17 July 2020 // William Bates
William Charles Bates (1950-2017) was born in Wilcannia, in far west New South Wales. A Barkandji man, he grew up on the town's mission and left school in his early teens to work as a farm labourer. Skilled with traditional hunting knowledge, he would regularly provide traditional food for family, community and friends.
In the early 1980s, he began mobilising local Indigenous communities, preparing to launch a campaign to have local land handed back to traditional owners. In 1983, Bates led the Mutawintji blockade, which resulted in the NSW Government closing off sacred sites to the public and the eventual handing over of the national park to traditional owners.
It took 15 years of campaigning, but eventually in 1998, Mutawintji was returned to its traditional owners, with the government leasing the park back.
Bates went on to help establish the Western Aboriginal Legal Service, the first NSW Indigenous legal service to be based outside Sydney, and being nominated as the first western region councillor with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
He was a councillor on the Central Darling Shire, led numerous rallies and blockades in western NSW and in Sydney, and was instrumental in the purchase of many properties in the far west by local land councils.
Significantly, the now ubiquitous catchcry "Always Was, Always Will Be, Aboriginal Land", stems from one of the many trips to a property the land council would later purchase with his father Jim Bates. The story goes;
"Jim Bates, William's dad, got more excited as we came closer to Tibooburra and started talking about his land...William said, 'Dad, it's not your land anymore, whitefellas own it' and Jim said, 'No, they only borrowed it; always was Aboriginal land and it always will be'. William adapted that thought, screen-printing it on posters and t-shirts in the early 1980s.
A shining beacon of hope in the Indigenous land rights movement, both in his local community and nationally, he was a prolific fighter for Aboriginal people in the fields of social justice, law and justice and land rights.
Bates' ultimate priority was always clear — restoring land to its traditional owners and protecting and restoring Indigenous culture. He passed away in 2017 in Adelaide at the age of 66 after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, more than nine months prior.