Reading 1: Aboriginal people of NSW

Before 1788

It is not known how many people lived in Australia before the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. In 1930 the anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown estimated that the pre- contact Aboriginal population was around 300000, with about 40 000 in New South Wales. More recent studies indicate that the figure was probably around one million for the whole continent and much greater than 40 000 for New South Wales.

According to many Aboriginal beliefs people have been in Australia since the beginning - the Dreaming. It is known from the work of archaeologists that human occupation of Australia dates back at least 60 000 years. The first people probably came from South-East Asia. Where they landed, whether there was more than one 'wave' of people, which routes they took as they spread out over the continent, and how their numbers increased are matters for much study and discussion. However, by the time the British arrived in 1788, all parts of Australia were part of the territory of a particular linguistic group or 'tribe', This occupation and use of the entire continent provides the legal and moral basis for Aboriginal land-right claims to certain areas today.

Social organisation

Before European settlement, the area that was to become New South Wales hosted seventy or more Aboriginal languages and dialects, although views regarding this number vary considerably and some estimates are significantly higher (Hosking et al 2000). These 'traditional' or 'ancestral' languages, as they are sometimes referred to, include:

Muruwari, Ngiyampaa, Paakantji and Yandruwandha in northwest NSW
Mathi-mathi, Paakantji and Wiradjuri in southwest NSW
Gamilaraay, Muruwari, Ngiyampaa, Wangkumara, Wiradjuri and Yuwaalaraay in central NSW
Anewan (Nganyaywana), Birpai, Bundjalung, Dhangadi, Gadhang, Gamilaraay, Gidabul, Gumbaynggirr, Ngarrabul, Wonarua, Yaygirr in northeast NSW
Awabakal, Bidawal, Dharawal, Dharuk, Dhurga, Gundangara, Monero, Ngarigu, Ngunawal, Walbanga, Wandandian and Yorta Yorta in southeast NSW.

Each of these groups spoke a different language or dialect, but people could usually speak the language of neighbouring people as well as their own.

There was much contact between various groups for trade as well as for initiations, marriages and other ceremonies. While some groups had formed political or trade alliances, others were 'at war'. Alliances between the various groups, as well as group boundaries, no doubt changed over the thousands of years Aboriginal people lived in New South Wales.

The language groups were each composed of several clans. Each clan, through religious law, was responsible for a certain area of land. It was through clan membership that individuals gained their special links with the land. All the people in a clan belonged to the same descent group (either patrilineal or matrilineal). Members of the same clan could not marry one another, so a person's mother and father would have come from different clans. In areas where clan membership was based on patrilineal descent groups, children belonged to the same clan as the father. Where matrilineal descent groups occurred, children belonged to the same clan as the mother. Clans were associated with a particular species of animal which was a Dreaming ancestor.

The people who came together to live or hunt and gather food did not necessarily belong to the same clan. These groups, often referred to as bands or communities, usually consisted of one or more families. They were the basic economic unit of Aboriginal society.

Spiritual life

People throughout New South Wales (except for a small area in the north-west corner) held certain common beliefs which were part of a religious system that existed across south-eastern Australia. They believed in a creative deity of extreme importance. although people in different areas had different names for this deity - for example. Baiami, Bunjil. Nurelli or Nurrundere. There were also regional variations in some of the details of the religious beliefs, and in the way some of the ceremonies were performed.

Baiami lived on earth during the Dreaming. The Dreaming, or Dreamtime, was the 'creation' period when, with the assistance of various other supernatural beings and ancestral heroes, Baiami created the landscape and vegetation, gave life to animals and humans and established the laws of Aboriginal society. After creating the world, Baiami left the earth to live in the sky. From there he watched over the people to ensure that the customs and ceremonies were correctly carried out.

Some of the other Dreaming beings are associated with particular landscape features which they created or at which they performed certain feats. These are now referred to as 'natural mythological sites' or 'sacred sites', and there are many throughout New South Wales. They are of continuing importance to Aboriginal people today.

Religious and spiritual beliefs once affected all aspects of Aboriginal life, including which foods people were permitted to eat, marriage laws, and the designs that were carved or painted on implements and weapons.

