ensuing days, with a pained yet curiously absent-minded compulsion.

As the evening in Weipa rolls on, my recording of Sutton rolls with it. He talks in an even, confessional murmur, with flawless, colourful diction. Much of what he says is leavened with a deadpan wit, as if he’s fearful that what he’s telling you will be unbearable without it. His recollections about people and events, even from the distant past, are precise, and often startle: “Up the Archer River, in the mission, during the 1930s,” he tells me, “a Mr Dyer, who was Aboriginal, and named after the missionary, killed a man and ate him, and I remember thinking: that was occurring around the same time my parents were getting married.”

A slender man, in whom a very hard, forbidding sensibility sometimes seems to operate, Sutton appears both acutely interested in and slightly disdainful of company. He dresses conservatively, as any academic in the field might, save for some black thongs which sound out his every approach and give propriety the finger. He doesn’t like the tropical heat, and hates the clothes it forces on you, because he’s “a prude, and opposed to hideous, low-slung shorts”. He has described bolting to Cape York from Sydney, quoting Patrick White, as running away into “a wet desert of mortification and reward”.

Currently in the process of “shedding” the archival records he’s amassed from his time in the Cape – “140 volumes of handwritten material, several thousand photographs and 300 hours of tape recordings” – he’s started making cultural gifts to the South Australia Museum, where he was once head of anthropology and remains an affiliate professor, as he is with the University of Adelaide. 

“I’m feeling lighter and lighter,” he says. “Also, my house is in a bushfire zone in the Adelaide hills.” He wants the information secured.

His documentation of endangered Aboriginal languages in Cape York, conducted in the ’70s, has been bequeathed to a Belgian linguist, Jean-Christophe Verstraete, at the University of Leuven. “He’s a top linguist,” Sutton says, “very good with people.” The current crop of young Australian linguists, too, encourages him, and the others who “put in all those years in the ’70s, after which there was no follow-up, in terms of professional linguistics – that is, the ability to produce accurate dictionaries and scripts.”

His disappointment in Australia’s collective failure to accord the same attention and respect to its “deep past culture” as the Greeks and Romans have theirs, for example, is profound. “Those of us who were studying the deep past through its last knowledgeable people in the ’70s, ’60s, and in some cases before that, had this commitment to try to understand that complexity, but a lot of the activity in the indigenous cultural area at the moment is focused on government spending programs, and politics of representation. It’s partly welfare-oriented, of course; it’s getting young people out in the bush, that sort of thing. So, I think we have to be a bit patient and wait, because in the future there will be people, particularly descendants of these old people, who do want to delve into the details and actually understand how it used to be.”

Image courtesy of Peter Sutton

The mapping of large areas of Cape York was required, in many cases, by the increased granting of mining leases. Sutton has recorded thousands of sites and sacred places for traditional owners. This work, too, has turned out to be a salvage project.

“Ninety per cent of the landscape in Cape York, as a rough figure, has now been lost from young people’s memory, in terms of place names and stories, site locations and so on. But a huge amount of it is on record, on tape and in photographs, notes, maps and air photos. So, the big challenge for the next few years is going to be how to get all this stuff back to people – assuming they actually want it – in a form that’s accessible, [such as] some kind of interactive DVD, with soundbites. A lot of people won’t sit down and read page after page of details about story places but they might, for a while at least, listen to their old people talking in a language they can understand.

“Cultural heritage politics, and native title politics, are so hot,” he says, “that the question of who gets to see what information about what family’s ancestry or country can be very disputed at times. And the keeping institutions have a difficult job because of this.

“At a personal level, a lot of the research that we did with older people back then was very much in the spirit of respect, because the old people were the experts and we were the learners. It was also fun.

“To call it research is a cold misrepresentation of what it was. These people and I lived for months in the same camp together and were all related as specific kin. It was a shared life that included being taught things. It included laughter, making damper, patching up dog bites, disembowelling pigs, gathering ant beds for earth ovens, changing the oil in a ute, spearing stingrays for lunch, gathering firewood, singeing the fur and piss off flying foxes, radioing the Flying Doctor.”

The experience is under his skin. “There was no grog,” he adds, “except for one terrible night at Watha-nhiin [the outstation, 40 kilometres south of Aurukun, where Sutton lived] when it was brought in, but, in general, people were hunting every day when they were out in the bush; if not, then fishing. Things that keep you dangerously fit, and give you fresh food. So, in all sorts of ways, that period seems a little innocent now.”

All the while Sutton kept an eye out for young people keen to seize some initiative. In 1988, he met the land rights activist Noel Pearson, then in his mid 20s. Sutton suggested it was time for a land council in Cape York, but it was Pearson who made it happen, along with Marcia Langton, who was also at that first meeting. “She’s going to be hard to do a biography of. She’s very complicated,” he says. “She challenged me to a karate fight once, in the creek at Laura [in Cape York]. I said no!”

