Sep 2015

A local hero | a story that should be told

Aya-I-GaFor many of us, reared on a diet of blockbuster films of war heroes and superheroes, we generally look ‘outside’ to be amazed by acts of bravery and selflessness. Ironically, we only need look in our own backyards to uncover heroes equally fit for the silver screen. Yet many of these stories remain unknown to the families, later generations and the community where they occurred.

One such story for us, in the community of the Katherine region, is that of Aya-I-Ga.

Aya-I-Ga was born in about 1882 on Alawa country, now part of Nutwood Downs Station. In 1911, Aya-I-Ga (sometimes known as Neighbour) was arrested for stealing a bullock on his own country. A policeman stationed at Roper Bar – Constable William Johns, arrested Aya-I-Ga, and placed him in neck irons to transport him to Darwin – presumably to face trial.

It was February, and of course the Wilton River was in flood. As they swam across the fast moving river, the policeman’s horse was swept away and injured Johns in the struggle. Incredibly, despite having heavy iron chains around his neck and hands, Aya-I-Ga, who had already made it to the bank, re-entered the river, risking death by drowning or crocodiles, and saved his captor’s life.

The journey to Darwin continued. However, when Aya-I-Ga appeared in court, Johns recounted the gallant effort of Aya-I-Ga in rescuing him. The trial was immediately dismissed and the tale of Aya-I-Ga’s heroism spread. The Bishop of Melbourne informed the Archbishop of Canterbury, who then informed King George V. It was King George who awarded him the Royal Albert bronze medal for bravery. Aya-I-Ga received the medal in a ceremony in Darwin in 1912. Interestingly, he was not allowed to keep the medal. – it was kept in a government safe in Darwin!

Aya-I-Ga became a police tracker and worked with Constable Johns at Roper Bar and also worked as a stockman at Hodgson Downs (now known as Minyerri community) and Nutwood Downs Stations. They remained friends and kept in contact for many years. Aya-I-Ga died in 1954.

In 2011, a hundred years after the rescue, Constable Johns’ grandson, Greg Johns, an artist, created a sculpture to honour Aya-I-Ga. Greg Johns remembers his grandfather telling him the extraordinary story on numerous occasions. Samuel Ponto, a relative of Aya-I-Ga’s from Ngukurr also remembers this story being told by people in Ngukurr, Minyerri and Urapunga communities. A ceremony was held in Darwin and members of the Johns family and Aya-I-Ga’s family were in attendance.

We live in a community rich in stories of that depict the strength of the human spirit. This is just one story. Imagine how many numerous stories of other local heroes are out there in our backyard.