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May 09th 2013 print

Tony Thomas

When the horrific is mundane — Part IV

Sexually mutilated infants, toddlers raped, children sodomised, women so badly beaten they come to envy dogs. Stripped of cant and buck-passing, beyond a patronising and indulgent judiciary, remote Indigenous communities are being eaten alive by the cancers of grog, misogny and endemic violence


"There are so many appalling stories within the indigenous community in Australia and it is hard to know where to start to do something about it… We must stop this appalling violence being inflicted one upon the other by members of the Indigenous community."
–  Victorian Supreme Court judge Betty King, April 26, 2013

The brutally fatal rape of a 23-year-old woman, known as Braveheart, in a New Delhi bus last December shocked people worldwide, including in Australia. So did the two-day series of rapes and torture in the same city, of a five-year-old girl in April. Few Australians comprehend the equally horrific violence that can be inflicted on Aboriginal women by Aboriginal men. This is not to disparage Aboriginal traditional culture per se, which I find captivating in its knowledge of the environment, complex social life and droll ‘take’ on life’s ups and downs.


Violent misogyny  in some Aboriginal communities, however,   is endemic.

Even to read these instances is daunting. Although Prime Minister Gillard abhors violence against women, she is yet to recognize the dimension of the problem in Aboriginal communities. As she told high school students on the ABC’s Q&A this week [May 6], “I mean, we’ve still got problems and challenges, but if we look at our near neighbours, you know, PNG, many of the islands of the Pacific, many of the countries in which we do aid and development work, the violence against women there is truly staggering… “ (My emphasis)


Solicitor/historian Joan Kimm wrote in 2004: “The intensity of this violence needs to be understood by non-Indigenous Australians. When working as a solicitor with non-Indigenous clients, I encountered infanticide, homicide, suicide, betrayals, violence, incest and other child abuse. These were tragic cases but in none was the violence equivalent to the horrific circumstances of Aboriginal violence…Aboriginal women are disadvantaged in that Aboriginal culture has become an inviolate space in our society where abuse of women often occurs with impunity because of distorted views of the respect which must be paid to Indigenous rights.” [1]

Part I: Yabbered To Death

Part II: A Long Bloody History of Violence

Part III: A Blacked-Out Past

Part IV: When the horrific Is Mundane

The local instances below starts several decades ago but current data show the violence remains appalling and in the past few years has soared.

  • In 1980, an Aboriginal man, Ivan Imityja Panka, was angry with his wife because she refused to cook meat for him. Both were drunk. He decided to punish her for being ‘cheeky’. After thrashing her within an inch of her life, Panka forced a piece of rippled reinforcing steel up her vagina, killing her. [New Delhi’s “Braveheart” died from a similar assault by thugs who used a jack handle]. Panka’s defence relied on a husband’s traditional rights of chastisement if provoked.[2]
  • In Numbulwar, NT,  a man severed a limb off his sister while he was drunk. He went at her with an axe as well as a spear.”[3]
  • Veronica Hudson 42, on April 26, 2013 was gaoled for six years for manslaughter for stabbing her partner Woody Heron in the chest in Bendigo on December 26, 2011. Three days earlier, he had slit her throat from ear to ear, though not deeply, and cut her arm and hand. She was then released from a psychiatric hospital into Heron’s custody the day before she killed him. Heron had been gaoled for five years for assaulting her by kicking, biting and stomping on her head, breaking her jaw. He had also pulled her teeth out with pliers. On sentencing, Hudson sobbed to Justice Betty King: “I just want to say I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”[4]

Recent child-abuse cases, from Central Australia and Queensland, included a seven-month baby taken out of her home and raped, and who needed surgery under general anaesthetic. A two-year-old girl left unattended while her mother drank, was sexually assaulted by a man and also needed surgery. A three-year-old was sexually assaulted by three men, and ten days later another man raped her twice, once using a mangrove stick

A six-year-old girl was followed to a waterhole and while playing there was anally raped while being drowned. A 10-year-old girl was tied to a tree and repeatedly raped. One health worker examined a 14-year-old girl ‘so raw from being raped – she had been abused since the age of three – that she screamed throughout her examination.’[5]. [6]

Morgan Jabanardi Riley, 27, sexually assaulted a two-year-old at Tennant Creek in 2004, digitally penetrating her vagina and anus as she screamed in pain. He got 4.5 years non-parole, later increased to 6.5 years.

