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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Steph Harmon

‘Bad things happened there’: how a notorious Pilbara pub became a symbol of hope

The Ganalili centre in Roebourne.
The Victoria Hotel was once a symbol of all the things wrong in the Western Australian town of Roebourne. Now it has been reclaimed by the Yindjibarndi people and relaunched as the Ganalili Centre – an alcohol-free cultural hub. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

For a two-storey, dust-covered building in the centre of a remote town, the old Victoria Hotel in Roebourne (Ieramagadu) has played an outsized role in Australian history.

It was here, in 1983, that a group of drunk, off-duty police officers accosted an Aboriginal man at the bottle shop (“We’ll get you, you black cunt,” one said, according to witness testimony), starting a brawl on the street. Sixteen-year-old Yindjibarndi boy John Pat joined the fray and was seen being kicked in the head and face by police and dragged into a van. An hour later, he was dead.

Pat’s death – and the eventual acquittal of the officers by an all-white jury – triggered the national campaign against Indigenous deaths in custody that would lead to the 1987 royal commission.

But the hotel’s history in the Pilbara town stretches further back. From its opening in the gold rush of the late 1800s until its closure in 2005, the pub was a focal point for all the toxic forces – alcohol, racism, violence and underemployment – that have contributed to Roebourne’s reputation as “one of the most socially dysfunctional towns in Australia”.

For years, the Vic Hotel lay abandoned and boarded up, a symbol of all the things wrong in the town. Until 2013, when the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation decided to reclaim it, renovate it and relaunch it as a Roebourne community hub.

The centre is the subject of a new song by Spinifex Gum – a project from Felix Riebl of the Cat Empire, with the Marliya choir. It’s called Ganalili, a Yindjibarndi word for the glow of dawn after the darkness of night.

The existence of the Ganalili Centre owes much to a husband and wife team who have dedicated their lives to preserving their culture, their land and their community.

Ganalili by Spinifex Gum

‘This is a story that should be told’: new light at the Vic Hotel

“We’re Roebourne, born and bred,” says Lorraine Coppin, sitting next to her partner, Michael Woodley, on a video call with the Guardian. “Roebourne kids. That’s our home.”

Together, the pair have fought land rights cases that have changed the nation and rallied local communities to save their home town. They are two of the cultural custodians of the Yindjibarndi people, and parents to six children, four grandkids and three pugs.

Lorraine Coppin, Michael Woodley standing in the bush with one of their dogs
Lorraine Coppin and Michael Woodley on country in the Pilbara. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

As CEO of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), Woodley has led his language group through a series of unlikely wins against mining giant Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest – an ongoing battle that has led to a dispute within the Yindjibarndi community, and which is the subject of Paul Cleary’s 2021 book, Title Fight. Coppin, meanwhile, runs YAC’s cultural branch, Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation, which involves a publishing arm, a language preservation project and an extensive Yindjibarndi cultural archive which has been collecting for more than 20 years. Juluwarlu also has an arts centre – one of a handful of nationally recognised organisations in the small town, including Yinjaa-Barni Art, Big hART, Cheeditha Art Group and Wangaba Art Group.

While the pair call Roebourne home, it’s actually on Ngarluma land; Yindjibarndi country is farther inland, around the Millstream tablelands and Fortescue River, but they were forced out into neighbouring towns by pastoralists in the 1860s.

A few decades later came the gold rush and the Victoria Hotel, built to service the workers who flooded Roebourne. First Nations people were dispossessed again, cut off from Roebourne, subjected to curfews and sent to nearby reserves.

The town lay mostly desolate until the 1960s, when an iron ore boom brought miners back – but in a now-familiar injustice, the people with the most legitimate claim to the country were locked out from its riches. Drinking rights had been granted by then, and the Vic Hotel became a meeting place for the Aboriginal population, who Woodley says went there to escape the dark reality of their lives. As a lyric in the Spinifex Gum song goes: “Between the welfare office and the police station was the Vic Hotel.”

Woodley, who was born in 1973, remembers the pub as “the place to be when we were growing up”, but adds a caveat: “Until the sun goes down.” At night, he says, “everything changes. It becomes a very scary place.”

Utes parked outside a construction site on a dusty street
‘For a long time Roebourne was seen as a place that is broken,’ says Michael Woodley. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

Alcohol “brought out – continues to bring out – the worst in people,” he continues. Among his community, he says, it led to a cycle of abuse, a degradation of traditional culture and a brutal mortality rate that continues to this day. Most people in Woodley’s age group died 10 to 15 years ago, he says. He’s not yet 50.

Likewise, Coppin remembers the Vic Hotel as a “forbidden place” growing up. “Bad things happened there. All the social problems in the community [come back] to that one place … We all should be mindful of the memory of that place and what it’s done.”

The hotel closed in 2005 and lay empty for 14 years. “The town centre is meant to be the heart of the community, but it was no longer functioning,” Woodley says. “People would drive past and just see this old building all boarded up – straight away you have a negative view on the whole town.”

So in 2013, Woodley’s group YAC bought the building, and with state and federal funding embarked on a $6m refurbishment. In 2019 it was relaunched as Ganalili, an alcohol-free cultural hub and outdoor grounds to give back to the Roebourne community.

