“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

"It's Still in My Heart, This is My Country": The Single Noongar Claim History

“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”* (2009) is subtitled The Single Noongar Claim History – the Noongar people being the original occupants and custodians of south-west Western Australia. The authors credited are South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, and John Host** with Chris Owen. It is basically the case put up to The Federal Court (Australia’s second highest court), Justice Murray Wilcox presiding, in 2005, to prove the Noongars’ claim to native title over the Perth metropolitan area.

To do this Host demonstrates that the Noongars, who can be divided into 14 regions with their own dialects, are one people with an ongoing, uninterrupted cultural life, and that the indigenous people forced out of Perth by white settlement continued their cultural practices within Noongar communities on the outskirts, and maintained their contact with important sites within Perth. These are the main elements to satisfy the Native Title Act (1993) shamefully introduced by Paul Keating to limit the ambit of claims after Mabo, and further tightened by John Howard in 1998 after Wik.

Because the Perth people had been so decimated by occupation and direct government action (eg. “Battle” of Pinjarra), not to mention laws which for many years in the C20th banned Aborigines from being in towns, it was necessary to prove that the Noongar were one people – hence ‘Single Noongar Claim’ – not a number of distinct tribes, and that, as was so often claimed, they had not lost their connection with Perth and the Swan River or, as was often claimed, died out. Indigenous people with European blood continued, and continue to lead Indigenous lives.

The SWALSC won their claim, but in 2007 the state (Labor) and Commonwealth (Liberal) governments appealed, successfully, on the basis that the claimants had not shown continuous occupation of the Perth area “explicitly”. An agreement was finally reached and registered in 2018 (here, includes map).

Host, an historian, describes his task as ‘histriography’, a critical summary of writings about the history of the Noongars. What is known about them prior to white settlement is ‘pre-history’.

Map South East Asia and Australia during the last Ice Age. Courtesy Wikimedia

I think we all know that at one time you could walk from PNG to Cape Yorke and from Victoria to Tasmania (and from Perth to Rottnest) but what hadn’t occurred to me is that around 8,000 BC, lower sea levels meant that Australia was surrounded by a wide, fertile littoral plain, and its subsequent inundation has removed much evidence of early occupation. However, there remains plenty of evidence that the South West has been occupied for 50,000 years.

When the British arrived in 1826, Professor Sylvia Hallam describes the people of the south west as “firestick farmers and kangaroo pastoralists” with practices that had been continuously evolving for millenia. It is a (cruel) curiosity of the Native Title Act that claimants must show that their practices have not evolved since white settlement, but have been ‘preserved in aspic’. With the British came writing and ‘therefore’ history. Explorer Matthew Flinders called in at King George Sound (Albany) in 1802 and “wrote with evident bewilderment that Aboriginal people ‘seemed to have no idea of any superiority we possessed over them'” (see also Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (my review)).

Matthew Flinders organised a military parade for the amusement of the locals and it is some evidence of the efficacy of oral history that the story of that parade was related to (anthropologist) Daisy Bates a century later. In fact, Bates’ meticulous records from when she was living with Noongars around 1906 formed an important part of the evidence for the claim (see also: my post Fanny Balbuk Yooreel (here)).

During the years up until the Swan River colony was formed in 1829, explorers and the garrison at King George Sound observed and recorded a great deal of material about Noongar law, custom and ways of living, by living amongst them relatively unobtrusively. In fact garrison commander Capt Collet Barker and local, Mineng man Mokare were clearly friends, and by the account in Barker’s journal had long discussions about all sorts of matters which greatly informed Host’s opinion about the Noongars’ adaptability in the face of changing circumstances.

Host spends a chapter establishing that there is no evidence for a decline in Noongar numbers after white settlement, despite the opposite being true around Sydney (due to smallpox probably). And in the process makes mincemeat of the work of Dr Neville Green, author of Broken Spears (1984). And yes, he acknowledges that there were massacres, but the number killed were not enough to lead to population decline.

