Stronger Futures: An Archaeology of Contemporary Indigenous Graffiti in the Northern Territory, Australia

I am an archaeology Honours student with Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. For the last year I have been undertaking research into contemporary Indigenous graffiti in an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. I am due to submit my thesis next Monday.

I am taking time out of my research to post this blog for the Day of Archaeology. Today I have been sitting at my computer, writing about some of the issues I discuss in my thesis, so I will relay them to you here.

To begin, I just wanted to draw your attention to two recent events that are of significance to Australia and will soon find their place in Australian history:

  • Australian racehorse, Black Caviar won the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at the Royal Ascot; and
  • the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 passed through the Australian Senate with bipartisan support and is now legislation.

Black Caviar’s recent win is significant because with 22 races undefeated (including Royal Ascot), it is the current living racehorse with the most undefeated wins (and it’s Australian).

The passing of the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 into legislation is significant because it extends the Howard government’s controversial Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 (NTER) for a further ten years. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights condemned the NTER in 2010, claiming that it stigmatises already stigmatised communities.

Have a guess which of these stories featured more prominently in the Australian media?

Stronger Futures

With little-to-no mention in Australian mainstream media, the Stronger Futures bill passed through the Senate and became legislation at 3.00am Friday 29/06/2012, after a marathon debate lasting almost ten hours. So what is wrong with it? Firstly, it is based on the NTER, which was intended to be an emergency response to the Little Children are Sacred report into Indigenous health and well being. However of the approximately 94 recommendations outlined in this report, barely two were addressed in the legislation. The recommendations in the report called for things such as improved housing, effective programs to combat alcoholism and drug use and to improve the general well being of Indigenous Australians living in these communities. The report explained that the situation in the NT, including overcrowding and alcoholism made the risk of physical and sexual child abuse very high.

Instead, the federal government under then Prime Minister John Howard and then Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough, suspended the Racial Discrimination Act (later reinstated under the Rudd government) and introduced these measures in 73 Northern Territory Aboriginal communities through the NTER:

  •  Blanket bans on alcohol and pornography (pornography bans are not needed; many people don’t actually know what it is, while alcohol bans push heavy abusers outside of communities to signboard shelters, or to the homeless population in nearby urban centres);
  • Reduction and quarantining of welfare payments;
  • Removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications and sentencing in criminal convictions;
  • Removal of permit system which stopped non-Indigenous people entering Indigenous land; and
  • abolishing the Community Development Employment Program, which gave hundreds of Indigenous people paid employment throughout the Northern Territory.
One of the more invasive and offensive measures of the NTER was the erection of large blue road signs on the boundaries of each community township (pictured below).

NTER Sign. These signs steal innocence from Aboriginal communities. Many children and indeed elders did not know what pornography was before these signs were erected. People living in communities bordered by these signs feel ashamed and embarrassed.


Five years after the NTER came into being, we see that it has had a negative effect on communities. There is no evidence of paedophile rings that were reported to be rampant in communities and as reported by the documentary ‘Our Generation’ in 2010, after many invasive investigations, no one has been charged. There have been reports of extreme increase in the amounts of suicide, particularly in young children and teenagers, and it has done nothing to address alcoholism. The NTER undermines Indigenous rights to self-determination, especially in terms of their own, existing political systems and income management. Supporters of the NTER urge that there are good things that have come out of this legislation, however, this is made redundant by the findings of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Indigenous Archaeology in Australia

My role as a student archaeologist has gone above and beyond what one would normally expect. An Aboriginal family of seven moved to Adelaide from Jawoyn country, the community in which I conduct my research, in order to obtain better access to education; you can read more about their experiences here. The youngest call me ‘Jordan-Bordan’ and love nothing more than using me as a ladder. I see this family almost everyday and I look upon them as my own family and mentors. I see the relationship I have with this family in similar ways to my biological family and I forget, sometimes, that they are not blood related. The relationship that we share is mutually beneficial as they help me navigate social and cultural taboos in Indigenous culture and I help them with the transition to a city lifestyle. Archaeology in Australia has the real potential to be incredibly ‘socially responsible’. We no longer conduct research into Indigenous cultures, we research with, for and by.

Jordan Ralph and Willika family at a game of AFL.

NTER and Graffiti

The focus of my research is to explore the role that governmental policy and social strategy has played in contemporary human behaviour, with a focus on contemporary graffiti in an Aboriginal community. When I first conducted fieldwork, I imagined I was going to find similar graffiti to that from a community south of Jawoyn country of which you can find photographs here and here. I did not find any graffiti that featured broad messages (inter-group messages) such as the graffiti found in the previous links. What I found instead was much more remarkable because the abundance of community messaging (intra-group messaging) indicated the strength of cultural continuity in the Northern Territory. A detailed recording and statistical analysis of contemporary graffiti in Jawoyn country shows that graffiti serves the intra-group purpose of communication between community members, rather than the inter-group purpose of propagating political and social messages. People from Jawoyn country are much more interested in communicating their connections to kinship systems and their attachments to place, in very similar ways to their ancestors. The purpose of graffiti as it is practiced in the study area is more closely related to an ongoing cultural tradition of rock-art production and landscape-marking than it is to contemporary graffiti expressions often found in urban settings. These results demonstrate the strength of cultural continuity in Jawoyn country, even after attempts have been made to ‘westernise’ Indigenous societies since colonisation through various policies, such as ‘protectionism’, ‘assimilation’, the White Australia Policy, the NTER and now Stronger Futures.


‘Wamutjan’ is a skin name from Jawoyn country, one of the groups in a complex kinship system. Graffiti is one in way which people from this community communicate membership to groups.

In terms of what I have been doing today, I wrote this:

I am submitting this thesis days after the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 was debated by the Senate. This bill passed with bipartisan support. The new legislation extends the federal government’s Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 for a further ten years. It will continue to stigmatise Indigenous cultures and undermine Indigenous rights to self-determination. For the reconciliation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike, may basic human rights be restored in the Northern Territory and face no further intervention. I dedicate this thesis to the people of Jawoyn country, past present and future

Jordan Ralph


All text and images were approved by Rachael Willika of Manyallaluk in Jawoyn country.

One thought on “Stronger Futures: An Archaeology of Contemporary Indigenous Graffiti in the Northern Territory, Australia

  1. B. says:

    Thanks for writing this; great post.

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