Soft-spoken yet formidable, Nyikina, Mangala, Karajarri, Yawuru and Jabirr Jabirr man Anthony Watson has the legacy of the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) coursing through his veins.

Growing up by his father John Watson’s side, co-founder of the KLC, Watson has been involved with the land council his entire life.

Being a young fella as the Noonkanbah dispute was heating up, Watson wanted to accompany his father to the protest.

“It was something new … Dad said he was going to go to Noonkanbah and I wanted to go, too,” Watson said.

“[Dad] said he was going to get arrested and was worried for my welfare, and made me stay home with Mum.”

An iconic moment for land rights in the Kimberley, Traditional Owners protested at Noonkanbah Station against oil-drilling by miner Amax.

The two-year stand off led to violence on a day of protest in August 1980, which saw police drag Traditional Owners off the Fitzroy Crossing pastoral station to jail.

Soon after, Amax drilled into sacred ground on the search for a rumoured oil reserve. It was discovered it did not exist.

“We lost the battle, but the land council was formed … to tackle the heritage issues and our values on cultural heritage.”

In 1993, Watson stepped into a role at the land council. He has been a Director ever since, and has just been elected Chair for the sixth time.

For Watson, Native Title is important, but it’s not all he wants to achieve with the KLC.

“I’ve always said Native Title is one tick in a box, [but there are also] environmental issues, cultural issues, and culture and lore maintenance,” he said.

(L-R) KLC CEO Nolan Hunter, Senator Pat Dodson and KLC Chair Anthony Watson. Photo supplied by KLC.

A signatory to the landmark $1.5 billion James Price Point agreement, which guaranteed Traditional Owners a voice on any future development of the area, Watson’s political advocacy with the KLC has seen Traditional Owners achieve outcomes many never felt were possible.

“[The James Price Point agreement] makes the government and industry accountable when they do come into our Country,” he said.

“We’ve been vocal in asking the questions towards fairness … towards helping our people in our region.”

Gaining international attention, Watson and others from the KLC attended the 14th UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2015 to make a submission regarding the controversial proposed closure of up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities by the former Barnett Government.

Watson said at the forum Aboriginal people in WA were facing a “discriminatory and race-based erosion of their rights and the attempted assimilation of Indigenous people into white Australia”, with particular risks to cultural and social wellbeing.

The Forum subsequently supported the KLC’s submission and saw public scrutiny of the State Government at the time.

“We shamed the [WA] Government on how they had been handling Aboriginal Affairs,” Watson said.

“[Since then] we have made arguments for how Indigenous dollars should be spent appropriately.”

With many more achievements under his belt, Watson said one of his proudest achievements personally has been creating the Yiriman Project with his father and other Elders from Nyikina, Mangala, Karajarri and Walmajarri language groups.

Designed to separate young people from the rising dominance of substance abuse and youth suicide, the Yiriman Project connects Aboriginal youth with Elders and gets them out on Country to reconnect with culture.

Watson said Yiriman was recognised in the WA Parliament Inquiry into Aboriginal Suicide as one of the only programs addressing the social determinants of suicide.

“Aboriginal lives matter and we need to think at a higher level towards addressing a lot of social issues,” he said.

“We’ve got higher rates of incarceration, kids getting removed and … lower education standards we need to lift.

“A lot of our kids are dying at a high rate as well, suicide and other health issues … we’ve got funerals every week, all lined up. It’s just sad that it’s the region we live in.”

Recently re-elected as KLC Chair for his sixth term, Watson has a vision for Kimberley mob, young and old.

“I would like to see the land council and its members in a much better position, curb these negative impacts that are affecting us … dealing with governments to secure funding arrangements and tackling the heritage issue.”

One of the State’s most contentious current issues, the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 (WA) is proving difficult to nail down.

Many are deeply unhappy with the Bill’s first draft, including Watson. The KLC has even gone so far as to dismiss the Bill in its entirety, demanding a new Bill be drafted.

Watson said the whole Bill clashes with traditional lore and “needs to be rewritten altogether”.

“We’ve got to battle with the Labor Government on the heritage Bill and the way they’ve covered up the consultation process.”

While the KLC embarks on a journey toward stronger cultural heritage protections, Watson will keep fighting for mob, culture and Country.

“[I try] to understand what our members want … how to get the organisation to meet those goals and their needs,” he said.

“We’ve got to make programs that can help create active youth and citizens to help our community.”

By Hannah Cross