Over dinner in the motel’s garishly decorated restaurant, Sutton’s anecdotes range from the tender, such as his reverence for his old language teacher, Johnny Flinders, befriended outside the Palm Island post office in 1970, to the sensational: during Aurukun’s “Tavern Time”, alcohol flowed freely out of the Three Rivers Tavern, which was a “multi-million dollar outfit with enormous Samoan bouncers.” (It was closed by the Queensland government in 2008.) “It was horrendous,” he says, “a Rabelaisian nightmare, with everyone kissing everyone, slobbering over you, everyone wanting money.” He recalls, almost fondly, Ron Yunkaporta being mugged in the town, with boys relieving Yunkaporta of Sutton’s bag, containing not only his history of the 1898 Cambridge expedition to the Torres Strait, but his prized cheese and pumpernickel bread.

There was an octagonal house in Aurukun called the “50 cent house”, not just for its shape but for the cheap sex that could be procured. “It wasn’t uncommon to have young girls proposition you in the Tavern, with a plea for ‘a smoke for a poke’,” he recalls. He also saw “terrible cruelty, like the neglect of the elderly: men and women who were left to starve by their families”. But the town is in a period of relative quiet now, he states, thanks mainly to the Pearson-inspired alcohol ban and welfare reform trial, now into its fifth year, which aims to equip a generation of children with the parental support and educational means to break out of a life of welfare dependency.

Like Pearson, Sutton is big on the idea of “emotional mobility” for Aboriginal children in remote communities, and of “orbiting” between cultures – that is, migrating to where the jobs are – while “having a spiritual home to go to, a place to take kids for holidays, a place to be buried”.

“People ask me all the time about what can be done. My standard answer is that the people themselves have to find their way now, although that might suggest that people actually have more ability to act differently, or live differently, than they really do. But the big issue for me, for some time, has been the question of the future of what are basically racially separate, institutional communities. Occasionally they get closed down, because they’ve become so dysfunctional.” He cites the Swan Valley Nyungah community site, closed down in 2003 by the Western Australian government after a succession of young girls, who had been sexually assaulted by older men, took their own lives.

He pauses, then states that he’s not someone who can be bothered reading fiction, as though the two topics might be related. “Reality is too frightening as it is.” He prefers biography, and is writing one, in fits and starts, of the anthropologist Ursula McConnel, who carried out long-term field work based at Aurukun in the 1920s and ’30s. His enthusiasm for it, however, has waned. Age, plus the sense of “having maybe written too much”, has slowed him. “I’ll be 70 in four years,” he says. “I don’t want to burn out quickly.”

Early the following morning, on the long dirt road to Aurukun, Sutton studies the landscape. The driver, Peter Callaghan, the CEO of the Cape York Land Council, relates the drama of a recent plane crash he miraculously walked away from. Sutton doesn’t respond, except to tell a story of his own. He once came upon a helicopter wreck on the Archer River in 1985, while out mapping with the late John Koowarta, a Wik land rights hero famous for taking on the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government in the ’70s, and his wife and kids. “I have photos of them sitting in it,” he says, “ready and waiting for take-off.”

Halfway to Aurukun, after stopping to piss by a roadside eucalypt, Sutton mentions Ron Yunkaporta’s ceremonial singing again and, unexpectedly, breaks into a few seconds’ worth of the Apalech series himself. The snatch of song, in language, sends goosebumps across my arms and illuminates something: Sutton might be a different man out here.

The determination is handed down inside a giant hangar on the edge of Aurukun. Its neat rows of hundreds of collapsible seats are mostly empty; an explanation offered is that a large clan fight, involving several hundred residents, had raged in the streets the night before. The Wik are at home, it seems, recovering.

Sutton had anticipated the resolution of this protracted claim, 20 years in the making, would be a happy tribute to the elders. He helped achieve the result, he says, but it’s “their victory, won on the strength of the evidence, without them having to suffer at the hands of smart-arses, and judges, some of whom are very arrogant”.

Federal Court judge Andrew Greenwood arrives with robes flowing in the intense heat of late morning. Neither he nor his court seem at all hubristic, but the proceedings, the ceremonial garb and the call to “all rise” feel anachronistic here. The surviving senior applicants of the claim sit in silence in the front rows. One frail man leaves to receive an insulin shot at the hangar’s edge. Muted references, in the judge’s deliberation, refer to the extraordinary length of time it’s taken for the courts to conclude this claim; a cryptic apology is hidden inside them.

