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Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 37 (1993)
Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell,
Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees
Rosemary Van den Berg Chapter One
When I left Wannamal with my family in the winter of 1944, I felt a sense of relief wash over me. I was leaving behind the shackles which had kept me chained to the Moore River Native Settlement, that institution which had played such a major part in my life since I was ten years old. I was not sorry to see the last of it. Rose and I had left friends behind who were very dear to us, yet concerns for our own wellbeing and that of our children were paramount in our minds. We could no longer live in an environment where our every move was monitored and our very thoughts suspect. After Mr Neal and his wife, Matron Neal left the Settlement, it had become a shambles with superintendents coming and going. There seemed to be no air of permanence to the place anymore. It was as if its days were numbered - as if it was in the final throes of death, just awaiting oblivion.
As far as I was concerned, I did not care if I never saw the Moore River Settlement again. As I waited at the Wannamal siding for the train to arrive from Moora, I felt relieved that the days of incarceration and supervision were finally over for Rose and me. I knew we would still be accountable to the Native Welfare authorities and our lives would still be subject to checking, but it would not be as harshly regulated as it was when we actually lived within the confines of the Settlement. Living at Wannamal and working for Mr Troy had given us a taste of what it could be like to be independent and responsible for ourselves. While on the farm, Mr Troy was the boss, the one to whom I had to report to find out my duties for the day. Or if I was working in some place doing fencing for example, and the job was not yet finished, I would go straight to that place and continue with what I was doing the day before. I did not have unseen eyes monitoring my every move nor would I be reprimanded for not reporting in to the superintendent. Life was much freer. It was good for me and it was good for Rose and our children too.
So when Louis Walley, my wife's older brother, wrote a positive response in answer to Rose's letter enquiring about conditions and work in Pinjarra, we both felt that it was time to make a move away from the restrictions placed on us by the Moore River Native Settlement and its rigid controls. We wanted to get right away from its environment. We thought about Wannamal and the surrounding farmlands as well, and we wanted to go where any influences of the Moore River Settlement would not be felt. Although working at Mogumber and Wannamal gave respite from the rigours of living at the Settlement, they were too close for comfort and were reminders of a life we wanted to forget. I thanked God that the authorities in Perth gave us permission for the shift. I felt as though a new world was opening up for me and my family, a world where we could at least live like human beings away from the ever-prying eyes of the Settlement and the government bureaucracy.
I could feel my wife's excitement as we waited at that little siding. Rose was so happy to be seeing her brother again. It had been years since she had seen Lou, so her elation at going to Pinjarra and staying there permanently was like a tonic for her. She would see Lou and his family; I would meet my brother-in-law for the first time and our six children would meet their uncle and aunt and cousins. They would grow up knowing their mother's people. It was a good feeling, a feeling of belonging, I guess. I must admit that I felt a measure of excitement too, for although we had our friends at the Settlement, we were finally going to people we called family. We would stay with Lou until I could get a job on a farm somewhere. Perhaps the boss would let us stay on his land while I worked for him. The possibilities seemed endless.
However, just thinking about my wife's family made me stop and consider the loss of my own. Here I was, a thirty-three year old man who had left his mother and extended family at the age of six. I would be thirty-four in a few months time and since 1917, twenty-seven years ago, I had not seen my mother. I had grown up bereft of family until I married Rose and we had children of our own. Having an extended family would be good for all of us. At least our children would grow up knowing their maternal relatives, unlike myself, who did not know my people. Children needed to know their roots and I was happy that mine would know their mother's roots through Rose and her five brothers.
As I stood at that railway siding waiting for the train to arrive, I couldn't help but wonder what lay in store for us. And as I gazed at my wife nursing our youngest son and at our other children playing around, I hoped that our lives would change for the better. As I heard the train whistle in the distance and helped my wife gather up our brood, I knew that any life would be better than living in and around the confines of the Moore River Native Settlement.
Pinjarra is steeped in history. Long before the first Europeans ever saw the area, it was a meeting place for the Aborigines who inhabited the south-west corner of this land mass, the Nyoongah people. Their territory ranged from the north, where the township of Geraldton was established by early settlers, to boundaries east of Albany on the south coast and, diagonally, encompassing the country beyond where Merredin now stands. Between the Nyoongah lands and their neighbours, the Wangkis to the east and the Yammitjis to the north, was a corridor where people could communicate without being accused of trespassing on others' lands. Land ownership was recognised between the Aboriginal people and permission was needed to enter another's territory. The corridor was like a "no man's land" where negotiations could take place without fear of being thought of as intruders.1 The different groups respected territorial ownership and bartering for commodities from distant areas was conducted at meetings held for this purpose. Pinjarra was one such place.
To the Europeans who explored, annexed and colonised this country, Australia was "terra nullius", a land without owners or ownership.2 This was a gross misrepresentation of the Aboriginal people whose cultural ideologies were so intrinsically tied to the land. Europeans designated the indigenous people 'natives' or 'blacks' and lumped them all into these categories. They did not understand that there were hundreds of different language groups comprising the total population, or that the Aboriginal people were as diverse as their land. If there was a fundamental link which joined the Aborigines across this country and made them one people, it was their spiritual belief in the Dreamtime.
