Jessie Roberts Karlnunjung
Jessie was born on Elsey Station, Mangarrayi Country, near the township of Mataranka, Northern Territory, in 1937.
Elsey Station was the basis for the book “We of the Never Never” by Jeannie Gunn, which was made into a movie that Jessie and her sister Sheila acted in.
In 1974, Aboriginal families began leaving Elsey Station, and the Jilkminggan community began taking shape. Jessie and Sheila were a driving force behind this and are highly regarded and respected in the community.
Jessie and Sheila worked on Elsey most of their lives. Now both are great-grandmothers, gentle and friendly, singing and talking about old times with a mixture of humour and nostalgia.
“That was very hard. We used to knock off around half-past eight, you know, washing up the dishes and cleaning the kitchen. And then we'd finish and go back to the camp.”
The camp was four rough shelters by the side of the road, about a mile from the homestead. There was one rainwater tank, with a leaky tap, to service a community of 120 people. As it dripped, the tap turned the black soil under the tank to deep, sticky mud.
Jessie, right, with her sister Sheila.
Jilkminggan was just a name; there were no houses, no tap water, no electricity, nothing.
“We started building with tin and paperbark. In those days we didn't have any tarps rigged up against the rain. For nearly three or four years we didn't have buildings here, we just made paperbark humpies. Me and my sister used to get up early in the morning with our husbands. Five o'clock we used to walk down to Elsey Creek, gather paperbark and take it up, and when DAA came down they'd help us cart it back.
“We had a big job doing this, all day long, the whole community, and cut down paperbark trees and bring in paperbark, drag it three and four kilometres by hand, to build bough shelters and buildings. That was the start of it, a whole community involvement.”
Over the years, the Mangarayi people watched the Elsey lease change hands many times. In 1991, they finally got the chance to buy it themselves.
Jessie remembers their excitement at buying the station back. Elsie station is now recognised as one of Australia's best managed Aboriginal Stations with 10,000 brahmans.