Karajarri Nyangumarta man Stephen Stewart has defied all the odds to keep his culture alive for more than a century.
Warning: Readers are advised that this article contains the name of an Indigenous person who has died.
The life expectancy for Indigenous men is 71.6 years of age, but Mr Stewart may be as old as 109.
That makes him the oldest Aboriginal man still alive in West Australia’s Pilbara region, if not the entire country.
“I am the last one,” Mr Stewart said.
“All my elders are finished.”
To this day the Ngarla elder spends four months of the year on the road as a senior lore-man.
“It’s a big job, very hard too,” Mr Stewart said.
Before records began
For many Indigenous Australians born around the turn of the 20th century, obtaining a birth certificate was not possible.
The only historical evidence of Mr Stewart’s age is an engraving on an old windmill at Wallal Downs Station, about 300 kilometres south of Broome.
The rusted iron is marked “Stephen Stewart, 1918”, making Mr Stewart at least 103.
But Mr Stewart said he remembered engraving his name as a youngster when he began droving cattle on the Canning Stock Route, possibly when he was about six.
“We were droving cattle to Meekatharra,” he said.
“There was only one horse in the lead, ridden by a white man, then the rest of us were walking, driving a big mob of cattle from behind … and I got nothing for it.”
Like most Indigenous people born before 1970, Mr Stewart found himself in an era when Aboriginal people in WA were forced to work on pastoral stations that used stolen wages, child labour, and in some cases, slavery.
Brushing off the kiss of death
Mr Stewart was born on Pardoo Station and worked there from a young age, but the decades of arduous toil that were to come almost didn’t happen when he was almost sent to Rottnest Island as a child.
The island, which was used as a jail until 1904 and a forced labour camp until 1931, claimed more than 370 Aboriginal lives.
Mr Stewart said he was walking to school for his first day of formal education when he was confronted by the authorities.
“Policeman picked me up,” Mr Stewart said.
The drive took longer than expected and Mr Stewart ended up in a holding room at Port Hedland.
Mr Stewart did not know that the plan was to put him aboard the MV Koolinda, an operational steamer bound for Rottnest Island.
Word of mouth travelled back to Mr Stewart’s boss, Frank Thompson, who owned Pardoo Station at the time.
In utter shock, the renowned pastoralist decided to take Mr Stewart’s destiny into his hands.
“Frank Thompson had heard the news I was on my way to school, where I was picked up near Wallal, and was taken to Port Hedland,” Mr Stewart said.
The MV Koolinda had been docked for two weeks and was scheduled to depart within three days when Mr Thompson arrived.
Mr Thompson adopted Mr Stewart into his family on the spot, ostensibly saving his life.
It was then that Mr Stewart began to cement his reputation as a stockman and leader at Pardoo Station.
But station life in the Pilbara was not without its challenges.
“There was never any money back then — none of the blackfellas ever got paid,” Mr Stewart said.
“I never thought about it back then, you just keep going, keep working, for free.”
Mr Stewart said he never saw the money owed to him.
“My first job was at Pardoo, at the big store — they gave me one spanner to tighten all the bolts for the carpenters,” he said.
“Then I got promoted to the big jobs.
“I did the homestead — it’s still there today.
Becoming ‘Number Two’
Long hours in 40-degree heat for very little reward was the norm for Aboriginal workers for decades, but that was set to change.
On May 1, 1946, 800 workers, including Mr Stewart, walked off pastoral stations across the north-west region and the famous Pilbara Strike began.
The campaign for fair wages and working conditions paved the way for Indigenous rights in Australia.
Mr Stewart said it was simply a case of enough being enough.
“We wanted the right to live a normal life,” he said.
“We did big jobs, cattle mustering, everything, and we wanted more money.
After the strike, Mr Stewart joined his best friend, the late Peter Coppin, in running Yandeyarra Station.
The idolised figures were nicknamed Number One and Number Two.
In 2021, Number Two still sticks for Mr Stewart, with most of the Pilbara’s residents familiar with the name.
A phenomenal horseman
Mr Stewart said it was inevitable that he developed a passion for life in the saddle.
“I was a horseman all throughout my life,” he said.
Race meets in the Pilbara were among the few moments in the year when station work stopped.
Aboriginal families relished those times because they could reconnect at the racecourses.
But for Mr Stewart it was a platform to showcase his skills.
“I would race 24 blokes, all white jockeys,” he said.
“My horse was a hack, a mega colt for cattle mustering.
“He was my horse — I trained him when nobody could ride him.
“There was nothing wrong with him.
Mr Stewart went on to win the Marble Bar Races and the Wittenoom Cup.
Spirit must continue
Among all the trials and tribulations Mr Stewart faced, nothing ever got in the way of preserving Aboriginal lore.
Once a year he was given one week off to practice lore, which involved walking 270km to a sacred ceremonial ground.
Mr Stewart said lore was integral to his culture.
“It would take us three days to walk there, [there was a] ceremony for one day, then walk back to the station in the last three days,” he said.
“The station would give us half a bag of flour to survive.
The ceremonial ground Mr Stewart and others visited for many years no longer exists.
It is now a mine site.
Mr Stewart said the chance of Aboriginal culture being forgotten forever increased with the destruction of every sacred site.
“Everything at Wodgina makes us who we are, it gives us our identity,” he said.
“It’s too late to save now.
“Unfortunately, it still happens today, and the biggest risk is the young fellas and the culture.
“They will learn nothing the more these sites are destroyed.”
On the road
For the last 50 years Mr Stewart has called Yandeyarra Mugarinya Community home.
It is not often you will find him there, however, because he spends four months a year teaching the younger generation lore.
Mr Stewart travels more than 3,000km from Bellary Springs to Warralong, Roebourne, Bidyadanga and Wiluna, year in, year out.
Mr Stewart said he had no plan to slow down.
“I get a bit lonely,” he said.
“You feel a bit different when you lose all your mates.
A treasured dad and grandfather
It is no secret that Mr Stewart has left an indelible mark on many people, and none more so than his daughter, Margaret, who said she intended to follow in his footsteps.
“I am really proud of him,” she said.
“There is not a single moment of the past that I could pick and choose, he has been by our side every day — every day.
“Me and my kids will treasure that.”