Roebuck Plains Station has been owned by traditional owners since 2006. (ABC News: Ian Redfearn)
Ambling across an expansive and endless Kimberley plain in a dusty haze is a large mob of cattle.
- Roebuck Plains Station is owned by traditional owners and leased by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation
- It recruits up to 10 Indigenous trainees each year, offering a path towards hope for many young people
- It balances cultural, environmental and business values
Surrounding them, ushering them along and roping in any strays, are a group of Indigenous stockmen.
They sit up tall in the saddle — proud and capable.
This is Roebuck Plains Station, about 30 kilometres from Broome in Yawuru country, owned by traditional owners since 2006, and leased by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation.
Here traditional owners and Indigenous people are taking back the reins, creating jobs, protecting country and forging a promising future, all while running a profitable and sustainable station according to Nyamba Buru Yawuru CEO Peter Yu.
“It is our country and we know about as good as anybody else the nature of what is required to run our business,” Mr Yu said.
“With the acquisition of these properties what we’ve seen is a resurgence, a revitalization and generation of change of pride and dignity of our people back on their traditional country, to have genuine desire to and aspiration to reconnect but to also understand the nature of why these properties have to be run successfully.”
Every year the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation takes in up to 10 new Indigenous trainees and shows them the basics of cattle work.
Leith Barnes is the head stockman at Roebuck Plains Station and wants to manage the place one day. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
New recruit Tyson Dolby said he had grown up seeing others doing the work and had always wanted to get involved.
“[It is] good to be a role model for your community to show younger people you can actually get out instead of staying at home and doing nothing,” he said.
“There’s a lot around the Kimberley and Western Australia that want to be like their uncles — work on the station [and] go to rodeos.
“I grew up hearing about it and I was like ‘Yeah I want to be like him — so here I am’.”
Returning for a second year is Reko Yeeda who was only too keen to front up for another season of stock work.
Reko Yeeda says he was in a bad crowd before starting work at the station. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
“[I was a] trainee last year so this year is second year stock crew so it’s fun. [I] love working with cattle,” he said.
“My grandfather was a stockman years ago, a drover, so something like that like to be like that.
“[I used to] hang around a lot bad kids doing stealing, smoking drugs and all that sort of things but I keep away from that, you know it’s the best thing I did.”
Cattle work could save ‘a whole generation’ of children
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It is a story Mr Yeeda has seen play out firsthand, saying he had known stressed young boys who turned to drugs, and then, tragically, suicide.
But he said station work offered a path towards hope.
“[I’d] love to see young men get out of drugs and everything to work on station like this,” he said.
“[It] keeps them occupied and fit and all that — but most young guys don’t want to seem to work in the cattle industry.
“You know, they just think it’s boring you know, but it’s fun, keep you on your foot all day.”
Overseer Mick Munday believes cattle work could save a lot of young people. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
Overseer Mick Munday believed cattle work might even save a whole generation of kids.
“My aim is to get kids off stress, bring them back on country and this is why I am [a] role model — just doing this so we can help the young fellas off the stress,” he said.
“If we don’t do that we got a dying race. So that’s my biggest dream — make more employment.”
Senior stockman Frank Skeen — a third-generation ringer who grew up idolising his father — said the work gave young workers something to feel proud of.
“If they going be in town doing nothing … they will get into mischief and trouble with the law,” he said.
“A lot of young blokes come out here, at least they doing something … that makes them feel proud of themselves.
“It’s a good program for younger ones to come out, it’s very good.”
Even though the work is hard — “six days a week, 10 hours a day” — Mr Skeen said it was rewarding, and hoped to see his daughters, sons and nieces carry on the family tradition one day.
“It’s a good feeling too, going back home to the station knowing you did a good days work at the end of the day,” he said.
“So [we get a] bit knackered, but that’s ringing life.”
Combining business, culture and environmental values
In what is a rarity, Roebuck Plains has an Indigenous Protected Area on the property where cattle are not pushed off but managed in a way that both pastoralism and environmental protection have a place.
Mr Yu said his people were proud to have found a way to balance culture and protection of country with commercial success — and would be striving to maintain those standards, particularly in these tough times.
“It has to provide the returns to support the livelihood,” he said.
“But at the same time, what the native title determination has provided is for the first time direct access through our ownership for our people to reconnect with the country, but also invest in our traditional knowledge of the country, both land and water.”
Alongside the stockmen are rangers or country managers who do water surveillance, pasture monitoring, burning off and in-depth tracking of the land to ensure if areas are being overgrazed or suffering they are fenced off and protected.
Dean Matthews, a traditional owner and senior project officer with the country managers, said the relationship of respect went both ways.
“It is about working together with the management of the station to protect areas of cultural and economical significance,” he said.
Roebuck Plains Station is leased by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation. (ABC News: Ian Redfearn)
Although he said they were still working the model out, he hoped it would inspire other Indigenous groups in the future.
“So I think it’s exciting for us — there is no fundamentally guiding principles here,” he said.
“We are feeling our way through it but as a key out of this is about relationships, trust and trying to work toward a common objective.”
During the summer, the deaths of thousands of cattle on Indigenous-run stations in northern-western Australia led to heightened scrutiny over governance and management on Indigenous-run stations.
Nyamba Buru Yawuru Aboriginal Corporation has not had any allegations against it and Mr Yu said it would be working particularly hard to keep things that way, as any animal welfare compromises brought shame and pain across the entire industry.
“There can always be improvement in management and I think that is a challenge for every one of us,” he said.
“We just can’t rest on our laurels to think circumstances don’t change and we have to be prepared for that.
“It is hardship felt right across the board, it’s not just Aboriginal properties, it’s a whole range of properties where those challenges happen.
“These are very harsh circumstances in which the industry has to go through.”
Healthy country and healthy Brahman
At Roebuck Station a long day has ended, weary stockmen are hanging up their saddles, some lean against truck tires.
It is hoped that other Indigenous groups will be inspired by the work going on at Roebuck Plains Station. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
But while the sun fades fast, there is plenty of hope on the horizon.
Whether it is conservation, cattle or culture, it is a new and promising path for the first people of the Kimberley on this vast pastoral estate.