(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)
Just over 180 years have passed since the head of legendary Aboriginal warrior Yagan was first put on display in Britain.
The Noongar man was murdered after a bounty had been put on his head.
He was a respected leader to his people, but seen as a nuisance or worse – a threat to the colonists of Western Australia.
And it was his head that would become the legacy of his death, and helped inspire the repatriation movement.
Ryan Emery reports.
(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)
North east of the city of Perth in the Swan Valley is a memorial park for the Noongar warrior Yagan.
Buried somewhere in that park is his head.
The elders and a select few know, but exactly where is a secret.
Somewhere else in the area, possibly in the park, is Yagan’s body.
He was buried here after he was shot and killed by William Keates in the company of his brother James who shot Yagan’s companion Heegan as he began to throw his spear.
Yagan’s head was taken as proof of his death.
It ended up on the other side of the world in a Liverpool cemetery buried with the bodies of stillborn babies.
Noongar elder Richard Wilkes is showing me around the yagan memorial park.
He claims to be the great, great grand nephew of Yagan, and was a member of the party that brought Yagan’s head back from England 17 years ago.
“We went out to the Everton cemetery because it was taken out of there and we thanked all the stillborn babies and the people who were buried with no relative, what do they call it, paupers. We thanked all of them and we even thanked their families. Of course the families had to give us permission to, well, for them to dig down the side so we could retrieve Yagan’s kart (head) and to bring it back and that’s what we did.”
Mr Wilkes believes his group was the first to return the remains of a nation’s first people back to the country of origin.
It was process that was fraught with political infighting among the group.
And it was no easy matter to sort out the logistics and permissions needed to find the head, exhume it and return it to Western Australia.
“It’s been a long battle, but it’s been worth it because we achieved something that we set out to do and something we wanted to do and we opened up the passageway and the desire for other people of loved ones and their skeletal remains are overseas or wherever or were taken away and for them to repatriated back into this country. We know now that there’s been other Aboriginal skeletal remains brought back. I even know that the native Americans brought back skeletal remains to their country. They’re very grateful that we did that an opened up the pathway. We know that Samoans, Maoris and people of other different nationalities are bringing back the remains, skeletal remains of their loved ones, or their warriors or their females.”
After Yagan’s head was brought back to Western Australia, it would be three years before this memorial park was established and the Noongar community agreed about what to do with the head.
(Laughter) “Well, I shouldn’t laugh, but we kept it at the Aboriginal Medical Service for maybe 12 months. They said we’ve got to move it from there because people are trying to break in. They’re trying to get the skull out and he said that nighttime, when they’re doing night surgery, they could hear people walking on the roof and there was nobody there. They started to think that the spirits were walking, theespirits of the other Noongar people, were trying to retrieve it and bring it back. See they wanted to reunite it.
The skull would eventually be kept in a deposit box at a bank in the heart of Perth city.
Mr Wilkes often visited the box and using the limited Noongar language he knew explained to Yagan that they were trying to find him a resting place.
Eventually the park became a reality.
The park’s opening was attended by the Premier Colin Barnett who said it was another step towards reconciliation.
“I would hope that from here on in that Yagan’s place in our history is properly remembered and respected and indeed that Aboriginal people and the whole community might take pride in what he stood for and his life.”
The day after the head was buried, Richard Wilkes knew they had done the right thing.
In the early hours of a cold winter’s morning in July 2010, Mr Wilkes came back to the park after the previous day’s opening ceremony.
He met his nephew who’d stood guard all night in case anything happened.
Mr Wilkes describes what they saw.
“And we’re standing here and the next minute we could hear this like a great flapping of, like somebody was thrashing on the top of the tree and the tree is like a hundred foot in the air and all of a sudden we saw this little dark speck coming over the top and it was a wedge tail eagle and he was flapping his wings and he was coming over. And he sat up on the tree there in one place and it’s very hard for an eagle to hover in one place, they usually float in a circle, but he was hovering in one place on top of that tree there. And then I said ‘look there, look there. That’s what I was looking for. I know that it’s been done. That it’s complete.’ And so when I said that then he folded his wings and he flew around in a circle and went a little bit higher on top of the tree and then he looked at us and then he whistled and then folded his wings and he started to drop and then he put em out and he floated over the top of us. And he pulled up just in front of us and then he did the same thing – he hovered again by flapping his wings and looked down on us and then folded his wings and he went around in a circle again and then he come down towards us and he whistled and he went down towards – guess where it was? Down to the Swan River and he glided all the way and he was headed back to Perth.”
Yagan was from an area that is now known as South Perth.
The memorial park is area where the Noongar people gathered for meetings and ceremonies.
Yagan’s father Midgegooroo was a chief of his people and Yagan was a widely respected warrior.
“And they all looked up to him as being the most gifted of all the people around the settlement at that time. And the settlers saw this and knew in their minds that he possessed a bigger threat than what the chiefs did if he was to call the warriors together to come against the settlers at that time. In their newly formed takeover of the land at that time and they were probably at their weakest because the 63rd regiment wasn’t manned up as good as what it could have been.”
Yagan was accused of murdering brothers Tom and John Velvick who allegedly raped an Aboriginal woman that may have been Yagan’s sister according to Richard Wilkes.
Two months later, the Keates brothers, teenagers, shot Yagan in the back in a move that was widely condemned by the colony.
His body was split leaving his soul in limbo according to Noongar belief.
When he was head was returned to the area, even though the exact location of his body is not known, it seems the wrong was righted.
Richard Wilkes says the park is now a spiritual place and one that can be enjoyed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.
“eIt’s wI consto myself as being a holy place what people want to do and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a holy man or a sinner or you’re anything – you can come here if you want to. And to share the serenity of this place.”
Yagan Memorial Park
An Aboriginal Memorial Park in Perth, Western Australia. Established to commemorate the return of Yagans head which was located in Liverpool, England in 1993, 160 years after his death.
This Park is his final resting place, close to where his body was believed to be buried in 1833.
This Memorial Park was opened in 2010 when a ceremony was held to honor Yagan and finally bury his head in Australian soil.