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<p>Courtesy Queenie Mckenzie estate</p>

Courtesy Queenie Mckenzie estate

What Became Of The Mistake Creek Massacre?

The indigenous painting at the crux of Australia’s culture wars was famously rejected by the council of the museum that bought it. But that was not where the story ended.

SOME Australian historians will never agree with the Aboriginal people from around Mistake Creek in the eastern Kimberley on precisely who was responsible for the murder of up to eight indigenous men, women and children in 1915. There is no doubt that the massacre happened.

Furiously contested, however, is whether – consistent with indigenous belief – the killing party included white men or just Aborigines exacting revenge as part of an internecine feud.

The indigenous Kimberley artist Queenie McKenzie held a clear view of what happened, based on her people’s enduring oral history of the events. In 1997 she painted Mistake Creek Massacre, which depicts both white and indigenous armed men directing Aboriginal people to build their own funeral pyre before murdering them.

Thousands of Aboriginal people were killed in conflicts with European settlers on the Australian pastoral frontier during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, some of them in massacres in which victims’ bodies were subsequently destroyed with fire.

But among a litany of crimes against Aboriginal people, the Mistake Creek massacre stands out for the ambiguity surrounding who did it and why.

Nonetheless, in November 2005 the National Museum of Australia – which stands with sculptural distinction on sacred Aboriginal land at Acton beside Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin – purchased McKenzie’s contentious painting for almost $30,000.

It became an immediate focal point for the ongoing “culture war” between right-wing historians, journalists, commentators and the museum, over what conservatives viewed as the institution’s “black-armband” depiction of European colonial pastoral settlement and frontier violence against Aboriginal peoples.

So much so that in 2006 the museum’s council – weighted with conservative appointees by the Howard Government – rejected Mistake Creek Massacre for inclusion in the institution’s most significant collection, because it was deemed historically inaccurate.

But in May 2012, in a sign perhaps that the museum had permanently emerged from the cultural battle that had surrounded it since its opening in 2001, the council voted unanimously to incorporate the McKenzie painting into the same National Historical Collection. The decision, made without the blaze of publicity and acrimony that surrounded the painting’s 2006 rejection, was justified on the grounds of cultural significance rather than historical accuracy.

According to indigenous belief, Mick Rhatigan, a former policeman and linesman, and his two Aboriginal workers, Joe Wynn and Nipper, attacked the camp of another black man, Hopples, and shot dead eight occupants. The attackers believed Hopples’ camp had stolen, killed and eaten a cow.

According to indigenous belief, Mick Rhatigan, a former policeman and linesman, and his two Aboriginal workers, Joe Wynn and Nipper, attacked the camp of another black man, Hopples, and shot dead eight occupants. The attackers believed Hopples’ camp had stolen, killed and eaten a cow. They then burned the dead. Rhatigan and Nipper were arrested and charged. The fleeing Wynn was killed. Rhatigan and Nipper were freed.

According to the non-indigenous story, neither Rhatigan nor any other white man was involved, and the killings resulted from a dispute that began when Hopples stole Wynn’s wife. According to this version, Wynn and Nipper attacked, using Rhatigan’s guns and horses, but without his knowledge. A survivor reported the incident to police, who arrested Nipper and later Rhatigan but killed Wynn as he fled. Rhatigan was released because he was found not to be involved, while an initial murder charge against Nipper was dropped when Aboriginal witnesses disappeared.

The museum purchased McKenzie’s painting after internal scholarly debate determined both accounts had aspects of truth.

While the council’s 2012 decision to admit the painting stemmed from a routine review of the museum’s broader working collection, progressive curators and historians at various national institutions are likely to view it as a major – and hopefully decisive – cultural victory.

But the museum’s immediate past director, Andrew Sayers, says the inclusion of Mistake Creek Massacre in the National Historical Collection “may appear to be more significant than it actually is”.

