RECOLLECTIONS OF BREWARRINA ABORIGINAL ‘MISSION’ IN 1954
Dr Ruth A. Fink Latukefu
I want to pay my respects to the memory of everyone I knew at the Mission in 1954, many of whom have since passed away.
Also to acknowledge the original owners of country in Brewarrina as well as all those families who were later sent there, often against their wishes.
I returned to Brewarrina earlier this year to give the Brewarrina Aboriginal Museum and community a disk (and album) with a digital version of photos I had taken there in 1954. The AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) had restored my old negatives, as all my field work photos/recordings etc. are kept with them in Canberra. Some old men and women who came to the talk and photo screening in June were children in those pictures.
I was able to give back to these communities their photos taken long ago, which give them precious glimpses of their own youth and of their elders who have long passed away.
We are on a journey going back almost fifty-nine years ago, though with the hindsight of the present. I want to describe what life was like for Aboriginal people living on the Government Aboriginal Station or “Mission” where I stayed during four months’ anthropological research in 1954.
Aboriginal people then called themselves “dark people”, or ‘Blackfellows”. Anyone of Aboriginal descent was legally classed as Aboriginal under the NSW Aborigines’ Welfare Act, unless they had a Certificate of Exemption or Citizenship rights. They were controlled by the State government’s Aborigines’ Welfare Board , which had power over most aspects of their lives. A few people had “Citizenship Rights”, which entitled them to receive social security benefits, to vote and importantly the right to enter hotels and drink alcohol, which was then prohibited to Aborigines. Even though many Brewarrina men had served during World War I and II, and had been treated the same as other soldiers , when they came back home, they again came under the Aborigines’ Welfare Act and were not entitled to the same benefits as other returned servicemen.
During the 1950s State governments were promoting a policy of Assimilation, they wanted to encourage people to take out Citizenship Rights and no longer think of themselves as Aboriginal. People were then expected to renounce any Aboriginal cultural ties and cease to socialise with other Aboriginal people except close family. The aim was for the Aborigines to gradually disappear, by being absorbed into white Australia so that in a few generations no one would know or remember they had any connection with an Aboriginal past.
There have been very big changes since then and many people who would never have owned up to having Aboriginal ancestry are now proud of their Aboriginal connections. It was so very different in 1954 when people were still being made to feel ashamed of being Aboriginal and to reject their languages and culture, especially in the presence of white people.
Many children were sent away to special institutions. Boys were sent to Kinchella home and girls to Cootamundra. It was not until February 2008 that Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister delivered an apology to the “Stolen Generations” But for all those years, most Australians were quite ignorant of what had been happening to so many Aboriginal families through the removal of their children.
When I was here in 1954 I was also ignorant of “the Stolen Generation” and I did not understand why people at the Mission appeared so afraid of white people, and why they taught the children to fear them and warned them to call out whenever a Wodjin or Wunda approached. Then they would rush inside their houses and peep through the doors to make sure no white official had come to take away their children. The removal of children if they are found to be neglected still continues, but not in the brutal ways of the past, when a police van would arrive and forcibly take children from their mothers, even those who were well cared for and send them away, often separating brothers and sisters, so that many never saw their parents again or had to search for them, years later. The “Stolen Generations” which most white people did not know about, explain why there was so much fear and mistrust.
But assimilation policies failed, because Aborigines continued to experience prejudice and discrimination. Many officials, police, and white towns’ people still treated anyone with a darker skin who looked Aboriginal as “Aboriginal” whether they had citizenship rights or not. If you had Aboriginal features, you were branded and often discriminated against, especially in small country towns. Those white men who married or lived with Aboriginal partners were often themselves socially unacceptable to other town residents.
Exceptions were made for outstanding footballers, tennis players, athletes, gifted entertainers and lighter skinned people but prejudice remained widespread and unfortunately still continue in some places though it is no longer politically correct . In the past few Aborigines were socially accepted and generally, they remained outsiders.
In 1954 Blanche Ferguson once summed it up when she said: “To most white people we are like pigs to a Mohammedan, we are unclean”.
