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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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William Bartlett (Bill) Day (1940–2023)

by Rob Inder-Smith

Bill Day, n.d.

Bill Day, n.d.

William ‘Bill’ Day, a giant of anthropology and Aboriginal activism, died in Perth’s Bethesda hospital after a long battle with glioblastoma.

He was 82.

His passing was the end of an era.

Day forged a nation-wide reputation for his fieldwork and life among the first nations people of Darwin, the Larrakia, who he mobilised and endeared himself to in the wake of the historic 1966 Wavehill walk-off, and the following year’s national referendum granting blacks the vote.

When he hitchhiked north from his suburban home in Perth to the NT capital five years before Cyclone Tracy, he was not even a twinkle in ASIO’s eyes.

That would soon change, as it would for activists, black and white, who fell in with him shoulder to shoulder.

In 1971, living among Aborigines, William Bartlett Day jnr thrust land rights into the national spotlight with a type-written newsletter named ‘Bunji’ and with simple English, upset tropical applecarts and rattled cages in the highest office in the land.

The tall, moustachioed Errol Flynn look-alike was already being talked about among local blacks for seeking out their most senior man, Bobby Secretary, aka the grey-bearded sharp-eyed Kalamarina, who was living in the traditional way on the fringes of the Nightcliff mangroves.

Bunji – christened after the Larrakia for ‘comrade’ – became his life’s mission and the 64 issues churned out between 1971 and ’83 would form the basis of his historically unimpeachable autobiography 10 years later.

His legacy is measured not by great leaps forward for the first Australians but by the way he united and mobilised the tribes, especially the Larrakia. It was their land that Darwin had been built upon and what they called Kulaluk – over which Dick Ward Drive runs - became Bunji’s cause celebre.

So determined were the activists that one, Fred Fogarty, firebombed a surveyor’s truck in present day Osterman Avenue, Coconut Grove. Fogarty belonged to a formidable cohort that included surviving locals Jack Phillips, Rob Wesley-Smith and Cheryl Buchanan, who co-chairs Queensland’s Truth and Treaty board.

The Larrakia formally won back Kulaluk when it was handed to the owners in the historic Woodward Report of 1973-74.

By then, the core group was being watched by ASIO because they were supposed communists. Bill’s file is accessible on his exceptional website, drbilldayanthropologist.com.

Other direct actions included traffic blockades and office occupations.

Five people from the ‘One Mile Dam Mob’ protested the RAAF’s use of Quail Island as a bombing range by wading out to the island, 50km west of Darwin, and forcing an immediate ceasefire. A cartoon depicting them camped out with F-111s flying overhead appeared in the ‘NT News’, which with the new ABC, was largely sympathetic to the cause.

Bunji’s enemies, though, were powerful and included cattle barons, developers, white-collar and civilian rednecks, and civilian politicians, the Australian Defence Force, and the mining industry.

Day, then married with two children, survived Cyclone Tracy holed up in Phillips’s joss-house.

Despite massive damage and the large-scale clean up and rebuild, Bunji resumed publication a month later.

NT politicians showed mixed support.

In 1979, another breakthrough came when chief minister Paul Everingham handed over the lease to the residents of tiny One Mile Dam, in the shadows of the CBD.

Day wrote in Bunji, then chronicled in his underground classic, ‘Bunji: A story of the Gwalwa Daraniki Movement’ (Aboriginal Studies Press) that successive governments kept dishonouring promises.

Not included in his book is the autographed poster of George Brurrumba, whose stage performance, ‘Nerrpu’, was a highlight of the 2005 Darwin Festival. He wrote:

To Bill Day
Mate you’re famous with Yolgnu people like me who live in the bush.

In 2013, Bill wrote that he was ‘honoured to be interviewed by John Pilger’ for one of his many acclaimed documentaries. The following year came another interview in, ‘Blown Away: Cyclone Tracy 40 Years On’.

Facebook’s arrival proved manna from heaven for him.

Media savvy skills used to land countless grabs in print, TV and radio in the past, morphed into social media mastery. His own numerous short films of explorations into deeper Kulaluk are Youtube classics.

Day left Darwin for good in 2006, by which time he had earned his PhD in anthropology and worked ‘remote’ for mining companies and traditional owners.

His University of Western Australia anthropology lecturer, Associate Professor Victoria Burbank, once told her postgraduate student that she had never had a student like him and doubted she ever would again (Dr Burbank confirmed this in a written email to the author).

Bill leaves behind former wife Polly, and their son and daughter, Mark and Kim, plus four grandchildren. Bill’s surviving siblings are Robin, Bruce and Frances. Also close were Dulcie Malimara, of Maningrida, plus Peter Watson and June Evershed, both of Perth.

* This is an expanded version of an obituary which appeared in the Northern Territory News, 1 July 2023

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Rob Inder-Smith, 'Day, William Bartlett (Bill) (1940–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/day-william-bartlett-bill-33776/text42283, accessed 24 April 2024.

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