In memory of Tom Trevorrow (1954 – 2013); husband, father, brother, cousin, brother-in-law, Poppa, godfather, leader, mentor and friend to so many. A Ngarrindjeri elder, Manager of Camp Coorong Race Relations Cultural Education Centre, which also maintains a Ngarrindjeri Cultura lMuseum. Chairperson of the Ngarrindjeri Land & Progress Association Incorporated, the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee and the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority.
I was born in 1954 in the old Meningie Bush Hospital. Meningie is in South Australia, on the south-east side of Lake Albert. Spent my young life growing up in the old One Mile Fringe Dwelling Camp. A lot of us Ngarrindjeri were living in fringe camps back then. There was three camps out from Meningie: the One Mile, the Three Mile and the Seven Mile Camp. A camp was measured in the miles out of town and the closest we could live to Meningie was one mile because Ngarrindjeri were not allowed to live in the town with the rest of society.
Back then the government of the day was always trying to get us to live on missions or reservations. But we didn’t want to, so we stayed together in camps administered by Ngarrindjeri elders. We couldn’t live on our traditional land any more because it had been taken away from us by the Europeans, so they could make money from farming. They came in and they cleared the land and they put fences up and it become private property so Ngarrindjeri had no other choice but to go and live in camps on unallocated land where there was still some native vegetation and kangaroos and emus, wombats, swan, duck, geese and fresh water.
At the One Mile Fringe Camp, two hundred or more of us was living off fresh quality water. It used to bubble up from under the ground, from the aquifer, like spring water. Even out at the old Three Mile and Seven Mile Camps there was always enough good water to wash with, cook with and drink. And that is a question I ask today, ‘Where has that fresh water gone?’ It’s not there any more. It’s gone all salty. That tells us our land is sick. That there’s big problems.
As far as our living conditions went, we thought they were okay but I suppose if you looked today, you’d say they were pretty rough. We lived in ‘shanties’. We couldn’t buy tin but they were putting the bitumen roads through here and they chucked all their old 44 gallon drums away in the bush. So the men would go and get them and bring them home and cut out the tops and the bottoms and they’d cut them in halves and flatten them out to make sheets of tin. Then for the framework they used the tall straight mallee saplings. There was no concrete floor. They’d go and get the white clay out of the lagoons, bring that in, dampen it, pack it down and it set a bit like concrete. But every now and then you had to sprinkle water on it so it wouldn’t go dusty.
The other sorts of shelters we had were made from the old Hessian wheat bags we got from off the farmers. We’d cut them open and stitched them together and hang them up like tents. The rain wasn’t too bad on them. They sealed up pretty good so when they got waterlogged they don’t drip so much. And if we were lucky enough to get some real good wheat bags they were used as our bedspreads in the wintertime, to keep warm.
That was how I grew up; how we lived there. It was a good life. We were all together. We were happy. We still had the old fires burning outside, cooking our tucker. Story telling. Living off the land. Learning and everything. The hard times were when we were harassed by the local community. They’d come out from Meningie, from the Meningie Pub and that, and they’d put their spotlights on the camp and spin their motorcars around, blow their horns, and try and terrorise us. It was, ‘Lets go out and stir them black fellas up.’ That’s what they used to say.
And we were always on edge with living through that welfare period, waiting, frightened from the welfare coming. If they come to check the camps they’d say, ‘This isn’t a fit life you people are living.’ But how else could we live? We had no choice but to live like that. It was the only way we could survive. Our land was gone so we couldn’t live traditionally no more. Couldn’t live in the town, because the white people didn’t want us there and we didn’t want to go and live on the mission. And the welfare people, it was their idea to get all the aboriginal people to go and live on these mission places so we could be watched and controlled, and where, they reckoned, we wouldn’t be a threat to anybody.
That’s what Raukkan was like – the old Point McLeay Mission. When you look back at places like that, they were like detention centres – like Baxter and that. They were all controlled. If you wanted to leave the mission you had to report to the superintendent. When you got home you had to report to the superintendent. If I went from the old One Mile Camp down to Point McLeay Mission, thirty mile down the road, to see family, I’d have to report to the house with the red light flashing. That was the superintendent’s house. I would have to sign the visitors’ book and state what family I was going to see. I would have to let him know what was my purpose for seeing them. He would then state a time when I’d have to leave – say, six o’clock that evening – and if I wasn’t gone by six o’clock, he could come and remove me, and if I refused to move he could get the police to come and arrest me.
This was State Government at the time because, see, we aboriginal people really only became Commonwealth Government property after the 1967 referendum in Australia. Yes, we could vote before that but not many aboriginal people voted. They didn’t know what it was about. We was such in the minority that we never counted anyway. But when the referendum was held that’s when they say proper rights were given to the first people of this country, their own country. But to my mind all we got was the right to consume alcohol and to be counted in the census. Worst of all, it gave the Commonwealth ‘race powers’ over us. I say ‘race powers’ because, in the original constitution, they had it that at any time the Commonwealth could make a law for the betterment – or to the detriment of aboriginal people in Australia.
