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Remembering Charlie

By Stephen Hagan - posted Wednesday, 20 June 2007

During frequent flights over this vast country of ours I often marvel at the sheer beauty of the landscape below; a painter’s ideal canvas of contrasting green undulating hills, barren plains and spasmodic strips of blue that often reach unnatural conclusions on long meandering stretches of waterways.

On terra firma I sit in awe of the landscape as it unfolds before my eyes from much closer quarters. I often envisage this view through the eyes of my ancestors and immediately know that they were truly blessed with an abundance of flora and fauna.

But nowhere on Australia's vast landmass will you find an exact replica on wood or rock of an Indigenous leader or warrior made before the contact era (pre-1788).


Besides the revealing images of ancient mythical figures painted in caves, in rock etchings or on ornaments, Indigenous Australians never sought to honour their heroes in the same manner as non-Indigenous people did by erecting statues.

Perhaps our ancestors saw no need for such public displays of vanity using grand statues for their leaders but rather relied, as they did with their oral history, in storing fond thoughts of them in their encyclopaedic minds.

However times have changed, and just as we have moved on from an oral history to written recordings of past and present deeds, so should we adopt new codes of respecting and honoring the outstanding work of our past and present leaders.

With the exception of the handsome statue of Yagan in Perth I don’t recall seeing any other statue of famous Indigenous Australians prominently placed in our cities’ public spaces in my travels. But I can name countless statues of non-Indigenous leaders punctuating city skylines - in botanical gardens, city squares or at major junctions - of male anglo-saxons in victorious poses or astride a horse, for example.

But even poor old Yagan didn’t appear in a highly visible public park on the Swan River without controversy.

From the mid-1970s, members of the Noongar community lobbied for the erection of a statue of Yagan as part of the WAY 1979 sesquicentennial celebrations. Their requests were refused, however, after then Premier of Western Australia Sir Charles Court was advised by local historians that Yagan was not important enough to warrant a statue.


Respected Indigenous leader Ken Colbung claimed at the time "Court was more interested in spending tax payers' money on refurbishing the badly neglected burial place of Captain James Stirling, WA's first governor".

Despite this setback, the Noongar community persisted, establishing a Yagan Committee and running a number of fund-raising drives. Eventually, sufficient funds were collected to allow the commissioning of Australian sculptor Robert Hitchcock to create a statue.

The result was a life-size statue in bronze, depicting Yagan standing naked with a spear held across his shoulders. Hitchcock's statue of Yagan was officially opened by Yagan Committee chairperson Elizabeth Hanson on September 11, 1984. It stands on Heirisson Island in the Swan River near Perth.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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