Language at the heart of empowerment – Billy Harrigan

Billy Harrigan was just five years old when he was punished for talking the traditional language of the Yalanji Warra people. It wasn’t the last time Billy was forced to hold out his hands to the church leaders for disobeying the orders of the day.

Strict and fierce punishments were swiftly enforced through cuts from a cane – used to inflict maximum pain and suffering. When Billy ran to his grandparents to protest the injustice, his Elders too faced harsh persecution.

The physical marks have since faded, some 60-plus years later, but the memories of the fierce punishments have left an indelible stain on his spirit.
But instead of letting it consume him, the rage ignited a fire in his belly that would see him speaking out against cultural and racial injustice.
“Back in the ’60s you weren’t allowed to ask questions. I still remember those days like it was yesterday. I was told at school when I was five that I couldn’t talk language. We couldn’t do corroborees. We would get cuts on our hands and other punishments. That gave me more fire to go out and rebel against things. I was always adamant that no one was going to tell me what to do. These days I am free to express myself.

“It was a very hard life, but it was also a good, open life. We were free to go to the creek and it was a nice, simple life. None of my grandparents or my parents drank. Our old people knew the rotation of the seasons, what food to eat. We knew when the rain was coming, the stingray was fat. When the wattle comes on, it’s when the turtle is getting fat.”

As the cultural advisory officer for Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Shire Council, Billy now gets paid for the very thing that saw him punished as a young child, to share his culture, language and lore with the community. With Kuku Yalanji on his mother’s side, and Gugu Yimithirr on his father’s, Billy’s deep connection with the land and its people is richer for his ability to pass it on to the next generation.

His greatest passion remains empowering Wujal youth, the latest victims of the great cultural disconnect. Leftovers, he believes, from the colonisation of his great-grandparent’s generation.

“In the early days in community, this place was run by the Lutheran Church. By 1965, they had brought everyone to town. Before that, the cultural boundaries were very clear among the clan groups. The mill was going, and my father and uncles used to work for scraps and rations.

“But the thing about Wujal is we’re not like any other communities. We’re very poor here, not close to mines or multinational companies. When we got the council here, the funding was scraps. Mostly grant-funded and limited state and federal funding. We are still here suffering.

“The challenges are immense. The youth need their own centre. And we’re so short of housing, we have a very small community, and the Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) area is not as big as other communities, plus the population.

“We’re just so limited by the land area. We’re locked in with national parks and Wet Tropics and any other department you can think of. The government bureaucracy is crippling. Back in the homelands, there are so many restrictions by Wet Tropics of what you can and can’t grow. With just 85 hectares of land in this area, we haven’t got enough land area to do anything with.”
Billy says the community are fighting against ongoing inequality, but Wujal’s greatest strength has always been its people and culture.

“Our men’s and women’s group are strong, but our health and wellbeing services are still limited. We were promised this and that, all guns blazing, say they were going to control our state health centre, worked in conjunction with Queensland Health.

“Things went well for a year then fell by the wayside. We were promised services, like a dentist every two weeks. Now you’re lucky if you see a dentist every four months. There are doctors and other allied health services coming in, but we want a clinic based here in the community.”

Despite these challenges, Wujal Wujal continues to nurture the rich abundance of cultural lore that has survived decades-long colonisation. Add to that are thriving artists, emerging leaders, and bama-led industries like the introduction of an accommodation centre and café. All community initiatives, led by local bama supporting local workers. And if it is to be sustainable and successful in the community long-term, Billy says it absolutely must be driven by locals.

“Language is central to our culture. We try to teach young people in language, we are trying to teach them how we were taught when we were kids. We take young boys out hunting and teach them the different fruit and food to get in different seasons. We were taught the basic way of living; it was a simple life and that’s what I try to pass on to the young ones.

“It’s a big process of learning back in the bush. Our old people need to be willing to teach the young people and young people need to be willing to learn. There is so much knowledge, rich in culture. We learn from our fathers, aunties and mothers.”

Billy says organisations and programs coming into the community need to lead with empathy, consistency and drive in their approach.

“Trust is a big thing. Community needs to see your consistency and coming in when you say you’re going to. Some people get very frightened of change, even our own bama get a bit frightened that people will come in and take information and go away again. Are you going in to help us, or are you coming to take things and not come back?”
Billy’s vision for Wujal Wujal spans the next decade and beyond, a thriving and culturally rich vibrant community once again.

“My ideal Wujal Wujal would be one that had more opportunities for young people. I’d like to see the youth centre get up and running, but we’re short on council space. Housing is another priority. We need to focus on more land for the community because we’re expanding out, we need more housing and land within our DOGIT. In 10, 20 and 30 years’ time, we’ll be dead and gone, but it’s our next generation that we need to make these changes for.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors are advised that this website may contain images and voices of people who have passed away.

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