Remembering 'the blackfellows' dam': Australian Aboriginal water management and settler colonial riparian law in the upper Roper River, Northern Territory

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Barber, M
Jackson, S
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Using newly recovered and collated sources, we investigate the extent of pre-colonial and colonial Aboriginal weir construction in the upper Roper River, and we analyse a 1946 court case which considered the practice in the context of colonial pastoralism. Aboriginal people have built these temporary weirs at key locations since pre-colonial times to dam and divert the river flow, creating shallow lagoons that attract and retain key food species. The area subsequently became Elsey Station, the setting for the famous Australian novel, We of the Never Never. This embedded the area and its inhabitants in the national consciousness and Aboriginal people provided crucial pastoral labour for the station. Station management encouraged weir construction from the 1920s as the structures reduced cattle losses in the dry season, but a downstream pastoralist complained of inhibited water flow and took legal action. The resulting case is probably the first legal engagement with Aboriginal water and riparian management in Australia and the judgment overtly acknowledged weir construction as an Aboriginal practice that 'had been in existence from time immemorial'. However, non-Aboriginal pastoralists' role in enabling and amplifying weir construction saw the case listed and classified as a pastoral riparian dispute - effectively as an issue of non-Aboriginal settler colonial law - rather than as an Aboriginal, colonial and/or intercultural practice. As a result, the weirs were outlawed as a riparian law violation and the case has therefore remained largely unreferenced in the subsequent literature on Aboriginal resource rights. In this paper, we detail the historical circumstances of the case, Aboriginal involvement in it, and how it has been recollected and interpreted in subsequent local and oral historical accounts. We highlight the importance of local agency, local resistance, and Aboriginal political priorities in Aboriginal accounts, as well as broader processes of historical suppression and memorialization.

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Settler Colonial Studies

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© 2015 Taylor & Francis (Routledge). This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Settler Colonial Studies on 02 Feb 2015, available online:

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