Life on Palm Island


Elizabeth Doomadgee invited me to dinner, along with the lawyers representing the Palm Island community at the inquest into her brother’s death. She covered the table with a purple batik cloth and upon it laid a large economy packet of biscuits and two bowls full of fruit.

Her house was fastidiously tidy, and spare of furniture other than mattresses and a set of bookshelves with Bible stories and family photos. In one frame a young Elizabeth was laughing, a hibiscus in her hair: a beauty.

She has three daughters — the youngest, Sylvia, 10 years old — but six other small children, some still in nappies, sidled up to us for the biscuits; they climbed onto our laps as if we were all old friends, struggling to be held and cuddled and given attention.

Aborigines call their elders Aunty or Uncle as a sign of respect, but I was Miss, like the teachers at school. The children eating biscuits were Elizabeth’s grand-nieces — some of whom she fostered — and her neighbours’ kids who had spilled in from the street and the warm night: it was her policy that any child was always welcome.

Seeing the Palm Island children had made the Brisbane-based lawyer Andrew Boe decide to take on Cameron Doomadgee’s case. Now these kids took turns to play with him.

The Coroner had come and taken a brief tour of the island on 8 February, 2005. After a pre-trial hearing in the local gymnasium, he had ruled that when the inquest began on 28 February, the Palm Island witnesses would give their evidence on the island and the police witnesses would give theirs in Townsville.

With dinner ready, the rest of the family went to watch television and Elizabeth brought two large bowls of stir-fried wild goat and rice to the table. The goat, I later realised, had been hunted by Cameron. Elizabeth thanked God for the food and prayed for those who did not have as much. She prayed for Sylvia’s sore foot to heal, and for any children in hospital: "May God with his great hands heal them". She thanked God for our being in her home: "Only you know what’s in their hearts". She prayed for the lawyers’ mouths, so that at the inquest they would be bold, and for my ears, so that I would not miss any important details.

Elizabeth laid three plates on the batik cloth, and the lawyers and I were served the dead man’s bounty. Really, this dinner was in honour of Andrew Boe. For the Doomadgees, like many Indigenous families, to be drawn into the law was to be drawn into an impenetrable labyrinth, all walls and no exits. Boe could lead them through. He could find out for sure what had happened to Cameron. I was welcomed warmly, as if his disciple. And later I looked back on this meal as the moment that I too was hooked in and set upon a quest.

After we’d refused second helpings, the rest of the family ate in the kitchen. Among them was Eric, Cameron’s only child, a quiet, polite 16-year-old wearing an American basketball shirt. Cameron used to take his son diving and fishing and hunting for possum, goat and echidna using dogs and a spear. Eric lived down the road with his aunt Valmae at his grandmother’s old house. Twenty two other relatives also lived there. Some of them had drinking problems. If Valmae had trouble she called in her sisters Jane and Elizabeth.

"We go and straighten them out properly," Jane told me.
"How?" I asked laughing: they were both slight women.
"Either with our fist or hit ’em with a stick."

Valmae told me she was worried about her nephew. "He lost if you ask me. Sit down with you and like he’s thinkin’ thoughts long way away. It’s showing out in him now." She had been trying to keep him interested in boxing lessons with an ex-boxer who lived on the island. "Keep his mind busy", otherwise "he’s just falling away slowly".

Valmae showed me a photo of her and Cameron in their late teens, both of them striking, glowing with youth. Now in her early 30s, with five children, she had long curly hair which she liked to tint red, an impulse she attributed to having a Scottish ancestor. A very sweet, sensitive woman, she was easily wounded and in deep mourning — not just for her brother. Two weeks after his death, Doris Doomadgee died. Mothers, Elizabeth had told me, would always try to protect their sons: hers was following Cameron to the afterlife to look after him.

Not all the siblings had the same father. The father of the older children was Arthur Doomadgee, from the Ganggalida tribe near the Gulf of Carpentaria. He had been banished to Palm Island from the mission community of Doomadgee in the mid-1950s, after knocking out all the teeth of a missionary who’d flogged his uncle to near death. Arthur was put in leg irons and sent to the island along with his young wife Doris, who was of the Waanyi tribe from around the Gulf region’s Nicholson River.

On Palm Island, Arthur became an alcoholic. Doris bore her last two children, Cameron and Valmae, outside the marriage. Their birth father was Francis Anderson, who had grown up in the Palm Island dormitory. The two younger children lived in Townsville with their father until he died. As six and five year olds they came to live with their mother and the stepfather who gave them his name.

All the Doomadgee children grew up listening to Doris telling Dreamtime stories. The Dreaming, or Wanggala to the Waanyi, is for Aboriginal people the equivalent of Genesis, a saga of creation rich in complex, philosophical layers about how rivers and waterholes, the sun, the moon and the stars were created. But according to the great Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner, "One cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in time: it was and is everywhen."

