The Victoria Hotel was once a symbol of all the things wrong in the Western Australian town of Roebourne. Now it has been reclaimed by the Yindjibarndi people and relaunched as the Ganalili Centre – an alcohol-free cultural hub. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

Dark history was given new life as the former Victoria Hotel in Roebourne was converted into the Ganalili Center honoring Yindjibarndi culture

The historic Victoria Hotel in Roebourne (Ieramagadu), a two-story, dust-covered structure in the middle of a small town, has had a disproportionately significant impact on Australian history.

Here, in 1983, a group of inebriated, off-duty police officers confronted an Aboriginal man at the bottle store and started a fight on the street (“We’ll get you, you black cunt,” one allegedly yelled, according to witness evidence). John Pat, a 16-year-old Yindjibarndi lad who joined the fight, was witnessed by cops being kicked in the face and head while being taken into a vehicle. He died one hour later.

Pat’s passing and the officers’ subsequent acquittal by a white-only jury set off a national movement against Indigenous deaths in detention that resulted in the 1987 royal inquiry.

The hotel’s history in the Pilbara town, however, dates back longer. The tavern was a focal point for all the destructive factors – alcohol, racism, violence, and underemployment – that led to Roebourne’s reputation as “one of the most socially dysfunctional towns in Australia” from its founding during the gold rush of the late 1800s until its closure in 2005.

The Vic Hotel was empty and boarded up for years as a representation of all that was wrong with the community. Up until 2013, when the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation made the decision to take it back, restore it, and reopen it as a community centre in Roebourne.

A new song by Spinifex Gum, a project of Felix Riebl of the Cat Empire, featuring the Marliya choir, is about the center. Ganalili is a Yindjibarndi term that describes the light of morning after the blackness of night.

The husband and wife duo who have devoted their lives to protecting their culture, their land, and their community are largely responsible for the Ganalili Centre’s survival.

Ganalili by Spinifex GumGanalili by Spinifex Gum

‘This is a story that should be told’: new light at the Vic Hotel

“We’re Roebourne, born and bred,” says Lorraine Coppin, sitting next to her partner, Michael Woodley, on a video call with the Guardian. “Roebourne kids. That’s our home.”

The two have worked together to mobilize local people to defend their hometown and fight land rights disputes that have reshaped the country. They have three pugs, six children, four grandchildren, and are two of the Yindjibarndi people’s cultural guardians.

Lorraine Coppin, Michael Woodley standing in the bush with one of their dogs

Lorraine Coppin and Michael Woodley on country in the Pilbara. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

As the CEO of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), Woodley has guided his language group to a string of improbable victories over mining tycoon Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest. This ongoing conflict, which is the subject of Paul Cleary’s book Title Fight due out in 2021, has caused a rift within the Yindjibarndi community. Coppin, on the other hand, oversees Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation, the cultural arm of YAC that includes a publishing division, a language preservation initiative, and a sizable Yindjibarndi cultural archive that has been gathering material for more than 20 years. A few nationally renowned organizations, including Yinjaa-Barni Art, Big hART, Cheeditha Art Group, and Wangaba Art Group, are located in Juluwarlu, including an arts center.

Despite the fact that the two live in Roebourne, which is really on Ngarluma property, Yindjibarndi country is located farther inland, between the Millstream tablelands and Fortescue River. However, they were evicted from their country by pastoralists in the 1860s and moved into nearby towns.

A few decades later, the gold rush occurred, and the Victoria Hotel was constructed to accommodate the influx of laborers into Roebourne. Once again, First Nations people were evicted, blocked off from Roebourne, placed under curfews, and transported to adjacent reserves.

The town was mostly abandoned until the 1960s, when an iron ore boom brought back miners. However, in a now-familiar injustice, those who had the strongest claim to the nation were barred from its wealth. After drinking privileges had been established, the Vic Hotel developed into a gathering place for the local Aboriginal community, who, according to Woodley, frequented it to escape the grim realities of their daily life. The Vic Hotel was located between the welfare office and the police station, according to a Spinifex Gum song line.

Until the sun goes down, says Woodley, who was born in 1973, the bar was “the place to be when we were growing up.” He claims that “everything changes at night. It turns into a rather ominous setting.

Utes parked outside a construction site on a dusty street

‘For a long time Roebourne was seen as a place that is broken,’ says Michael Woodley. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

He says, “Alcohol brought out and still brings out the worst in people.” He claims that it resulted in a cycle of misuse, the deterioration of traditional culture, and an extreme death rate in his community that persists to this day. According to Woodley, the majority of persons his age died 10 to 15 years ago. He is not quite fifty.

Coppin recalls the Vic Hotel as a “forbidden spot” when she was a child. There, bad things took place. That particular location is the source of every social issue in the neighborhood. We all need to keep that place’s history and its deeds in mind.

The hotel remained idle for 14 years after it closed in 2005. The town center was no longer operating, despite being intended to represent the community’s beating heart, according to Woodley. People would pass by and just see this old, boarded-up structure, which gave them a bad impression of the whole town.

So, in 2013, Woodley’s organization YAC purchased the structure and began a $6 million renovation with help from the federal and state governments. Ganalili, a non-alcoholic cultural centre and outdoor space, was reopened in 2019 with the goal of giving back to the Roebourne neighborhood.

