Back to my Country

The Lorrkkon Ceremony for Gagudju Man
An AIATSIS Online Exhibition
Big Bill Niedjie sits near a camp fire at dusk.

Photograph courtesy of Mark Lang. Copyright Mark Lang

Rock stays
Earth stays
I die and put my bones in cave or earth.
Soon my bones become earth …
All the same.
My spirit has gone back to my country …
My mother.
Big Bill Niedjie, in Australia’s Kakadu Man by Bill Niedjie, Stephen Davis, Allan Fox, Darwin: Resource Managers, 1986, p. 62

Sensitivity statement: Jonathon Nadji, Bill Niedjie’s son, has given permission to use Bill Niedjie’s name and images of him, film and the sound of his voice, as this is what his father wanted. This website contains the names of deceased people.

Overview

On 25 March 2014, the descendants of Big Bill Neidjie gave to AIATSIS for safe-keeping the film footage of his final mortuary ceremony, held on his country in Kakadu National Park. AIATSIS is proud to hold this film for its owners. Welcome to this Online Exhibition which honours the life and work of Bill Neidjie for his people, his country and all Australians, and showcases some of the AIATSIS collections.

Bill Neidjie - The Man

Close up photograph of Big Bill Niedjie.

Photograph by Mark Lang, copyright © Mark Lang

Biography

Bill Neidjie was born at Alawanydajawany on the East Alligator River around 1911-1913, son of Nadampala and Lucy Wirlmaka, and spent most of his childhood in his father’s country, the Bunitj Clan land. He went to school at Oenpelli Mission for two years around 1927. When his father died in 1928 he moved to Cooper’s Creek with his mother and later to Cape Don. He learned stories and the law from his father’s and mother’s people.

Bill had various jobs when he was young - as buffalo hunter at Cannon Hill, and later worked at four different timber mills. Before the Second World War and later, Bill worked on a lugger owned by Leo Hickey for more than thirty years, loading and unloading supplies along the north coast.

Bill had returned to his country for visits over the years and in 1979 he returned to his clan land to live on his country and look after it. The Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry of 1975-77 recommended that a national park be established and that Aboriginal people be handed back their land. Stage I of Kakadu National Park was proclaimed on 5 April 1979. Clyde Holding, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke Government, said in 1984 “… it has seldom been brought to public attention that no single group of Australian people have acted with the generosity of spirit, that the Aboriginal people in the East Alligator River region have shown in their preparedness to lease to the Commonwealth all of their land in order that it can become part of one large wild area.”

Bill was a claimant in the Alligator Rivers Stage II Land claim in 1980-1981. He was passionate about passing on his cultural knowledge and to that end wrote four books, including Kakadu Man in 1986 and Story About Feeling 1989. He was awarded an OAM in 1989 for service to conservation. Bill Neidjie died at East Alligator Ranger Station in 2002.

Family and Community

Bill Neidjie was head of the Bunitj Clan, one of many in the Kakadu region. His clan area lies to the north west of Jabiluka, with an eastern border reaching to the East Alligator River and into Arnhem Land. In the years before he died, he lived with his family in the homeland of Cannon Hill.

Read more about community and contemporary issues in Kakadu on the Djabulukgu Association Ltd website.

Language

The language spoken by Bill’s clan is Gagudju, from which the name Kakadu is derived. Bill Neidjie spoke Gagudju and was an informant to Mark Harvey who wrote a grammar of Gagudju. Bill also knew his mother’s language, Amurdak, and with Nelson Mulurinj wrote Amurdak Inyman : Six Stories in Amurdak.




Final Mourning Ceremony for Bill Neidjie

The final mourning ceremony, a lorrkkon ceremony, for Big Bill Neidjie was held in 2005 on his country. By taking the body to the final resting place there is a final release of spirit which will now manifest in country.

On 25 March 2014 the ceremony performed in Canberra was a symbolic replication of the lorrkkon ceremony of 2005. By bringing the symbolic ceremony to Reconciliation Place, Canberra, the spirit of Big Bill Neidjie will also be symbolically released here, where the film of the Old Man’s final mourning ceremony is in safe keeping at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

This is what has been said about the ceremony.

This event is immensely culturally significant. The most serious practitioners of ceremony will be involved with it, as they were for the initial ceremony directly after my father passed away. The magnitude of this event may never occur in the Kakadu/West Arnhem region again, if at all in the whole of Northern Australia.

Jonathon Nadji, son of Bill Neidjie and Traditional Owner

His funeral rites, reserved only for elders of high-degree, were spread over three years (2002-2005). They’re based on practices dating back many thousands of years. Before Bill’s bone ceremony [Lorrkkon ] they had not been conducted in the Kakadu region for many decades and in all likelihood will never be repeated again. read more

Kevin Lucas, Producer/Director (Story About Feeling)

Bill's Stories

Big Bill Neidjie’s story is of a passionate man, well versed in the knowledge and law of his country, who wanted to write down his knowledge for his grandchildren and to share the open stories with the wider public.

