Uncle Ben Taylor Cuiermara is a familiar face in Perth’s Noongar community and has been fighting for equality longer than many have been alive.
A Noongar and Yued Elder, Uncle Ben is a member of the WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee; any attendee at Perth protests on Aboriginal issues will know him as a regular.
Uncle Ben, 80, has stood against racial discrimination at a Northbridge nightclub in the 1990s, fought for recognition of the land at Gooninup (the Swan River Plain) and Wadjemup (Rottnest Island), and was a regular at the Nyoongar Tent Embassy on Matagarup (Heirisson Island) where he fought against the closure of Aboriginal communities.
Recently, Uncle Ben lent his support to the publication of An Island Solution, a short exploration of the use of Wadjemup as a prison for Indigenous men.
Written by non-Aboriginal academic, Eversley Ruth Mortlock, An Island Solution is a collection of yarns from both historical sources and present-day personal accounts. Uncle Ben and Aunty Mingli Wanjurri McGlade, a Kurin and Mineng Elder, both feature in the book.
Through family connections, Uncle Ben knows of the atrocities inflicted at Wadjemup.
“My dad used to tell me it was an evil place. They took the blackfulla up there and chained him up, whipped him and executed him,” he said.
A staunch activist shaped by experiences of virulent racism, Uncle Ben spoke of the treatment of Aboriginal people at the Moore River Settlement experienced by his mother in her childhood.
“She said funerals were a body bouncing on the back of the horse and cart, wrapped up in a government rug, then thrown in a pit,” he said.
As a child, Uncle Ben was taken from his family to an institution at New Norcia. He didn’t see his family again for eight or nine years.
He found freedom for a short period when he escaped the facility with his brother.
While on the run, Uncle Ben slept during the day and travelled by night. After 12 months living as outlaws, the two boys were picked up by police and taken to back Moore River, a place he described as a concentration camp.
Uncle Ben spoke of being over-policed as a young person, in towns where Aboriginal people were required to leave before the sunset.
He was arrested for smelling of alcohol in his youth and was sentenced to a month’s hard labour. Upon his release, the most Uncle Ben could do was stumble to the nearest convent and ask for help.
When the 1967 Referendum saw amendments to the Constitution, Uncle Ben said things changed somewhat.
“When we were recognised as human beings, we got a voice then.”
In a town without television, the news came over the radio and was shared in the streets.
“The publican shouted, ‘You’re all free!’”
But Uncle Ben was enduring his own struggle with alcohol; he credits his current sobriety to an old friend.
Uncle Ben said he got clean about 50 years ago, with the help of an Irish pastor named Brian Tiernan.
“My dear old friend, he was a great priest, and Irishman, Father Brian Tiernan. When he got on the altar, he talked about injustice,” said Uncle Ben.
Father Tiernan opened a wandering Catholic mission that came to be known as Wandering Bennelong, and with the help of a Koori woman named Val Bryant, created an Alcoholics Anonymous group tailored to Aboriginal culture.
“She was an AA woman, but she turned the steps into Aboriginal culture, and it worked! That woman left 14 or 15 of us full sober,” said Uncle Ben.
Now, Uncle Ben said there’s a new vigour for change in the community since George Floyd’s murder sparked Black Lives Matters protests across the world.
At the Perth Black Lives Matter protest in Langley Park in June, Uncle Ben gave the Welcome to Country to an enormous crowd.
“Twelve thousand people, I stood up and gave the Welcome, and when I looked? Aboriginal, non-Aboriginal, multicultural. Tears came to my eyes!” he said.
He said there was a great deal of pride in seeing his family involved in the protests that have taken the world by storm.
“My daughter was part of that too … there’s going to be a change in that generation.”
Uncle Ben’s main message is to fight for Treaty; he insisted that a call to arms be published.
“I’d like you to say: ‘Uncle Ben would like a Treaty to take his people out of bondage’.”
“Like Martin Luther King Jr, I’ve got a dream.”
By Sarah Smit