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John Pampeya Koowarta (1940–1991)

by Darryl Bennet and Colin Sheehan

This article was published:

John Pampeya Koowarta (1940-1991), Wik elder and land-rights claimant, was born on 21 November 1940 at Aurukun Presbyterian Mission on the western coast of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, eldest child of Henry Massey Pampeya Koowarta, boatman, and his wife Oompippa Yunkatippin. John’s Aboriginal names were Ku’-waat and Pa’ampong, references to his leech and palm tree totems respectively. He grew up under the strict regime of Rev. William MacKenzie at Aurukun and attended the mission school. Having trained as an engineer’s assistant, he would later work as a motor mechanic. On 16 December 1960 at the mission church, he married Martha Koorpellembinna Peinyekka; the couple had two daughters and a son. The marriage later broke down and he formed a relationship with Kathleen Shortjoe.

In 1974 the Whitlam Federal government established the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission to assist communities to acquire land outside reserves. The traditional lands of Koowarta’s family lie south of the Archer River and extend over Running Creek; they are focused particularly on Tea Tree Lagoon and extend northwards to Lake Archer. At the time this estate formed part of the Archer River Pastoral Holding, occupied by non-Aboriginal graziers under a Queensland government lease. Koowarta and his fellow traditional owners, known as the Winychanam group, approached the commission, which, in February 1976, entered into a contract with the lessees to buy their rights in the land. The sale required the consent of the Queensland minister for lands, forestry, national parks, and wildlife, Kenneth Tomkins, but he refused to give it, citing a Cabinet decision of 1972 that the government did not favour the acquisition of large areas of land by Aborigines ‘in isolation’ (Qld Parliament 1976, 2008).

Koowarta was not a prominent political activist; he was motivated only by a desire to return to his ancestral lands and graze cattle on them. The government’s public and summary rejection of his plan ‘shamed’ him (in Aboriginal English, to be humiliated and belittled). Lawyers for Koowarta lodged a writ in the Supreme Court of Queensland claiming that the minister’s decision contravened the Commonwealth’s Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 (RDA). The case of Koowarta v. Bjelke-Petersen, Tomkins, Glasson, and the State of Queensland began in 1981. As plaintiff, Koowarta sought an injunction preventing the minister from blocking the sale. He also claimed damages as a person aggrieved by the minister’s actions. The State government asserted that Koowarta had not suffered as a result of the minister’s decision. Additionally, the government attempted to obtain a declaration by the High Court of Australia that the RDA was invalid.

In 1982 both matters were argued in the High Court, which, in May, decided by a majority of four to three that the RDA was valid and that Koowarta was an aggrieved person under the Act. The question of the minister’s refusal to approve the transfer of the pastoral lease was remitted to the Supreme Court of Queensland but the lease had been surrendered, and in 1977 the Queensland government had gazetted most of the holding as a national park (later named Archer Bend National Park). As a consequence, even though Koowarta had won his case, he would never occupy his land.

The coherence of traditional Wik society came under increasing pressure in the late 1970s from the Queensland government’s assimilationist programs. Koowarta became a marginalised figure at Aurukun. Although bitter, he was fatalistic about the government’s actions against him. At a conference in 1990 entitled ‘Two Laws and Two Cultures,’ he surprised land-rights activists by declaring of Australians: ‘We are all one’ (Brennan 2008, 3). Professor Marcia Langton described him as ‘short, slight, but ruggedly tough, with a glint in his eyes that telegraphed his determination’ (Langton 2014, 16). The anthropologist David Martin portrayed him as a handsome, compact, engaging man, who was good company. He died suddenly on 29 August 1991 in an aircraft transporting him from Aurukun to hospital at Cairns and was buried in Aurukun community cemetery.

In 1994 the Law Council of Australia, using Federal government funds, established the John Koowarta reconciliation law scholarship for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people undertaking tertiary studies leading to admission as legal practitioners. That year Archer Bend was amalgamated with the Rokeby National Park as the Mungkan Kandju National Park. In 2012 the Queensland government transferred all but one portion of the estate to Aboriginal ownership as the jointly managed Oyala Thumotang National Park (Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land). The remaining segment, comprising 75,000 hectares of the former Archer Bend section, was returned to the Wik-Mungkan people as Aboriginal freehold land.

The landmark Koowarta v. Bjelke-Petersen case had extended the Commonwealth’s external affairs power over ‘a matter of international concern,’ such as racial discrimination (Lane 1982, 523), and thus became a precedent for later land-rights litigation, including Mabo v. Queensland [No. 1], 1988. Without John Koowarta, Prime Minister Paul Keating commented, ‘there would have been no Mabo case, no native title legislation’ (Courier-Mail 1993, 14).

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Brennan, Frank. ‘Confessions of an Erstwhile Land Rights Advocate.’ Newcastle Law Review 10, no. 1 (2008): 1-36
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘Aurukun Marks Land Win.’ 10 November 1993, 14
  • Koowarta, John. Answers to Interrogatories, Damages Claim. Unpublished manuscript, 14 August 1990. Copy held on ADB file
  • Lane, P. H. ‘The Federal Parliament’s External Affairs Power: Koowarta’s Case.’ Australian Law Journal 56 (October 1982): 519-23
  • Langton, M. ‘Koowarta: A Warrior for Justice.’ Griffith Law Review 23, no. 1 (2014): 16-34
  • Martin, David. Interview by Malcolm Allbrook, 17 September 2015, MP3 recording. Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • Queensland. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 8 December 1976, 2008
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID 727506, Personal File – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
  • Sutton, Peter. Personal communication
  • Woodley, John. ‘Mabo of the Mainland.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 23 December 1997, 13

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Citation details

Darryl Bennet and Colin Sheehan, 'Koowarta, John Pampeya (1940–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ku'-waat
  • Pa'ampong

21 November, 1940
Aurukun, Queensland, Australia


29 December, 1991 (aged 51)
Aurukun, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

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