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Building on the long history of First Nations resistance to the ongoing colonial invasion, sovereign Yuggera Ugarapul land defenders and their supporters have been camped out on the old Deebing Creek Mission site and surrounds for several years now. These courageous warriors are protecting their country from being desecrated by unsustainable suburban sprawl development that will also clear important habitat for several species of endangered and threatened flora and fauna.
The construction of a protest camp and the re-occupation of a portion of their traditional territory is an expression of the Yuggera Ugarapul people's unceded sovereignty over these lands. Their actions remind us that the place we call "Australia" is an ongoing occupation of several hundred First Nations territories. Rather than any legitimate authority, Australian claims to sovereignty are premised on the threat of overwhelming violence.
This threat of violence was made made explicit in 2019 when colonial police forces tried to evict the land defenders and remove the Yuggera Ugarapul people from their sovereign lands. As Yuggera man Daniel Thompson explains: "To this day – 230 years since invasion or settlement which ever way you call it – we still do not have any authority over our home lands." Luckily, thanks to a mass mobilisation that included many union members, the police backed down and the re-occupation was able to continue.
Most of the time, life at the camp is not so eventful. The core group of people who either live on site or visit regularly have been hard at work building a protection camp suitable for long term habitation. This includes a number of semi-permanent dwellings for live-in land defenders including a kitchen and common area. There are also spaces for elders and visitors to stay when they come to visit. Other projects include a food sovereignty and aquaponics garden where fresh produce is cultivated to keep the camp well fed. These initiatives hint at some of the ways the Yuggera Ugarapul people plan to use the site should they win the battle to gain land rights to this portion of their country.
Perhaps most importantly, a number of corroborees and other cultural activities have been held on site. In late 2019 Deebing Creek took part in the Nation Dance movement in which First Nations people from all across the continent gathered to perform their traditional dances at the same time while also livestreaming to the world. In early 2021, a sacred eternal fire was lit on site using ashes from the sacred fire at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the grounds of old parliament house on Ngunnawal country (so-called Canberra).
Securing land rights at Deebing Creek would provide the Yuggera Ugarapul people with a permanent base from which to continue practicing and revitalising their culture. The demand for land rights over what amounts to a small portion of their sovereign territory really should not be so contentious.
Image Description: Six people gather around a table where food is being served under a semi-permanent dwelling at the Deebing Creek protest camp. | Image credit: Toolmoor Truth and Healing Embassy
Image Description: Five garden beds in a clearing used to produce food as part of the protest camp's food sovereignty project. | Image credit: Toolmoor Truth and Healing Embassy
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What is the history of the Deebing Creek Mission?
The mission is located on the sovereign territory of the Yuggera Ugarapul peoples who have called this place home since time immemorial. Colonists first intruded on the land in 1827 but the invasion did not really ramp up until pastoralists began occupying the area in the 1840s. After the Frontier Wars moved further north and west, Yuggera Ugarapul peoples were made into refugees on their own land and survivors were relocated to the Deebing Creek Mission which officially opened on 2 May 1892. Roughly 172 acres were gazetted as “Aboriginal Reserve” when the mission opened, with another 41 acres added in October 1892 and a further 110 acres added in November 1896.
At first, people were free to come and go as they pleased, however after the passage of the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897, Deebing Creek Mission began operating as a concentration camp; First Nations people were abducted from all across the state and detained at Deebing Creek where most were put to work without pay (effectively enslaved). Every aspect of their lives was controlled by the colonial state. Deebing Creek Mission was closed in 1915 and detainees were transferred to the nearby Purga Mission.
How was the mission site privatised?
On 26 January 1917 the gazettal of Deebing Creek as an “Aboriginal Reserve” was formally rescinded, although it remained Crown Land (according to European law). The 352 acres that comprised the old Deebing Creek Mission was converted into a Perpetual Lease Selection and used for agricultural purposes. In response to advocacy from Uncle Les Davidson and his family, in February 1976 some 3600m2 - comprising much of the old mission cemetery - was compulsorily resumed as Crown Land and gazetted as an Aboriginal cemetery. The rest of the land appears to have been sold by the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government to a non-Indigenous person in 1984. It is unclear why this occurred or what the sale price was.
What parts of the site are currently protected from development?
