Former soldier returns boomerang from nuclear test era to Maralinga’s traditional owners: ABC News

ABC Eyre Peninsula / By Amelia Costigan

In the twilight of his life, a former Maralinga soldier is doing his best to right a generational wrong.

When Roy Vincent was stationed at Maralinga in 1961 as a 21-year-old, he decided to purchase a boomerang from the village store as a token of his adventure.

“I knew nothing about Indigenous people whatsoever — I just bought it as an artefact and took it took it home as something nice to remember the place by,” Mr Vincent said.

It is an artefact from the world’s oldest living culture, purchased during one of the darkest chapters in Indigenous Australian history, and it cost just six shillings.

This year, a crisis of conscience compelled Mr Vincent — now 84 and living in Melbourne’s outer west — to revisit Maralinga, and return the boomerang to the traditional owners of the land.

a long brown wood boomerang
The boomerang was purchased for six shillings at Maralinga village in 1961.(Supplied: Jeremy LeBois)

British weapons testing

Maralinga is a western region in South Australia’s remote Great Victoria Desert, on the traditional lands of the Maralinga Tjarutja people, 400 kilometres north-west of Ceduna.

Britain tested atomic weapons at the site in the 50s and 60s with the agreement of the Australian government.

As a serviceman in the Radiation Detection Unit, Mr Vincent’s time at Maralinga in 1961 involved plotting radiation levels left behind by the atomic weapons tests, and identifying areas that were habitable and those that were not.

Throughout his 12 years in the Australian Army, and during a subsequent career in management, the boomerang travelled with him around Australia and the United Kingdom.

Black and white photo shows a young man sitting in the drivers seat of a truck smiling.
Roy Vincent at Maralinga in 1961.(Supplied: Roy Vincent)

Now After 63 years, the boomerang has been returned.

The object was handed over to Maralinga Tjarutja, a corporation representing the traditional Anangu owners, during a recent ceremony.

Chairman Jeremy LeBois said he welcomed the gesture.

“That’s the first time someone like Roy has returned something back to the community, which is a great thing,” Mr LeBois said.

“I said, ‘I’ll be happy to take it back and we will cherish it and look after it’.

“Everyone was happy to see something given back that has travelled the world, that’s been all over the place and then it has returned.”

Two men stand either side of triangular prism shaped memorial that reads "british atomic weapon was test exploded here in octob
Roy Vincent and Jeremy LeBois at ground zero of one of the Maralinga nuclear test.(Supplied: Roy Vincent)

Mr LeBois suspects the boomerang was crafted at Yalata, on the far-west coast of South Australia, around 195km south of Maralinga.

The Maralinga Tjarutja people were relocated to Yalata from Ooldea, the site of a permanent water soak south-east of Maralinga, when a military base was established at Maralinga in the 1950s.

Aboriginal people shouldered the fallout

A 1984 royal commission into the nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga revealed that Aboriginal people near the sites and veterans of the nuclear tests suffered higher than normal cancer mortality rates, and condemned the British government’s attempts to protect nearby Indigenous people.

The mushroom cloud from the Marcoo nuclear bomb test at Maralinga in October 1956.
(Creative Commons)

“The resources allocated for Aboriginal welfare and safety were ludicrous, amounting to nothing more than a token gesture,” the final report stated.

Mr Vincent said he had heard rumours that Indigenous families were in the test zone.

“In later years, I started to read about what really went on up there and how things weren’t quite as they were explained to us, and I tried understand what happened to the Aboriginal people,” he said.

“I thought, these people have had a terrible thing done to them, with grabbing their land and making it inhospitable.

“It disturbed their way of life completely and it wasn’t right, what happened to them.”

That journey of understanding led Mr Vincent to reconsider the ownership of his boomerang.

An Indigenous person looks across the burnt desert landscape.
Maralinga Tjarutja manage the Maralinga nuclear test site.(Supplied: Oak Valley Ranger Group)

Returning cultural items encouraged

The number of cultural items being returned to Indigenous communities has increased in recent years, according to Flinders University archaeologist Amy Roberts.

“I think a lot of Australians and even people from overseas are understanding that their interaction with Aboriginal communities and country in the past perhaps wasn’t as it should have been,” Professor Roberts said.

“[Returning cultural items] is a complicated process that can also bring up a lot of emotions for Indigenous communities, but it’s something that needs to be done.”

Rangers at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, in the Northern Territory, have been receiving parcels of rocks and sand removed from the area by tourists for years.

Some arrive accompanied by hand-written letters of apology from visitors, who have since recognised that taking items from the area was disrespectful, as the Anangu traditional owners believe nothing should be removed from Uluru.

More truth telling needed

In 1994, the Maralinga Tjarutja people received a $13.5 million payout from the federal government as compensation for what was done to their lands.

Mr LeBois called for more cultural items to be returned to traditional lands, and said there needed to be more truth-telling about the Maralinga nuclear tests and their impact on his community.

An Anangu man sits on land with trees in the background.
Jeremy Lebois said more artefacts belonging to Indigenous communities should be returned.(ABC North and West SA: Samantha Jonscher)

“I think everyone needs to come back and get on the tour and get an idea of the impact of Maralinga,” he said.

“And not just people, but also museums — if they have got anything that belongs to traditional owners across Australia, then return it back.”

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