Knowledge of the law and of religion and of the Dreaming stories was acquired progressively. The elders in each group possessed the traditional knowledge and passed it on to the younger generations at particular ceremonies. Initiation ceremonies, which marked the passage from childhood to adulthood, were one of the avenues by which this knowledge was passed on. Tooth avulsion (the removal of a particular tooth) and scarification (making cuts on various parts of the body to form raised scars, called cicatrices) were usually part of the initiation rites. In a society which did not have reading and writing, the body provided a visual marker of a person's ritual progress through life.

Today much detailed religious knowledge has been lost due to the effects of white settlement. However, around the State groups are reviving some of the traditional practices, and are asking that their sacred objects, used in ceremonies, be returned to them from museum collections.

The people of New South Wales had various burial practices. Bodies might simply be buried in the ground, or cremated before burial. Sometimes the bones were buried after the body had been exposed on a platform. Some bodies were placed in hollow trees. In 1788 David Collins, the Judge Advocate for the first British settlement, recorded that, in the Sydney area, older people were cremated and then buried, while young people were given a simple burial. A mound of stone or earth, or in some areas a structure of logs or bark, was often built over the grave. Grave goods were buried with some people.

There were various taboos associated with death. A campsite was often abandoned for a period of time if someone died there, and use of a dead person's name was avoided, a practice still in use in some areas today.

Art and decoration

Aboriginal people in New South Wales expressed themselves artistically in many different ways and on many different surfaces, including:

  • painted and scarified body decoration (cicatrices)
  • painted and carved designs on wooden tools and weapons
  • incised designs on the inside of skin cloaks
  • woven designs in basketry
  • paintings, drawings. stencils and engravings in rock shelters
  • engravings on open rock platforms
  • carved designs on living trees
  • ground sculptures.

Bark paintings are also known from certain areas such as the south coast. Although some of this work was for decoration, much was associated with the ritual and ceremonial side of life. The designs and figures depicted varied across the State. Many of the materials used to produce artworks (wood, fibre, feathers,the human body itself) have perished, but important examples remain in the form of rock paintings and engravings, carved trees and wooden artefacts.

Living off the land

Across Australia Aboriginal people lived by hunting animals, fishing and collecting plant foods. It was mainly the men who hunted and fished, while the women gathered smaller animals, shellfish and plant foods such as yams, fruits and berries. Certain plant foods, such as the nuts of the Macrozamia (Burrawang palm), had to be treated to remove poisons before eating.

To harvest food resources, groups moved within defined areas, often called ranges. The amount of time spent in any one place was largely determined by the amount of food available. Sometimes important foods were only available seasonally, prompting more or less regular movements throughout the year.

New South Wales contains a range of different environments, which gave rise to many different subsistence practices. The main animals or plants eaten, the degree of mobility, the nature of seasonal movements, and the foods eaten at different times of the year varied from region to region throughout the State.

For people living on the coastal plain, the sea, estuaries, rivers and the land all provided food. Fish and shellfish were an important part of the diet for those groups living on the coast or estuaries. In most hunting and gathering societies, fishing was done by men; however, in coastal south-eastern New South Wales, women also fished. The two sexes used different equipment: spears for the men, and hooks and lines for the women.

On the dry plains of western New South Wales people relied more on land animals such as kangaroos and emus. Grass seeds (Panicum sp.) were an important vegetable staple.

In the inland riverine areas, such as the Murray River, fish were the major food source, but shellfish, land animals (particularly possums), water birds and vegetable foods (water-lily tubers, as well as yams and seeds) were also important.

In the alpine areas in the south-east of the State people gathered on the peaks in the summer months to feast on the Bogong moths which gather among the rocky tors in their thousands.

Equipment

Tools and weapons were made of wood, bark, reed and other plant materials, as well as stone, bone and shell. The design of the implements and the materials from which they were made varied according to regional traditions as well as the materials locally available. Important materials not readily available (for example, certain types of stone) were obtained by visiting the source of the material or by trade with groups in other regions.

All groups in New South Wales used the same basic range of items - spears, spear throwers, clubs, shields, boomerangs, stone axes, digging sticks and containers such as net bags, bowls and baskets.
However, the toolkit varied according to each group's subsistence practices. Fishing spears, fish traps and bark canoes were used in coastal and riverine areas; fishing hooks (of shell) and lines were used along the coast. The people of western New South Wales and along the Murray River had special grinding dishes for grass seeds. Along the Murray, Murrumbidgee and lower Darling Rivers large nets of fibre were widely used for catching ducks, yabbies and fish. Throughout Aboriginal Australia fire was used in hunting and to 'clean' the country.