Sayers, who draws on his past experience as director at the National Portrait Gallery and senior posts at the National Gallery of Australia, this week leaves the National Museum, three years into his five-year term, for personal reasons. He says of the McKenzie painting:

“Now the curators recommended . . . that this work be considered for the National Historical Collection. In other words, not just the Museum’s collection but to be a part of the Museum’s core collection. The council determined that, given the significance of Queenie McKenzie as an artist, that it [Mistake Creek Massacre] was a significant object and should become a part of the National Historical Collection . . . It’s not as though this council decided that they were going to actively reverse a decision of a previous council – it was actually a part of the process of acquisition.

<p>AAP Image/NMA, Jason McCarthy</p>

AAP Image/NMA, Jason McCarthy

Andrew Sayers

“Naturally the council was interested in the history of previous discussion about this object, and the reason that this was raised was of course the fact that . . . [former museum director] Craddock Morton. . . said that the council [in 2006] had taken the view that the painting was an inaccurate representation of an historical event – the Mistake Creek Massacre.”

Sayers was referring to Morton’s evidence to a Senate estimates committee hearing that “the issue which the collection committee was concerned about was whether this painting. . . will ‘assist in making a lasting contribution to understanding and interpreting Australian history and culture’.”

Morton told the committee: “The view of the committee was that as the painting depicted an event which did not occur – that is, a massacre involving white people – the painting did not fulfil the criteria of acceptance into the collection.”

When a team of museum curators reviewed the museum’s working collection in 2012, it refined its argument to include Mistake Creek Massacre in the National Historical Collection.

The curators argued: “The National Historical Collection includes a range of material reflecting interpretations of sacred and secular histories that may not be demonstrable in fact. Objects are collected to record the beliefs of different cultures and artworks provide insights into how individuals and communities interpret and respond to their social and historical conditions, including particular historical events. The criteria for assessing the significance of such collections relate not to whether representations are historically accurate but rather whether they reflect and illuminate Australian cultural practices . . . Mistake Creek Massacre records well-established Indigenous beliefs about the history of settler violence on the Australian frontier and illuminates ongoing processes of historical debate and understanding that relate to a core theme in Australian society.”

Significantly the museum council now includes Peter Yu, a Yawuru man from Broome, who is also an Aboriginal public policy expert and land-rights negotiator.

He knew Queenie McKenzie, who died in 1998.

Yu says: “My interest is only to see the just recognition she rightly deserves as a great teacher and artist, and that she is recognised not only for her immense talents but also for her contribution through her art of fulfilling her customary obligation of preserving and transmitting her culture and tradition to her own people and, importantly, to a wider audience.”

Tensions surrounding the museum from its inception until the end of the Howard Government in late 2007, were heightened by the work of the conservative Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, whose The Fabrication of Aboriginal History challenged as ‘spurious’ notions of “frontier war” and the incidence of Aboriginal massacre as presented by other historians and writers.

“Mistake Creek Massacre records well-established indigenous beliefs about the history of settler violence on the Australian frontier and illuminates ongoing processes of historical debate and understanding that relate to a core theme in Australian society.”

Windschuttle directly challenged the accuracy of some museum exhibits about Aboriginal resistance and frontier violence.

Members of the museum’s council, including Howard’s official biographer David Barnett and his former speechwriter Christopher Pearson, also complained vigorously about the way the institution reflected European settlement and frontier violence.

Barnett reportedly played a lead role to ensure the McKenzie work was not included in the National Historical Collection.

The then head of the museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program, Michael Pickering, wrote in The Public Historian in February 2010: “In short one man, untutored in the history of the work, was sufficiently empowered by the incumbent government to contradict and override the advice of a group of professional historians on the basis of personal opinion only. What chance do historians have to address histories honestly when even today the questions remain over whose stories shall be told?”

In an interview before his departure, Sayers reflects that this politically charged atmosphere had dissipated by the time he began his directorship in 2010.

He said this was evidenced by positive reactions to a 2011 exhibition about the Canning Stock Route. It accurately depicted Alfred Canning, the grazier who blazed and blasted the track from Wiluna to Hall’s Creek, as cruel and sadistic to Aborigines.

“I expected people might be going to the barricades saying Canning was a great pioneer and . . . what you’ve done with it is you’ve just . . . showcased it as saying Canning was a brutal exploiter of aboriginal people. And I thought, ‘Yes, the mood really has changed.’ There seemed to be an acceptance that frontier violence is really a part of our history and we are now exploring that.”

