History: Noongar Indigenous people

I wrote an earlier blog describing an indigenous man who became upset in Perth at a Asian man playing the digeridoo and caused a disturbance. I watched him as he walked away and made the sign of an eagle. I now have a deeper understanding of why he did that. Read below and find another story of Australia. We have much to learn and acknowledge. Somehow sorry doesn’t seem sincere when we are still oppressing them. It seems listening, learning and developing empathy for their customs and culture is the key for Australian government’s and citizens. It appears our country was built on anglo oppression. I see this play out in workplaces, schools and families, we still experience the legacy of our anglo forefathers. The indigenous know it in every day life.

My question evoked from this history is – are we really sorry or is it tokenism? I recall John Pilger’s book ‘A Secret Country’ and feel this is true the more I explore these issues.

Conflict resolution is sitting at the table or maybe on the ground with a neutral mediator and hearing from each side what they felt about the situation, the central issues and expressing themselves. Conflict resolution uncovers needs, concerns and desired outcomes. The process is to listen without interruption to enable a space to deeply hear the other without racing ahead or getting angry, coming up with excuses. It is a space of real respect. After both sides are heard with respect, the mediator facilitates for each to ask questions and clarify, then the mediator writes up options and then they resolve to develop solutions and agreement for a win/win. The process empowers both and regards parties as equal. There can be power issues in this process, but maybe there are ways to equalise power.

We still live in a society of imposed right/wrong by courts or formulated policy by analysts in government based on research that appears to be done at a distance and without a sense of cultural understanding. I learned that from white people who have worked with indigenous people. They see the core issue as disempowerment and they see indigenous societies falling apart as they attempt to adapt to the western way of life. My understanding of government policy is that interventions are imposed rather than worked out together to solve problems. It seems anglo’s are blaming the people not solving the problem. I do see that we would then have to look at this culture and its social ills to take responsibility for anglo impact on indigenous people. To enable them also to take responsibility to solve their problems. I feel for true reconciliation to happen, we must be prepared to look at ourselves and listen deeply to the ‘other’. I see this on both sides. I recall a long time ago standing around a sacred fire outside Old Parliament House. My mum had given the people bread (she is a Christian). I came for the ride. I spoke to an indigenous elder who was part of the Stolen Generation (aboriginal children removed and placed in white families as part of assimilation programs). I heard her story and I felt overwhelmed by emotion. I said ‘sorry’ not to be politically correct, I was saying it as I felt for her situation. It was human to human. In that moment I understood what reconciliation means. I saw an indigenous man chasing after a car and demanding an ‘apology’ he appeared drunk. I felt that was not the way. The anger and fighting doesn’t work. We have to find a space to really join. This is what peace looks like, when we sincerely choose it.


The Noongar People

Archaeological evidence from Perth and Albany suggests that the Noongar people have lived in the area for at least 45,000 years. There are even some caves at Devil’s Lair amongst the hills of Margaret River dating back 47,000 years.


The Noongar people lived in balance with the natural environment. Their social structure was focused on the family with Noongar family groups occupying distinct areas of Noongar Country.

For the Noongar People in the Perth area the main source of food came from the sea, the Swan River and the extensive system of freshwater lakes that once lay between the coast and the Darling Escarpment. Further south and east the Noongar people lived off the resources of the Karri and Jarrah forests. In the southern coastal area around Albany the Noongar people built fish traps and hunted turtle. To the north and east Noongar people lived in the semi arid regions of what is now the wheat belt.

It is known that Noongars travelled within their country to trade with other families. What is now the Albany Highway was once a Noongar track between families in Perth and Albany. Other trade routes existed in the south west and representatives could often travel for hundreds of kilometers on foot between each family group.

Once the Europeans had arrived on the West Coast, Captain James Stirling noted that the Noongar people ‘seemed angry at the invasion of their territory’. The Noongar people were not happy at the invasion of their country, however, at one of the first formal meetings between the Noongars and Europeans the two groups exchanged goods, and basic communication, in a relatively pleasant arrangement. During the early days of the Swan River colony, which later became the City of Perth, both Noongar people and settlers lived close by, but still very cautious of each other. The few hundred settlers that lived in the colony were afraid of the Noongar people and, under official orders, continued to keep their distance.