So many white people judged and disparaged Aboriginal people without knowing them personally or just knew them as servants. I could understand this, because of my personal experience of prejudice against Jews in Germany where I was born.
In the past, very few Australians appreciated how extremely disadvantaged Aboriginal people were legally, socially and economically. The media took little interest in them and most stories portrayed them negatively. Aboriginals were hardly ever consulted or interviewed on radio or photographed in newspapers.
It’s very different now, and there is much better coverage of Aboriginal news nationally on radio, television and in newspapers. There are many Indigenous media such as Koori radio, Goolari Media, “Living Black”, SBS National Indigenous Television, the ABC’s “Awaye”, Koori newspapers, films and documentaries. Cinemas screen feature films, such as “The Sapphires”, “Bran Nue Dae” directed by gifted Aboriginal film makers like Rachael Perkins, Ivan Sen etc. All these are helping to bring more acceptance and better understanding. But there was none of this happening in 1954!
Historically, the Aboriginal experience in Australia was quite similar to that of other Indigenous peoples who were invaded and colonised. When you hear about problems of domestic violence, alcohol and substance abuse, youth suicide and dysfunctional family life, don’t imagine that these are peculiar to Aboriginal communities. Exactly the same problems occur among Canadian and American Indians, Eskimos and a host of other indigenous peoples. What Aboriginals share in common with other indigenous groups are the past policies which determined the way they were treated by colonial officials, settlers and later governments during the colonial frontier expansion which gradually and systematically deprived them of their land. This was followed by their forcible segregation on reserves or “missions” where they were made dependent on government handouts and generally treated as social outcasts.
Places like the Brewarrina “Mission” kept Aboriginal people segregated and deprived them of proper education and life opportunities. They were kept out of sight and only dealt with by officials employed by the Welfare Board who were the only people who had regular contacts with them. So, as I mentioned earlier Aboriginal people came to fear and distrust anyone in authority and white people in general.
Percy Coombs, in 1954, speaking of the past in Brewarrina recalled:
The people on this mission have never mixed in much with the white people. They never got away among the white people. They lives here and don’t like white people to go among their company. They feel they don’t like a white person to see them cooking down in the ashes and near the dirt and eating their own food. These people don’t realise that the white people among the working class are just the same. Their natural way of thinking is that the place is not descent and good enough. Then the food they eat, they don’t want white people to see them eat it. The black feels shy and ashamed of himself; the place is not good enough for a white person nor is his food good enough for white people to see.
RESEARCH FROM JUNE TO OCTOBER 1954
I had never known anyone Aboriginal before I came to Brewarrina, as a 22 year old anthropology graduate, sent by Professor A.P. Elkin, of Sydney University to study the community living on the “Mission” 9 miles out from Brewarrina town.
I drove there in a battered old Singer 9 utility van, in late June 1954. By the time I arrived I was covered in fine red dust as there were no sealed roads in those days. I stayed the night at a local pub and was warned next morning at breakfast by a Lands Department official that “The Blacks out on the Mission are a bad lot”, though he admitted that he had never visited the place.
I had to stay in the Manager’s house, the Manager, was called “boss” by everyone and his wife, was “Matron”. It was the only place considered suitable for me to live, but it meant that most people on the Mission believed I was working for the Aborigines’ Welfare Board. It was not easy for me to gain people’s trust and that took many weeks. On my first day they were so frightened and suspicious everyone stayed in their houses, and shut their doors whenever they saw me coming.
I found a group of children and showed them a toy lizard. They couldn’t resist seeing it wag its head and were soon crowding around, laughing shyly. Then I played a mouth organ and sang to them. They thought it terribly funny, seeing a strange Wodjin play the mouth organ, sing and show them a toy “garni”. After a while they became more relaxed. A tall boy called Norman started calling my name “Ruth Fink”, chanting it and jumping as he called out. I said to him, “Make a song about me”. The other children laughed and Norman said he would dance a corroboree if I would dance and play the mouth organ. However I did not take up his offer!
