A land claim provided the inspiration for a play about the Yorta Yorta's fight with the system, writes John Gascoigne.
Andrea James is a bridge among islands. As artistic director of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, she helps stage plays in workplaces and halls, allowing workers and ethnic communities to tell their stories through drama.
A Brahman-caste great-great-grandfather, a Polish mother who married a Yorta Yorta man, and some variegations in the family melting pot in between have given James a European appearance. But, at 36, her spirit and identity are firmly with the few thousand survivors of the Yorta Yorta people who, for millennia, were based along the Murray and Goulburn rivers.
James grew up with the stories of her grandfather, Rupert Shadrach James, who was born on the state-run Cummeragunja reserve, downriver from Echuca, and in the 1930s moved to a Yorta Yorta settlement of tin shanties beside the Goulburn River at Mooroopna, known as the Flat, where his people eked a living from the land.
It's where her father, Lynn, and his five brothers grew up, not far from her people's Rumbalara co-operative, which provides services to Aborigines around the Goulburn Valley. "Dad would recall how the Aboriginal women swept the dirt floors and sprinkled water on them 'til they shone. It was a hard life, but people who lived through it remember it as a good time."
Problems began with the first contact with white settlers in the Murray Valley in the 1840s, when Edward Curr and his brother were canoed, Trojan horse fashion, by Yorta Yorta men into their own lands along the Murray. The Currs squatted on the land before claiming it permanently from the Crown in Melbourne - a process not open to Aborigines until the 1980s.
I remember two women shaking their fists, saying 'It's not over'.
In 1874, Daniel Mathews, a missionary, set up the Maloga mission on land appropriated by Curr, about six kilometres downstream from what later became the Cummeragunja Aboriginal reserve, 30 kilometres west of Echuca.
While studying medicine and education at Melbourne University, T. S. James visited Brighton beach one evening and met a number of Yorta Yorta and Mathews. He volunteered his services at the mission, becoming its teacher, doctor, dentist and leader.
James was to have a profound influence on the first generation of Maloga leaders, including William Cooper, whom he taught in the acclaimed "scholars hut" at Maloga. He married Cooper's daughter, Aida, and set in train three subsequent generations, all of which have carried on the name of Shadrach James. "They've all had a larrikin streak," says James, who, if larrikinism equates to an anti-conservative energy, shares a little of the Shadrach streak.
Eleven years ago, the Yorta Yorta elders lodged a claim with the Federal Court seeking justice for the dispossession of their land. So began a protracted series of mediation sessions on traditional Yorta Yorta land at which, over a year - as part of an eight-year litigation in the Federal and High courts - James' and her people's hopes turned slowly to despair.
By the time the claims and counterclaims landed in the Federal Court, James, who had graduated with an arts degree (drama and Aboriginal history) from La Trobe University, had already laid down a dozen pages of scenes arising from the "mediation" for a play.
In December 1998, Justice Olney filled out the play's bitter denouement when he rejected the hundreds of pages of evidence from the Yorta Yorta elders and found their people had no traditional connection to the land being claimed. The High Court rejected an appeal in December 2002.
James was in Justice Olney's Federal Court in Melbourne when the judgement was handed down. "At least 50 Yorta Yorta people were in the court. It was standing room only. The initial response (to the judgement) was confusion . . . The elders turned to each other asking, 'What did he say?' "
James' voice quavers at the memory and she laughs in momentary embarrassment. "They actually didn't know what he'd said, it was so quick. As the people were told what it meant there was anger. People came out onto the steps, people were crying and angry. I remember two women shaking their fists, saying 'It's not over'."
At that moment James knew her play would be completed and produced. As she neared the end of her writing, she asked herself what Lynn, her father, would have said to Justice Olney. It was a poignant question because Lynn had died from cancer a few weeks before the judgement.
So in the play an actor, as Andrea's surrogate, answers that question in the Yorta Yorta language: "Munarrarupna mutja", which means "blow thunder out of your arse". To Andrea, the line is a tribute to her father's larrikin spirit.
James' parents met beside the Broken River because in Benalla, where James was raised, Aborigines and migrants were discouraged from using the town's public swimming pool and instead swam in the river.
Of racism James says: "It makes me angry, but there's a certain guilt, too; why am I treated differently to my cousins?"
The litigation has brought some benefits. James is even closer to her uncle and mentor, Dr Wayne Atkinson, great grandson of T. S. James, who lectures in Yorta Yorta history, culture, politics and native title at Melbourne University.
And extensive research by Yorta Yorta elders, notably Dr Atkinson, Lois Peeler and Sue Atkinson, aided by Monash University linguist Heather Bowe, led to the compiling of a Yorta Yorta vocabulary, dictionary and significant research material.
James drew on these resources and on a fluency in the language of Peeler's nephew, Mark Thompson, in writing some of the dialogue in her play, Yanagai! Yanagai! (translation: Go away! Go away!).
Last year James and her cousin Lou Bennet flew to the US, where it was read to an enthusiastic response in the New York Dramatists Theatre on the city's East Side.
James is now negotiating to tour the play through Wales and regional UK in October next year. Two months before that, it will be staged in towns along the Murray.
The play will be read at the Kew Library in Civic Drive, Kew, tomorrow night at 7.30pm. To book, phone 9278 4677.