Shelter and clothing

Huts were constructed using a frame of branches or boughs, with sheets of bark, leafy branches or grass laid across. Methods of construction varied, some huts being quite substantial and others more casual bark structures. In sandstone or other rocky country, overhangs in cliffs or under boulders were used as overnight campsites or as 'retreats' during the day in which to eat a meal or shelter from the weather. The walls of these shelters were sometimes decorated with paintings or stencils.

Aboriginal people generally wore no clothing except for ornamental bands and belts made from hair or animal fur. In some areas - for example, in the mountain ranges, and along parts of the Murray River and the north coast -people wore cloaks in winter. These were usually made from the skins of possums or flying foxes.

Hairstyles varied from group to group. Many groups decorated their hair with small objects such as parts of plants, animal bones and teeth.

The arrival of european settlers changed Aboriginal cultures for ever. Much of our information about Aboriginal life before contact comes from the records of the first British colonists and later explorers and settlers, the collections of artefacts held in various museums, as well as the oral traditions of present-day Aboriginal people. Yet another, different source of information is the archaeological record.

Source:
Aboriginal Australia
Aboriginal People of NSW
Produced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1997
(c) Comonwealth of Australia 1997
ISBN 0 664 10152 0

 

 

First contacts

In 1788 Captain Phillip came to Port Jackson with instructions to remain in harmony with the Aboriginal inhabitants. However, the establishment of a settlement of some 1300 people could not be achieved without dispossessing the original inhabitants from at least a certain area of their land.

The accounts of British officers such as Phillip, Collins and King all mention the names of Aboriginal groups that lived around Port Jackson; they realised, moreover, that each group was associated with a particular area of land. However, the Aboriginals had no fixed residences, no gardens with crops or domestic animals, and there were no persons in obvious control with whom treaties might be signed. So the British considered (according to their laws) that the Aboriginal people had no real claim to the country. It was treated as an unoccupied country, as terra nullius (no one's land). The settlers did not understand the Aboriginals' complex social organisation, their subsistence practices, their religious and political systems, or the relationship between the people and the land.

Initial contact between Aboriginals and people from the First Fleet was quite friendly. However, it soon became obvious that the whites were more than short-term visitors - they were changing the landscape by cutting down the trees, using food resources and raw materials. and denying Aboriginals access to their land. The Aboriginals showed their disapproval by attacking individuals or small groups of people who went out from the settlement.

Phillip did not realise that it was the very presence of the British settlement that was the main cause of conflict. At first he thought the attacks were merely retaliation for offences committed by the convicts, and he took no action against the Aboriginals. However, at the end of 1789 Phillip sent out the first punitive expedition when his gamekeeper was fatally speared by Pemulwy, the most active Aboriginal resistance leader in the early years of the colony.

As the settlement expanded, the situation developed into one of reprisals and counter-reprisals as Aboriginal people resisted being driven off their land and the whites protected 'their property' and their lives.

At the same time introduced diseases - such as smallpox. measles and influenza - were causing the deaths of many Aboriginal people, who had no resistance to them. Within the first two years of white settlement. a disease that was probably smallpox wiped out almost half the Aboriginal population around Port Jackson. Some years later the first white explorers observed people with smallpox scars in areas well beyond Sydney.

 

Source:
Aboriginal Australia Aboriginal People of NSW
Produced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1997
(c) Comonwealth of Australia 1997
ISBN 0 664 10152 0

The Frontier War

The pattern documented at and around Port Jackson - of initial friendly contact, followed by open conflict, reduction in the size of the Aboriginal population. and then acceptance of and dependence on the whites by any survivors - was repeated time and time again as the frontier spread across the continent.

Many past histories made it appear as if the Aboriginals simply 'faded away' before white occupation. However, this was not the case. While some Aboriginal people accepted or adjusted to white occupation and some sought to survive as best they could by adapting to the new conditions, many others fought to retain their land and their culture.

