When I was asked to write an assignment discussing case histories of three aboriginal missions from different perspectives, I quickly discovered three things. Firstly, missions weren’t the only means of sequestering Indigenous people; there were also reserves and stations and, while for non-indigenous people the terms may be interchangeable, for Indigenous people the experiences were very different. Secondly, it wasn’t a simple matter of finding case studies, there are varying amounts of information available, and the case studies had to be constructed first. Thirdly, these places aren’t confined to history.
The three missions or reserves I chose are Lake Tyers near Lakes Entrance in Victoria and, in NSW, Wallaga Lake near Bermagui and Delegate near Bombala. This meant two state Aboriginal Protection Boards were involved. They also represented very different types of management, and ranged in size from 2000 acres at Lake Tyers to only ten acres at Delegate.
The locations are hundreds of kilometres from Sydney and Melbourne, the remoteness planned deliberately to keep Indigenous people away from ‘settled’ areas. Lake Tyers, now also known by residents by its original name of Bung Yarnda, and Wallaga Lake, now called a koori village, are still home to Indigenous people. Delegate station is closed, belonging to a time when Aboriginal people were free to move around and camp on land purposefully set aside for them - a part of Australian history that is almost forgotten.
In Victoria, in 1860, an Act established a Board for the Protection of Aborigines. The following year John Bulmer selected Lake Tyers in Gippsland as the site for a Church of England Mission. By 1863 there were seven reserves, also called missions or stations, and 23 camping spots or ration depots in Victoria. After thirty years of colonisation, this was considerably less than one percent of the colony’s land mass. An Act for the Protection and Management of the Aboriginal Natives of Victoria was passed in 1869, and from that time Aboriginal people became controlled in regard to their place of residence.
In the 1850s and in 1860s there were around 2,000 Aboriginal people in Victoria, but by the late 1870s the number was in serious decline and there were just over 1,000. In 1877 a Victorian Royal Commission into Aborigines was appointed to look at what was happening with Indigenous people, and decide what should be done.
Managers of missions and reserves had enormous powers and the level of cruelty or kindness depended greatly on their individual qualities. Bulmer gave evidence at the commission and appears to have been kind (but paternalistic) stating; “The blacks know very well that I love them and would do them good”. According to current resident Robbie Thorpe, whose great grandfather helped build Bulmer’s church; “Lake Tyers was part of the process of genocide - an attempt to ‘soothe the pillow’ as Aboriginal people died out”.
In 1886 a new Act was passed, building on the 1869 Act, but this time people of mixed descent were no longer regarded as Aboriginal. They were categorised as “half-castes” - and unlicensed “half castes” had to leave the reserves. They were supposed to assimilate whether white people wanted them or not.
In 1917 the Board resolved that; “Blacks be concentrated at Lake Tyers on account of climatic conditions, & isolation situation, lack of main roads & absence of hotels in the District”. According to Thorpe; “Lake Tyers was a concentration camp where Aboriginal people were kept out of sight and out of mind”. That might sound extreme, but in fact at the time this segregation was officially referred to as a Concentration Plan.
The people who lived at Lake Tyers were tightly controlled, needing to ask permission to go to Lakes Entrance just to go shopping. In 1948 Cora Gilsenan wrote; “Food, clothing, housing and firewood do not make up for lack of freedom”. The Aborigines Act of 1957 gave the residents the right to form an advisory board - but it was given no power. The manager of Lake Tyers had the power to issue permits, or refuse to issue permits, allowing people to move on or off the reserve.
Then in 1963 the Board, now known as the Aborigines Welfare Board, announced it would close Lake Tyers and move its residents into country towns. The policy had changed from segregation to assimilation, and once again Aboriginal people were not given a choice about where they lived. A campaign to keep Lake Tyers began, and in 1965 it was declared a permanent reserve. In 1970 it became part of the history of our nation - the first land handover in Australia under the Aboriginal Lands Act. The Victorian Government handed back 1600 hectares at Lake Tyers to be held under perpetual licence by an Aboriginal trust comprising of community members.
