How an Indigenous Struggle in Australia Pitted Sovereignty Against Profit

Australian politicians blame Aboriginal people for social problems. Alexis Wright’s Grog War shows that when First Nations communities fight to improve society, they are attacked at every turn.

Junkurrakur/Tennant Creek, Northern Territory, Australia. (Tenniscourtisland via Wikimedia Commons)

In recent months, the social and political situation in Mparntwe/Alice Springs has been making headlines internationally and across Australia. Facing pressure from business groups, the government introduced alcohol purchasing restrictions in the city as well as blanket bans on alcohol in town camps and remote communities in the Northern Territory. Arrernte activists and supporters have blasted the moves as sidelining community voices and avoiding the elephant in the room: systemic racism.

White Australia maintains a general ignorance about the history of Aboriginal political struggle and the devastating scope of conservative reaction. This is, at least in part, how Australian media and politicians so often succeed in whipping up anti–First Nations hysteria. It also goes some way to explain how racist, top-down initiatives that are clearly doomed to fail are continually put forward as reasonable. In this context, revisiting key moments in the struggle for self-determination — including on questions like health, safety, and alcohol — is crucial.

Waanyi writer Alexis Wright’s Grog War is a collective record of such a moment. The book chronicles the people of Junkurrakur/Tennant Creek’s struggle to end the tyranny of alcohol in their community. Grog War was originally published in 1997, and was quietly reissued in 2021. Its author, winner of the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, among other prizes, is probably the most internationally acclaimed literary author from the continent. As with other nonfiction by Wright, however, this text is not just the product of a single individual. Wright produced Grog War on behalf of the Julalikari Council, which represents people from the sixteen language groups of the town camps, outstations, and pastoral properties around Tennant Creek. Its name means “for the people.”


Julalikari is led by the Warumungu people, on whose traditional lands Tennant Creek lies. White people first set foot on these lands in 1860, and began to violently seize them almost immediately. Despite heroic resistance by the Warumungu and their admirable attempts at negotiation, Wright describes how after three decades,

Many of the Warugmungu were forced to retreat to pastoral properties built along their best waterholes. There they had to depend on the rough justice of pastoralists for work, refuge and food for their families and indeed survival on their own lands. Many lived in slave camps where they were starved, whipped, and abused as no animal would have been treated, and were killed without a second thought.

A reserve established in 1892 offered some minimal protection from the indiscriminate killing outside. Daily life on the reserve for Warumungu people was subject to tight regulation by the Chief Protector of Aborigines; this all-powerful figure determined who they could marry, how many children they could have, and if they were allowed to raise them. When a young Warumungu man discovered gold there in 1935, the reserve was moved into the semidesert to make room for the six hundred or so white miners who descended on the area. The legend then goes that a passing beer truck broke down, and these gold miners and their grog became Tennant Creek.

The government forcibly relocated the Warumungu reserve twice more before revoking it entirely in 1962, rendering the people who lived there completely landless. As church-run missions in the territory also began to close, bush camps sprung up around Tennant Creek. The Gurindji strike helped end slave labor on the territory cattle stations in 1968, but many vengeful white pastoralists drove Aboriginal people off their properties in retaliation. Many of these survivors arrived on the outskirts of the town in the late 1960s seeking safety.

The number of Aboriginal people in the camps around Tennant Creek from different language groups and lands would continue to grow in the following decades. With no official permission to reside there, people built their shelters from whatever materials they could find. Many lived in abysmal deprivation, which was then used as a pretext by government officials to kidnap their children.

The 1970s witnessed the rise of the land-rights movement. The traumatized, determined Warumungu lodged their land claim in 1976; protests and lobbying won them a Special Purpose Lease in 1980. The white population of the town was incensed and held a series of meetings to oppose the Warumungu claim. Grog War details the vicious delusion and denial of the participants. One furious white woman tells a meeting that,

to my mind it is totally unconstitutional to excise an area of Australia and hand it over for gratis, in perpetuity to an alien nation which, particularly in our Territory, has blatantly shown no effort to co-exist on peaceful terms. . . . had the Aboriginal People done this of their own volition it would be an act of war — that white people condone it is an act of treason.

Though the Warumungu land-rights claim was ultimately successful, it would not be finalized until the end of 1996, when the story of the grog war itself comes to a close.

Community Versus Commerce

Formally, the text of Grog War shifts rapidly between speakers, styles, and perspectives, which has the effect of throwing the reader headfirst into the chaos, pain, and perseverance of a community living under the heel of alcohol. It’s a method that pushes back against two-dimensional, racist media narratives. “Grog” is consistently labeled an Aboriginal problem by the Australian press and government. Never mind that alcohol production and distribution is dominated entirely by whites, who reap all the profits. As Wright shows, if it is used by some Aboriginal people to try to forget the aforementioned and ongoing horrors of colonization, this too is undeniably a problem of white origin.

