Johnny Japangardi Miller – or ‘Hooker Creek” as he is affectionately known - is the senior Traditional Owner for Mt Theo. Johnny has dedicated most of the last decade of his life to caring for young petrol sniffiers in his country.
Through his life, Japangardi has travelled many different paths and seen immense changes. Always the quiet story-teller, Hooker Creek radiates kindness, gentleness and teasing good humour as he shares his world.
Hunter and Gatherer
Johnny spent his early childhood living a traditional nomadic Warlpiri life. His parents travelled from water soakage to water soakage guided by the Jukurrpa (Dreamtime) law and stories.
‘They knew the country, I know most soakages’ he says, but seems in awe of their deep and intimate interaction with the land. Japangardi talks about walking along with his parents or being carried on their back as they went about their daily hunting and gathering. “Yuendumu was nothing then- It was all hunting ground in those days”.
First Contact with Europeans
Japangardi vividly recalls the first time he saw white men while hiding among the hills of Mt Theo. It was around 1928, during the time of the Coniston Massacre – the last act of the frontier war. Japangardi and his family were singing up the country to protect them from bullets of the European police who, they had heard, had already killed hundreds of Warlpiri people.
“It was a rough time” Johnny says understatedly, “Kardiya (white people) in the old days were really hard”.
Johnny’s nickname comes from his importance in the establishment of the settlement “Hooker Creek” now known as Lajamanu community.
In his young days Johnny had a reputation as a hard worker and a ‘lover-boy’. These two characteristics caused him to be sent away from Yuendumu “in a big red government truck” to build the new settlement at Hooker Creek in 1953.
There, he says “I bin do everything” – building stockyards, an airstrip, tin-sheds, doing stockwork. Johnny describes how he would wake up at sunrise, spend all day working physically in the desert sun, sometimes having a break for smoke but then “working, working, we didn’t knock off until about seven” – “If we didn’t do work Kardiya would give us hiding with whip or green sticks. …Kardiya always pushed us round, we’re friends now… station days were rough days”.
During the Second World War, Hooker Creek drove army trucks as part of Northern Australia’s front line defence.
Stockman and Drover
Many of Johnny’s stories revolve around stockwork. “In my young days Kardiya used to make me jump on wild horse”
Japangardi worked on stations all around Central Australia and spent three and a half years at Adelaide River in the Top-End. He also drove cattle, many many hundreds of kilometers from Lajamanu NT to Longreach Queensland.
Hooker Creek also worked for Lord Vesty at the infamous Wave Hill stockcamp for many years. Japangardi walked back to Lajamanu just before the uprising which led to the 1966 Wave Hill walk out – a turning point in the land rights movement – celebrated in the Paul Kelly song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’.
Mt Theo Program
About twenty years ago, Japangardi decided to move back to be closer to his country at Mt Theo. He and his four bothers and their families were living at Mt Theo at the inception of the Mt Theo Program.
In 1994, Johnny’s sister-in-law, Peggy Brown, proposed that her and her family, including Johnny, would care for all Yuendumu’s petrol sniffers if they were given support to live at Mt Theo. Here began the Mt Theo Program.
For year after year Johnny was the primary care-taker for petrol sniffers at Mt Theo. He is a grandfatherly figure to those wild teenagers who would tug at his beard while humbugging for a smoke of his old stockman’s pipe, and asking him to tell them stories of his young days and the dreamtime.
It is the dedication of Johnny Hooker Creek, along with the other members of the Mt Theo team, which has allowed Yuendumu to now be free of petrol sniffing.
While at least 75, almost blind and having achieved an immense feat Johnny is not giving up. He now works with young people in Yuendumu, going on bush trips, to help them learn more about their country and culture to create more fulfilling lives