NSW was more than twenty years later than Victoria in setting up government control of Aboriginal people, and in 1882 the first official Protector of Aborigines was appointed. He granted reserves and camping grounds to Aboriginal people throughout NSW, but within ten years many of them had been cancelled or revoked. However in 1891 the 300 acre Wallaga Lake Reserve near the sacred mountain Gulaga was established by the NSW Aborigines Protection Board. It was run by a state appointed manager instead of missionaries. God may not have been in control, but its residents were fenced in.
In 1894 miners took gold valued at £3876 pounds from Gulaga while the traditional owners received an annual handout of less than £300. This is a little known and shameful fact from the nation’s gold history.
As townships expanded more reserves were revoked and the choices of Aboriginal people were further restricted when the NSW Aborigines’ Protection Act in 1909 was passed. Those regarded as full blood Aborigines were to stay on the reserves, while those of mixed ancestry were to be sent into the white community where their colour would slowly be bred out. How this translated from policy to practice was the state removal of children.
Families were disrupted and so too was a culture practiced since the dreamtime as the manager did not allow residents to speak their own language. In 1941 the NSW protection board was renamed Aborigines Welfare Board, but the word ‘welfare’ apparently meant control. Percy Mumbler remembers; “When I was young and roamin’ around with my mother and father... the manager of Wallaga Lake sent the letter up to the manager at Roseby Park and told the manager we got to go home to Wallaga - or otherwise they’d send us away to the homes”.
In 1949 Aboriginal people resisted government attempts to rezone some of the land at Wallaga Lake, but a sizeable chunk was sold to white people.
Max Harrison came from Wallaga Lake and got work in local sawmills, but when he went to visit his mother and family he had to report to the manager and say who he was coming to see and for how long; “He had a lot of power, you know, and we had no rights then, not under the Welfare... See, I was out workin’ in the white community and I was supposed to stay out that way so that people could look on me as being a white man, assimilated, you know”.
Visitors were strictly controlled and most of the Australian population probably had no idea what life was like on a reserve. In 1965 Emil Witton, vice president of the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship, visited Wallaga Lake with Ken Brindle where; “Mr Brindle wanted to visit relatives. The Manager said that Mr Brindle, an Aboriginal, could enter the reserve and visit his relatives, but we as white people were not to get out of the car”.
In March 1983, the NSW Government passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which transferred the title deeds of existing reserves to local communities, but at the same time it also passed the Crown Lands Validation of Revocation Act which validated the seizure of most of the Aboriginal reserves. According to elder, Ossie Cruse, this is the reason there are so many camping grounds and caravan parks in such great locations in NSW. They are on land that had been set aside for Aboriginal people - then taken back.
After a long struggle in 1984, Wallaga Lake became the first aboriginal community in New South Wales to receive title deeds for what little that remained of their traditional lands.
In June 1892 the Aborigines Protection Board gazetted an Aboriginal Reserve about 5 kilometres from the township of Delegate (a corruption of an Aboriginal word meaning one big hill). It was up on the highlands of the Monaro on a site that had been recorded before as having been in use by Aboriginal people.
Delegate was run as a station - meaning that a police station was responsible for the local Aborigines. Importantly, although rations were issued from a police station, the people were unsupervised. Their lives were not controlled, they were free to take what work they could find and they were free to travel. In fact, there was a walking track between the reserve at Delegate and the mission at Lake Tyers.
An account of life at Delegate comes from Jeff Tungai; “There was a fair few lived at Delegate. Three or four families up there. No manager, never had no manager there, just a block of land. It was a reserve back of the old hospital. ..A few houses put there for the blackfellows and you’d just get on the best you could. They might have got a bit of assistance off the police when they wanted a bit of rations, but that was only once a week, every Thursday or whichever”.
