This week is NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Week. It is an Australian observance lasting from the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday. NAIDOC Week celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. As a proud supporter in NAIDOC and in recognition of the traditional landowners of this country I would like to share part of a research investigation I undertook earlier this year about the place I grew up in and it’s real history, or as much is as documented as possible.
Readers please note, there are no images, but there may be names or references to deceased persons. The information represented is as factual and correct as I could find and is replicated here with the utmost respect for the heritage of the traditional landowners of this country. The language used in Nyoongar due to the fact that I could not honestly or accurately engage anything more accurate and local. If I have crossed any lines, or caused any offense I sincerely apologise and will gladly make amends wherever necessary. References can be found at the end of the text.
My name is Jessie and I am a third generation descendant of English migrants. My life began in Lake Grace, a rural community in the heart of the Wheatbelt region of south west Western Australia. Since F. S. Brockman surveyed the area in the late 1800’s and E. H. Absolon divided the land in to plots and blocks between 1910 and 1913, to be sold and leased to farmers, miners and settlers the population of the townsite and larger shire has always been relatively small,. The local Indigenous population has always been close to non-existent in this particular corner of the region yet I never understood why considering the larger presence in surrounding townsites. It has only been through this research project that I have been able to access the knowledge and come to terms with the truths and history of Europeans settling in this part of Western Australia and what it meant for the traditional landowners and their way of life.
‘Ngulla boodgar koorl nyinini (This is our ground we came and sat upon.)’, as said by Noongar elder Tom Bennell, 2004 (South West Aboriginal Land & Sea Council, n.d.). The south west corner of Western Australia, from the west coast below Yamatji (Geraldton) to the centre of the coastline of South Australia was first identified as Noongar country by Norman Tindale who developed ‘Tindale’s Map of Tribal Boundaries’ in 1974. When Europeans first began to settle in Australia they termed the traditional landowners as Indigenous, which means ‘from the beginning’ or ‘origin’, and Aboriginal ‘native to place’ which were apt titles. Archaeological exploration has identified some sites of Noongar habitation which could be dated back at least 40 000 years. The locality today known as Lake Grace was traditionally known as Pingowarring (Mail, 1939) and did not appear as the site of habitation for any singular language group or dialect in Noongar (see Diagram 1). Pingowarring, at the lowest point of the Njaki njaki region, is a pivotal intersection of the Njaki njaki, Goreng, Wiilman and Wudjari dialect groups (Horton, 1996) and as such was always a winnaitch (sacred) ceremonial site which explains today the lack of Noongar presence in the townsite. Local settlements of Merredin and Hyden to the north, Dumbleyung to the west and Newdegate to the east all were regularly inhabited and have descendants living there today (Destination Merridin, 2015).
The Noongars are a peaceful people who consider themselves to be the caretakers and nurturers of country and all that is in it. Before Europeans settled on Noongar land the diet varied depending on proximity to water, whether it be lake, river or sea, forests or bushes, or the dry, arid lands north-east of Pingowarring. As Noongar cared for flora and fauna they never took more than what was needed for the survival of themselves and country. Europeans began settling in the area around Pingowarring,Dumbleyung and Newdegate after E. H. Absolon divided the land for private pastoral profit, selling and leasing the blocks from 1910 (W.A. Now and Then, 2015). The settlers grew wheat, barley and oat crops in their paddocks, as well as growing vegetables and breeding livestock for sale as well as food with little consideration for preservation. The Noongar idea of land was based on familial territories and the concept of growing more than you need on land that wasn’t inherited from ancestors, hence ‘stolen’, didn’t coincide with European ideas on monetary gains and personal wealth (South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, n.d.). There no opportunities for the Aborigines to purchase land or work as farm hands for an equal salary to the Europeans. There were also discrepancies based around the idea of constructing a permanent township on a winnaitch ceremonial site. In all, though the ways of life were different, and there were minor disagreements on ways of life and notions of ownership, there are no historical records of large confrontations occurring during the Europeans taking possession of the land around the site of Pingowarring in the early 1900’s.
The European settlers brought a way of life with them that was largely patriarchal in nature, with maam (men) taking leadership roles, positions of power and dominating most of the intellectual and physical activities and events in society. The yorga (women) tended to the organisation of the moort (family) residence, koolang (child) rearing and dietary requirements of the immediate family. Comparatively in Noongar culture society respects and acknowledges the role of maam and yorga to be of equal significance, yet the yorga perform relatively similar tasks to the European yorga. Noongar yorga contribute to the dietary requirements of the extended moort, they harvest roots and vegetables, hunt for small animals and create booka (kangaroo skin cloaks), choota (animal skin bag) and yoongka (kangaroo skin pelts). Yorga welcome new people to boodgar, are pivotal in organising sacred ceremonies, rites and rituals, and raise koolangka (children) until they are old enough to go with and learn the ways of the maam. The ways of the maam involve yongariny (hunting for kangaroos), making hunting tools, tracking through the bush and collecting the bark and timber off mallee trees for making spears. Both maam and yorga can become elders if appointed by others within the Noongar community, this are not self-appointed roles. The elders are responsible for wangkininy (speaking) the kura (past) kaartdijin (knowledge) of nyitting (the dreamings or creation time) of the area to the koolangka and moort at the koroboree (dance) ceremonies. In present day it is the elders of boodgar that perform the smoking ceremonies and wandjoo wandjoo boodgar (welcome to country).
The Noongar were custodians of the land and lived in harmony with boodgar until the land was surveyed and sold to Europeans. A small mission had been built in the townsite of Lake Grace, with very low attendance. In 1905 the Aboriginal Act of segregation was brought in to move the Indigenous out of public areas and, sometimes, out of Europeans settlements altogether, which prompted the establishment of Aboriginal Reserves outside of townsites where the Indigenous were assigned to live and socialise. In 1915 August Octavius Neville became Chief Protector of the Aborigines and enforced the Aboriginal Act to a stricter degree and encouraged ostracism of these peoples across the country (South West Aboriginal Land & Sea Council, n.d.). The closest reserve to Pingowarring was westwards on the outside of Katanning, Carrolup, and any Indigenous in the area were rounded up and herded there, if not arrested and sent to Fremantle Prison or Wadjemup (Rottnest) Island. Aboriginal children were ostracised and forced out of many schools in the area during this period. By 1930 the entire Aboriginal community had been removed to Moore River and Carrolup was closed down. The traditional lifestyle of the Noongars in the vicinity of Pingowarring had been significantly disr4upted by the migration of the European settlers.
For over thirty years there were no records of Noongars in the Shire of Lake Grace, and none visiting Pingowarring, the mission had been repurposed as Australia’s innermost Inland Mission Hospital with World War II. In the 1960’s the farm of Hogden’s in Newdegate was repurposed as a farming mission but was only attended by a handful of Aboriginal children. They grew to be adults, one dying tragically in a car accident and the other marrying and raising sons of his own. The farm was returned to the Hodgen’s family in 1972. The sacred kura of Pingowarring has not been forgotten and noongars have returned to boodgar in the surrounding region. I do not feel there will ever be a migration of noongars to the townsite and it is now my awareness of winnaitch and the importance of noongar kaartdijin and boodgar that I can now fully understand and appreciate why.
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