That’s true – ‘to the detriment of aboriginal people in Australia’. Take the Hindmarsh Island bridge court case as an example. When our people went over to the federal court case the lawyer for the Federal Government quoted how the Commonwealth had the right to make a law for the betterment or to the detriment of aboriginal people in Australia and the judge said, ‘What? Do you mean we can make a law to the detriment of these people?’ and the lawyer said, ‘I’m not sure your Honour but I think it means that we can do whatever we want with them.’
That big court case first began with the development of the marina on what we call Kumurangk, the Ngarrindjeri name for Hindmarsh Island. The word Kumurangk means ‘of pregnant woman’ – womens’ business. So they built the marina there and after they’d done that, they wanted to increase access by building a bridge to connect the island to the mainland. We weren’t aware of that plan. Before then there was just the old Goolwa to Kumurangk ferry that had been operating for ages. So the elder Ngarrindjeri women said, ‘We don’t want that bridge there. That don’t sound right.’ They said, ‘We heard the story from an old great-great grandmother and an old aunty about how there should be no permanent structures crossing over them waters or connecting that island.’
And we Ngarrindjeri men stood up for them because we have to support our elderly women, and we said, ‘Under the 1988 Aboriginal Heritage Act in South Australia there should be no bridge.’
So then the State Government decided to call a Royal Commission and, I believe, it was the first time that a Royal Commission had been held into aboriginal peoples’ culture and spiritual and heritage beliefs in Australia, and that was done right here in the state of South Australia. But how would the white people know? How could the white people judge on our cultural, spiritual and heritage beliefs? How could they? Because when they held that commission, my brother, George, who’s passed away now, he had an injured back and he couldn’t go to Adelaide to the court case so they said, ‘Oh, we’ll come to you.’ So they came down and they took control of the dining room here at Camp Coorong and they said to George, ‘Mister Trevorrow, can you tell us about this womens’ business.’
George said, ‘No I can’t.’
‘Why not Mister Trevorrow?’
George said, ‘Because I’m not a woman.’
‘Oh come on Mister Trevorrow, you can tell us all about this.’
George said, ‘What’s wrong with you. What don’t you understand?’
Then they’d go off about something else, then they’d come back at George, ‘Mister Trevorrow can you tell us about this women’ business?’
George said, ‘Look, what’s wrong with you? Are you ignorant or something? Don’t you understand? I’m telling you I don’t know about the womens’ business because womens’ business is womens’ business and I’m not a woman. Simple as that.’
Anyway they had all the investigations and whatever and they came up with calling us liars and fabricators, and all that hit the front page of The Advertiser newspaper. So everybody around believed we were liars and fabricators of our own culture and our own heritage. So then we put up an argument to the Federal Government under the Federal Heritage Act. That’s when John Howard started to take a special interest in the case and they rounded up some local Ngarrindjeri women, who became called the ‘dissident women’, and they got them on side and these dissident women said, ‘Well we didn’t hear that story.’
And our Ngarrindjeri women said, ‘Well if you weren’t following and practicing culture, that’s why you wouldn’t have heard the story. You just weren’t in the right place at the right time to hear the story.’
So there were very simple answers to all that. But no, the developers and John Howard and his government, they wanted the bridge. So that’s what happened. They got their bridge. It was a big change, and to my view a bad change. Same with the waterways; there’s been terrible changes there too. In the late 50s, early 60s, I used to go camping just out of Wellington and Tailem Bend. Back then a lot of Ngarrindjeri were still in fringe camps there as well, living off the river. That’s when the river was clean, when you could drink the water, when you could look right to the bottom of the river and you could see the grass growing down to the root tips. And us kids, if we wanted to swim across the river to get to a spot on the other side, we had to go up stream and dive in because the river was flowing and the current would drag you down till you landed at the spot where you wanted to go to.
Yes we had bad years too, but the river always flowed every year and it was clean water because we were drinking it. We were scooping it up to boil it up to make tea and soups, stews; things like that. And the wildlife: there was fish; there was Ponde – the Murray Cod; there was the callop, catfish and there was all the birdlife and the eggs. There was always plentiful food along the river, around the lakes and down the Coorong. We even camped in spots around Lake Alexandrina, where we’d get a real good feed of yabbies. And they were big ones too. Big healthy ones. The water was clean even in Lake Albert. But not any more. At the moment, with Lake Albert, we don’t even like our kids swimming in it. It’s that dirty and polluted. So it’s all not what it used to be, definitely.
And all this goes back a long time ago because in my younger days I was lucky enough to go and camp up along the river at places like Nildottie, Lyrup, Swan Reach; out at Gerard Mission and them spots. And I listened to the old Ngarrindjeri elders who’d lived all their life on the river and even back then they were saying, ‘The river’s dying. They’ve buggered it up so the river don’t flow like it used to.’ And they talked about country and about how everything in country is connected. And I think that’s why the river is in me, so strong today, because I talk about caring for country, because caring for country is part of our connected culture.
** In memory of Tom Trevorrow (1954 – 2013), father, brother, cousin, brother-in-law, Poppa, godfather, leader, mentor and friend to so many.