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Boomerang #2006-2443

Boomerang made by Neville Bonner from roots of the black wattle tree.

History

Neville Bonner was born on Ukerebagh Island on the Tweed River, New South Wales, in 1922. He had little formal schooling, leaving after he had attained the third grade at the age of fifteen. Bonner spent much of his youth working as a rural labourer on properties across Queensland.

In 1940, Bonner and a group of young people went to Brisbane to try and enlist in the Army so they could serve in the Second World War, but they were rejected. Bonner said they were told that the Army was not accepting any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples. Bonner later said that he was terribly disappointed about this as he felt that, as an Australian, he had an obligation to serve.

Bonner married his first wife, Mona Banfield, in 1943 and moved with her to Palm Island, where she was from. They had five children and fostered another three together. Bonner lived on Palm Island from 1945–60, slowly becoming politicised but adopting the moderate tone that was typical of his demeanour later in Parliament. He became involved in the Palm Island Social Welfare Association and worked his way up to the fairly senior position of settlement overseer. Bonner eventually came to the conclusion that the only way to change unjust laws was to get into the system and change them from within.

In 1960, Bonner moved to Ipswich where he became associated with the One People of Australia League (OPAL), a moderate Indigenous rights organisation. Bonner served as one of the League’s directors for several years and was the Queensland President from 1978 to 1974.

Neville Bonner joined the Liberal Party in August, 1967. In 1971he became the first Aboriginal person to sit in the Commonwealth Parliament when he was chosen to fill a vacancy in the Senate caused by the resignation of a Liberal senator for Queensland. Bonner was subsequently returned at elections held in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1980.

Neville Bonner became a well-known parliamentary figure during his years as a senator. He was a respected commentator on Indigenous issues and served on numerous Senate and Parliamentary Committees. Bonner also served as the parliamentary representative on the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).

Dropped from one of the winnable positions on the Liberal Party ticket for the 1983 Senate election, Bonner resigned from the Party and contested the election as an independent. He narrowly missed retaining his seat. Neville Bonner continued to be a strong advocate for Indigenous rights until his death in 1999.

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Statement of values

This boomerang is significant as part of the Neville Bonner collection which is comprised of a selection of objects that belonged to Australia’s first Indigenous federal politician, Neville Bonner.

The boomerang is significant as an object that illustrates Bonner’s Indigenous heritage and his life before he became a politician.

In the mid-1960s Bonner became a business owner. He had begun making boomerangs, taught at an early age by his grandfather and in 1966 he established his own boomerang manufacturing business, which he called ‘Bonnerang’. This was a nickname he had been given because of his boomerang throwing ability. The work was difficult and he and his son Tiny and a nephew had to make 400-450 a week to break even. It became even harder as they had to search further and further afield for the materials. Bonner refused to use synthetics and made each one from the roots of wattle trees. They would have to find and trim them, then soak and shape them while wet, and finally sand them smooth. Bonner’s wife Mona handpainted them with traditional designs. The business lasted a year only and by the end Bonner was working 16 hour days, 7 days a week.

In his maiden speech in the Senate years later Bonner talked about his wish to have the boomerang copyrighted to the exclusive use of Indigenous people, because it was an Aboriginal art that was being exploited by others, who were producing cheap synthetic copies. He received many letters of complaint at his criticism of the boomerang industry, some saying that Aboriginal peoples couldn’t make them return. He was challenged to show off his skills and so soon after his maiden speech he gathered the press in the Senate garden for a demonstration. His first throw saw his boomerang return but become lodged in a tree behind him. He successfully threw several more, and then climbed up the tree to claim the missing boomerang, much to everyone’s bemusement and the media’s delight.

Although Bonner always said he was representing the state of Queensland and was not just representing Aboriginal peoples, he was always a strong advocate and outspoken activist on Indigenous affairs. He sat on several Senate committees on Aboriginal affairs, including land rights. His willingness to listen to all sides and to adopt a moderate stance caused much friction with radical activist aboriginals who wanted him to act more quickly and to take a harder line on aboriginal issues. He refused to placate them, however, as he believed that it was through conciliation and consultation that he could achieve the best results. He was a man of enormous dignity and gravitas. In the mid-1970s Bonner was one of several Senators who occasionally filled the role of President of the Senate when the President was absent. It was a significant thing to have an Aboriginal Australian filling this role.

  • Boomerang made by Neville Bonner.Boomerang made by Neville Bonner. —
  • Made by Bonnerang.Made by Bonnerang. —

Details

Width 560mm
Height 290mm
Depth 5mm
Medium Black wattle root; paper
Creator’s name Neville Bonner
Impression -
Date created circa 1966