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The ones who came with chains

  • 14 December 2021
I don’t write to State Premiers very often. However, a month ago I did. It was to the Western Australian Premier, Mark McGowan. It was not about Test cricket, the Juukan Gorge or opening the state’s borders. It was in relation to a photo on the front page of The Australian on the weekend of the 6/7 November showing an Aboriginal man in Western Australia boarding a plane under arrest. He was barefooted and with both a wrist and ankle chain.

The abduction of young Cleo Smith attracted the attention of many within Australia and overseas. There was palpable joy when she was found safe and, apparently, unharmed. The person in the photo and who had been taken into custody in relation to her abduction was Terence Darrell Kelly. He had been arrested and was being flown to the maximum-security Casuarina prison in Perth. Since then has appeared in court facing charges.

The reason why I wrote to the Premier was not about the particulars of the alleged crime but that image of an Aboriginal man being taken away barefoot and in chains. It was an image that evoked past images of Western Australian Aboriginal men being taken away in leg and neck chains. And it seemed, particularly in this case and context, so disrespectful of his dignity and unnecessary. And, it needs be added, disrespectful of the dignity of those who accompanied him.

Some years ago, I knew a highly respected Aboriginal elder who, decades earlier, had been arrested for killing sheep. He and two other senior and respected men were arrested by the police and taken away in chains and forced to walk to the prison in Wyndham, hundreds of kilometres away. The story goes that this man managed to free himself of his neck chain and, over some weeks, walk all the way back home. From then he was referred to as Tjaintjanu. The name literally meant ‘chain-from’. In English we might have called him the ‘chainman’. But he was more than another Aboriginal man who had been chained. He was one who had escaped the chain.

The linguist William McGregor has explored the various terms for ‘policeman’ found in Australian First Nations languages.[1] Many such words exist and there is great variation across Australia as to how the police were originally perceived and named. As McGregor points out, these were significant white men at the forefront of colonisation and who