Sayers cites the success of the Kate Grenville novel The Secret River and the subsequent stage play, as evidence of a growing acceptance of and popular inquiry into frontier violence.

“Whether we’ve reached a way of accommodating that, I don’t know. Perhaps the National Museum has played a part in that. But I think we are in a different place [today]. So then the question arises, ‘Well, what place were we in recently when council looked at this particular reconsideration?’ Well, I guess they took the view that this was a work of art.

“And I certainly took the view and would argue . . . that when it comes to works of art, well, actually the notion of historical accuracy is . . . something we shouldn’t necessarily be looking for, in the same way that perhaps we are looking for it in something which is avowedly documentary,” he says.

“I think that in a museum context, objects embody meanings in a whole lot of different ways and I think some of those meanings are projections . . . Both as a part of a shift but also as a part of a different way of looking at what constitutes appropriate objects for a national museum.”

Asked if he thought it was an enduring shift, he says: “Yes, I do. And that’s why I mentioned Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s because I actually do think that there is an enduring shift. I think that culture is something dynamic and we, I think, will continue to grapple with the legacies of our past. And in fact the whole question of generational guilt and so forth are things I think that we do all have to constantly face up to. But in terms of the way in which that particular debate was framed and the role of Keith Windschuttle and so forth, and what constitutes accuracy and so on, I can’t see us going back to that.”

I point out that some of the same critics, including Windschuttle, are still working.

Sayers says: “Yes. But you might be a better judge than I am as to whether they are still significant voices – of the significance of their voices in terms of where the public lies. One can never predict the future.”

With a federal election imminent the cultural landscape is, indeed, unpredictable.

14 comments on this story
by John Kean

Queenie McKenzie's 'Mistake Creek' also fits with many other history paintings by Aboriginal artists. Tommy McRae's Buckley ran away from ship (c 1880s) and Jim Kite's engraved boomerang (c 1910) depicting John McDouall Stuart entering central Australia are two important examples that come to mind, they both provide a rare imagining of life changing moments from an Indigenous perspective. Images such as these are vital to redressing the imbalance of history in state and national collections.

July 2, 2013 @ 4:39pm
by peter

Anyone who watched the memorial celebration for Yothi Yindi lead Mandawoy Unupingu on ABC TV last week could not have missed the numerous mentions of the need for a 'treaty' by indigenous participants. Not that you would have heard or read of such mentions in any media forums since. One wonders if this is just another routine instance of the collective amnesia on such matters as touched on in this post. PM Kevin Rudd was prominent in the front row of this long dignified gathering. I wonder what the instigator of the Apology thought about these pleas?

July 5, 2013 @ 12:43pm
by Thomas

For many years I have studied the impact of settlement on the local aboriginal population and conflicts with the settlers. It really wasn't that long ago. Even so, there are often quite different accounts of the same events. Generalizations tend to melt away in the face of detailed study of what were complex events. I've thought the same would be true of other districts. It is best to study quietly and keep ones head down when many people have strong ideological positions. Eventually careful scholarship will be appreciated again.

July 5, 2013 @ 10:25pm
by Sue

'Truth' is almost impossible to find in any history. I am descended from the family of the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre of 1851 in which 24 white overlanders were battered to death by local aboriginals. This family were generous in sharing everything they had with the indigenous people - food, clothes and tools. But a new group wanted more, and as far as we know, that is why they were battered, so that this group could take everything. The family were mourned for two years by their former aboriginal people in Victoria.
We have always been taught that this is how things were in those days and have accepted it. The shepherds in remote areas were also often killed. We understand that tragedies happened on both sides and I agree with Thomas that these were very complex events. A man who stole a sheep in England was hanged. A man who stole cattle in Queensland would be expected to have the same punishment. The fact that aboriginals did not know these laws and considered all creatures were to be shared by all people was not understood by the settlers.