Gerhardt Max Inkamala, 21, in 2003 digitally penetrated a 7-month-old girl’s vagina, causing serious injury, at Hermannsburg. His sentence was increased after appeal from only five years to nine years, with non-parole of seven years. [7]

These cases are in the minority which get to court, author Louis Nowra wrote. The Robertson report in 1999 estimated near 90% of rapes in the Indigenous communities went unreported. [8]

The Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce (ACSAT) 2006, visited 29 NSW Aboriginal communities and child sexual assault was described as a ‘huge issue’ in every one of those communities. Aboriginal witnesses told the inquiry that the assaults on girls and boys were massive, epidemic, and a way of life. They were perpetrated by grandfathers, fathers, stepfathers, uncles, cousins and brothers, often important men, and including some non-Aboriginals. [9]

Writing in Quadrant last November, Bubbles Segall, a worker for 36 years in Northern Territory community health, instanced these cases of violence:

“A woman is repeatedly evacuated from a remote community health centre to hospital with multiple fractures to the bones in her hands and burns to her vagina. On each of these occasions, her husband, in fits of jealous rage, has put burning sticks into her vagina and broken the bones in her fingers…

“A nurse is called out at midnight to attend to a woman who has been brutally bashed by her husband. She is six months pregnant with her first child. In a jealous, drunken rage, her husband accused her of talking to another man earlier in the evening. She is bleeding profusely from a head wound caused by a partial avulsion of her scalp. She has also sustained a partial tear to an earlobe. She is bleeding copiously from her vagina. Her husband has kicked her repeatedly in the abdomen. Her wounds are treated, she sustains a miscarriage and is evacuated by air ambulance to the nearest hospital that night.”

Segall finishes:

“These situations are not unique or far and few. They are everyday occurrences in many communities, and there are thousands of similar examples which to health workers gradually become overwhelming and disheartening.”

These instances could be called anecdotal. For those preferring data, see the NT crime statistics for 2007-12, released late last year  by the new CLP government.[10] They show that nearly 11% of Indigenous NT women in 2011-12 were assault victims, more than 12 times the non-Indigenous rate. The number of victims was up 61% from 2006-07. [11]

When examined by age group, the victim rate in 2011-12 for 15-17-year-old Indigenous girls was 11%; and in the group 20-39 years, an extraordinary one-in-five Indigenous women that year were assault victims. The rate for NT non-Indigenous women overall was under 1%.[12] In the six years from 2006-07, the Indigenous woman who was most assaulted suffered 20 assaults. Keep in mind that these figures only involve assaults that come to official attention.

In the most remote areas of the NT, assault rates were up 66%, compared with 2006-07, including a 19% rise in the latest year.[13] There were a third more alcohol-related assaults than in 2006-07, but 175% more non-alcohol related assaults. [14]

Louis Nowra published his 90-page essay “Bad Dreaming” in 2007. He wrote then that the brutality was increasing, with spears, rocks, knives, bottles and bricks used [in other words, violence has been accelerating both pre and post-2007]. Rape and especially gang-rape had become more common, Nowra said, with violence more ferocious and sometimes beggaring belief.

“Victims are viciously gang-banged, during which they are smashed with iron bars, rocks, pieces of concrete or lumps of wood that cause massive physical injuries and permanent facial deformities. A particularly nasty strain of this violence that is showing an alarming rise, is the number of women being set on fire.” [15]

The Age’s Russell Skelton in 2006  reported a case where a young man doused petrol on his 18-year-old girlfriend’s stomach and genitals and set her clothes on fire when she refused to have sex.

