Last Refuge

Last Refuge

By Stuart Braun

(published in Ampersand Magazine, 2008)


We wish to ask for our wishes, that is could we get our freedom to go away shearing and harvesting, and come home when we wish, and also to go for the good of our health when we need it; and we aboriginals all hope and wish to have our freedom, not to be bound down by he protection of the board. There is only a few blacks now remaining in Victoria. We are all dying away new and we blacks of aboriginal blood wish to have our freedom for all our lifetime, for the population is small, and the increase slow. William Barak, Wurundjeri elder, in a letter published in The Age, 1886

William Barak, dubbed the ‘Last King of the Yarra Tribes’, died in 1903, a few years after demanding his freedom to travel Victoria, in South-East Australia, as a black man. He was never given this freedom. His passing marked the end of the so-called full-blood Aboriginal population around Melbourne. As a ‘real’ black, Barak could not leave his then home, Coranderrk Aboriginal station, to work or visit family. Nor could he live with his ‘half-caste’ kin—Aboriginal people with a quarter or more European blood. They were now officially white and were to be ‘absorbed’ into the general community. This was called assimilation. Its goal was to define Aboriginal people out of existence. Assimilation’s coup de grace was the stolen generation.

Barak was a young boy in 1835 when he witnessed the signing of the Batman Treaty that ushered European colonisation of the Melbourne area. He was barely a man when he saw his people driven from their land, and devastated by disease, alcohol and frontier conflict. In 1863, along with the last remnant of his Wurundjeri tribe, Barak settled at Coranderrk station on the Yarra River, his ancestral homeland. But soon after his death, assimilation decreed that the station be shut down. The indigenous people of Melbourne had lost a final link to their land, and culture.

The logic of assimilation has never really left us. It comes from the paternalistic view that Aboriginal people cannot look after themselves. When then Prime Minister, John Howard, sanctioned the Federal Intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities in 2007, it was a fact, he said, that violence and alcoholism in indigenous communities was the outcome of isolation and difference. Saved by their benevolent white protector, first through a military-style intervention, and later a more thorough policy of cultural absorption, Aboriginal people are being given the opportunity to join the majority.

The Intervention has sought to disperse isolated Aboriginal communities by cutting welfare and employment programs in favour of real jobs in bigger towns. Again, it is time for black people to become white. Pat Dodson summed up the Intervention in The Age in 2007. “The Government’s agenda is to transform indigenous larger settlements into mainstream towns and extinguish by attrition the capacity of indigenous people to maintain small homeland communities. These settlements have become the lifeblood of cultural regeneration as indigenous people, by their own determination, relocated in extended family groups to traditional country after the collapse of the feudal pastoral industry regime and closure of church missions in the 1960s and 1970s.” Dodson expressed a fear about cultural homogenisation, and assimilation. If we remember what happened a century earlier around Melbourne, we can understand the concern.

Then, as now, the view was that Aboriginal communities, in isolation, cultured laziness and ignorance. In 1913, Natalie Robarts spoke to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science about the Victorian aboriginals at Coranderrk station. As the wife of the station Superintendent, Robarts was qualified to impose her Social Darwinist ideas. She spoke of the “full black”, and his “strong attachment to ancestral habits, and a dislike to change and reform.” She continued:

This accounts for the imperfect way in which he has adapted himself to the requirements of civilization. He is still simple and untaught. He seems incapable of grasping the laws of clean and healthy living. It is sad to know the Victorian blacks are dying out fast, although they are guarded and guided by those who have their interests at heart. All advice given falls on dull understandings. The half-castes, in most cases, are intelligent and capable of working, but, the mother being the black parent, the moral tendencies lean towards the native on account of pre-natal influences. Also, the child, being brought up among lazy, indolent people, contracts these habits. Physically, the white race strongly asserts itself. The white colour overpowers the black except in isolated cases.

In its heyday, Coranderrk was lauded as an industrious and hardworking farming community. Over one-hundred Aboriginal people, already largely Christianised, accepted the new culture but maintained much of their own. They grew some of the best hops crops in Victoria. They were almost self-sufficient in food production. Out of view, they spoke their language. Otherwise, they spoke English, the word of God, the 3 RRRs. They believed Coranderrk was theirs to keep, in perpetuity. But assimilation wore them down. The ‘half-caste’ Act of 1886 forced Aboriginals of mixed descent under the age of 34 off the station. The healthy, robust heart of the community was gone.

Assimilation was official Australian policy until the Aboriginal rights movement coalesced in the 1970s after indigenous people were first given the vote. But the racist views of Robarts and her kin die hard. Assimilation explains why few in cities like Melbourne or Sydney remember places like Coranderrk. Though the latter was a site for Aboriginal political rebellion and a highly organised land rights movement – the descendants of which continue the struggle to this day – much of its history has been forgotten. In the 1950s, Victoria had no Aboriginal minister, and officials claimed that only nine ‘full-bloods’ remained in the state. This vindicated assimilation and the dieing out of a race. Thankfully it wasn’t so.

Aboriginals were not necessarily coerced onto reserves in the mid-nineteenth century. As a dispossessed people, indigenous tribes actively settled on missions and stations—and often chose the sites—as a means to establish refuges, and homelands. In the early years, these reserves were to promote self-sufficiency, and self-determination. But governments quickly broke them down, not only through a belief in the paternal superiority of the white race, but a pressing need to remove Aboriginal people from valuable land.

And so assimilation was a handy tool through which to mark the ‘end’ of the Aboriginal population. With William Barak, the true Wurundjeri people of Melbourne simply disappeared, were unable to maintain their own community due to a failure to adapt to the ‘requirements of civilisation’.