Culture

The rich culture of Kakadu is expressed in hunting and gathering practices, stories, law, ceremony and art.

Big Bill Neidjie, as he was known, originally because of his imposing stature, was passionate about recording his culture and stories for his children and grandchildren and to this end published three books, Kakadu Man, Story About Feeling and Old Man’s Story: the last thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie. But Bill Neidjie is big in the sense of his love, knowledge and respect of country, his wisdom, his philosophy and his desire to record his culture and stories. His books have reached out and touched and taught many people beyond his immediate family.

Gagudju [Kakadu] Man

Bill Neidjie’s first book is Kakadu Man, written with Stephen Davis and Allan Fox, and was first published in 1985, with editions following in 1986 and 2002 (published as Gagadju Man) . In an overview essay, Allan Fox outlines the importance geography and seasonality in people’s lives. The six seasons of Kakadu influence the kind of activities carried out. Gunumeleng (October to December) is the pre-monsoon season. Gudjewg (January to March) is the monsoon season, or the wet season. Bang-Gereng (April) is a time of food abundance. Yegge (May to June) is a time of cool nights and misty mornings. Fires are lit near campsites and places where green grass will grow. Snakes and flying foxes are the food of Yegge. Wurrgeng (June to July) is the cold weather season when country is cleaned. Fires during the day are dampened by dew at night. Gurrung (August to September) is the beginning of the hot dry season, with food such as rays and sharks, magpie gees, emus, bandicoot and wallaby abundant.

Bill Neidjie, later in the book expresses it this way:

“Wet season … we camp high place, Get plenty goose egg. No trouble for fresh water.
Dry season … move along floodplain, Billabong got plenty food Even food there when everything dry out.”

Bill goes on to say that this was a time when all Gagudju used to visit – they came to the billabong and the dry season camp and stayed one or two weeks. It was like a holiday – there was plenty of food and it was a good time for ceremony.

A flock of Magpie Geese is a common sight in Kakadu National Park. This photograph was taken by Steve Parish.

A flock of Magpie Geese is a common sight in Kakadu National Park. Photograph courtesy of Steve Parish. Copyright © Steve Parish.

Rock Art

The Kakadu region is famous for its rock art and imposing landscapes. It is one of only a handful of places that have gained world heritage status for both its cultural and natural features. The Bunitj Clan along with the Manilaggar people look after the rock art at Ubirr, which is an important rock art site and was a favourite wet season camping place. Art in this area depicts traditional foods and law and creation stories. There are rock paintings that depict contact history – men in trousers and smoking pipes – possibly buffalo hunters. Near the main gallery at Ubirr is the picture of a thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, which are known to have been extinct on the mainland for 5000 years.

One of the images at Ubirr is of Mabuyu, the hunter. This image has been reproduced, and his story told at Reconciliation Place in Canberra.

AIATSIS Collections holds posters which were produced to publicise the book Kakadu Man (see below). Posters reproduced courtesy of the photographers: Ian Morris and Allan Fox.

This poster, used to publicise the book Kakadu Man, depicts Indjuwanydhuwa in the Red Lily Lagoon, a creator being who taught the Bunitj people to hunt.

Indjuwanydjuwa, pictured here in the Red Lily Lagoon , is a creator being who taught the Bunitj people to hunt.

This poster, used to publicise the book Kakadu Man, depicts stencil rock art. It is said that Bill’s mother stencilled his hand in a cave at Walkarr on the Bunitj clan estate when he was a child.

It is said that Bill’s mother stencilled his hand in a cave at Walkarr on the Bunitj clan estate when he was a child.

This poster, used to publicise the book Kakadu Man, depicts the face of a long necked turtle, an abundant food in the middle dry season.

Long necked turtle is an abundant food in the middle dry season.


Loving Country, Caring for Country

Story About Feeling

Story About Feeling is Bill’s second book. It was produced from a series of tapes recorded by Keith Taylor of Bill Neidjie talking about his country. AIATSIS Collections holds these tapes. Below you can hear extracts from the tapes as Bill talks about aspects of life on country.

Loving Country

Photograph of the sunset over water and hills. This photograph,  titled Cloud Dreaming, was taken by Flemming Bo Jensen.

Cloud Dreaming by Flemming Bo Jensen. copyright © Flemming Bo Jensen

Bill Neidjie loved his country. Here you can hear him speaking about this

Threats to Culture and Country

Photograph of Kakadu at sunset. This photograph, titled Cloud Dreaming, was taken by Flemming Bo Jensen.

Cannon Hill, Morning. Photograph by Flemming Bo Jensen. copyright © Flemming Bo Jensen

Uranium Mining

Kakadu National Park was created following a recommendation from the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, although the idea of a national park had been discussed since 1972. The Ranger Uranium mine was not part of Kakadu National Park but is located on the land of the Mirrar Gundjehmi people and is surrounded by the National Park. Uranium has been mined at the Ranger site since 1981. Despite checks on the mine there have been a number of radioactive spills, the most recent being in 2013.

Bill Neidjie told us that his people were worried about mining way back in the 1980s.