It was and is "an age of heroes", when the Ancestral Spirits in animal and plant form journeyed, stopping to fight, make love, give birth – and leave the evidence of their adventures on the landscape. Doris’s children would hear tales from the Dreaming and protest, "Oh! You’re getting it from library books". But Doris had got it from stories she’d been told as a child.

At night the young Doomadgees would listen as their mother sat alone talking in Waanyi to her dead father, Jack Diamond, whom she believed returned as a crow if anything was wrong. She believed that he still sent her signs.

Before he died, Arthur Doomadgee returned to his homeland of Doomadgee to see his mother, Lizzy Daylight. Doris and the children accompanied him. Lizzy Daylight, whose bush name was Yella Gundgimara, is remembered by contemporary anthropologist David Trigger as "the grand old lady" of the Ganggalida people. Trigger wrote to me:

"Lizzy Daylight was known to be in touch with the spiritual forces connected with Rainbow (Snake) Dreaming, and hence to such phenomena as storms, cyclones, lightning and so on. She [could sing]songs said to have the power to either stir up or placate Rainbow and hence also the physical phenomena connected with that Dreaming. And when she died, people spoke of how they saw rainbows both to the north (her mother’s coastal Ganggalida country) and the west (her father’s up river Waanyi country)."

In many parts of Australia, the Rainbow Serpent — although its traits and abilities vary — is considered the most powerful Ancestral Spirit, a symbol of fertility that rules water and the weather. The old people from Doomadgee believed Bujimala, the Rainbow Serpent, carved out the landscape leaving tracks for water. Its voice was thunder, lightning its tongue; sacred trees were its ribs; a falling star, perhaps, the serpent’s eye as its body writhed in the dark.

"You can see shadow standing, rain time — pretty colour," one old woman told a land-rights judge in the 1983 Nicholson River land claim. In other words, a rainbow was the serpent’s body in daylight. Valmae told me: "You know how [there are]all these books about Aboriginal things, they all true. We just couldn’t get over it. They real all right."

Sylvia, eating her dinner, listening, now told me a secret: there was a plug on Palm Island, and if there was ever a war the elders could remove it and the island would disappear.

"What would happen to all the people?" I asked her.
"They’d swim," she said, as if I must be crazy.

I asked Sylvia what she wanted to do when she grew up. She wanted to work in the kitchen of the island’s new Police Club Youth Centre. Her 17-year-old sister, named Doris after her grandmother, wanted to be a doctor and had done ever since she’d had a heart bypass as a 12-year-old. But the Palm Island high school only went up to tenth grade and she had not matriculated. Another of Cameron’s nieces wanted to be a model; her mother told me she’d have to get her off the island before — and she held her knuckles to her cheek, meaning before her daughter’s looks were ruined by beatings.

Jane, who was in her 40s, said she wanted to be a fighter pilot because when she played video games in a Townsville arcade she was so fast that people crowded around to watch. If not a fighter pilot, then she wanted to be a cook, and if not that, a security guard. But just then she was not working.

The inquest was scheduled to begin in two weeks and Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, the main suspect in Cameron’s death, would be appearing. Hurley had been transferred off Palm Island to the plum posting of Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast. He might have been enjoying police work amid the sun, surf, sex, revellers and retirees, but Queensland’s Courier Mail had reported that the Senior Sergeant was "suffering" as he waited to tell his side of the Palm Island story. "He is just gutted," a source said. "Mostly he feels let down by the community. This bloke spent most of his career in Aboriginal communities trying to help people and he just feels they turned on him."

Andrew Boe asked Elizabeth how she felt about going to the mainland to see the police testify.

"I’ll forgive them what they done, because Jesus said Love thine enemy."
"If you say that then it doesn’t matter what happens," Boe suggested.
"It doesn’t matter," Elizabeth answered, "because it’s in God’s hands."
"I’m not that patient," he replied.
"Aboriginal people got no choice but to be patient. If I didn’t have God in my life…" She paused.

Elizabeth had something more than Christianity in her life: she had blackfella protocol. Although Chris Hurley had been relocated, his Aboriginal aide, Lloyd Bengaroo, had been denied a transfer and was back working on the island, helping white cops make their arrests. Elizabeth had seen him in the street and he couldn’t look at her. Were she a different kind of person, she told me, she would take his clothes off his washing line and send an item to her relatives across the border from Doomadgee in the Northern Territory. They would use them to do magic which would make Bengaroo grow sick and die. But instead Elizabeth tried to love him and to be patient. In prayer meetings she had been praying for justice. "We want justice for Cameron . . . that’s to make his spirit free. We want the truth. We want to hear the truth."

Elizabeth was both Christian and blackfella, New Testament and Old. She could afford to love her enemy because she believed fiercely in divine retribution. "I work for God, so he gotta work for me." She had been doing a course in fire-fighting. One day, standing close to a fire, she thought: this is what hell must be like. This is what whoever killed Cameron will feel. Where they’ll go. Just imagine how dry it will be. You’ll want to drink and drink and drink.

This is an edited extract from The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper (Penguin, $32.95).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.