However, problems soon arose. British colonisation and the expansion of settlement disrupted Noongar life, culture and customs. For Noongar people this was the beginning of two hundred years of oppression and marginalisation. The settlers had taken up all the best land and water sources. Their imported stock ate or destroyed local fauna and Noongar food sources quickly became depleted. The Europeans introduced a number of diseases which decimated Noongar families. The settlers killed many of the local small animals, particularly kangaroos, for meat and skins. These were not only part of the Noongar Culture, but also formed a significant part of their diet. When the Noongar people started to take the settlers stock for food they were often sentenced to harsh jail terms for what was considered a criminal offence.

To stop Noongar people congregating in public places soldiers dispersed groups from wherever they camped. Soldiers fired on local Noongars who had camped on the banks of the Murray River south of Perth and destroyed their fish traps. In Fremantle a regiment under Captain Irwin mounted a punitive raid on the local Noongars and killed several. The Colony even created a mounted police to deal with the ‘Noongar problem’.

The Noongar People during the 19th Century

The Noongar People continued their lifestyle with the new European presence amongst them. An influential Noongar during the early 1800’s was Yagan. He was the son of Midgegooroo whose country was south east of Perth in the Canning River region. Yagan was quoted as saying ‘You came to our country; you have driven us from our haunts, and disturbed us in our occupations: as we walk in our country we are fired upon by the white men; why should the white men treat us so?’. After a series of conflicts a bounty was placed on Yagan’s head.

However, not all people saw Yagan as a threat; early settler Robert Lyon described him as a hero. Writing in the Perth Gazette newspaper, Lyon argued that Yagan and other Noongar people who were being arrested for the ‘crimes’ against settlers should not be regarded as criminal or outlaws, but as prisoners of war because they were defending their land and property. Yagan was finally shot. When his body was recovered, his back was skinned to obtain his tribal markings. He was decapitated and his head was smoked and taken to England as a memento of the ‘Swan River chieftain’. A memorial statue was erected on Herrison Island near the Causeway in 1980 after Noongar Elders were finally successful in continuous lobbying of the government to commemorate his important role in Noongar history.

Conflict between the Noongar people and the European settlers continued until Governor Stirling believed that if the Noongar people attacked en masse the settlement may be under threat. Settlers had begun to take the law into their own hands after attacks on homesteads by Noongar people. This led to conflicts such as the Pinjarra Massacre in April 1834. It is understood that thirty Noongars, lead by Calyute, raided the flour mill on the South West Peninsula. In retaliation Governor Stirling and a group of militia raided the Murray Tribe in Pinjarra and massacred up to thirty Noongar people.

There were several other recorded massacres including one at Mininup Lake in 1841 which has been described as one the most bloodthirsty deeds ever committed by Englishmen. Most of these massacres stemmed from Noongar people defending their land and ended in European firearms quashing their resistance.

As settlement expanded out from the Perth area further conflict arose. In some towns troopers were assigned to individual farmsteads in a bid to counter the paranoia of a Noongar uprising. Despite the periods of conflict most Noongar families stayed on their own country. Settlers utilised Noongar labour on their farms. Noongar people maintained their traditional practices and camped and cleared the country for farming. Noongar people kept family connections and their culture going.

One of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the West Australian Government in attempts to control the Noongar people was in 1838. This act was to deem Rottnest Island a prison for Aboriginal offenders. In 1840 the British government refused to allow this act to pass. However, this was changed the following year. Over 3670 Aboriginal prisoners were imprisoned there until its closure in 1931. Prisoners held on the island ranged in age from eight years old through to seventy. Throughout this time 370 prisoners died and were buried on the island. Today it is a holiday resort with minimal acknowledgement of its Noongar history with the old prison dormitories being used as holiday chalets for tourists.

The Noongar People in the last 100 years

The 20th Century saw not only the continued discrimination of the Noongar people but also the commencement of the White Australia policy in a newly federated Australia. Racism toward Noongar people increased as many of them began to work and live closer to the European communities. Noongar people were excluded and segregated from the rest of the community. Noongar people were excluded from jobs and Noongar children were removed from schools.

The government established ‘Native Camps’ or reserves on the outskirts of many towns to where many Noongar families were banished. Curfews also existed with Noongar people having to vacate the town area by 6pm or face arrest.

