When announcing the death of our great friend, Jack Ah Kit, his immediate family said “this is a life that should be the focus of celebration and commemoration” – and that is indeed why we are here today.
In remembering and celebrating, we are thinking of the many, many stories that made up his life – some that we shared with him; some that we heard tell of; some that we witnessed.
The importance of stories to Jack – and indeed to all Aboriginal people – was perhaps best summed up in his own words, in his first ministerial statement to the Legislative Assembly:
Sitting around the camp fire, yarning with the old people and watching the faces of kids in the fire light reminded me of my own childhood and of how the lives of Aboriginal people are inextricably linked with each other through family and community.
In an important sense, these links are forged by the social interaction that is symbolised by the way us mob – Aboriginal people – gather together around the camp fire.
I remember those camp fires and they are my personal light on the hill. The light on the hill, the family fire in the camp, that will show the path forward and, in my darkest moments, that is the image I return to.
Of course those words – “light on the hill” – go back to the words of Ben Chifley back in 1949, as Labor prime minister. Indeed, the words go back further to biblical times and the Sermon on the Mount.
But for Jack there was something very personal in this idea, this vision, which he always carried with him.
He brought that vision to his job as director, as the boss was then called, of the Northern Land Council. That job stood him in good stead for his later career as a member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly.
Those years when Jack headed up the NLC were heady times in Aboriginal politics.
The Northern Territory Land Rights Act – commonwealth legislation – was under threat, even under the newly elected Hawke Labor government which was threatening to water down the veto power of traditional owners over mining and other developments
And, then there was the promise of national land rights legislation to fight for.
At the time, both those causes had Jack shuttling back and forth to Canberra to lobby any federal politician he could buttonhole.
Jack and his cohort were so notorious around the corridors of Old Parliament House that they became known as “the flying wedge” – although, he could never be called the thin end of that.
As director of the Central Land Council at the time, I joined Jack on those forays. They were hard and long days. But Jack would always help get us through with his sense of humour as we gathered our forces each night.
Jack’s cooking skills were legendary throughout the territory. It’s well known that on a number of land claims around the Top End in the 1980s he would leave the traditional owners, lawyers and anthropologists to do their jobs, while he would work from dawn to dusk in the camp kitchen.
Memories, too, of the 1988 Barunga festival where – after long discussions between the late Wenten Rubuntja and Galarrwuy Yunupingu – prime minister Bob Hawke committed to a treaty.
That was 32 years ago, and we still wait for that commitment to see light of day – let alone light on the hill.
Then of course there’s his time as a member of parliament here in the Northern Territory. It was a vicious and racist campaign run by the then CLP government seeking to divide Aboriginal people into “traditional” Aboriginal people and “yellafellas”.
It’s worth quoting a section of Jack’s inaugural speech to the Legislative Assembly as he recalled his time on the campaign trail:
This was the use of the disgusting tactic of creating the idea of ‘real’ Aboriginals. By this, they mean that the only real Aboriginals are the so-called full-bloods who live in the bush. The rest are not ‘real’ Aboriginal people. They are half-castes and yellafellas.
“For better or worse, ‘yellafella’ refers to skin colour, not whether you are this thing called a ‘traditional man’. How do you think those men and women of mixed descent from throughout the territory, who are full and active participants in traditional ceremonies, feel about the member opposite and his terms of abuse? …
Does this mean that, if a particular electorate was saying that it did not want a Catholic, [the CLP] would run an anti-Catholic campaign or, if the electorate was saying it did not want a Vietnamese, or Chinese or Greek or Cypriot as its representative, he would mount campaigns against those ethnic groups? Of course not. That would be immoral, shameful and contemptible. However, that is precisely what the parliamentary leader of the Country Liberal party has condoned, promoted and sanctioned.
Let us not have the racist sins of the fathers visited on our children.
Indeed, those final words from Jack echo to this day, especially in these times of #BlackLivesMatter and beyond.
Throughout his childhood here in Darwin, he revelled in his Chinese and Aboriginal heritages.
His mates at school were the Greeks and Italians and Anglos he shared school rooms with, and beyond that to the basketball courts and rugby league and Aussie rules fields.
In his teen years, as a stockman, a truckie and a labourer, he worked alongside all the groups that make up the Territory, from any number of ethnic, cultural and class backgrounds.
So indeed, let us not have the racist sins of the fathers visited on our children.
Jack always enjoyed the conviviality of a few drinks with his friends, family and co-workers. Whether it was Westies in Alice Springs; Sportys in Tennant, or the beer garden at Kirby’s in Katherine he would hold court, tell yarns and join in the singing.
He didn’t mind a punt, of course, and had a share or two in a few horses over the years, with a sharp eye on shifting odds in between joining in on karaoke sessions.
He was, to the end, a mad-crazy Darwin Buffaloes fan – as he would tell anyone who cared to listen.
As well as playing basketball and rugby league, he played with the Buffs … and was a diehard fan of his beloved team, in both the men’s and women’s comps.
From his own upbringing, as he described it, as a “bare-footed ratbag” growing up at the Parap camp throughout his life, the importance of family was paramount.
Over his life he was a brother, father, a husband, an uncle, a cousin, a brother-in-law and a grandfather to so many of us.
Deeply embedded in this was his love of community and of country, something I witnessed many times sitting around the campfire.
And a special tribute to his wife, Gail, for putting up with the little ratbag – though obviously not so little in his adult years! As everyone knows, he adored you, and depended on you in all his life’s work.
And to Darren, Ngaree and Jonathan, and in memory of Patricia and Bardi, know that the stories you share with your father are stories worth holding on to.
And so, to all of you who have come to mark Jack’s life, let these, and the many other stories that surround his time on earth, live on.
In the words of Archie Roach: “This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.”
May they become the light on the hill for all of us – even through the dark moments.
o Pat Dodson is a Labor senator. This is an abbreviated version of his eulogy to John Ah Kit on 22 July 2020