Cooma: Indigenous History

My respect for indigenous people just grows as I marvel at their ability to survive and adapt. When I reflect on how they have come from a stone age consciousness to confront the european industralised society, it must have seemed so foreign. I believe they have adapted enormously to white society, a part of myself is sad that they lost most of their culture which I feel was developed over thousands of years and housed orally, extraordinary knowledge that we do not know today. The knowing of which may have changed everything for europeans. Enjoy expanding your mind, we live in an amazing world, filled with diversity.

The Original Inhabitants of Kiandra
by Lindsay Smith

Among the weapons carried by the Aborigines of the Monaro were tomahawks, fashioned of stone, which they obtained near the Snowy River, at Buckley’s Crossing. Basalt, or diorite chips, and complete weapons were still found in the area in 1926 (Mitchell 1926:35). On the upper reaches of the Snowy River, close to the Eucumbene River, another area also provided similar raw material for Aboriginal implements. The original inhabitants knew it as Giandarra and its name meant ‘stone used for making knives’ (Department of Lands 1959). Giandarra, variously called Gorandarra (Gregors 1982:4), Goandara (Clarke 1860), Giandara (Moye 1959:9) and Guyandra (Dowd), later became known as Kiandra under European occupation.

Aboriginal people had been visiting these areas of the highlands of south-eastern Australia for over 20,000 years and, as with the rest of Australia, the region was the territory of a particular group or “tribe” with its own language and identity (Flood 1996:3). Aborigines who spoke the Ngarigo language inhabited most of the Snowy Mountains, and the surrounding uplands, for a distance of about 200km to the north and south, and east for about 120km from Mount Kosciusczko, which was on the western boundary of Ngarigo territory. A neighbouring linguistic group, the Wolgal (also called the Walgalu), was probably a sub-group of the Ngarigo. The Wolgal were located at the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee and Tumut rivers, at Kiandra, south to Tintaldra, and northeast to near Queanbeyan (Tindale 1974:199).

Long before the arrival of Europeans, these groups intensively exploited the food resources of the upper montane valleys and alpine zone of the Snowy Mountains during the summer months (Flood 1980:127). In early summer Aborigines from surrounding and more distant regions joined them. Non-resident Ngarigo speakers came from the Monaro district immediately to the north, Ngunawal speakers from the southern tablelands, and Yuin speakers from the south-east coast of Australia, while other groups arrived from territory to the south of the Snowy Mountains (Flood 1980:73). At such time hundreds and possibly well over a thousand Aborigines, belonging to at least three major language groups, gathered to strengthen social and political links, and to feast upon a unique food source in the southeastern highlands – the small brown Bogong moth (Agrotis infusa). Millions of these moths aestivate during summer on the mountains tops of the Great Dividing Range in the Australian Capital Territory, the Snowy Mountains and the Victorian Alps (Flood 1996:12). Aborigines had gathered in such numbers to harvest the moths for thousands of years. However, due to major demographic and social changes that had occurred in south-eastern Australia as a result of European settlement, it is likely that the composition of tribal groups and sub-groups seen by early white settlers at these ceremonial grounds may not have been exactly the same as in pre-contact times (Kamminga 1992:106).

The importance of this unique food source and therefore the importance of the region to Aboriginal people should not be underestimated. Its significance to social, political and economic alliances between different language groups in south-eastern Australia can be seen in the large number of people in attendance. The event was certainly a significant one if, of the possibly 25,000 Aborigines in NSW in the 1840s and 1850s (Jupp 1988:76), perhaps over 1,000 (or over 4%) of them attended the annual congregation in the Snowy Mountains region. The estimated lower population density of the Monaro and the Southern Tablelands compared to other richer coastal or riverine areas of NSW (Flood 1996:36) also adds statistical weight to the importance of the gatherings. The density of Ngarigo people was estimated to be 1 person per 36 square kilometres in 1828 compared with 1 person per half a kilometre in Sydney in 1788 (Gregors 1982:26). Although these gatherings continued, and were well attended, into the 1850s and early 1860s, declining numbers and shattered social and economic conditions resulted in the last moth hunt being held in 1865 (Flood 1996:17).