In 1905, when it was apparent that the Noongar people were not reducing in number but rather were increasing, the state government became concerned about ‘inter race mixing’ and new legislative measures were enacted to counter this through the 1905 Aborigines Act. The act made any marriage between a Noongar and a non-Noongar person illegal unless it had been approved by the Chief Protector of Aborigines. The legislation essentially resulted in the legal segregation of Noongars in Western Australia.

Many Noongar families were separated from their wider community into institutions and reserves. The Chief Protector became the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and half caste child to the age of 16. This meant the government had the power to take a child from their family and place them in institutional care anywhere in the state. Police and Missionaries could, on their own initiative, remove children as well.

The Police continued to conduct informal surveillance of Noongar camps and reserves and advise the Chief Protector on any children that should be removed. Orders to remove children were provided to police in code to avoid the possibility of someone pre-warning a family. Noongar families would often hide their children for fear of having them taken. A whistle may have been a sign to run to the bush and hide.

The appointment of August Octavius Neville in 1915 as Chief Protector ushered in a new period of aggressive reform in Aboriginal affairs. Neville took an avid personal interest in Aboriginal welfare and advocated strict segregation and strict implementation of the 1905 Act. This lead to the most invasive intrusions into the everyday lives of the Noongar people.

Neville bureaucratised many dealings with the Noongar people, implementing a range of administrative forms and procedures. This included employers requiring ‘Permits to employ natives’ if they wanted to employ Aboriginal people. Neville initiated a personal identification system of Family Cards. These detailed every Noongar person’s movements, family, relationships and even attitudes. Neville would and did give his approval or disproval for actions involving Aboriginal people.

Neville advocated segregation on ‘native settlements’ where Aboriginal children from all over WA and not just Noongar children could be trained as farm laborers and domestic servants. Two settlements were set up both on Noongar Country. One was set up at Carrolup near Katanning in 1914 and the better known Moore River Native Settlement, now known as Mogumber Farm, in 1918. Up to 500 people were kept at Moore River at any one time in very poor conditions. It is estimated that five times more funding was provided to Fremantle gaol to spend on prisoners at than was spent on the Aboriginal inmates at Moore River Native Settlement.

Neville believed that segregation and training of children would be a way of assimilating all Noongars into the wider community. Neville’s view was that as the older people died off the settlements could be closed. However the Noongar culture was able to continue through their connection with the land and their families.

Aboriginal administration took on various forms from the early twentieth century. Each of them were characterised by an extensive bureaucracy and excessive control over the Noongar people. The Aborigines Department existed from 1905-1936; the Natives Affairs Department from 1936-1954, and, the Native Welfare Department 1954-1972. Noongar people born during this period may have had a personal file of documents as thick as a telephone book detailing every aspect of their lives from birth to old age.

Social conditions were very difficult for Noongar people and their children even in daily life. Many white communities in country towns actively campaigned to have Noongar children removed from schools as they were considered dirty. This occurred at Mt Barker and Quairading schools in 1914 where 70 residents attended a public meeting in Mt Barker and tabled a motion that ‘…the Minister remove the black children from the Mount Barker School. The horrible menace to the health and morals of young Australians admits no further delays…’.

A strike by white parents followed and all Noongar children where removed from both these schools by the Minister for Education Mr Walsh. Other areas like Katanning, Moora and Perth had similar petitions at different times against Aboriginal children going to the same schools as white children.

Life was a continuous struggle for the Noongar people. Land was granted to some Noongar people, in similar ways as the Group Settlement schemes for arriving Europeans. However most of the Noongar people could not get finance to develop the blocks of land as banks would not lend them money. This meant that their lease over the land lapsed and was handed back to the government. If they lived on settlements the Commissioner of Native Affair had the power to destroy their settlements, officially called ‘forbidden settlements’ through force if necessary and order the people to move on. So many Noongar families lived without education, on the outskirts of town, with little to no work living on what little rations that they received.

The depression during the 1930s was another blow for Noongar people. Aboriginal people from all over Western Australia headed to Perth in search of Employment. The State Government had declared Perth a prohibited area in 1927 which lasted until1954. Aboriginal people could only enter with a ‘native pass’ which was issued by the Commissioner of Native Affairs.