Digital interactive displays inside the Ganalili centre
Displays at the Ganalili Centre in Roebourne. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation
Photographs, artworks and artefacts inside the centre

When it opened, Ganalili housed a shopfront for Juluwarlu Art Group and a digital exhibition of Yindjibarndi culture drawn from Coppin’s archives – including animated touchscreen displays mapping family trees, landscapes and creation stories. Spinifex Gum played the opening, and Riebl says he was “moved to tears” the moment he stepped inside. “It was just extraordinary, just how light it was and how genuinely engaging it was as a space. It felt like the centre of town was growing from there.”

Riebl has been collaborating with the couple since the Spinifex Gum project began in 2017, drawing from Coppin’s meticulously researched texts and working with Woodley on translations, pronunciations and lyrics sung by the all-women First Nations choir. Since then they’ve released three albums, sold out the Sydney Opera House, and in 2019 presented a “vocal petition” in Canberra, lobbying for an Indigenous voice to parliament.

Choir members on stage under blue and red lights
Spinifex Gum sing at the opening of the Ganalili Centre in Roebourne. Photograph: Juluwarlu

Riebl describes Woodley as “one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever met”, and “a steadfast, strong and generous” community leader. In the short time since Spinifex Gum began, he says, “we’ve seen the Vic Hotel transform, we’ve seen the YAC go through this phenomenal land rights case, and we’ve seen the town itself change. This is a story that should be told – of a community turning around, and gaining what is going to be genuine self-determination.”

‘No one in the world has an archive like this’

It’s also the story of a somewhat obsessive cultural collector.

When the Guardian visited Lorraine Coppin’s archive, it was rammed into tubs and boxes lining ramshackle shelves in Roebourne: a meticulously catalogued if somewhat jumbled collection of recordings, photographs, video, artworks, documents and a final category best defined as “misc”.

It started more than 20 years ago when she first got together with Woodley, and heard his grandfather, Yindjibarndi elder and activist Woodley King, singing and telling stories into a tape recorder. He was trying to preserve his cultural knowledge, she discovered, “and then over time he started teaching us about country too”, she says.

“Me and Michael – we only had like a piece of knowledge the size of an ant. This old fellow, he had whole mounds,” she remembers. Quickly, it felt urgent. “I went to the shop and got a tape recorder and I started recording him myself, to be sure.”

Thirteen Yindjibarndi community members preparing food and eating near a campfire by a creek
Lorraine Coppin (centre) and Yindjibarndi community on country at Ngurrawaana. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation
Lorraine Coppin facing the camera with a sunset sky in the background
‘The young people now are lost without this knowledge’ … Lorraine Coppin. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

From there, Coppin and her staff began recording other Yindjibarndi stories. Her archive is an attempt to capture 50,000 years of history, from ceremony and creation stories to law and bush remedies; anything said or done by a Yindjibarndi elder in Coppin’s presence will be added. “I think no one in Australia, or the world, has [a cultural archive like this], you know?” she says.

“The young people now are lost without this knowledge … so what we need to do now is create a platform to teach them.”

Alice Guiness sits at a table painting a puppet
Alice Guiness creates a puppet for the upcoming production Ngurra Nyujunggamu, When the World Was Soft. Photograph: Richard Jeziorny

Coppin is now based out of the Ngurrawaana community at Millstream Chichester national park, a land settlement won by Woodley King in the early 1980s. From here, she’s working her archives into Juluwarlu’s next two projects: a roving digital exhibition of Yindjibarndi culture, installed in an old yellow bus; and a puppet production titled Ngurra Nyujunggamu: When the World Was Soft, which will premiere at the Red Earth arts festival in May 2023, with hopes for a national tour.

Back in Roebourne, Ganalili remains a cultural hub, with nearby buildings being converted into transitional housing for people leaving the justice system. It’s not yet been determined which community organisation will occupy the first floor of the old Vic Hotel – but there’s now a precedent that things can change for the better.

“People’s view used to be that you can’t do anything in a town like Roebourne,” Woodley says. “Now they see there are people here with leadership and vision that could actually assist with the whole region.

“For a long time Roebourne was seen as a place that is broken … a bad place, alcohol infested, you don’t go there. I think that broader attitude has changed.”

In the meantime, Woodley continues his David and Goliath battle against a mining giant. In 2020, the high court refused to hear Fortescue Metals Group’s appeals against two prior judgments that the Yindjibarndi had “exclusive possession” of the land – which includes the right to sue for economic and cultural loss.

It was a huge win for YAC and for Woodley, who this month appeared in the first case management hearing of a compensation claim that could reach over $500m.

Michael Woodley sits on rocks in front of a cliff of colourful banded stone
‘I genuinely believe that there are more good people in our country than bad’ … Michael Woodley. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

To keep fighting on so many fronts involves a degree of hope that’s almost unfathomable after so much injustice and loss. For Woodley and Coppin, though, “it’s just been the way of our lives”, Woodley says.

“You can either take that out as anger … or turn that anger into positivity. I genuinely believe – and this goes for both Lorraine and I – that there are more good people in our country than bad.”

Lorraine, laughing, adds: “Maybe that’s more of a hope.”

  • Ganalili by Spinifex Gum is out now. Title Fight by Paul Cleary is published through Black Inc. Guardian Australia travelled to the Pilbara as a guest of FORM

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