Cummeragunja... on the lands of the Yorta Yorta Nation that straddle the Murray River (Dungala) to the north and to the south, encompassing the waters of the Campaspe, Edwards and Goulburn Rivers and Broken Creek; a place and a powerful symbol of Aboriginal determination and activism.
Cummeragunja — or Cummera as it is affectionately known — is the site of the historic 1939 Walk-off, a defining moment in the fight for Aboriginal self-determination, civil rights and right to land.
Even the establishment of the Cummeragunja reserve in 1888 came after a long struggle by the traditional owners to re-claim their country and receive compensation for stolen lands.
The 1861 Victorian Aborigines Protection Board Annual Report records an intention of six Aboriginal people to ‘‘proceed as a deputation to His Excellency the Governor to request him to impose a tax of 10 pounds on each steamer passing up and down the Murray’’.
The men were seeking compensation for interference to their traditional fishing areas — one of the effects of European colonisation.
Again in 1881, a petition, signed by 42 residents of the Maloga mission, calling for ‘‘a sufficient area of land to cultivate and raise stock; that we may form homes for our families (and in) a few years support ourselves by our own industry’’ was presented to the Governor of NSW.
The petition stated that ‘‘all the land within our tribal boundaries has been taken possession of by the government and white settlers’’.
While this petition was refused, in 1883 an area of 1800 acres adjoining the Maloga mission was gazetted.
In June 1888, this became Cummeragunja when Maloga was closed and residents relocated to the adjoining land.
A petition in 1887 by Jack Cooper presented to Lord Carrington at the Moama Railway station during a vice-regal visit, requested blocks of 100 acres of land for those Aboriginal men who had sufficient farming skills.
Again, the petition was not granted, but 40-acre blocks were allocated in 1896-1907 only to have these re-possessed by the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board.
The title to the land was never passed to the landholders — in contradiction to what they had always been led to believe.
The passing — in 1909 — of the Aborigines Protection Act gave the NSW Aborigines Protection Board full control over all reserves, and stations.
The board now had the power to move Aboriginal people out of towns; control any reserves; set up managers, local committees and local guardians (the police) for the reserves; prevent liquor being sold to Aborigines; and to stop whites from associating with Aborigines or entering reserves.
The board even retained ownership of the blankets it distributed.
Any profits from Cummera’s activities profits were now payable to the board, bypassing the community.
As a result, Cummeragunja fell into a state of neglect.
Illness due to a lack of investment into sanitation, quality housing and clean water were again major issues of concern for the community.
But it was the subsequent amendments to the Act, passed in 1915, which allowed any child to be taken at any time and for any reason that had such devastating and long-term effects on families and communities.
Prior to these changes, Cummera was ‘‘a flourishing community that defied the widely-held narrative of the late 19th and early 20th century: that the fate of the Aborigines was hopeless and that these ‘poor’ ‘wretched’ people and their culture would eventually ‘die out’.’’
A culmination of mismanagement and callous treatment by a succession of managers, and the particularly harsh and brutal treatment of residents by the supervisor Arthur McQuiggan, led to what became known as the Cummeragunja Walk-off — the first mass Aboriginal protest in Australia’s history.
Cummera is a place that represents resistance to government control over Aboriginal affairs and the importance of continuity of culture, language and identity.
For those whose family stories tell of the leadership shown over this time, there is a sense of pride and a legacy for all the younger generations.
But most importantly, the Cummeragunja story is one we all should know.
February 4, 2019, is the 80th anniversary of the famous walk-off.
It will be celebrated with music, pride and a strong sense of culture.
To find out more about the Cummeragunja Walk-off, visit: www.sbs.com.au/nitv/video/647205955522/Cummeragunja-Walk-Off
To help celebrate the 80th anniversary of this historic event, there is a screening of the Short Black Opera’s production of Pecan Summer — the story of the walk-off — at Westside on Tuesday, February 5, at 1pm and 7pm. Bookings through Riverlinks Shepparton, phone 58329511.