After the first few days, children became less shy and more their cheeky selves. They had fun with my name, calling out “Miss Flink” and “Miss Milk” while some would run up to touch me while the others laughed. An older girl sometimes tried to stop them, but I said I didn’t mind as they were only playing.
For the first few weeks, I was often asked by the mothers why I had come. A rumour had spread that I must be the new welfare officer, and that I was there to see if they were caring for their children properly. They thought that if I found any signs of neglect, I would have the children sent away.
Later I was told:
“We all thought you was the new welfare officer to replace Mrs English” or “The children all thought you came for them”.
“When the school teacher said you would be here for several months we did not know what you were doing- we thought you come to put our children in homes”.
I allowed the children to call me “Ruth” instead of “Miss Fink” but after a few days, the school teacher, came over on the pretext of asking me to drive her somewhere. Then she explained that she had instructed the children to call me “Miss Fink”. She said they had been disrespectful and too familiar with me. I told her that I wanted them to feel less afraid and that I was encouraging them to call me ‘Ruth’. She insisted I was wrong to encourage this and she could not understand my doing so. I knew that there was an accepted code of behaviour, for white people always to be the “boss” and never to treat Aboriginals as equals. She believed that “the Blacks” must be taught to look up to white people to maintain “white prestige”. Her husband, also a teacher, later accused me of causing disturbance at the school because I failed to demand respect from the children. One evening at the Manager’s house he came partly drunk, and insisted that I did not know what I was doing and that the people would never tell me anything.
As the weeks went by, I joined in many activities such as swimming in the river, fishing on the riverbank with women whom I’d befriended, driving the van, with borrowed dogs and boys in the back to go hunting for wild pigs and kangaroos. Some of the black and white photos were taken on these trips such as driving Lily Hall and Percy Coombs and some boys to Walgett and Lightning Ridge where we camped out. It was important for me to prove to people that I was not trying to be “flash” like other Wodjins whom they knew.
Gradually, the mothers began to accept me and talk to me even letting me inside their houses. Some photos were taken on these visits and we had long conversations. But it took a couple of months before I was finally invited into a house and offered a mug of tea. That showed they finally trusted me, and understood I was not there to dob them in to the Board or manager. People no longer worried if I came by when they were playing cards and gambling.
In the evenings we would sit around a cooking fire and sing songs , men played mouth organs (much better than I did) or talk. Some evenings I drove people into town where dances were held on the Claypans near the river bank.
Shortly before I left some of the boys caught a goanna. After it had secretly been cut up in the manager’s laundry, they cooked it in the ashes, and brought some meat for me to try – it tasted like chicken and I quite enjoyed it. I regarded this as a sign of trust and friendship, because they had allowed me to share some “Blackfellow” foods, which they then believed white people considered dirty and unfit to eat.
There used to be a railway station at Brewarrina then, and a thriving pastoral industry. Most Aboriginal men could find jobs, as shearers, drovers, cooks, and station handy-men, fettlers on the railways, fencers and timber-cutters. Some were self-employed while others worked for wages. It was a rich pastoral district in those days and there was usually plenty of work available on nearby sheep stations. When men returned to the Mission, they’d often bring quite large sums of money but much of it would usually end up distributed in the gambling games.
Few people were able to save money, or if they did, they had to hide it, as everyone would regularly “humbug” them, borrowing food or money from their relatives. One woman used to lock her food away in a box and get her husband to take the key to work because people were always asking to borrow everything. Sometimes there would be nothing left, including cups, cutlery and all the food brought from town a few days before, leaving just a spoon , fork, and knife, not even tea, sugar or milk. Some of the younger single women had jobs in town as laundresses or out on stations as domestics. After they married they usually stayed home. The mothers spent money on food, clothing, and necessities for their children and taxis. Men (who were non- Christian) regularly bought illegal ‘grog’, risking imprisonment though they had to drink it somewhere away from the mission.