If taking issue with the notion of drastic population decline between 1829 and 1850 has diverted me from the terms of my brief, it has been necessary. As noted …, evidence of cultural maintenance is of doubtful value unless the allegation of Aboriginal extinction or near extinction is shown to be groundless.

An interesting aspect of Host’s account is the permeability of boundaries. While one family group had primary responsibility for one area, the area may have been occupied by different groups at different times, with connections formed by marriage allowing families to travel widely to hunt. For instance, Mokare told Barker his family sometimes moved away inland to allow another group to camp by the shore and fish. However, absence did not lessen connection.

It is clear both from settler accounts, and from oral histories – of which many are cited – that Noongars, who in any case had always moved around a lot, adapted to white settlement spreading throughout the south west in the latter half of the C19th (and up to the 1930s) by combining seasonal farm labouring over a number of properties with frequent absences to maintain their culture.

By 1900, disregarding official attempts to distinguish between ‘full bloods’ and ‘half-castes’, Noongar culture remained vibrant and the Noongar population had probably increased.

The turn of the century brought two shocks. First, goldrushes expanded the white population from 50,000 to 184,000 in a single decade; and then, the 1905 Aborigines Act, brought all WA Aborigines under the direct control of the Chief Protector, and presaged 60 years of determined attempts to separate children with European descent from their mothers (see: Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (my review)). The Indigenous population of the South West in the 1901 census was about 1,500 but only Noongars living near towns or as farm workers were counted. As Noongars were notoriously (and rightly!) shy of officialdom and there was, and still is, a great deal of bush in the South West, the actual population was much higher, but as had always been the case, could not be accurately estimated. By the 2001 census, the Aboriginal population of the South West was 27,596 and a high (but unknown) proportion of those were Noongar.

Finally …

I will argue, however, that although the maintenance of traditional connections has been harder for some Noongars than for others, the Noongar as a people have retained the web of territorial and kinship ties along with the reciprocity or mutual obligation, that made up (and make up) the matrix of traditional law and custom.

The last quarter of the book documents the survival of the Noongar in the face of the 1905 Act, concentration camps at Moore River and Carrollup, the paucity of aid, the loss of farm work during the Great Depression, legislation which effectively prevented Aborigines from becoming landowners, and misguided attempts at assimilation in the 1950s, through to the current situation of recognition tempered by high rates of unemployment which we might say began with the Whitlam years, 1972-75.

This is a fascinating work, eminently readable, which greatly added to my understanding of Black-White interaction during the first century of white settlement. Of course this is local history for me, but I am sure Eastern-staters will find it equally interesting.


South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, John Host with Chris Owen, “It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”: Single Noongar Land Claim, UWAP, Perth, 2009. Cover: Ngallak Koort Boodja (Our Heart Land) canvas by Shane Pickett, Lance Chadd, Troy Bennell, Alice Warrell, Sharyn Egan and Yvonne Kickett.

Update, 30 Nov. 2019: Noongars’ $290 billion comp claim (here)

*”White fella got it but it’s still in my heart, this is my country,” Noongar elder, Angus Wallam, during Oct 2005 hearings.

**From what I can gather, Dr Host, who wrote this report, assigned the copyright to SWALSC who then had it published with some alterations and without Host’s permission. Chris Owen is/was an historian employed by SWALSC. See: Struggle over Host report (here)

Message to Lisa: It’s of course entirely up to you whether this counts as Indig.Lit. The report was commissioned by the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, and they list themselves in first place as authors, though the actual writing has clearly been done by Dr Host.



18 thoughts on ““It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”

  1. LOL Another book treading the fine line as to ‘authorship’. How nice it is to have this quandary!
    I think I’ll place it with ‘Further Reading’ and that will solve the problem.
    I did not know that about the land bridge either. Here in Victoria I’ve seen a scale model of the bay at the Queenscliff Maritime Museum, and it’s relatively shallow. I wonder if it’s do-able for divers to explore it? Might there still be evidence of middens or stone houses, I wonder, or would water erosion have washed all traces away over the millenia?


    • Further Reading is an excellent idea. I forget when the seas rose, but only a few thousand years ago, so if they are still finding Greek shipwrecks then there’ll be stone structures in the silt, particularly around river mouths – say Port Melbourne, Port Fairy and so on.