Nevertheless, initial contact between Aborigines of the Snowy Mountains region and Europeans appears to have been peaceful. On the first official exploratory journey southwards, towards Cooma in 1823, Currie and Ovens met a group of Aborigines who had never seen Europeans and who fled at their approach. With the help of their Aboriginal assistant, and biscuits, the two groups parted on friendly terms (Mitchell 1926:18). Further to the southwest, when exploring the Tumut district in 1824-25, Hume wrote in his diary of having met a party of Aborigines in the Tarcutta area

We came on by surprise a party of eight men who, on seeing our bullocks, fled and concealed themselves in some reeds on a creek. One of these men was dressed in an old yellow jacket and spoke a few words of English and had been to Lake George. They had among them one iron axe and four steel tomahawks. The next day about 40 able bodied men returned and asked us to go to their camp so that the women and picaninnies could see us. . . . Many of the children took hold of my hands and patted me. At the request of the men I named some of the children. . . . The men were the finest specimen we have ever seen, some standing six feet tall and well proportioned, and possessed what is unusual among natives, well formed legs. . . . (Bridle 1979:5-6)

On the whole, the Aborigines of the Snowy Mountains region appear to have continued such amicable relationships with the first white settlers who arrived in the area, possibly as early as 1828. However they could not escape the ravages of the diseases that preceded and accompanied the Europeans, or the upheaval of their traditional lifestyles.

As with most of the rest of Australia, the Aboriginal population of the Snowy Mountains region began to decline not long after the arrival of white settlers in the area. The Aboriginal groups living on the tablelands northeast of the Snowy Mountains were disintegrating by at least 1834 (Lhotsky 1835). William Hamilton, a Presbyterian Minister appointed by the Presbytery of NSW to perform pastoral duties in the county of Argyle and adjacent parts wrote to a friend in March 1839 that

The Aboriginal natives are not very numerous yet a few are found everywhere. I believe they have very much decreased since the settlers with their convict servants came among them and they are likely to decrease, not that they are now frequently killed by the whites in these parts which have been for some years settled but because they have few children or at least few that are seen growing up. (Hamilton, 16th March 1839)

In January 1842, John Lambie, the “Commissioner of Crown Lands for the District of Maneroo to the Eastward of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales”, wrote that

The aborigines of this district, with the exception of the coast tribes, may be said to be almost in their primitive state. . . . The natives belonging to the tribes to the westward of the coast range are very little employed by stock owners, except a few occasionally, in washing sheep; they preserve their original habits of hunting, and are constantly moving from place to place (Mitchell 1926:35)

It even appears that the Snowy Mountains themselves were unkind to the dwindling Aboriginal population of the area. The Rev. W.B. Clarke who traversed the southern alpine area during 1851 and 1852 testifies to the severity of the climate and its effects on a party of Aborigines

. . . though not ready to shrink from difficulties and not unwilling to encounter adventures, I did not think it prudent to contend with the inclemency of the approaching winter in an inhospitable position among the mountains; when I recollected that the month was May [1852], and that in the month of March preceding, a party of Aborigines, coming from the Murray River to Maneroo, were overtaken in a snow storm, and that, whilst one man was severely frost-burnt and crippled, two others were completely smothered in the drift, within a short distance of the very spot upon which I and my party encamped on the 22nd and 23rd December, 1851 (Clarke 1860:221).

Despite a rapidly declining population and overwhelming European influence, those remaining Aborigines in the Snowy Mountains region sought to retain their traditional ways into the 1860s. W.P. Bluett wrote that his father bought Pinbean run in 1858. The farm included land from the Yarrangobilly River near the Caves to the Tumut River. The homestead was about 20 miles (32km) from what was later called the Kiandra Diggings. Due to the unavailability of white labour at the end of the 1850s and into the 1860s, his father employed Aborigines to work as station hands on the farm, but that they were found to be inefficient because of their “compelling walk-about” (Moye 1959:2).

Possibly the only direct observation of Aborigines at Kiandra was in 1877 by Mr Tyers, a Government official. He wrote of “a small and pathetic group of the remnants of a number of tribes that frequented the alpine goldfields, addicted to opium” (Feary 1994:10). The last of the ‘tribal’ Aboriginal people of the Tumut area died in the 1870s (Bridle 1979:6), Nellie Hamilton, the last ‘tribal’ Aborigine of the Canberra district died in 1897 (Flood 1996:37), and Biggenhook, the last ‘tribal’ Aborigine of the Cooma area, died in 1916 aged about 62 (Mitchell 1926:35).

Lindsay M. Smith
BA UNE, GradDipArts(Prehistory) MA ANU

January 2004

Mohandas Gandhi

“Nonviolence is a weapon of the strong”