By Paul Daley
First published in The Guardian Australia – Canberra press gallery journalist Jeremy Geia has walked away from his job, given up his passport and belongings and reverted to his tribal name, Murrumu Walubara Yidindji.
Last April Jeremy Geia posted his driver’s licence to the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, where he was then living, with a polite note explaining why he no longer needed it.
Then he returned his passport and Medicare card to the federal government.
Geia sent them back because he had decided to “leave Australia” while remaining in this continent, by reverting to his tribal name and adhering primarily to the law of his people, the Yidindji of north Queensland.
While severing all official contact and contracts with Australian institutions, he made a few more momentous life decisions too, relinquishing a good salary by quitting his job as chief political correspondent in the Canberra press gallery for National Indigenous Television, giving away most of his things, and abandoning his bank accounts and 20 years’ superannuation.
We are talking in Cairns over breakfast (my shout; he carries barely enough change to park his borrowed car) about what inspired him to abandon what he calls the “Australian citizen ship”.
Murrumu Walubara Yidindji, as he is now, is highly adept with words – consistent with the reputation he honed in Canberra and elsewhere (among other stories he broke, Murrumu was the first western reporter to interview Julian Assange in London’s Ecuadorian embassy) as a highly respected journalist. He footnotes his English aphorism with Latin interpretation and constantly riffs – even kind of raps – off the entendre of words he so precisely selects.
He’s a warm, enigmatic big bear of a bloke with whom conversation oscillates seamlessly from the intensely political (sovereignty and the sites where his people were massacred) to prosaic (football, kids, mutual friends, weather).
To begin to understand Murrumu it’s perhaps best to start here.
“Superficies solo credit – what is attached to the land belongs to the land,” he says.
“Qui prior est tempore potior est jure – first in time is best in law.”
Murrumu’s message could not be clearer: the Yidindji have been on their land – which incorporates all of Cairns, extends from the Russell river in the south to the Mowbray in the north, and reaches from beyond the Malbon Thompson range and out into the Coral Sea past the Franklin Islands – since the Dreaming began. Any additions to that land, such as buildings and roads, piers and jetties, he insists, belong to the country itself and the Yidindji.
“The Australian government sees us as the original inhabitants and [as] the original peoples, and that says to me that our law is strongest in law and their law is Johnny Come Lately,” he says.
Having rescinded and revoked any allegiance to the Commonwealth of Australia, he says, “1788 is fast becoming 1984”.
“The rapid dominance resulting from British contact has fast turned many tribal people into state citizens who live lives of voluntary servitude far removed from their tribal duties and laws.”
While it seems that not all practical detail of abandoning the citizen ship has yet been finessed, Murrumu has embarked on a campaign – beginning this week in Canberra where he’ll meet foreign diplomats and speak at the Australian National University – to cultivate international awareness about the supremacy of Yidindji law and his departure from Australia.
“People that know me and know what I’m doing are more than happy to support me because they know that what I’m doing is the truth,” he says.
“The truth is that we were here before the British. The truth is that we hold sovereignty and dominion over these lands. The truth is that there’ve been genocide and multiple crimes against humanity and massacres committed on this land that haven’t been brought to … justice.
“We’ve sent notices to the world letting them know that Yidindji tribal authority is here and [about] my wish to make an offer to negotiate and … to settle with the ones who are benefiting from the unjust enrichments from using my ancestral lands and my child’s property.”
He has written to Tony Abbott, whom he knows personally. But so far he’s only received an impersonal response from the prime minister’s department.
Murrumu says while he had been contemplating a return to tribal law for some time, the political instability, treachery, deceit and self-indulgence surrounding the Labor leadership, especially in mid-2013 when Kevin Rudd reassumed the prime ministership, helped crystallise his decision.
“Everyone in Parliament House was talking about it and at that stage I thought, ‘This is childlike – how can people, including my people, improve their lives when this type of caper is going on?’
“While that circus was happening a lot of people who had put their faith in voting and in the political process had been disrespected. That, for me, was the tipping point and I made a decision to say, ‘You know what? This is a system that’s not for me. That’s when I decided to jump off the citizen ship, leave Australia.”
Divesting personal possessions is liberating, says Murrumu, who, I’m guessing, might be in his late 30s or early 40s.
I do ask his age, and he says: “I have been here since the beginning of time. My body has information that is tens of thousands of years old.”
Today he owns seven T-shirts and one pair of trousers. Nothing else. No longer opening mail is a blessing, he says. Notably, for a bloke who’s off the grid, he’s still on the net and his emails arrive under his tribal moniker.
He lives with friends including a Yidindji elder, Gudju Gudju, on the outskirts of Cairns where the fecund, black earth, with its countless worry lines of rivulets and streams, begins to rise gently into the dense, lush rainforest of the ancient range.