  2. Since I’m not familiar with Australia, some of this is lost on me probably in much the same way (or not! you’re very smart!) relationships with African Americans and Native Americans are in the United States. Actually, it sounds to me like the Noongar situation is a like a combo of African and Native American peoples in the States, which is interesting.

    What was behind keeping the Noongar out of cities? In the U.S., much patronage comes from minority communities, so while businesses owners gave people to worst end of the deal. For instance, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a huge deal in the 1960s because black bus patrons hit the company where it counts: their wallets.


    • Aborigines in Australia get stuck both with having their land stolen and with colour prejudice. The 1905 Aborigines Act in WA (and similar Acts in other states) gave the Chief Protector almost complete control over the lives of Aborigines. This included handing over their wages, not being able to own land, no grog, and restrictions over where they could go – which included into Perth. They could ‘escape’ the Act by becoming citizens but then it was illegal for them to consort with other Aborigines, ie. their parents, their siblings, their friends. The Northern Territory version of the Act is the subject of a very funny Indigenous/Woman/Small Press novel, A Most Unfortunate Act by Marie Munkara which I reviewed in 2016 here: https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2016/10/21/a-most-peculiar-act/


      • There are times I feel like the “No Justice. No Peace.” cry from St. Louis residents after Michael Brown was murdered hold true to almost everything. My anxiety causes me to look around and see injustice in almost everything. It’s horrifying.


      • The situation in Australia is similar, if not so fraught. Aboriginal people continue to be jailed, and to die in unexplained circumstances in jail, far more often than Whites. Police are sometimes charged but as in the US are nearly always found not guilty. Australians like to pretend that racial injustice ended in the 1960s when Aborigines were granted the vote, but it continues to this day with high rates of incarceration, family separation, discriminatory welfare policies, and illegal assaults and killings by police.


    • It’s hard to equate indigenous Australians with black Americans Melanie – a better analogy is with native Americans. I think people often look at colour and don’t realise the very different trajectories albeit there are similarities too of course, as for any coloured oppressed people.


  3. Regarding Mr Host not providing permission to publish: the publisher offered Mr Host the opportunity to participate in a final manuscript and Mr Host declined. The work was commissioned by SWALSC. It went on to win in the 2010 HREOC Human Rights Medals and Awards for Literature (non-fiction) and won the 2010 Margaret Medcalf Award.
    Terri-ann White, Director UWA Publishing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking the time to clarify this Terri-ann. Host talks about sticking to, or not sticking to, his brief and I understand SWALSC hold the copyright. My concern was literary – who wrote the words. In passing, your comment was timely, I was reminded to purchase the UWAP-published Hearing Maude by Jess White. Crow Books had a copy, but not on display which was disappointing.


  4. Like you and Lisa, I hadn’t realised that about the later inundation removing evidence of early occupation. I love that description at “fire stick farmers and kangaroo pastoralists”.

    Anyhow, this sounds like a really interesting book (with an interesting history in itself!) Thanks for pointing me back to it.


    • It’s a very detailed history of the effect of white settlement on the Noongars. I hope similar work is being done for other Aboriginal language groups. In relation to your response to Melanie, I do think that Australian Aborigines suffered doubly – dispossession and colour prejudice – so that their situation can be validly compared with both African Americans and Native Americans.


      • Yes, but the thing is that Native Americans have suffered doubly too – dispossession and racial prejudice. In the end we are talking degrees, but I think many Aussies don’t see the distinctions and barely consider the Native American situation because they are less numerous so less visible in the racial politics.


      • You’re right, we barely do. But I’m glad Australian Indigenous people now seem to be gaining (and no doubt giving) strength and inspiration from First Nations people worldwide.


  5. […] However, the local Indigenous people, the Nyungar, are only lightly touched on in this story, some are servants, and there are still some moving around the bush who call in occasionally for rations, which is I think an accurate representation of how things were at that time (the 1901 census counted just 1,500 Indigenous people in the whole of the South-West (here)). […]


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