ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week
“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’.
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.
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.
*”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.