But the worst effects of this problem are experienced by Aboriginal people. Such is the frightening scale of the publicans’ and alcohol companies’ drug-pushing in the Northern Territory that it could even trick people into remembering slavery quasi-fondly. On the outskirts of Tennant Creek, Grog War shows,

The great orators amongst the Elders spoke about the grog as being worse than even what they had put up with on the missions or cattle stations. Life was tough in those days and they worked hard. But still they could not even look back on those sad days for what they were. Because the deaths, illness, starvation, neglect, poverty and racism continued through grog. By comparison, they could even say those were better days from these today.

It is in this context that the Julalikari Council declared “war on alcohol.” The first “beat the grog” meeting was held in 1986. It resulted in the establishment of the community-run Night Patrol — a democratic health organization that saved countless lives while working within traditions of language and culture. But the council remained adamant that if community is to be maintained, the alcohol-plying of the publicans and liquor companies must be restricted on community terms. Through ingenious organizing and sheer force of will, Julalikari was able to convince the Northern Territory Liquor Commission to hear its case. Its most prominent demand was the complete restriction of alcohol sales one day per week (“a grog-free day on Thursdays”).

The liquor lobby — which sold more than A$6 million worth of alcohol in Tennant Creek in 1993 — responded with fury. Grog War depicts the mafia-like tactics and sheer hysteria of businesspeople who manipulate the language of rights in order to maintain the domination of commerce over community.

The publicans and their big-business backers accused the Liquor Commission of having been infiltrated by communists. They compared their legal right to sell alcohol with struggles for racial justice, writing letters to the local paper arguing that “it is interesting that at a time when South Africa is about to restore civil rights, the Northern Territory is withdrawing theirs.” When their stalling tactics failed, they tried to have the Supreme Court ban Julalikari Council from any legal negotiations, on the basis that the Aboriginal organization was discriminatory against business.

This theme — of individual business versus collective community rights — regularly comes to the fore throughout the campaign. Wright details all the twists and turns in this cynical debate. “One man’s right is another man’s bondage,” lectured a senior government figure to Julalikari Council. One campaign run by the publicans in the town forced unwitting, sometimes intoxicated punters to sign a petition in favor of the “right to have a drink” — and simply faked some signatures if people refused. A Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report on alcohol, released during the campaign, lent weight to Julalikari’s sensible rejection of the business lobby’s rotten conception of rights:

If an Aboriginal community can show that the special measure is necessary for its continued survival, a publican cannot refuse to support their request. He cannot say he would be breaking the law. In other words self-determination: community decision making for their collective human rights overrides individual rights.

Ultimately, however, the Julalikari Council came to view special measures — which targeted Aboriginal people only — as an inadequate move that fell short of the required whole-community response. It demanded any restrictions be applied to all residents.

Against the odds, Julalikari Council won its ten-year fight to limit the liquor lobby in 1995, and a six-month trial of alcohol restrictions commenced. The result was immediate, as Wright describes: a reduction in violence and illness, increased community cohesion, healing and dignity, and a step toward self-determination that was more than merely symbolic. Great, democratic gatherings that occurred during and immediately after the campaign — like the 1993 Aboriginal Constitutional Convention in Tennant Creek and the 1998 Kalkaringi Convention — hinted that the days of dangerous, arbitrary dictates from Canberra and Darwin might be nearing an end.

Self-Governance in Hearts and Minds

In Grog War, the difficult dynamism of real community organizing is laid bare, as is the near impossibility of securing even the slightest concession from the white establishment. The Julalikari struggle demonstrates with painful clarity that any steps toward self-determination will be fought at every turn by white businesses and governments. The weapons in their arsenal are immense — violence, billions of dollars, and the English language itself, used to humiliate and control Aboriginal people in the courtrooms where the enemies of self-determination demand such battles be fought.

In the absence of treaty and real self-determination, almost all of the gains of the Julalikari Council’s war on alcohol have since been undone. The Night Patrol program has been seized by the central authorities and transformed into a quasi-police force. The key plank of the Tennant Creek campaign — a version of the “grog free day on Thursdays” — has been abolished. Thanks to the greed and depredations of the Northern Territory Intervention, Wright explains in an updated introduction, “the people who fought this battle . . .  are now in the degraded position of trying to negotiate with unfathomable, anarchistic and directionless Federal policies.”

In an open letter response to the Intervention in 2011, Alexis Wright called for an end to paternalism and a return to great gatherings like the Kalkaringi Convention. She wrote that,

Our position of powerlessness comes from relying on Australian governments that are free to choose when, how and what they might do to rebuild, divert or destroy the Indigenous world. This is why reform should be not so much about Indigenous people but rather the interaction of governments with the law of the Indigenous world. The answer is not targets for closing the gap, nor more opportunities for governments to do things wrongly. The government needs to engage with the self-governance that exists in the hearts and minds of Indigenous people: in other words, the fundamental principles of who we are, where we have been, and what we want to become.

With the tale of this great campaign, Wright contends that white Australians, rather than offering academic solutions from faraway places, should read and hear the Aboriginal stories of struggle that point the real way forward. Grog War is one such crucial story.