Sutton is quoted at length throughout. His anthropological reports, which Justice Greenwood later describes to me as comprehensive and excellent, brim with a scholarship that, were they more widely understood, might help correct white Australia’s skewed perceptions of its own hegemonic importance. “The area’s languages have been efflorescing for a long time, probably 3000 years,” Sutton says under his breath during the proceedings.

The judge descends from his bench to deliver the ruling into the hands of the Wik, who, subdued and solemn, pose for press photos in between using the document to fan themselves against the heat. Then they file outside for cigarettes and lunch.

Later, I ask Sutton what he makes of the surreal ironies embedded in such a determination, expressed nicely in this passage, from 2010, by John von Sturmer, a fellow anthropologist who has also lived among the Wik.


In recent times the Wik have achieved native title. From a certain point of view this might be seen as a momentous event. From another point of view it is nothing at all, for it merely recognises an extant and long-enduring state of affairs. Indeed, it might be seen as a secondary form of dispossession, placing the recognition of law, lawfulness, in the hands of outsiders.


Sutton agrees. “The whole process rubs in the fact that these are a subject people. On the other hand, there’s mutual recognition going on, whether you find that unpleasant or not. When it comes to conflict, Wik people are as ready as most to seek police help. When it comes to economics, they’re as ready as any to accept the financial underpinning of the government. This is the deal, if not a very savoury one.” He adds, “The cultural conservatism of the Wik was the main reason that Noel Pearson and the Cape York Land Council decided to make the Wik case the first mainland Queensland native title claim in 1992.”

Today’s determination would have been better, he thinks, were it “reduced to its elements, translated into Wik Mungkan, and announced by a fluent speaker of that language.” As it was, the sound in the hangar was poor. “On reflection, maybe it was better the mic was bung, as it was rendered in unintelligible legalese.”

Throughout the deliberation, Sutton casts around for Ron Yunkaporta. “A lot of people don’t recognise me here any more,” he mutters morosely. But throughout the day I see him greeted warmly everywhere he wanders. He sits in huddles to talk, including with two of his oldest friends, Silas and Rebecca Wolmby, an elderly, dignified but weary couple.

When Ron Yunkaporta finally appears at the rear of the hangar, he’s limping along on a pair of too-small crutches, his right foot covered in a blue pressure bandage. He’s in pain, he says, with an injured ankle. (He has gout, Sutton later tells me.) Yunkaporta’s handsomeness has been messed with, naturally enough, but it’s still evident. Sutton goes to him and stands close.

Yunkaporta’s six-year-old daughter, Tamika, also stands by and, nibbling on an apple quarter, eyes off Sutton. When the three wander away together, Yunkaporta stops and instructs her to pick up a clean, untouched cigarette he’s spied, but can’t reach, on the ground. She looks from the cigarette to her father, and back again, then shakes her head and skips off. “She is a delight,” Sutton tells me later. “But she should be at school.”

The day passes with lunch eaten off knees, heavy smoking and easy conversation. Determination T-shirts, printed with artwork and native title claim details, are distributed. Sutton grabs one. But with Yunkaporta on crutches, there will be no traditional dancing, which disappoints Philip Hunter, the solicitor for the applicants. Hunter was a young man when he was “thrown in at the deep end” on the case; he’s now approaching 50.

“It was better in 2009,” Hunter laments to Sutton, recalling a particular man: “He’s a really good dancer.” To which the anthropologist replies, “Great dancer. Not such a good husband. He’s had a few restraining orders put on him.”

At the end of the day, Sutton, Hunter and others are driven back to the airstrip for the charter plane to Cairns. En route, the driver stops for supplies beneath some splendid mango trees in front of the Aurukun store. As people settle back into the car with ice-creams and drinks, Sutton, up front, imparts that the mango trees would be 100 years old now, having been planted in the early days of the mission. “If only they could talk,” someone says.

Sutton talks for them. “The missionary, William MacKenzie, used to whip children who took mangoes from these trees with a dried stingray tail,” he says. “There is a photo of an Aboriginal woman chained to one of these trees. These trees were the choice of people who hanged themselves, 60 years later.” A silence descends in the car. “MacKenzie was engaged in a brutal power struggle for control of this place,” Sutton concludes.

As we head to the plane, I ask Sutton, with a sense of futility, if he’s sad to be leaving Aurukun. “No,” he says delicately. “But I do get pretty sad when I arrive.” He walks on, drawing a small suitcase behind him. “When you’re on field trips, you’re living at the very limits of your capabilities. Another anthropologist I know, after promising a group of people he’d been out on country with that he’d return for their ceremonies, climbed onto his plane and cried the whole way home. He just knew he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, return. Because,” Sutton says, glancing back into the hot breeze, “this is all so very hard.”

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

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