According to archaeologists and historians, the Aboriginal inhabitants settled in this country forty thousand years ago, or more, having sailed across the seas from mainland Asia.3 This is pure conjecture on the part of those academics, for there is no concrete evidence to prove that the Aborigines crossed the seas from Asia. Perhaps, alternatively, the cradle of civilisation began in Australia. Perhaps, a cataclysmic event occurred which tore the people apart. Those who remained maintained their old lifestyle, while those who departed were made to seek new and innovative ways to survive in a harsher environment than that found in this land. Perhaps those who left had to build fortresses for shelter and protection against the elements and the wild animals found in other lands. Perhaps, as a necessity, agriculture was developed because it was more viable than hunting and gathering, and growing, harvesting and storing crops for sustenance became a means of survival, especially during the months when the ground was snow-bound or covered with ice. Of course, this is all conjecture, but the point is, nobody really knows the origins of humankind. People can ask, where did the first Aborigines come from? The Aborigines will answer that their creation began with the Dreamtime, but once again, who knows when that state of being happened?
To reiterate, the Dreamtime was the link which joined the Aborigines together and made them one race. Throughout this land, the Dreamtime and the Dreaming were the spiritual beliefs inherent in the people. To the Nyoongahs of the south-west of Western Australia, the Rainbow Serpent created their universe. It was responsible for forming the topography of the land. As it wended its way over the countryside, its body created the curves and contours of the hills and gullies, and the rivers, lakes and springs. As it moved over the earth, its scales scraped off to become the lush, green forests and rolling woodlands of the south-west, covered with wildflowers in all the colours of the rainbow. The Rainbow Serpent created the Nyoongah people to care for the land and the wildlife, and when its work was finished, it delegated the Wagyl (a mythical serpent) to be the keeper of the fresh water sources. The Wagyl, a lesser, but nonetheless powerful, deity, protected the rivers, lakes and springs and the wildlife which abounded around, and in, these areas. It had to ensure the people, being humans, did not become greedy and deplete the animal, bird and marine life, for every living thing had the right to regenerate, as did the humans. The Wagyl and the people worked together to look after the environment. The Nyoongahs respected the Wagyl, heeded its warnings and lived in harmony with nature. In essence, the Rainbow Serpent was the creator, the Wagyl was the keeper of the rivers, lakes and springs, and the Nyoongah people were the guardians of the land. That was the Creation.
The Murray River region was always rich in wildlife and edible vegetation, which is why the Aborigines of the region gathered there. According to Green,4 the Binjareb was the name of the local group of Aborigines who inhabited this area. One of the leaders was Calyute, a fierce and warlike warrior who disliked the whites coming to his territory and taking over ownership of the land. His resistance caused terror to the settlers.5 However, before colonisation began, the Nyoongah people of the Pinjarra area adhered to the traditional lifestyle they practised. They were semi-nomadic, yet kept to their own haunts. As they moved from area to area, they built mia mias for shelter from inclement weather or for privacy. Their needs were simple as they roamed the waterways or bush in search of food, which was in plentiful supply for most of the year. They were lucky; the country comprising the Murray River basin was rich in food sources.
The Murray River's source began in the Darling Plateau, south-east of Boddington. Its serpentine course would pass through deep gullies and hills of dense jarrah forests, before making its descent onto the coastal plains where the future townsite of Pinjarra was to be situated.6 Then it wended its way, growing wider and wider, until it reached its mouth at the Mandurah estuary. The North and South Dandalup Rivers converged just before flowing into the Murray River, making this conflux wider upstream from the Ravenswood bend. Countless small streams and creeks also flowed into the river, creating an ecological system from which all benefited.
From time to time, the Murray was prone to flooding and watermarks could be seen high on the river gums or paperbark trees which clung to its banks. The waters of the Murray teemed with fish, edible shellfish, freshwater crustaceans and turtles. When these were in season, the Aborigines never starved. Along certain sections of the riverbank were freshwater springs, bubbling up amidst the brackish water and reed-filled shallows. As well, clear water trickled down the banks in other places, adding to the supply of drinking water. On the land, kangaroo, emu, opossum, reptiles, birds and edible roots, other vegetation and honey added extra flavour to the Nyoongah diet. Regardless of what early historians wrote concerning the Aborigines' lifestyle, they lived an idyllic existence around the Murray River region.
1 Hammond, J.E., Winjan's People: The Story of the South-West Australian Aborigines. Ed. Paul Hasluck, Victoria Park: Hesperion Press, 1980, 16. (First published in 1933.)
2 Reynolds, Henry, Frontier: Aborigines. Settlers and Land. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1987, 176.
3 Flood, J.,Archaeology of the Dreamtime. Sydney: Collins, 1983, 39.
4 Green, Neville, Broken Spears: Aboriginals and Europeans in the southwest of Australia. Cottesloe: Focus Education Services, 1984, 8.
5 Green, 88.
6 Anderson, June, "Between Plateau and Plain: Flexible Responses to Varied Environments in Southwestern Australia." Diss. Canberra: Australian National University, 1984.
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