By the 1920s most of the Ngarigo people who were still on the Monaro were at the reserve at Delegate. Having lost their land and their traditional means of livelihood, life was tough, but compared to Lake Tyers and Wallaga Lake, they had relative freedom. These people were knowledgeable in the old ways (with traditional healers using multi-coloured beetles for divination). They worked as stockmen, brumby musterers and housekeepers on the big pastoral stations in the high country.
Unfortunately, they soon lost what freedom they had. The Aborigines Protection Board report for 1st July to 30th June 1922 states; “During recent years, a considerable diminution of the number of Aborigines residing on Aboriginal Stations and Reserves has been noticeable due it appears to the Aborigines desiring to be free of supervision and restrictions placed on them on reserves, where they have to comply with the rules and regulations... The only remedy to meet cases of this kind would be an amendment of the Aborigines Protection Act, giving the board power to, in their discretion, prohibit such Aborigines from leaving a Reserve”.
By the mid-1920s the last families had left Delegate and many went to Wallaga Lake where their descendants still live. There they had to live with segregation and discrimination and the almost total control of their lives by managers. The only alternative available was to become fringe dwellers on the edge of towns. The Aborigines Protection Board pressured them to leave Delegate (including taking children from families).
Margaret Dixon explains how her father moved from Delegate to Wallaga and how the move affected him - and still affects her; “Dad used to still cry to go back home to the Monaro and I used to tell him; ‘Dad, you can’t go back’. And I remember him crying. To see an old man sitting there crying to go back where he came from was very sad. We never had a car to take him up there. I think a lot of the old ones fretted to go back... They were run off Delegate. Otherwise they’d never have left there. I think he might have been going into his teens, or he might have been younger when they left. Well, he said they were virtually told to go, probably by the Protection Board. ‘Protection’ Board - as though our people were animals and they were protecting them”.
The ten acres of land that had been officially reserved for Indigenous people on the Delegate River were taken back - officially revoked on 18/1/1957. The houses fell down and it is now vacant land, with no sign of its place in Australia’s history.
Where are they now
According to Robbie Thorpe, there are about 120 Indigenous people at Lake Tyers (also called Bung Yarnda). It has been in the news recently with Indigenous women imposing a blockade in March 2011 after the state government refused to rescind the appointment of an administrator. For the past six years, instead of being run by an elected council, Lake Tyers has been run by an administrator with wide-ranging powers and financial control appointed by Aboriginal Affairs Victoria.
According to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Jeanette Powell; ''The community of Lake Tyers was encouraged to undertake community development courses to build their capacity for self-governance. It is encouraging that 14 people have undertaken the course, but further work will need to be done before the community is in a position to resume self-governance''.
However according to resident Leanne Edwards; “Basically we're fighting for our rights to self-determination so that we can govern ourselves… and we can run our own affairs. We don't need white men dictating to us all the time telling us what we can and can't do”. Another resident, Janey Proctor, said there was little difference between living under an appointed administrator and the old missionary system - and Edwards agrees; “Elders have said to me that it's gone right back to missionary days and the only thing that they haven't come in with is rations".
The control extends to visitors with a reporter from the SBS television show Living Black stating that he made three calls requesting an interview with the administrator, but he returned the contact only; “To inform me that I was only to film images of public buildings and nothing else”.
Wallaga Lake, with a population of 120 Indigenous people (according to the 2006 census) is managed by the Merriman’s Local Aboriginal Land Council. It has also been in the news recently. Unfortunately, there are serious disputes between families living there, and in March 2011 riot police were called in response to reports of petrol bombs thrown and fires started.
Delegate Reserve remains important to people who had family from there, and there are plans to make the reserve (twice stolen land) an Aboriginal Place of Significance (with interpretive signs). As Margaret Dixon states; “The mountains mean a lot to me because that’s where my people come from, up there”.
This is the tale of three missions. The first was segregation. The second was assimilation. The third, the current one, is called Closing the Gap. We do not know how that will turn out - but whether we are actively contributing to it, or passively accepting it, it affects the present and future lives of Aboriginal people.