Most of the Aboriginal groups I knew in the 1950s were passionate gamblers, partly because life was so boring on the missions and there was nothing much else to do. The gambling rings were a social activity where people would exchange gossip and those short of money might be lucky enough to win some. Gambling in 1954 was not as important as it had been in earlier times. One reason was that by then, there were an increasing number of families turning Christian. Those who decided to convert (at a baptism in the river) had to cease gambling or drinking alcohol. However, earlier on, there had been very big gambling schools and large sums of money changed hands every weekend. Wolermeringle station near Goodooga was often talked about:
Dora was one of those, who had ceased gambling because she had turned Christian.
I think the way money was viewed can be partly explained by the long time (up to 1970s in some places) that earnings were put into Trust Funds controlled by the boss or the Managers. Men and women just received handouts of food rations or clothing and a little spending money, but the rest was kept in trust because they were thought to be incapable of managing their earnings. This actually deprived them of the need to manage their earnings, and encouraged dependency, which after social security payments became available, perpetuated welfare dependence. Recently people could put in claims for “Stolen wages” and many people sought compensation for money earned years ago that had remained in “trust” some of which was never given back to those who had earned it or their families.
The Mission truck known as the “Gubby” used to be driven into town twice a week for stores, with people riding on the back. When it returned you would hear the children shouting “Gubby” as the lorry appeared with people and their shopping, which for children was most importantly the fruit and lollies which they were expecting. But others preferred to ride in taxis, especially if they’d had a win at cards.
“People don’t want to save the money as long as they get their little fun and pleasure out of what they ride in”. It was after all, one of the few occasions when the Aboriginal passenger gave orders to a white driver. “Everyone has a right to decide for themselves what they want to do with their money- if they want to gamble it or spend it on taxis, that‘s their business.”
The schooling given to children at the Mission did not provide them with a proper education. Percy Coombs, whom I quoted previously, described his time at the Mission school in the 1930s:
“In those days you wasn’t to know nothing- you was to go to that school house and just sit down with a pencil and piece of paper and you could scribble on it all day- that’s all they wanted you to know. They didn’t put too many figures for you to learn on the board. In some other country he’d be more up lifted than he is, but today and go back 60 years or so- the blacks was never given the chance…white people did not want the black people to know anything at all. They took him down that way. They tried to keep the people here on the Mission down, and tried to keep them under the sole of their boots.
Well if you’re going to let him go out and try to find the light for himself, well how do you expect him to get on? We had quite a lot of smart people here on this station at one time, but the townspeople were exactly like the managers and the police- they didn’t want to know anybody here or know how they lived. Today the people has got a little more freedom than they had twenty-five years ago, they tried to keep you down then and keep you beaten all the time. If they could stop you going through that gate over there, they’d stop you from going”. (He is pointing to the manager’s garden gate)
His sister, Doreen Wright also remembered the dormitories. She recalled:
“Before we played, the manager would make us clean the station and pick up all the dirt. We had to do what he told us. He taught us lessons. We were allowed to play from three to five in the evening and then again after tea till 9pm. We slept in those dormitories and had one day off a week to see our parents. We stayed there till we turned fourteen and then were sent out to work for four years. Our parents did not mind because they thought it was best for us. Some girls used to sneak out at night and go to town. Every night there was church and hymn singing and everyone went to church.”
Her fourteen year old daughter, with whom I used to go fishing told me that at school she was in the top class, but all they did was build dolls’ houses, learn some Australian history and nature studies – there were hardly any books apart from some fairy tales and school magazines. They learned no other history, geography, or science. A teenage boy could recite the names of all the early Governors of NSW but he had never heard of places such as Greece or who William Shakespeare was. The Matron said that many teachers in Aboriginal schools went there because it led to promotion elsewhere, not because they were interested in teaching Aboriginal children.
Increasingly, conflicts occurred when people from different regions and tribes were brought to Brewarrina, such as Angledool people in the 1920s and later people from Tibeburra. Some found Brewarrina worse than living conditions had been at Angledool. Also they spoke different languages .When they talked in their own ‘lingo’ it caused fights and arguments because they would be suspected of gossiping or talking about someone. This was said to be one of the main reasons why people stopped using Aboriginal languages, which only a few old people could still speak fluently.
