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CONTENT WARNING: The following profile contains references and artistic depictions of genocide, slavery and violence. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are also advised this page contains the names of Aboriginal people who have passed away.

“When they brought the ships, they said it was rich and gold, a land full of milk and honey. But those ships, they brought nothing but blood for our people” said June Djiagween.

Yawuru-Ngarluma artist and senior cultural advisor June Djiagween is driven by truth-telling. “A lot of my paintings are about history, culture and traditions” she said. “All I’m trying to say is ‘This is what happened.’ It’s about acknowledging where things started.”

Her two paintings When the Marjar came (the story of blackbirding) and Pearling Slavery in The Alternative Archive, speak to the dark history of ‘black-birding’ and the enslavement of Aboriginal people in the pearling industry in Rubibi (Broome) and Dampier Peninsula.

“When the ships came from the ocean, they saw my ancestors with the pearls hanging off their riji, the pearl emblem on their traditional belts that hang from human hair. Each family has a unique riji, with a different pattern, song-line and story” she explained. “So when they saw those big maxima pearls, alarm bells started to ring because they saw dollar signs.”

In When the Marjar came (the story of blackbirding), a row of large pearl shells is stained by red paint, representing spilt blood. Above this, a thick black chain restrains a row of riji. “The old people were chained. They were used for drift diving. Back then they didn’t have no farming, no culture pearl. What they were making was pearl buttons” June said.

“The markings on the pearls are all the people that they murdered, and the blood represents the slaughtering of my people. The chain represents how, since colonisation, they took the land from us and they took our entitlements, so we had nothing.”

June Dijagween 2019

Image credit: 1. June Djiagween, When the Marjar came (the story of blackbirding), 2019 | 2. June Djiagween, Pearling Slavery, 2019. Images courtesy Kevin Smith.

Marjar, June explained, is creole for master. “If you were white, even if you were a cleaner, you were a master. It didn’t matter what level you were on, your white skin gave you superiority over Indigenous people to enslave and hurt them.”

In Pearling Slavery, we see a black ship with blood-red instead of white sails. In the lower left-hand corner are fourteen white boxes representing the Yawaru people who were killed, and whose remains were stolen and traded as colonial specimens.

In 2019, their remains were repatriated from Switzerland and returned to Yawaru Country. “These bodies came back. They were given back to Yawaru” June said. “We had fourteen boxes that came back to be laid to rest. There were no names. No family. No nothing. In that painting they are just symbols. Faces with no names. We don’t know who they are. But they were here, about 105 years ago, those people in the boxes.”

“One of them was a little girl” June continued. “If you look there’s a little body hanging off the boat. They dragged a virgin girl one hundred meters off the back. They chucked her off with a rock on her leg while she was alive. It’s not written in the catalogue because it’s too sad to describe.”

“My art is also about my love for my culture, before all of this sickness” June said. She grew up in Broome, or Rubibi as it is known by Yawaru people. “Broome is my home, where I was grounded and where I was loved by my Dad’s family” she shared.

“My mum is Yindjibarndi-Ngarluma and my dad is Bardi-Djawi and Yawaru. My mum was a very cultural woman, so I’d always end up back out at Warralong and Strelley with the Mardu people. We’d go out for law and culture, and every now and then we’d go past Woodbrook, Roebourne, passing by, following cultural ceremonies. It was an important time. All the elders took their positions very seriously”.

“By the time I was fourteen I couldn’t read and write because I missed too much school. You know, I was a bush kid. It was very hard for me because mum was trying to keep her culture alive while I went to St Mary’s in Broome with all the nuns and brothers. I was talking three to four different languages – Mardu, Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi and Bardi.”

“If I spoke them languages at school, they would hit me with sticks and rulers because you had to speak English. Mum would say ‘Don’t speak your language in school.’ But I couldn’t differentiate between speaking the language at home and speaking it in school.”

June shared with us her connections to Yindjibarndi Country and Juluwarlu Art Group. “When my mum was a young woman, she adopted my cousin, my sister, Elizabeth Coppin. Grandfather Coppindale gave her to my Mum and Dad to grow her up. I always thought that she came from my mum’s body, because of how they loved her. Elizabeth is Judith’s youngest sister.”

“I’ve been coming back and forth from Broome to Roebourne since I was young. My Nanna used to live in Roebourne but they left for Port Hedland because all the pastoral companies were putting up fences, stopping people from accessing the land. They removed everyone from Country. Then there was the fighting for equal wages. My uncle, their little son, also passed away. Someone said it was from starvation, but we don’t know what happened.”

“But they would go back all the time, my grandmother and Judith’s grandmother. They are all sisters you see. Very close. They’re Yindjibarndi, Ngarluma and Kariyarra, so I have connections through all those clans. We would go on Country with our grandparents on the back of an old truck. Everyone used to jump on the back with their swags and the camp dogs. There were always a lot of dogs. Dogs everywhere!” June giggled.

“I would also watch my grandfathers sing all the time. Paddy Djiagween, he would sing, sing, sing, all day! He would sing for the rain and for the fish to come. But he was too old when I was young, to do arts and crafts. My other grandfather, Adam Barker, was a lot younger than him. He was a Warnman desert man and he did traditional carvings; boomerangs, shields, spears. He tried to teach us how to do the little animals like blue tongue, snake and goanna. All the animals that you see on Country, he would make them out of carvings, with traditional patterns over the top.”

“I didn’t end up with that skill but I ended up watching him and transferring those patterns onto canvas, like my jellyfish. I love painting the jellyfish. I’ve been painting them forever. They are very beautiful,” laughed June.

June shared her view on the 2023 referendum result for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. “The government gave Australia the right to vote for Indigenous people and said ‘let’s give it a fair go.’ But it was never going to be a fair go, because everyone would have seen the bad news. Everyone would have seen the intergenerational trauma, or a young Indigenous person stealing a car or breaking into a home. That’s all they know about Indigenous people. So it was turned into a land-grabbing issue. People were spreading misinformation” she said.

“But they got it all wrong, because to fight for our rights is a good thing. You don’t want our young people, the ones who are lost, to keep stealing cars. To keep on the alcohol and drugs. You want them back on Country and learning the right way with culture. There is too much hate in the world right now. We’ve got to turn our world into a place with more compassion, beyond our own children. And that includes access to better mental health services and rehabilitation centres.”

“For thousands of years we were hunters and gatherers, simple people. We navigated through the stars, we were engineers. We weren’t conquers or colonisers. From the beginning, we were our own tribes and had our own culture and we have the right to maintain that” she said.

“You can take Aboriginal people, chain them or put them down. You can try to turn them into a white man, but you can never take away their spirit, their culture and connection to Country.”