Nowra quotes Dr Kate Napthall of Darwin who on one Friday night from 5pm to 8am at Tennant Creek Hospital saw 28 cases of domestic assault – and those were just the ones that presented. The worst case she recalled was a woman of about 28 who had a saucepan of boiling water poured over her face, scalding her eyes beyond recognition. “When I looked in her files, she had between 40 and 50 similar presentations of assault against her by her husband,” Napthall said.[16] (Tennant Creek Indigenous assault victims have risen 19% since 2006-07.[17] The assault rate there is now well over three times the NT average – which itself is high.[18])

Some women became sleepwalking targets-for-violence, rather than human beings. One woman was so inured to injuries she no longer felt them. Her husband put a barbed spear right through her arm and another man pulled it out. No-one reported the incident because she was attacked so routinely with knives, stones and sticks.[19] Women would be on the ground being kicked in the belly but no-one would help her: “You just didn’t do that. You could watch, but weren’t allowed to butt into people’s fights,” one woman told a 1999 inquiry. [20]

These reports include a case where wife of an elder was repeatedly bashed and stabbed over the years at Alice Springs, refusing police protection out of fear. Eventually she was beaten to death, tied up and left on an ant’s nest for a week. [21]

In May 2005 at Araru outstation on the Coburg Peninsular, NT, Trenton Cunningham 27, beat to death Jodi Palipuaminni, his pregnant wife and mother-of-four, because she didn’t bring him a cup of water while he was burying his dog. Her screams for help the night before she died were ignored, and she was dead by morning. The husband was on parole for assaulting his wife with a steel bar and pouring boiling water over her, resulting in skin grafts to 20% of her body. She had become his promised wife soon after  her birth. She had complained 29 times to health workers about him. He had whipped her with wire, kicked her in the stomach while pregnant, stabbed her with scissors and scalded her. Cunningham was sentenced to a non-parole period of 6.5 years after his charge was reduced from murder to manslaughter. [22]

  • At Maningrida it was common for men, drunk or sober, to bash their wives when the women returned from a holiday or trip, just in case they had done anything wrong while away.[23]
  • Merrillee Mulligan   in Derby, described as “a respected worker for her people”,   in 2000 threatened to expose her brother in law Jeffrey Qualla for molesting a seven year old girl. That night while she was asleep he bashed her head and dragged her into a vacant block and attacked her with a file. She died. He was charged with willful murder but the prosecutor Robert Cock QC accepted a please of manslaughter. Qualla was to serve less than two years in prison. Cock commented that the juries view alcohol-fuelled violence in Aboriginal communities as so everyday that it was difficult to prove intent to kill. [24]

The SA Government’s Commission of Inquiry into child sexual abuse on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands found in 2008 that sexual abuse there was normalized, with adult men holding an attitude of ‘she’s big enough’ towards young girls, and the view that ‘if you’ve got the body you do the thing’. Aboriginal girls came to accept that they would be sexually assaulted and abused, as the inquiry noted: “It is expected of them. They simply believe their resistance is futile.” [25]

The sufferings of many young girls will go forever unrecorded – particularly if they face the ‘double-silencing’ of cultural fear plus English language inabilities. For example, one concerned teacher on APY lands noted a young Aboriginal girl who had otherwise been a bright, happy child. One day the girl came to school and ‘just laid her head on my lap and sobbed. Like, heartbreaking, wrenching sobs. There was snot and tears dripping down my legs and she sobbed probably for about 20 minutes.’ The girl’s siblings’ behavior soon changed for the worse as well, but the teacher left the school not knowing whether her report to the department had achieved anything. [26]

These are instances of violence from the past six months.