“That’s the reason they took a grudge against one another, because they didn’t understand each others’ language. If we talked in our lingo and they in theirs, they’d think we was talking about them and they’d take a grudge against us. Even today they are still suspicious and if they hear anyone talking their lingo they think they are talking about them.”
Some words and phrases were still widely used but women complained that growing up in the dormitories had stopped them knowing how to speak their own language, while others said the old people had refused to teach it to them. In any case it was discouraged by teachers and managers.
On one of our pig-hunting outings Lilly Hall, began talking in Gamilaroi, her father’s language and said in English to the boys:
“You are a new generation, you don’t know things that we were told by our parents” She began excitedly saying different words and pointing to things and telling how proud she was to know and understanding those words. Her old father, Richard Howell was one of those who still spoke Gamilaroi fluently. Another was old Maria Boney, who talked in Gamilaroi to Lily because she could understand her “lingo.”
The words that everyone still knew that were commonly used then were for parts of the body and foods, walla- head, murra- hand, widja- bread, dinga- meat, and names of animals such as garni- lizard, dinewan- emu, as well as swear words, “rude words for genitals.
There were other differences which sometimes caused disputes- people from Angledool played dice while Brewarrina people were card players. In Brewarrina euchre and dice were for men while women played coon-can and poker. After they were later moved to town from the Mission, Angledool people started dice- playing schools.
The last corroboree in Brewarrina was said to have been held in 1931, quite a social event which many white townspeople came to watch. But after the Protection Board appointed Mission superintendents or managers, they wanted to make children forget their languages and cultures, by forbidding them to speak them at school or in the dormitories and there was a policy of cultural suppression.
The Protection Board and its managers had absolute authority over anyone legally an Aborigine. This included the power to remove Aborigines from the vicinity of any reserve or township. Percy Coombs remembered what it was like earlier on at the Mission:
“They could not leave this place to go and live in town, one time you know. If they were in there for a week or fortnight the boss (Manager) would be in after them or get the police to send them back again.
Well they can go anywhere now, but in the past they never got into white people’s ways of living. You go back 25 or 30 years- he lived on his own food mostly-now even the food they eat today is all white people’s food.”
One consequence of managers trying to make children forget their culture was that many became ashamed of anything connected with the past ways.
I had noticed early on, how people seemed worried about me seeing them cooking damper in the ashes or eating bush foods such as kangaroo or goanna. The reasons became clearer as I learned how people felt ashamed being seen with bush foods. For instance one woman told how:
“Mr Arnold, a white man who knew the children really well used to take them on trips and go out pig hunting. One day he caught a kangaroo and took it back and asked one of the women on the Mission to have some. She felt so ashamed and she would not cut off any meat while the Wunda was around nor would she eat it in front of him or even let him know that she ate it. Mr Arnold ate some himself but she only came after he ‘d left and helped herself to it.”
When I asked why people were afraid of white people seeing them eating bush foods, I was told:
“Yes, people here are afraid, it‘s a sort of fear deep rooted among the dark people. They are afraid of white people seeing them at their old ways. This fear has been handed down. I have it myself. Also I fear policemen. Some people here don’t mind a wodjin or wunda seeing them gambling but they do mind being caught with their own foods. White people are higher ups than us.”
The attitudes of the white manager were revealing. After a funeral for someone who had died on the Mission. He said to me:
“If anyone had wailed at the funeral, I would have had them thrown out of the cemetery.” He would not even allow people to express their grief. The same manager who was a rather hot tempered, returned serviceman, insisted that “the Abos must be given an example and made to be like white people”
The station truck was in town, about to return to the Mission when two women on the back started arguing about some trivial matter. The manager shouted at one of them “Sit down and shut up”. The woman took no notice so he shouted again, so loudly that everyone along the town street could hear him. Other people on the back of the truck trembled with fear and shame, and said to her, “sit down and do as the boss says”. Then someone reminded her, “You don’t know what a good Boss you’ve got”.
