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to Paddy Roe - July 2001

By Phin Murphy and Jim Sinatra

The Sydney Morning Herald
July 20, 2001

Paddy Roe
Aboriginal elder, 1912-2001

For many, there can be no greater loss than the death of Paddy Roe. A character known far beyond his home country around Broome in Western Australia, Roe was not only respected as an elder holding profound cultural knowledge entrusted to him by his people, but also for his generosity in sharing the "public" aspects of that knowledge with anyone ready to listen.

Roe was a storyteller committed to sharing his time with countless visitors to the tamarind tree at his home in Broome. His goodwill and patience grew from his life.

Roe was born on the Roebuck Plains (Pastoral) Station, 25 kilometres east of Broome, about 1912. He grew up as a Nyikina man, escaping the missions and forced assimilation that was taking the children away from their families and homeland.

During the early 1930s he travelled through the areas surrounding his homeland, and the odyssey with his wife was as a way of continuing the traditional law. Although Paddy was already a Nyikina lawman, his people walked him through the country teaching him its names, telling him its stories and showing him its sacred sites.

Paddy was given the responsibility of a custodial role representing cultures that had suffered the effects of the encroaching non-indigenous cultures.

After working for many years around the Kimberley as a station hand and windmill contractor in the late 1960s, Roe settled with his family north of Broome and established the Goolarabooloo community to fulfil his cultural responsibility.

The result was the development of the Lurujarri (coastal dunes) heritage trail, initiated in 1987 as a way of sharing the cultural importance of the landscape with non-Aboriginal people.

As Broome continued to attract tourists and promote development, Roe's obligation to ensure the country's maintenance in the "proper way" led to an important cross-cultural bridge, working at the grassroots of reconciliation long before the word became a central focus.

We first met Paddy Roe in the late 1980s as part of a group of 18 from the landscape architecture course at RMIT, Melbourne, listening to what he had to share about the environment of Broome.

Notable was how welcome Roe made a group of students from Melbourne.

The experience changed everyone in some way, because what Paddy had to share seemed to go to the very essence of human nature, despite his difficulty in mastering English. He shared an understanding so profound that it continues to resonate. For some of us, this created personal turning points.

The profundity of the local landscape and culture was revealed through experience.

Indeed, all who have walked the Lurujarri Trail that winds 80 kilometres from Minarriny (Coulomb Point) south to Minyirr (Gantheaume Point) near Broome have learnt of its immense importance as part of a song cycle celebrated by Aborigines as holding the path taken by the ancestral spirits during Creation.

For us, as landscape architects, Roe was and will always be a great source of inspiration and guidance. The experience of meeting him and his family, as well as the sheer power of his country, established a foundation for our own pursuits.

He not only secured within our own spirits a greater sense of the places we live and visit, but opened our eyes to the importance of traditional and contemporary indigenous culture, in all its diversity and complexity.

For all of us who have been privileged to have met and known Roe, surging through the sense of loss at his passing is the reassuring knowledge that his spirit will remain as part of the landscape's identity and his family's strength.

To many of us, Paddy Roe is the elder of the spirit of reconciliation and we are hopeful that in history he will be remembered in this light.

Interview with Paddy Roe

Inspired by one of Paddy Roe's books Reading the Country (written with Stephen Muecke and artist Krim Benterrak) ABC Radio producer Bill Bunbury went with Paddy Roe to 'read the country' of Roebuck Plains near Broome, Paddy's birthplace.

Click here to listen ...

Phin Murphy and Professor Jim Sinatra, RMIT University Melbourne, co-authors of "Listen to the People, Listen to the Land", have written this obituary on behalf of those who have been inspired and changed by Paddy Roe.