February 4 marked the 80th anniversary of the little-known 1939 Cummeragunja Walk-Off, when 200 Yorta Yorta people left the Cummera mission in southern New South Wales in protest against their mistreatment by mission bosses and the theft of their land.
Dr Wayne Atkinson, an elder of the Yorta Yorta nations of the Murray-Goulburn region, was one of a number of people who addressed a gathering of the strikers’ descendents at Barmah on the banks of the Murray River in Victoria.
He said the 200 people who had walked off “set the course” for the pioneers who went on to establish the Aborigines Advancement League, the Aboriginal Medical Service (Redfern), Victorian Aboriginal Health Service and many other organisations devoted to delivering rights to Aboriginal people. He and others spoke of the leadership of many women and men, including Geraldine Briggs, Marg Tucker, Jack Pattern, George Pattern, Bill Ferguson, William Cooper, Douglas Nichols and Bill Onus.
A grandson of Jack Pattern who spoke at the commemoration said the heroic efforts of the Yorta Yorta people should be more widely known. He told the story of his grandfather receiving a telegram from his family at Cummeragunja asking for help. Grandfather Pattern had been part of a government inquiry at the time and he encouraged the walk-off because “he knew what was to come”.
“I think about my grandfather, who had the courage to lead his people off [the mission] and away from the atrocious conditions that he and his people were subjected to … They already had generations and generations of our children being taken away. And they were going to escalate things. So grandfather came. He instigated the walk-off; he got arrested for his troubles and was taken to the court house in Moama for ‘inciting’ Aborigines. Then Uncle George Pattern stepped into the breach. Him and Auntie Marge and Auntie Geraldine — we need to remember them all.”
Atkinson said that, at a time when the law dictated assimilation and allowed the state to steal Aboriginal children from their families, the survival of the Yorta Yorta people was its biggest achievement.
The following is an abridged version of Atkinson’s address to the commemorative gathering at Barmah.
The key activists in the 1930s went on to set up the Aborigines Progressive Association, led by Bill Ferguson, Bill Gibbs, Jack Pattern and Bill Owen, and the Australian Aborigines League, which worked together to provide a voice for the Indigenous struggle.
A key leader from Victoria was Uncle William Cooper, but there were many other men and women who raised the issue of human rights that were being denied to our people, who were forced to live on the reserves, under the segregation and control policies.
These laws have a long history that didn’t begin in Australia. They probably date back to the 16th century in Ireland when Irish people were forced off their land. But by the time the colonial laws and practices reached here in the 18th century, they had become quite formidable.
A segregation policy was introduced that gave the government the legal power to remove people by force. The policy allowed the government and the Aboriginal Protection Board to remove people from their land, open it up for full-scale settlement and to place them in reserves.
This is the background to the walk-off.
Men and women banded together to raise the issue of the oppression that people were forced to live under. They began a national awareness campaign, which was centred especially in NSW, given that Cummeragunja is located there even though the administration was nearly 600 miles away.
Everything on the reserve was regulated. People’s lives and their ability to move on and off the reserves, were regulated by these oppressive laws passed by the government and administered by the Aboriginal Protection Board.
Their lives were regulated by bells, which used to ring when the rations were due and when they would be handed out. Bells told you what you could and couldn’t do. Many equate these bells to concentration camps where people were put in isolation and placed under an abominable control system.
[In the mid-1880s, after a successful campaign for their own reserve,] the Yorta Yorta people left Muloga, the former mission on the banks of the Murray River managed by Daniel Matthews, and went to Cummeragunja, a site chosen in consultation with the elders.
Cummeragunja means “Our Home”. It was named this because people thought it would be a good place to live, regroup and be free from the oppression and carnage of colonisation.
Cummeragunja prospered, but it was still affected by the colonialist policies. There were major advances on the economic level — including self-sufficiency in farming and cultural activity — but then the rug was pulled. Eventually people said they had had enough of the brutal management — especially by the brutal Arthur McQuiggin. That was one key event.
The other key event was land rights. While Cummeragunja was officially designated for Aboriginal use, it was designated under a title called “permissive occupancy”. That’s the same as saying “at the whim of government”. You had to have permission to do just about everything, and the government could turf you off at the stroke of a pen. It was nothing like the land that was being granted freehold — the best title you can get in law — all around Cummera at that time.
What happened to the land that had been granted? Yorta Yorta people felt this land was going to be theirs, to live on and regroup. But the Lands Department, the Aboriginal Protection Board and the managers started doing shady deals and leased most of it out to surrounding farmers. One prime piece of land — about 2000 hectares — where there was magnificent Murray Pine timber that could be used for building — was leased out.
It was the land rights question that was the last straw for the people of Cummeragunja. They had had enough and they decided to pack up, wholesale, and walk off.
They crossed the Murray River from Cummera to the Victorian side on the assumption was that it was a different jurisdiction. But it was not. NSW followed Victoria in terms of protection board policies and the reserve system, and the policy of segregation and control, which became a general framework for Australia by the turn of the 20th century, has continued on.