Later the Manager told me: “That’s the only way to treat them, when they get like that you have to slap ‘em down and drive them into the ground”.
More than anything, people hated the manager or matron interfering in their domestic quarrels or entering their houses unannounced and uninvited. One manager had his shirt torn off for doing this and there was a matron who shortly after her arrival started to make a lot of changes. She was a bossy woman who would use the mission “handy men” as messenger boys and had a habit of rushing into people’s houses to make “surprise” inspections.
The women were enraged when she had said to one of them who had an appointment to see the doctor, “Be sure to remember to wear clean underwear”. They were very sensitive about how they were treated by the matron and felt insulted, when she kept calling them by their Christian names instead of Mrs So and So, as if they were children.
Later she announced that she was coming around to every house to make sure people were feeding their children properly at lunch time. The women then decided to gang up on her if she ever came near their houses at lunch time. “No other matron ever came looking to see what we ate or spied on us”, they complained.
During my stay, the manager and matron never socialised with the people, but I heard that in earlier years women would sometimes be invited to have afternoon tea with the matron and men had cricket teams which played in competitions. There was much more organised sport and entertainment then. It was no longer so in 1954.
Some managers in the past had been hated, but the manager during my stay was quite liked, even though he was quite authoritarian. When he was transferred, he and his family were given farewell presents and people seemed genuinely sorry to see them leave, especially the matron whom they had liked more than her husband. They considered that he had been fair to them and tried to make some improvements. For instance getting playground equipment for the children.
The people had no voice in the running of the station. There were no land councils, no local organisations of any sort, and people had to rely on the manager for everything, but they could not sack him if he proved unsuitable. He was only accountable to the Welfare Board. He took no orders from the people, but was expected to be their Boss much like a prison superintendent. There were a small number of elected Aboriginal members then on the Aborigines’ Welfare Board, Bert Groves was one and later Mrs Pearl Gibbs, but they were simply token members, and Aboriginal communities had virtually no say in their own affairs.
Perhaps because local white station owners did not want any competition or loss of their work force from the Mission, there was no serious effort to develop it or provide any economic activities for the people. At one time people had grown their own vegetables, but it was discouraged.
Percy Coombs envisaged how it could have been developed:
The only way to help people here is to give them land.
This Station could support itself if people were given a chance. In wet weather we could have our own store so we don’t have to go 9 miles away. Why not pick the best man in the place, 2 or 3 of them to organise his own mates, not to try to be better than the boss himself, but why not let them run sheep and help the man who wants to have a go. If one or two are a success everyone might have success. We could send children to high school. They could do the same work as you do.
After the last old people with traditional knowledge died in the 1940s, it was said that most of their Aboriginal lore was lost, though a few groups of people living on remote sheep stations away from the town reserves, still knew language and practiced aspects of their culture. By contrast in many areas there has been a recent Aboriginal cultural revival throughout Australia. If there was still cultural knowledge at the Brewarrina Mission during the 1950s such knowledge, would have been kept hidden from white people, including myself, because of the prevailing attitudes. Certainly there were still people who respected the old law, despite years of suppression.
“As far as the old laws of the Aborigine are concerned”, said one old man, ”He carried out the best rules there ever were- there’s no white people as strict as old Aboriginal law…it wasn’t love at first sight like it is today- you had to be shown and told what to do and where to go. Those people were healthy and ate their own foods; they were fine upstanding young men and women.”
Many people still believed in ghosts, curses and supernatural happenings. They were afraid to walk around at night, and I was often warned about ghosts. One of the Christian men admitted that he still had some of the fears which, as he put it, were in everyone. He said:
The old Aboriginal beliefs are still there, but the old people that carried them out have gone-there’s no one to take the place of them old types: I’m a bit dubious about them old stunts- there’s no one here to do it now, so we’re not afraid of them, but say a curlew was to call out there, a shivering still goes through everyone of us “Who’s the message for?(the curlew’s call might mean someone had died)They seem to be in you somehow. There’s still belief in all those rackets but no one to carry them out.