“And I do still love my English football – Liverpool. And English breakfast tea,” he volunteers.
Then he laughs because … well, yes, the irony, which is pretty acute, is not lost on him. But then again, he’s not declaring war on Britain and Australia, “just peacefully going back to my original law”. While plenty may – and will – disagree, I guess Murrumu is still entitled to support whichever English Premier League team he likes and imbibe whatever cha, so long as it’s on someone else’s flat screen and there are mates willing to spot him a teabag or two.
As we drive to the place where he sleeps (“I live in here,” he insists, tapping his chest, in a way that prompts you to think about your own life) a police car passes on the other side of the highway.
“Policy enforcement officers,” Murrumu says, shaking his head.
Officers who would doubtless be confused should they pull Murrumu over and demand to see his licence.
“Yeah, I don’t hold a licence because it had the incorrect name on it [Jeremy Geia] and furthermore I did not want to hold a licence because the supreme creator here is Gayaburra Goopi and he gave the tribal people the law to uphold and this gives us the supreme authority on the land,” he says.
He explains that he and a few others who are following his example carry only a document, created by him, that explains their tribal identity. Yidindji number plates and perhaps even currency are planned. In the meantime Murrumu is growing food and bartering, sometimes with his own impressive paintings, demand for which is growing.
“Who created the licences … and all these other things that Australian citizens use? It’s the crown or the commonwealth. So they belong to them. And you know, give back to Caesar what belongs to Rome … this is your stuff, so take it back.”
About here I start to wonder if Murrumu is having just a little bit of a lend. He says that if stopped by the Australian authorities he would identify himself as a tribal man who lives outside Australia and he expects that his status would be respected.
And I also wonder if he’s having me on when he acknowledges the advantages of living in Australia, such as Medicare and public hospitals and schools, but reiterates “what is attached to the land belongs to the land” and “if this is tribal land then surely all these buildings belong to the tribe”, which leads inevitably to this exchange:
“OK, so your kid gets sick and needs to go to hospital and he needs to go to school, how do you deal with that practicality?”
Murrumu: “Well, we just take them to school, and they get an education.”
“But that is an education provided by the state.”
Murrumu: “Yeah, but that school’s on my land.”
“The same with the hospital, right?”
“That’s exactly right.”
But by the time we get to Gudju Gudju’s house, Murrumu has mentioned perhaps half a dozen times the massacre of various tribal people, his own included, by soldiers, settlers and police that began with the arrival of the first citizen ship from England in 1788.
Yes, he is provoking an important conversation by just about any verbal means possible. But in the end I am left in no doubt that he is entirely serious and that his resolve is sure. He’s not having a lend.
I meet Gudju Gudju, who takes me across the road to a grassy lot that abuts Skeleton creek. We stand beneath the impressive canopy of a monolithic raintree, imported from the Americas long after the British arrived, and Gudju Gudju rubs his scent on to me so the creek’s spirits won’t harm me.
The “old people”, as Gudju Gudju calls them, are here now – right there, he says, just over my shoulder, along the creek bank, where their heads were cut off and placed on stakes. He incants in Yidindji, rubs his hands under his armpits and wipes them softly on my face and torso.
Queensland was, perhaps, the stage for the most excessive frontier violence against the continent’s Indigenous people. A growing body of evidence suggests upwards of 50,000 people died at the hands of settlers, soldiers and native police in colonial Queensland..
Murrumu’s 2010 painting Skeleton Creek
Skeleton creek is the site of one such massacre in the 1880s. That is corroborated by both Yidindji oral history, as conveyed in Murrumu’s 2010 painting Skeleton Creek, and colonial records. The locals were massacred and decapitated by settlers and the native police, and their heads put on stakes at regular intervals along the creek to stop the local clans continually crossing the waterway to attack pastoralists.
After Canberra, Murrumu plans to take his message overseas. I’m anxious on his behalf; I ask how he intends to travel abroad without an Australian passport.
“Well, I don’t need a passport,” he says. “Passports are for citizens and I’m not a citizen. I am a tribal man and there are ways that I can’t disclose to you that I can travel under protection and with what people would say is diplomatic immunity.”
And so we can probably add Customs to the list of commonwealth of institutions – I’m guessing behind Asio, the Queensland and federal police – that are likely to have a heightened awareness of Murrumu from now on.
Murrumu seems to expect this but insists he’s not afraid. “I don’t fear for my life because what I’m doing is the truth. But I don’t want to be intercepted or interfered with and the Australians must respect that.
“And if their police or their courts or their magistrates touch me or interfere with me then it will be an act of slavery and crimes against the tribe.”
We may have heard the last of Jeremy Geia but we have not heard the last, I suspect, of Murrumu Walubara Yidindji.