History shows that Barak and his people did not simply die away, but demanded sovereignty over their own land and culture. They were especially effective in utilising public protest and political lobbying due to their proximity to Melbourne. Barak was a friend of the then Governor. He would march into Melbourne with his fellows, the younger and better educated drafting eloquent letters of protest that demanded ownership of what Barak called “my father’s country”. And they were successful, inspiring Royal Commissions and Select Committees through which Coranderrk was saved from grasping pastoralists. But fighting assimilation was another matter.

For surviving descendants of Coranderrk now seeking to reclaim their heritage and culture, only fragments remain. Aunty Dot Peters, a Wurundjeri elder living in Healesville, and whose mother was born on Coranderrk, recalls getting her first job as an Aboriginal educator in the early 1980s.

“When I got the job I thought, I don’t know anything about Aboriginal culture. When mum and dad and our grandparents were put on the reserves their language was taken away from them, they weren’t allowed to live as their ancestors did. They were put on these reserves and were told what to do. I thought, what am I going to do? None of us have lived tribal life. But it doesn’t stop us from thinking about what our people have been through.”

Aunty Dot, whose father died on the Burma railway during WW11, has since worked hard to build an identity for her people, and to aid in the work of reconciliation. But it hasn’t been easy. She recently convinced the army to acknowledge her father, who as a non-citizen was never recognised for his sacrifice. When Coranderrk land was annexed for soldier settlement in the 40s, Aunty Dot notes that her father’s family received none of this land. Aboriginal people could not be given land if they did not exist.

The storm over the NT intervention has polarised views: should Aboriginal communities have self-determination, both in terms of governing themselves and working through their own problems; or will Aboriginal populations wither unless they join the mainstream? Unsurprisingly, the latter view has triumphed, even among some Aboriginal people.

Forms of welfare dependency have become detrimental to Aboriginal communities. But welfare remains fundamental, and should not be targeted as a means of breaking up these communities. Quarantining welfare has been a central tenet of the NT Intervention, meaning 50 percent of welfare payments can only be spent at K-Mart, Coles or Woolworths. Members of communities who have long suffered from ‘humbugging’ – where community members demand money for grog – have praised the move, and there is now more food on the table. But others are worried that quarantining will drive people out of communities.

The axing of community work schemes (or CDEP programs) and the introduction of work-for-the-dole at the time of the intervention will aid the dispersion. CDEP programs paid wages, and this money could not be quarantined under the welfare reforms. But the real motivation is to force young, working Aboriginals off communities to seek work and shelter in mainstream towns and cities, just like the ‘half-caste’ acts of old. Like Coranderrk, these communities, when denied their strong, able-bodied heart, will soon waste away.

The Intervention targeted CDEP as ‘sit down money’, but whatever its worth, it kept people in touch with their traditional ways, on land they now owned under the NT Land Rights Act. CDEP gave these people flexibility to hunt, to participate in ceremonies, and maintain kin-based responsibilities. For many who oppose the Intervention, their real fear is the breakdown of these homeland communities, and the creeping, structural separation of Aboriginal people from their language and culture.

Since European contact, Aboriginal people have received and accepted forms of welfare – rations, medical care, education – not out of laziness, but a long-established patron-client relationship. As Richard Broome writes of the Victorian Aboriginal experience: “…in return for the usurpation of Aboriginal lands, Aboriginal people expected settlers to meet their needs for sustenance on the streets of Melbourne and on pastoral stations. Europeans distributed food, tobacco, blades and even guns, while Aborigines exchanged names and services…[This was] natural for Indigenous people steeped in kinship and reciprocity.”

Banned from traditional hunting, the Coranderrk people fought hard for meat rations, often denied them by corrupt or negligent officials. Less than a dependency, they saw these rations as a right and duty of care. So too, they believed they had a right to land, the fundamental basis for their identity and independence. The ‘Coranderrk Rebellion’, in which residents marched into Melbourne and protested to remain on the station, remains one of the earliest and most successful Aboriginal land rights movements in Australia. The modern land rights movement in the NT has had a similar effect. But like at Coranderrk, its gains could soon be lost.

The Intervention has withdrawn the permit system on Aboriginal land in the NT in an effort to privatise this land and bring it into line with modernity. This is necessary, it is said, since the moral and economic worldview of the Aboriginal people, based on ancient kinship ties, has failed, resulting in violent, unsanitary welfare ghettoes. But like at Coranderrk, the problem has also been a failure of government support, of employment and welfare programs that promote self-determination. Assimilation has always pointed to the imperfectability of Aboriginal culture. Their only hope now, we are told, is to take a place in society as equals, as whites. There has long been a subtle and clever blurring of the line between equality and assimilation.

The Intervention was initially a response to the Little Children Are Sacred report, and the protection of children is fundamental. No doubt, the Intervention has helped many communities decrease levels of alcohol abuse and violence, and increased school participation since welfare is also tied to school attendance.

But will the Intervention also serve to stigmatise the ‘old’ black ways, and demand that communities be mainstreamed and ‘civilised’. This is what happened on communities like Coranderrk. Aboriginal people were castigated for speaking language, for hunting in traditional ways, for maintaining ceremony. When Barak was asked by the Victorian Premier, Henry Loch, to perform a Corroboree in 1886, the Board for Aboriginal Protection would not consent. Today, the Wurundjeri people around Melbourne have lost their language, and most of their culture.

Talking to Aboriginal people descended from Coranderrk, one thing that has kept them together is family. Kinship is crucial, not only in terms of social bonds, but affirming an ancestral connection to land. For many Victorian Aboriginals, the tragedy of assimilation was that this connection was largely severed. It will be a tragedy if the same happens in the Northern Territory.

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