One Sunday I was out pig hunting with a group of women and children. At dusk, one of the women grew worried that we would not be back in time for church. She made a fire, burnt some green gum-leaves and “smoked” herself. She said this was to protect herself from the ghosts of old people who had lived there and who might be wandering in the bush.
Several families were devout Christians who regularly held services in their houses. They had renounced alcohol, gambling and other forms of entertainment such as going to the annual rodeo, boxing matches and side shows. They held an annual religious convention, around Rodeo time, run mainly by Aboriginal lay preachers, though a few white missionaries would also attend. There were prayer nights and large numbers of people attended from other far western towns and Aboriginal settlements at Quambone, Gulargumbone and Bourke. Leading the Christians on the Brewarrina Mission were Blanche and Duncan Ferguson, son of William Ferguson the well-known activist for Aboriginal rights. Blanche was originally from Cummeragunja on the Victorian border and many of her family were also missionaries.
Duncan Ferguson had originally trained with the Aborigines’ Inland Mission but he later disaffiliated from the AIM. He explained why they’d left. He and Blanche and their family had been sent by AIM as missionaries to Tabulum. When they arrived there with their young children they found there was no accommodation for them, as someone else was occupying the missionary’s house. They had to seek help at the police station for and sleep the night in a cow barn. Duncan found a job at a local saw mill, where he worked for some years, but later on when AIM sent some white missionaries to Tabulam, they sent someone ahead from Sydney to make sure there was satisfactory accommodation. Duncan resented the way he and Blanche had been treated. He said: “God did not send me here for this, man sent me”.
Legal and social discrimination were still practiced in Brewarrina in 1954. The hospital was segregated and though a new ward had been built for Aboriginal people, as soon as it was finished, they were given the old white ward and the new wing was kept for whites. People complained that some lighter-skinned members of a family would be put into the white ward while others who were darker from the same family were put into the Aboriginal ward. A woman whose daughter worked at the hospital was so angry when they put her in the Aboriginal ward that she refused to pay her bill, saying the Aboriginal Welfare Board should pay for her.
Although police were more sympathetic than in the past, they still arrested Aboriginal men who showed any signs of drinking alcohol or were drunk, and regularly sent them to jail. I heard stories that in earlier times the police used to beat people up. At least half of the employed men consumed alcohol regularly, even though it was still illegal except for those who held exemption certificates. Occasionally if someone arrived drunk at the Mission the manager would call the police, but mostly men stayed in town. I felt that excessive drinking was partly just typically Australian male behaviour as it remains today, but it was also connected with feelings of inferiority and was a response to the colour prejudice that was still widespread. Few women drank, and those who did were usually younger as there was quite strong feeling against women drinking then. People smoked but I cannot recall any other drug use.
In 1954 citizenship rights and pressures for people to assimilate and leave the mission and deny their Aboriginal origins were driving a wedge within the Aboriginal community and turning some individuals and families living in town against people on the Mission even though many had originally grown up together on the Mission. They looked down on those who had remained on the Mission, especially if they had a more Aboriginal appearance. However, it was difficult for anyone Aboriginal to escape from unpleasant experiences of prejudice and there were no anti-discrimination laws then.
As one man put it:
“The people living in town may feel superior and think they have got away from the Welfare Board and are better than us people here on the Mission, but they really haven’t got away from the Welfare Board at all. They can’t get away because they have Aboriginal blood in them when they’re born and it stays in them till they die”…..
Some of these dark families in town think themselves better than Mission people. They would rather see a ghost at their front door than one of the mission people. But they’re really no different from us. We all went to school together in the mission. Now they won’t associate with us.
A few years ago one woman’s brother visited her. She said he was not her brother and that she never had a brother. Another woman, now married to a white man disowns her own son, born before, because he is dark.
But it isn’t colour that counts. Some of these people look no different from us here and the white people don’t consider them any different from us. They are the ones that think themselves different. Those people don’t often greet you in the street
This is one town where the blacks won’t pull together; they’re just at one another.
The townspeople would just as soon see their own folks on the Mission being put in jail and stamped down.