July 6, 2013 @ 11:05am
by Thomas

Sue, that is fascinating. I have read (but not verified) that Tom Wills was the son of Horatio Wills who was killed at Cullin-La-Ringo. Tom Wills trained an aboriginal cricket team near Harrow in Western Victoria and took them on a famous tour of England. Do you know if that's true?
The Queensland massacres, particularly Hornet Bank in 1857, sent ripples of fear through settlers all over Australia. Fortunately they were rare.
When clashes happened and statements were collected even the next day there is a wide variety of accounts.

July 6, 2013 @ 12:43pm
by Lesley

The sad thing is that people take sides instead of allowing that all historical events will be variously interpreted. The evidence of bias in this case is the initial rejection of the painting on the grounds of historical inaccuracy, the ' taking sides' in the so-called culture wars, instead of immediately accepting the work as one version of events. The hopeful thing is the reversal by the National Museum. Let's hope this precedent is the new default position.

July 6, 2013 @ 1:34pm
by peter

Sue. According to the recently published 'Conspiracy of Silence - Queensland's frontier killing times' by Timothy Bottoms the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre occurred in 1861 and resulted in 19 deaths. The author attributes this dreadful incident and the earlier (1857) Hornet Bank incident (11 whites) as primarily due to acts of rape as well as dispossession/stock losses as you attest. Bottoms puts retaliation for the two incidents at 370 and 300 Central Queensland aboriginees and one reason why the area apparently has few tribal links today.
Thomas. The author does not specifically state it but would appear likely that Tom and his brother Cedric were the sons of Horatio Wills killed at Cullin-la-Ringo.
My response to you both is to agree with your assertion that 'when clashes happened and statements were collected even the next there is a wide variety of accounts'.

July 6, 2013 @ 4:10pm
by Anna Reynolds

"What chance do historians have to address histories honestly when even today the questions remain over whose stories shall be told?" We are actively discussing these issues in Hobart. The Battery Point community hall was packed last week to hear Henry Reynolds and Bob Brown in conversation about history and politics. In particular, they discussed Henry's new book "Forgotten Wars". When Australia is dotted with memorials to soldiers who fought in wars overseas, his book asks why there are no official commemorations of the wars fought on Australian soil between Aborigines and white colonists?
(pictures here:

July 6, 2013 @ 6:47pm
by Anelie

Thomas, a book on Tom Wills, 'Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall' was published by Allen & Unwin in 2008 - - it might have the info you're looking for?

July 6, 2013 @ 7:17pm
by Sue

Hi Thomas,
Yes that's indeed true about Tom Wills taking the team to England. The English lined up to play them and were fascinated as none had ever seen a native Australian before so it was good PR. Tom taught himself 'football' in bare feet near the family property near Ararat (which Horation named, being a good Christian!) and he was the father of Aussie rules - a great cricketer who wanted something to do over the winter.
Tom was at Cullin-la-Ringo at the time of the massacre but on that particular day he was visiting a neighbour (neighbours were usually about two day's ride away) and missed out on being massacred. He never got over the fact of being saved, or over the fact of losing his father. His mother was in Geraldton giving birth to my great-grandfather, Horace. There is still a Tom Wills at Cullin-la-Ringo but when he dies it will revert to the aboriginals. Unfortunately there are three peoples who all claim native title to the area. Cullin-la-Ringo was one of very few properties to be saved from the recent huge floods as Horatio had ensured it was built on a high hill.
Horatio (who was killed that day) spoke several native languages and it is said that like many settlers (contrary to popular opinion!) he never fired a shot or harmed an aboriginal but respected what they could do and treated them like family. There are some records saying that a party had gone after the perpetrators and killed them in huge numbers but that is unlikely as the country up there did not sustain many people, and it was several days before anyone arrived. As you say, nobody will every know the truth.
The Wills family were not deterred from staying in Queensland and they worked the property from then on although it was nearly lost during the great depression when my branch of the family arrived in Melbourne.

