This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography
Nipper Tabagee (c.1920–1990), stockman and Aboriginal cultural leader, was born in his family’s traditional Yungngora country in the West Kimberley, Western Australia, son of Larry Mull and his wife Duggamurra, both station workers. Nipper’s birth date is unknown; one government source gives it as 1 July 1920, another as between 1909 and 1920. He was known by other names, sometimes as ‘Buck,’ and to his kin as Balagaradu, his bush name, or Malaga, his country name. While he identified as a Yungngora person, he maintained close connections with Walmajarri and Nyikina people, and spoke a number of Aboriginal languages.
Tabagee grew up during a time when Aboriginal people had few legal rights. His family, like most in the region, were tied under contract to station managers to undertake stock and general labouring work. The work was unpaid, and Tabagee’s family, like most in the region, were virtual vassals of the European station manager. From an early age Tabagee learnt the skills of stock work on stations owned by the McClarty and Rose families, including Noonkanbah, Kalyeeda, and Mount Anderson. During World War II he worked as a labourer on the Royal Australian Air Force base at Noonkanbah.
Schooled in Aboriginal law and cultural knowledge, Tabagee was a skilled hunter and spearman, and he also participated in ceremonies as a singer and a dancer. A close relation, John Darraga Watson, described him as a strong man, who was not afraid to stand up to the boss if he believed an injustice had been committed (Watson, pers. comm.).
In 1947 Tabagee was assigned to the police as a tracker and mediator. His job was to accompany police patrols in search of leprosy sufferers, who were taken for compulsory treatment to the Derby Leprosarium at Bungarun, twelve miles (20 km) from the town. By 1959 he was again working at Noonkanbah. He was accompanied by his second wife, Sarbar, and son, Bandy Jabierri, his first wife, Lily Buck, having died in 1953. Both of his marriages were conducted according to traditional cultural practices. He later feared that he too had caught the dreaded disease when ‘one day I got a weakness in my arm’ (Hunter 1983, 14). Subsequently, he doubted whether the disease had been as serious as he was told, and blamed the painful treatments for the deformities that he carried for the rest of his life. He was discharged from Bungarun in 1970.
The old pastoral labour arrangements in the Kimberley were breaking down by this time. In September 1967 the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission included ‘full blood Aboriginals’ in the Pastoral Industry Award that resulted in equal pay but fewer jobs for Aboriginal workers. Subsequently, most Aboriginal people left the stations for a new and uncertain life in the towns and on Aboriginal reserves. At Noonkanbah, Tabagee was amongst those who, in 1971, sought refuge in Fitzroy Crossing and Derby after a dispute with the manager. In 1976 the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission purchased Noonkanbah for the benefit of the Yungngora community. Tabagee and his family returned to the station, where he became one of the leaders of an enterprise to build a new community and lifestyle.
With other elders, Tabagee confronted the complexities of the community’s relationship with the external world of government and politics. They were soon embroiled in a conflict between Aboriginal and European law. In 1978 an American company, Amax Oil and Gas Inc., sought a licence to drill for oil at Pea Hill (Umpampurra), a sacred site of supreme importance for the Yungngora people. The protracted dispute between the community and the combined forces of the mining company and the State government of Sir Charles Court, brought Noonkanbah nationwide publicity. Tabagee took a prominent role in the community’s defence of Yungngora country. He spoke at meetings, gave evidence in court, and travelled to Perth to enlist the support of politicians, unions, and church groups. In August 1980, however, the State government sent a convoy of trucks and drilling equipment, accompanied by a sizeable police contingent, to break the blockade established by the community and its supporters. In the resulting affray, he was one of fifty-five people arrested; all were released without charge. Drilling proceeded, but no oil was found. Undeterred, Tabagee continued to advocate for the recognition of Aboriginal law and culture. He became an active participant in the affairs of the Kimberley Land Council, a regional community organisation set up in 1978 to lobby for land rights.
Steve Hawke, a community worker, described Tabagee as a ‘Dreamer’ who was ‘passionate about the land’ and Aboriginal law, ‘steeped in the knowledge and beliefs of the old days, before the white man arrived to confuse things’ (Hawke 1991, 33). He understood the importance of imparting cultural understanding to non-Aboriginal people and, by doing so, influenced the thinking of many anthropologists. A strongly built man with a resonant voice, he exuded energy and enthusiasm, and travelled tirelessly around the Kimberley, ‘deliberating, negotiating, encouraging’ (Hawke 1991, 33). Yet he was often frustrated in his efforts to educate white people: ‘A lot of these people think we are liars. But we have a story from the everlasting . . . they just don’t take any notice’ (Hawke 1991, 33).
Survived by several of his children, Tabagee died on 12 September 1990 in Derby Hospital, and was buried at Noonkanbah. His grandson, Ivan McPhee (1953–2008), would become chairman of the Kimberley Land Council (1993–98). Three years after his death the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993 incorporated into the Australian legal canon many of the principles he had fought for. In 2007 the Federal Court determined that the Yungngora community held native title. An annual Nipper Tabagee scholarship was founded in 2011 to provide educational opportunities for young Kimberley Aboriginal people.
Malcolm Allbrook, 'Tabagee, Nipper (Buck) (1920–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/tabagee-nipper-buck-18483/text30139, accessed 25 April 2017.