When Doreen Wright invited me to come by taxi to town we would have a milk shake or a cup of tea for which she paid.
On one such occasion I recorded in my diary on 10 August, 1954:
I’m sitting with Doreen Wright at Pipos the Greek’s Café having a milkshake. People are staring at us.
A coloured girl is serving us, but she tries to ignore Doreen and asks me for the money. Doreen hands her the money and turns to me, saying, “She thinks she’s just it, but her mother is as dark as I am and walks into town two miles every day!”
Later Doreen points to various people walking along the street and says “You wouldn’t think he’s black would you.”
Next day, I was told how some Aboriginal women who lived in town had seen us together and were shocked that I would sit publicly drinking tea with Doreen.
“Isn’t she ashamed to be seen in Pipos’ with her? Isn’t she ashamed?” They thought it was terrible that I mixed socially with Mission people whom they looked down on.
The divisions within the Brewarrina community, which I have discussed more fully elsewhere, were based mainly on having lighter skin colour or for women, being married to a white man, and in the case of men, holding an Exemption Certificate or Citizenship Rights. Many of the households in town group were lighter skinned individuals who had cut themselves off from their darker relatives on the Mission. Although they had all grown up there originally, these families had begun to move into town in the late 1930s and early war years. This was an attempt on their part to become independent of the Welfare Board. Moving into town, away from the Mission meant that most of these families lived in comfortable houses and led a life style quite similar to the town’s white people.
Though they sometimes express colour prejudice against their own relatives, they are nevertheless extremely sensitive to any such prejudice when it is directed against themselves….there is constant preoccupation with the theme of colour. When babies are born, the women all go to the hospital to see the colour of the child.
But to most white people in Brewarrina the ‘coloured people’ were all the same. They did not distinguish between town and Mission
On social occasions when both whites and coloureds mix, such as the weekly dances, the hall is divided into “Coloured” whites on one side, and real whites on the other. Only an occasional white boy dances with the darker women.
It was apparent back then, that there were social barriers that were put up by white people, excluding Aboriginal people, even those who had tried to assimilate, forsaken their Aboriginal identity and were indistinguishable in their life style in any way except for their skin colour or Aboriginal features.
I hope that Brewarrina and similar country towns are now very different from what they were like in 1954. Many people take pride in being Aboriginal. There is a new generation of young Aboriginal people, better educated and more outspoken than their parents and grandparents, who are making themselves heard and helping to bring a fairer deal for their people. Australians in general are much more aware of Aboriginal people now than they were in 1954, as evidenced by the May 2000 Reconciliation walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and “The Sea of Hands” reconciliation movement in the 1990s.
When I left Brewarrina after four months I had come to know people well and had made many friends on the Mission. They gave me a farewell party, lit a bonfire and roasted a pig. Some of them wrote letters after I’d left. Lily Hall, who was my closest friend came down to Sydney for and stayed with my parents later that year, and I was able to show her some of the sights of Sydney.
I never returned to Brewarrina, as the following year I went over to Perth to work as an anthropologist with people in Western Australia. When I think back now to Brewarrina, there were some wonderful times, pig hunting with the children, fishing with women on the river banks, eating Cat-fish and Murray cod, sitting round a fireplace at night playing the mouth organ with men who were much better players than I was, and singing songs. Going to dances on the Clay-pan
I remember the Slim Dusty songs which were favourites then , such as “Rusty Its Goodbye”- about the lonely dog waiting for his master who was killed on the battlefield, and The “Dear John” Letter”- about poor John who was dumped for another!,”.
The most important thing I learned at the Mission was to listen to men and women who despite their limited formal education, had wisdom, intelligence and understood the difficult situation they had to bear. Those who are their descendants should take pride in those old people who have since passed on.
After this he and Blanche spread the gospel on their own and regularly held prayer meetings in their house. They were looked up to as leaders and after I left Brewarrina people wrote telling that many of the remaining families on the Mission had also decided to convert. I had observed and filmed some people being baptised in the river, but unfortunately the film has not survived.