Unlocking role of Aboriginal women in buffalo industry

An archive picture of the NT buffalo industry from the Northern Territory Library collection.
An archive picture of the NT buffalo industry from the Northern Territory Library collection. Contributed

NEW research from the Australian National University will explore the history and, in particular, the role of Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory's buffalo shooting industry.

Charlotte Feakins, a PhD candidate with the ANU School of Culture, History and Language, said Aboriginal people were crucial to the industry, which thrived from the late 19th century to mid-20th century, but they were largely ignored in the official and popular histories.

"Newspaper articles and popular histories described the romantic, nomadic life of the white buffalo hunters, popularising their bush-legend status,” Ms Feakins said.

"However, this has led to an overtly biased account of the past.

"Aboriginal people, but particularly women, were absolutely integral to the industry's success. Without them it just wouldn't have been possible.”

As part of her research, Ms Feakins completed archaeological field work on five sites in the Territory, mainly around the South Alligator River region.

Among the artefacts she found were blacksmithing materials, a water tank that had the names of workers engraved in the cement, and even an old Ford car.

"I also interviewed a number of people who had fathers and mothers and grandparents involved in the industry and looked through collections of old photos.

"One woman I spoke to was quite moved by the fact I was asking about her mother and her grandmother because no one had asked before. The focus had always been on her white father's history within the industry.”

Ms Feakins said that the shooting camps consisted mainly of a couple of white men and up to 30 Aboriginal workers.

"I am trying to uncover how many of those workers were women,” Ms Feakins said.

"A lot of the shooting was seasonal. Hunters would generally come from Darwin and up from South Australia for the wet season and the Aboriginal workers would join them at various camps.”

Ms Feakins said that in the dry season the Aboriginal workers would head back to camps around Oenpelli and Pine Creek.

"A lot of the Aboriginal men were regarded as legends, but I believe the women contributed greatly to the industry.

"The women's work was often longer and more labour intensive, as they not only cleaned and salted the heavy hides but also cooked and cared for the camp, as well as gave birth to, and raised, children.

"However, their story has received little acknowledgement, let alone celebration.”

Ms Feakins said that her "over-arching” interest in her study was the similarity between the buffalo industry in the Territory and the "buffalo” or bison shooting industry in the United States.

"I am trying to understand the Australian legend and legendary figures that are so iconic and symbolic of Australia and their correlation with the Wild West era in the US.

"I am looking at how myths and legends are created and how the buffalo industry may have been a symbol/metaphor for colonial progression.

"While there was a genuine need for the industry, I will be looking at whether the industry and the legends that were borne from it were the catalyst for the more romantic notion of heroism and the attraction to the north.”

Ms Feakins hopes to complete her study by 2018.

If you have information that may contribute to Ms Feakins' work please contact her on 0415 632 451 or email

Topics:  australian national university

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