  • In November, a Darwin court was told that riots at Wadeye – a particularly violent community – over a gang leader’s death were the worst in 50 years.[27] 
  • After a 13-year-old boy from a remote community was found dead [presumably suicide] at a Darwin boarding school last March, a former staff member and whistleblower told the press that “violence is the norm where they come from”.[28]
  • A Daly River school had to be shut until further notice in February after two female staff were punched in the face. One of them, 56, lost a tooth and another, 66, was hit on the side of her face. The principal and eight unhurt staff were rushed from the community because of fears for their safety. The alleged assailant was an Indigenous woman.[29]
  • At the Milingimbi NT school in March, a student threatened teachers with a tomahawk and had to be restrained by six staff and given three doses of sedatives.
  • In May, Angurugu School on Groote Eylandt was closed after a teacher was hit on the neck from behind with a baseball bat, following smashing of the principal’s window with an axe, and a teacher suffering a broken hand after a student threw a chair and table at her. Another teacher was left bleeding after a bite, and a staff member was stabbed in the leg with sharpened pencils.[30] Earlier a woman teacher at the school had to be flown out after a student threatened to rape her. Another student there tried to choke a 66 year old male teacher. The teachers’ union says violent assaults happen daily and weekly in remote NT schools The union claims the Education Department is covering up the violence because they wanted to maximize attendance statistics.[31]
  • An emergency safety summit called in February to discuss violence, feuding and alcohol abuse in the 18 housing associations in Alice Springs, collapsed after walkouts by NT Indigenous Advancement Minister Alison Anderson and NT Police Commissioner John McRoberts. The summit followed two murders in the previous ten days. One involved a group bashing a man to death over a prolonged period.[32] Pre-summit, the Tangentyere Council chief executive Walter Shaw said people were under siege and living in fear from alcohol related violence. Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin was in Alice Springs but did not attend the summit. The town camps have been the recent recipient of $150m in federal money, but many of the 240 homes involved have been trashed or degraded. (One estimate of the life of a house in such places is seven years).[33] About concurrently with the aid funding, the break-in rate against Alice Springs housing has more than doubled, commercial break-ins are up 30%, and the Indigenous female victims of assault are up nearly 80%.[34] [35]
  • In NSW, the town of Bourke (pop 3000) is more dangerous per capita for assaults and crime than any country in the world, despite having 40 police in the town. Moree Plains and Cobar are not far behind. Dr Don Weatherburn, of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics, said that 25 years ago, “bashing someone for their wallet was something you just did not do in country towns”. Bourke police said they had difficulty returning youths to their homes at night and during school holidays, because the homes themselves were unsafe for the youths.[36]

NT politician Bess Price told the Parliament that gaol was safer for young people because there was no alcohol, three meals a day, the company of family members and language groups, and a healthier environment.[37] The same point was made by a Bourke, NSW magistrate, Roger Clisdell, who set some Aboriginal children were deliberately seeking gaol to escape “constant and brutal domestic violence.” He said endemic violence against women and children, often unreported, drove children out on the streets late at night. [38]

The following incidents all occurred with a few days in northern Queensland in March. A Cape York Mayor was charged after allegedly using a spear to incite a brawl and assaulting police.[39] At Doomadgee, a riot squad was flown in after a local allegedly hit a female police officer in the face with a torch and broke her nose. When a 52-year-old was arrested, a large crowd stormed the police station and smashed doors. [40]

At Yuendumu, 300km northwest of Alice, about 50 women threatened a group of 15 families inside a store last July. A bus used in an inter-clan attack was burnt out. Police went to one camp and were met by 80 people armed with axes, nulla nullas, steel pipes, spears, star pickets, wheel braces, axles and rocks. Police were strengthened to 13, in a town of 800. [41]

At Mutitjulu, (pop 300), police answered a distress call last December and found 30 to 40 people fighting. That group threw rocks, bottles, and sticks at the police vehicle, and police reinforcements were also targeted. A female nurse who was treating an assaulted woman, was allegedly punched to the head and threatened with an iron bar. Both nurse and victim were taken to the clinic for treatment. [42]

At Aurukun, the town went into lockdown as police hunted a gunman who fired a volley of shotgun shots during a 200-strong street fight. The hospital, school and shops were barricaded as armed men roamed the streets making death threats against rival clans. [43]

Professor Peter Sutton wrote in 2010,

“In the early 1970s Aurukun, when I first went there, there were occasional large-scale battles, and many minor squabbles, but mostly there was relative peace. Alcohol still found its illicit way in, but only every now and then, and was drunk in secret. Homicide, a common feature of the region from earliest records to the 1950s, had been eradicated. Suicide was unknown. People who survived the rigors of infancy and early childhood had a good chance of living to their seventies. Child abuse, if it occurred, found the records only on the rarest of occasions. Local men mustered cattle and ran the local butcher shop, logged and sawed the timber for house-building, built the housing and other constructions, welded and fixed vehicles in the workshop, and worked in the vegetable gardens, under a minimal set of mission supervisors. Women not wholly engaged in child-rearing worked in the general store, clothing store, school, hospital and post office. It wasn’t heaven , but it certainly wasn’t hell. That was to come later.” [44]