Digital interactive displays inside the Ganalili centre

Displays at the Ganalili Centre in Roebourne. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

Photographs, artworks and artefacts inside the centre

When Ganalili first opened, it had a storefront for Juluwarlu Art Group as well as a digital exhibit of Yindjibarndi culture culled from Coppin’s archives, which featured animated touchscreen displays mapping family lines, landscapes, and creation myths. Riebl claims that as soon as he entered the venue and heard Spinifex Gum perform the opener, he was “struck to tears.” “It was really astonishing how bright and truly interesting the place was. It seemed as if the town’s center was expanding from there.

This is a story that should be told – of a community turning around, and gaining … genuine self-determination

Felix Riebl
Since the start of the Spinifex Gum project in 2017, Riebl has worked with the pair, relying on Coppin’s thoroughly researched writings and collaborating with Woodley on translations, pronunciations, and the lyrics performed by the all-female First Nations choir. Since then, they’ve put out three albums, filled the Sydney Opera House to capacity, and in 2019, they delivered a “vocal petition” in Canberra, calling on government to provide an Indigenous voice.
Choir members on stage under blue and red lights
As “one of the most remarkable individuals I’ve ever met” and “a steady, powerful, and kind” community leader,” Woodley is praised by Riebl. He claims that in the little period since the founding of Spinifex Gum, “we’ve seen the Vic Hotel alter, we’ve seen the YAC go through this incredible land rights struggle, and we’ve watched the town itself evolve. This is a tale of a community making a turn for the better and achieving true self-determination, one that ought to be shared.

‘No one in the world has an archive like this’

Additionally, it tells the tale of a slightly compulsive cultural collector.

When the Guardian visited Lorraine Coppin’s archive, it was crammed into tubs and boxes that lined rickety shelves in Roebourne: a precisely cataloged, though rather disorganized, collection of recordings, pictures, video, artwork, papers, and a final category best described as “misc.”

When she first met Woodley, a Yindjibarndi elder and activist, more over 20 years ago, she overheard him singing and narrating tales into a tape recorder. This is when it all began. She learned that dad was attempting to pass on his cultural knowledge, and over time, “he began teaching us about country too,” she adds.

“Me and Michael only had about the size of an ant’s worth of information. This elderly man had substantial mounds, she recalls. It had a sense of urgency. To be sure, I began recording him myself after getting a tape recorder from the store.

Thirteen Yindjibarndi community members preparing food and eating near a campfire by a creek

Lorraine Coppin (centre) and Yindjibarndi community on country at Ngurrawaana. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

Lorraine Coppin facing the camera with a sunset sky in the background

‘The young people now are lost without this knowledge’ … Lorraine Coppin. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

Following that, Coppin and her team started compiling further Yindjibarndi tales. Anything stated or done by a Yindjibarndi elder in Coppin’s presence will be added to her archive, which aims to document 50,000 years of history, from ceremonies and creation tales to legislation and herbal cures. She asserts that no one in Australia or the rest of the globe has such a cultural archive.

“Without this understanding, today’s youth are lost… In order to instruct them, we must first set up a platform.

Alice Guiness sits at a table painting a puppet

Alice Guiness creates a puppet for the upcoming production Ngurra Nyujunggamu, When the World Was Soft. Photograph: Richard Jeziorny

The Ngurrawaana village near Millstream Chichester national park, where Woodley King won a land settlement in the early 1980s, and where Coppin is now situated. Her next two projects for Juluwarlu are a mobile digital exposition of Yindjibarndi culture housed in a vintage yellow bus and a puppet show called Ngurra Nyujunggamu: When the World Was Soft, which will debut at the Red Earth arts festival in May 2023 and maybe go on a tour of the country.

Back in Roebourne, Ganalili continues to be a center for culture, and adjoining structures are now being used as transitional accommodation for persons fleeing the criminal justice system. Although the community organization that will inhabit the first floor of the former Vic Hotel has not yet been chosen, there is now precedence that things may change for the better.

People used to think that there was nothing they could do in a place like Roebourne, according to Woodley. “Now they realize that there are individuals in this place who possess leadership and vision and who might truly help the whole area.

“For a very long time, Roebourne was thought of as a broken area… You avoid going to a terrible or infected with alcohol area. I believe the general mindset has changed.

Woodley is still fighting a mining colossus like David and Goliath in the meantime. Fortescue Metals Group’s appeals against two earlier rulings that the Yindjibarndi had “exclusive ownership” of the property, including the ability to sue for economic and cultural damage, were not heard by the supreme court in 2020.

It was a significant victory for YAC and Woodley, who last month participated in the first case management hearing for a compensation claim with a potential value of more than $500 million.

Michael Woodley sits on rocks in front of a cliff of colourful banded stone

‘I genuinely believe that there are more good people in our country than bad’ … Michael Woodley. Photograph: Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation

After so much injustice and grief, it takes a level of optimism that is nearly incomprehensible to continue fighting on so many fronts. However, according to Woodley and Coppin, “it’s simply been the way of our existence.”

“You can either take that out as anger … or turn that anger into positivity. I genuinely believe – and this goes for both Lorraine and I – that there are more good people in our country than bad.”

Lorraine, laughing, adds: “Maybe that’s more of a hope.”

  • Ganalili by Spinifex Gum is out now. Title Fight by Paul Cleary is published through Black Inc. Guardian Australia travelled to the Pilbara as a guest of FORM
Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.