Fitzroy Crossing in remote Western Australia, is a town which many people may associate with juvenile crime, substance abuse and foetal alcohol syndrome but Bunubu Elder Joe Ross knows there is much more to the place than the negative headlines.

Mr Ross says the town’s complex history is part of the reason the area is currently dealing with high rates of crime and anti-social behaviour.

He shared some of his insight into the history of the land he calls home with the National Indigenous Times.

Today Fitzroy Crossing can be identified as being about halfway between Broome and the Northern Territory border when looking at a map.

But before the roads and highways on today’s maps were there, this Country was home to Bunuba resistance fighter Jandamarra – whose story has made its way onto screens and stages in recent years.

“Young people know about Jandamarra in Bunuba, especially those from the eastern side they look up to him as a hero,” Mr Ross said.

Jandamarra learnt the ways of white people and also spent time living the traditional Bunuba life and while he worked with a white police officer against Aboriginal people, he eventually turned on the officer he’d been working with and began a guerrilla campaign against the colonial forces.

Jandamarra’s vision of an Aboriginal uprising was not to be, while he fought against his oppressors for a few years, sometimes seeming to appear and disappear without a trace, he died at a young age after being shot dead.

Fitzroy Crossing is named for the Fitzroy River that runs through it, the traditional name for which is the ‘Martuwarra’.

The waterway marks an area where a number of Traditional Owner group’s lands meet.

Before the town existed, there was a ration station there.

“Ration stations were created in the early 1900s to feed and look after people feeling disenfranchised from properties and plus the pastoralists were out either shooting or poisoning people at the time,” Mr Ross said.

“So it was like a refuge, we were literally refugees in those days, the government of the day and the pastoralists all banded together to try and provide food to people so they wouldn’t be spearing and stealing their cattle.”

In the early 1950s the ration station made way for a mission.

Aboriginal children at the Fitzroy Crossing Mission were considered to be under the guardianship of the government.

Mr Ross grew up on Brooking Springs Station where his Bunuba mother served as a domestic worker and his English father built wells.

Joe Ross, Photo Supplied

His father was paid a fair wage for his work but as with other Aboriginal people, his mother was paid very little.

“Stations became places where the first labour was picked up for free in the ration days.

“The extended family of those workers, the domestics working in the homesteads and also the stockmen working in the mustering camps were all on rations and their extended families were allowed to live on or around the properties,” Mr Ross said.

“Those stations around there became like refugee bases for those people, you either lived in those properties or you were out in the bush being chased by whoever.”

“Until the 70s no one really lived in town, it wasn’t until Fitzroy Crossing was established as a service centre for the Fitzroy Valley that people moved into town and got houses.”

A lot happened in the Fitzroy Valley around Mr Ross when he was a child.

“I was young so I couldn’t have a sense of the dispossession and poverty we were living in,” he said.

“In fact many of our adults and people across the properties rebelled against the pastoralists because they got sick of not being paid,” he said.

In 1971 Aboriginal people who worked at Noonkanbah Station near Fitzroy Crossing famously walked off the station to protest against not being paid for their work.

Mr Ross said the upheaval felt by Aboriginal people in the Fitzroy Valley over recent generations had unsettled communities and cultures.

“So many cycles of movement and dispossession and disconnection to country and now we’re starting to see the traumatic impacts, the intergenerational trauma that’s been created by all that dispossession, not withstanding the stolen generation era,” he said.

“The need to self identify and a sense of place and purpose, that disconnection we are seeing in the high suicide rates and the family breakdowns and the whole law and order matter.”

Mr Ross’ love for his Country keeps with optimistic about the future of his town.

“We have a custodial responsibility and a love for Fitzroy Crossing that’s been there for thousands of years.”

He said “quick fixes” were not going to help the situation, instead governments need to look at addressing issues across generations into the future.

“People have a strong connection to the Fitzroy Valley, there’s four language groups here, from an eco-tourism perspective, Fitzroy has a lot of positives that can be valued, it’s time now that we turn now to Fitzroy Crossing and a community development model and look to reinvent the way we’ve been doing from the last 20-30 years,” he said.

“You’ve only got to measure the cost of incarceration of a juvenile or an adult, measure the unit cost of a kidney patient or diabetes costs or the cost of a child not being educated and the cost to the community later on in their life, the governments are yet to grasp an appropriate community development model especially for communities like Fitzroy Crossing.”

By Aleisha Orr