July 6, 2013 @ 7:20pm
by Thomas

Thank you for that information. In honour of the team there is the Johnny Mullagh centre in Harrow and Tom Wills Drive near Lake Wallace in Edenhope. Red Cap's tree where he had his camp still stands and the district is named for him.
One of the best writers on relationships with the aborigines was Mary Gilmore. She understood quite a lot of the tension that existed and was able to understand and praise the achievements of the settlers while deploring the wrongs sometimes done to the aborigines.
This is not the place to expand on it, but violence occurred from both sides and the cause was inexplicable to both.
Why are there no war memorials? Because that is an attempt to transplant a foreign historical understanding to a uniquely Australian situation. Australia was not America, there were no Tippecanoes or trails of tears here. The level of conflict was never comparable. Settlement on the mainland was carried out by a handful of settlers who often went unarmed and with thankfully minimal conflict, although in their dotage many settlers wrote colourful accounts which are rivalled today by those of some pop historians.

July 7, 2013 @ 1:12am
Show previous 11 comments
by Sue

Anelie, the book on Tom Wills published in 2008 was a shocking misrepresentation of the events with all sorts of innuendoes and unfounded conclusions. It was written by a psychiatrist who knew little of the events and was only interested in getting his PhD. A much more accurate account using only documents available in the original was 'The Currency Lad' by TS Wills Cooke, available in State libraries.
Peter. Horatio had 9 children. The eldest was Tom and the third child was Cedric who took over Cullin-la-Ringo with Horace because Tom was no manager. There were two other sons and the rest were daughters. You are right about the date, 1861.
The local aboriginals, who came back onto Cullin la Ringo in 1870 in great numbers (they were not wiped out around Emerald) explained in great detail the reason behind the massacre. It was printed in Try Boys magazine in the early 1890's and is the fullest and fairest account available.
There was no rape. When shepherds were killed by aboriginals to take sheep, they were killed in return. This meant that their families had to kill some whites or some of their families by their own laws (as was also happening with the settlers - just like any war such as the Scots/English borders). Horatio's party happened to get in the way of this tit for tat murder although they had not been involved, having scarcely arrived.
It is quite impossible to put any figure on aboriginal deaths because the English would have found it necessary to allay people's fears by exaggerating them and nobody would have been counting. Horatio was the only Wills who was killed.
It's important to find and use all the sources, not just believe people who have an axe to grind. These should include the families of the aboriginals who were there. You might find that one of Horatio's neighbours was sheltering many of the 'murderers' from the native police. You might also find that in the same month as the massacre, newspapers were reporting with respect and admiration, the kindness showed by aboriginal people to King, one of Burke and Wills party, who survived.

July 7, 2013 @ 11:03am
by Michael

Thanks Paul for this coda to a ludicrous episode. I don't think war memorials is the right term but there are monuments near the site of the Myall Ck massacre near Inverell and at Bluff Rock south of Tenterfield in Northern NSW.

These events are still so recent as to be sore. In Baal Belbora, Geoffrey Blomfield documented a horrendous history of conflict over stock, poisonings and unreported massacres in the Macleay Valley that continued through to the 1930s, in his personal experience, including one at Five-Day Creek adjacent to New England National Park. I once had a discussion with a grazier from that area who held with the "black-armband" idea that such stories should remain buried in the past. He claimed that this history was partial because it excluded incidents in which his own family was involved.

July 9, 2013 @ 12:12am
by Sevastian

In my lifetime the bitter hatred of the Australian Aborigines by most Anglo Australians in my circle was incomprehensible, and, very frightening. The open hatred went quiet after the 1980's. I have witnessed the deportation of people who murdered Jews in Europe, but the mass murders of Aboriginals happening at the same time are treated as a non event.
We were even told about it by our school teachers; and, I may have seen at least one news reel boasting about it.
I sat two metres in front of an Australian Prime Minister who told the story of visiting his Uncles farm, and, when his Uncle showed up, he was asked by the Aunt, how did the hunt go; the reply was not very productive as he only managed to shoot a few women and children, the men must have been out hunting.
The last Nazi hunt in Australia was relatively recent, and, while catching a murderer; equally guilty home grown murderers have been let quietly go to their graves.
We live in an age where books are shredded, history is not taught at schools, and, the internet is sanitized. Above all, the victor writes the history books; or, stops anything been written.

December 17, 2013 @ 8:08am
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