Sutton mentions sardonically that after Aurukun got a regular grog supply in 1985, people from nearby Coen, which itself was a disaster zone, began referring to Aurukun as “Beirut”. [45]

None of the above fits the federal Labor government narrative of buoyant progress, as outlined by Prime Minister Gillard in her annual “Closing the Gap” reports. As she put it last year:

“The transformation of Alice Springs, the advances in community safety and food security in the wider Northern Territory, the new or refurbished housing on the ground in remote Australia, the Australian Government’s Education Revolution, the acceleration of private-sector support for Indigenous employment and the roll out of the Indigenous Chronic Disease Package are all building towards achievement of the ambitious Closing the Gap targets. …Above all, Indigenous people are rising to the challenge and taking responsibility for making these changes with governments.”[46]

Tony Thomas studied anthropology under Professor Ronald Berndt in Perth in 1961, and in 1974 co-authored, with Dr Carl Georg von Brandenstein ,“TARURU – Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara”. In 2010 he authored “Stolen Generations: The Pocket Windschuttle”.

His research on Indigenous child removals since the Rudd “Stolen Generation” apology appears in May’s Quadrant



[1] Joan Kimm: A Fatal Conjunction. Federation Press, Sydney 2004, preface, p3

[2] Nowra, Louis: Bad Dreaming. Pluto Press, North Melbourne, 2007. p30

[3] Joan Kimm: p11

[4] Press reports, various, April 26-27, 2013.

[5]   Kimm p5

[6].Nowra p45

[7] ibid p46

[8] ibid p48

[9] ibid p111-12

[10] www.nt.gov.au/justice/…/nt_annual_crime_statistics_2012.doc

[11] ibid p75

[12] ibid Table 9 p76

[13] ibid p7

[14] ibid p68

[15] op cit Nowra p44

[16] ibid p42

[17] Op cit crime statistics, Table 85, p116

[18] ibid p6

[19] Op cit 2, Kimm , p7

[20] Op cit Nowra p43

[21] ibid p40

[22] Toohey, Paul, Quarterly Essay, Last Drinks, 30/2008, e-book Loc 710

[23] Nowra p42

[24] Op cit Kimm, J., p134

[25] ibid p101

[26] Jarrett, Stephanie, Liberating Aborigina People from Violence. Connor Court , Ballan, Vic., 2013. p158

[27] www.ntnews.com.au/article/2012/11/02/314788_ntnews.html

[28] www.ntnews.com.au/article/2013/03/04/318181_ntnews.html

[29] www.ntnews.com.au/article/2013/02/28/318121_ntnews.html

[30] http://www.ntnews.com.au/article/2013/05/03/320473_ntnews.html

[31] http://www.ntnews.com.au/article/2013/04/03/319180_ntnews.html

[32] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-02-27/alice-springstown-camps-violence-meeting/4542546

[33] Sutton p127

[34] Op cit see 2, p46

[35] ibid Table 57 p102

[36] http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/bourke-tops-list-more-dangerous-than-any-country-in-the-world-20130201-2dq3y.html

[37] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-02-15/bess-price-jail-is-good-for-you-nt/4521152

[38] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/Indigenous/kids-prefer-jail-to-abuse-at-home-says-magistrate-roger-clisdell/story-fn9hm1pm-1226549207731

[39] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/spear-wielding-cape-york-mayor-arrested/story-e6frg6nf-1226591538694

[41] http://www.ntnews.com.au/article/2012/07/16/310811_ntnews.html

[42] http://www.pfes.nt.gov.au/Media-Centre/Media-releases/2012/December/27/Disturbance-Mutitjulu.aspx

[43] ibid

[44] Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering. Melbourne University Press, 2010. p40

[45] Sutton p1

[46] www.pgpn.org.au/pdf/Resources/CTG/CTG_PMReport_2012.pdf