In some towns the Premier authorized the removal of the entire Aboriginal population to Moore River Native Settlement by train. Towns like Northam and Gnowangerup were declared prohibited areas for Aboriginal people. It was a time of change in Aboriginal policy. Neville, in following trends in eugenics in the USA and Germany advocated a form of racial engineering or ‘breeding out the color’. Neville stated “The native must be helped in spite of himself! Even if a measure of discipline is necessary it must be applied, but it can be applied in such a way was to appear to be gentle persuasion… the end in view will justify the means employed”.

Neville claimed the natural outcome was for black to go white through progressive inter-marriage between lighter castes and eventually with whites so that after generations all distinguishing Aboriginal features would disappear. Several commentators have argued that this is a form of genocide as it aimed for destruction of a distinct cultural group.

Neville was successful in persuading the Western Australian Government to include eugenic measures to ‘breed out the colour’ in The 1936 Native Administration Act. This Act further increased the government’s power to remove children and it sought to re-classify Aboriginal people. The classifications such as half caste (half Aboriginal blood) quadroon, (one quarter) octaroon (an eighth) became common language, and are still sometime used.

The official institution for implementing these policies was Sister Kate’s Children’s Home. Originally known as the Quarter Caste Children’s Home for nearly white children in 1933 it reflected its eugenic function in ‘rescuing nearly white’ children and preparing them for absorption into the white community. Children who were considered too ‘dark’ to be absorbed were left at Moore River Settlement. During this period all marriages involving Aboriginal people had to be approved by the Commissioner of Native Affairs.

Native affairs officers would attempt to determine the percentage of native blood this was in order to determine their legal status and whether or not a subject fell in a ‘class’ of native in the relevant legislative act. This was a pseudo scientific attempt at racial categorisation. For example if a father was considered half caste, which is the product of the off spring of a European and a full blooded native, and a mother was a quarter caste, which is one quarter native blood – the product of the off spring of a European and a half caste person then their offspring would be an octoroon, or one eighth caste. This was represented as ¼ x ½ =1/8 on the persons family card. Some people’s cards went as far as showing people of 1/128th caste.

Many of the older Noongar people had worked all their lives on farms but could not get pensions because they were not recognised as citizens. The situation developed that the very people who had ‘built the country,’ who had cleared the land and fenced the farms, sheared the sheep and worked stock, were denied the basic rights that non-Aboriginal people had. Health care was often denied as they had little money to pay for it.

In 1944 the Native Citizen Rights Act was passed. This piece of legislation enabled Noongar people, and all Aboriginal people in general, to become citizens of their own country, however in order to do so they must have ‘dissolved tribal and native associations’ for a period of two years and have shown they had ‘adopted the manners and habits of a civilised life’.

Those fulfilling these criteria were issued a Certificate of Citizenship presentable on demand allowing them legal rights as Europeans. This citizenship could be revoked if they were not following the set criteria for becoming citizens. Noongar people called these citizenship papers ‘dog tags’ To this day this distinction between Noongar people who became citizens and those who did not is a cause of hostility within the community itself.

After A.O. Neville finished as Commissioner of Native Affairs his replacement in 1948 , Stan Middleton, ushered in a reformist period of administration. In his period of office there was a gradual liberalisation of some of the more repressive legislation affecting Aboriginal people. In 1965 the result of the equal wage case flowed on to Aboriginal workers who could now receive the same amount as white workers. Questions remain today as to whether of not Noongar people received the appropriate wage of the day.

In 1967 a Commonwealth Referendum was held in order to count all Aboriginal People in the census as Australians. The referendum also gave the Commonwealth the power to legislate for Aboriginal affairs, which until that time had been the sole responsibility of the States. In Western Australia the ‘yes’ vote supporting Aboriginal people and their rights was the lowest of all of the Australian states at 78.70%.

The word ‘native’ was used until the 1970s however in the same decade the Land Rights movement gathered impetus and in 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights were recognized in the Northern Territory. The 1992 Mabo Decision reversed the notion that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ and in 1993 the Native Title Act was passed in Federal Parliament.

Despite their history of oppression and marginalisation Noongar people have continued to assert their rights and identity. They have a unique, vibrant, identifiable and strong culture existing as one of the largest Aboriginal cultural blocs in Australia. This is no doubt due to the immense strength, support and dynamism of Noongar family groups most of which can trace their lineage back to the early 1800s. In fact most contemporary Noongar people know their ancestry and vast family groups to an astonishing degree.

Mohandas Gandhi

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”