The cemetery and a small part of the original mission site was included in the Queensland Heritage Register on 24 September 2004. Over 99% of the old mission site is not protected and the developers plans to build sporting fields and other amenities on most of the tiny amount of “protected” land.
How did the cemetery come to be protected?
In 1973 Uncle Les Davidson notified the Queensland Government that there was an Aboriginal Cemetery near the creek at the northern end of the old mission site which needed protection. This was opposed by the white people occupying the site at the site. After much advocacy by Uncle Les and others an area of roughly 100m by 20m was compulsorily acquired and gazetted as a cemetery. When the overgrown lantana was cleared it revealed one marked gravestone for Julia Ford and rows of rough natural stones which served as headstones.
Were there any plans for the cemetery once it was protected?
Uncle Les pegged out 63 grave sites in the now protected cemetery. He also organised for the burial ground to be fenced and a small shed to be built on site in 1978. Ambitious plans were made for a recreational reserve on the adjoining land which would include a football field, cricket field, basketball courts, and homes for the elderly. Uncle Les passed away before the Deebing Creek Cultural Association was formed in September 1978. This committee wanted to create a lawn cemetery with BBQs in the nearby area to accommodate outdoor functions. There were also plans to determine who was buried there so they could be commemorated with named plaques. In the 1980s new plans were made for a visitor centre and memorial park where people could learn about Yuggera Ugarapul culture through bush activities and camping. Volunteers worked to care for the cemetery on weekends and Francis Wright took school-aged children on tours.
What parts of the site are significant?
The whole Deebing Creek area is unceded sovereign land that is important to the Yuggera Ugarapul people. Of particular importance is the burial ground which contains an indeterminate number of unmarked graves. The graves extend beyond the “official” cemetery boundaries identified on the State Heritage Register; this was highlighted by the illegal mining of parts of Deebing Creek in the early 1990s which unearthed human bones, and confirmed by a ground-penetrating radar survey undertaken by the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (DATSIP). Oral histories also tell of a massacre happening near the cemetery, but the State Government has so far refused to investigate this. Ultimately the entire old mission site and surrounding bushland is important to the Yuggera Ugarapul people and should not be developed.
Have there been any land rights campaigns at Deebing Creek in the past?
In December 1985 Uncle Budger Davidson and Doreen Thompson organised a sit in at the site. They set up two camps on the old mission site and demanded the Yuggera Ugarapul people’s land rights be recognised. People came from the broader Brisbane area to support including members of the Legal Service and Brisbane Tribal Council. The re-occupation lasted until January 1986 when the Moreton Council tried to evict them from their sovereign lands.
When were the plans made to develop this area?
The State Government declared Ripley Valley a Priority Development Area (PDA) on 8 October 2010 - this was supported by the Ipswich Mayor of the time, Paul Pisasale. The PDA overrode the local town plan, rezoned this rural and agricultural land as future suburban sprawl, and made the state government the body responsible for assessing development applications (DAs). In 2012, Ipswich City Council took on responsibility for assessing DAs made under the PDA.
Frasers Property has the title to most of the old mission site. They were granted approval for the first stage of their proposed development in August 2018. AV Jennings has the title to land directly north of the old mission site, adjoining the burial ground. They were granted approval for the first stage of their proposed development in July 2018.
Is this good/desirable/sustainable development?
These proposals are not well designed or sustainable developments. When construction is completed, some 50,000 dwellings housing a population of approximately 120,000 people are projected to live within the Ripley Valley PDA . To build these homes, large swathes of remnant native forest will be bulldozed, which will put several threatened species at risk including koalas and the swamp tea tree. An unfunded train line is proposed to connect people to the Brisbane CBD at some point in the future, but the design of these suburbs mean residents will still depend heavily on cars to access local employment centres, schools, and community facilities.
Does the train line extension impact the cemetery?
The transport corridor set aside for the extension of the train line from Springfield passes directly by the cemetery. It seems like the government is proposing to build a viaduct over the cemetery to avoid disturbing the protected area. While not directly disturbing the burial grounds, a viaduct would be imposing and stop the cemetery being a place of quiet reflection.
Who are they key decision makers?
Ipswich Council is responsible for assessing development applications against the Ripley Valley PDA. The Queensland Government is the best-placed body to compulsorily acquire the land and return ownership to the Yuggera Ugarapul people. The Queensland Government also has the power to amend the Priority Development Area and other relevant planning documents to change what kind of development is allowed at Deebing Creek.