Due to the nature of Aboriginal society, resistance took the form of guerrilla warfare - individuals or small groups of settlers were ambushed, isolated settlements attacked, crops, buildings and countryside burnt. In south-eastern New South Wales this type of resistance, organised by people such as Pemulwy around Sydney and Windradyne of the Wiradjuri around Bathurst, continued into the 1820s.

As white settlers moved further away from the centre of government, random shootings of Aboriginals and massacres of groups of men, women and children were common. The most infamous massacre in New South Wales occurred at Myall Creek station in 1838. Twenty-eight Aboriginals were murdered in cold blood by stockmen. The murderers were eventually tried and some were hanged - an unprecedented event which caused an outcry in the white community. Sometimes Aboriginal water- holes were poisoned, or Aboriginal people given flour, sugar or damper mixed with arsenic. These practices, common last century, continued into the first half of this century in some parts of Australia.

Because of the 'moving frontier' and the different reactions of Aboriginal people to white settlement, the nature of the relation- ship that existed between black and white was not the same in all parts of the State at anyone time. The fight varied in intensity at different places and at different times.

Nevertheless, by the end of last century, the standard of living of most communities, as well as people's health and general demeanour, had greatly deteriorated. As Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land, their economic and spiritual lives and social organisation were almost totally destroyed. The land was both a source of sustenance and the basis of religious and ceremonial life. A combination of high death rates - through killings, disease and despair - and low birth rates drastically reduced the original population. Many Aboriginals lived as 'fringe-dwellers' or were forced into settlements and reserves run by the government or church missions, where they had to rely on whites for hand-outs of food and clothing.

Source:
Aboriginal Australia
Aboriginal People of NSW
Produced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1997
(c) Comonwealth of Australia 1997
ISBN 0 664 10152 0

1967 - 1997

In 1967 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout Australia were finally given full citizenship rights as the result of a referendum. Over 90 per cent of voters said 'yes' to changing the Constitution of the Commonwealth. This change allowed Aboriginal people to be counted in reckoning the population and gave the Commonwealth Government shared powers with State Governments to legislate for Aboriginals.

In 1972 the Commonwealth Government proclaimed a policy of 'self-determination' for Aboriginals - Aboriginal people were to decide the pace and nature of their future development within the legal. social and economic framework of Australian society. The Government also supported Aboriginal land rights.

These policies were subsequently adopted by the New South Wales Government. In 1973 further amendments to the Aborigines Protection Act provided for the establishment of the New South Wales Aboriginal Lands Trust in 1974. The Trust was given freehold title to former reserves (though not former town reserves, nor previously revoked reserves). It was also able to purchase property, and to develop or mine any of its lands. By 1979 the Trust held title to 144 properties. For the first time Aboriginals had some control over reserve lands.

In November 1978 the New South Wales Legislative Assembly appointed the Select Committee upon Aborigines to inquire into land rights and the conditions of Aboriginals in New South Wales. As a result of this Committee's recommendations, a State Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs was established and the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was passed in 1983.

The Land Rights Act recognises that the State of New South Wales was traditionally owned and occupied by Aboriginal people and acknowledges the vital importance of land in Aboriginal culture. Under the Act, a system of Land Councils - at State, regional and local levels - was set up. The Councils received inalienable title to land held by the former Aboriginal Lands Trust. They are also able to claim or purchase other land. Claims may be made to Crown land so long as it is not lawfully used or occupied and not needed, or likely to be needed, for any essential public service. (Some occupied Crown lands can also be claimed subject to these conditions.) Certain mineral and hunting and fishing rights are vested in the Land Councils.

In addition, the Act provides for the annual payment of 7.5 per cent of gross State Land Tax revenue into a fund until 1998. Half of this fund is set aside as capital to finance Aboriginal development in future years, with the balance meeting the costs of land council administration and land purchases.

The State Government has a Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and at the Commonwealth level there is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). ATSIC was established in 1990 as a means of giving indigenous people a greater say over the policies and decisions affecting them. Thirty-five Regional Councils are elected throughout Australia. Regional Councillors in turn elect 17 Commissioners to sit on the ATSIC Board. There are six ATSIC regions in New South Wales, and the State returns three ~ Commissioners.

On 27 June 1997, in an historic gesture of goodwill and reconciliation, the Lower , House of State Parliament was handed over to elected indigenous representatives from ATSIC, the first time that the Parliament has been used by another I elected body.

As a result of the last 200 years Aboriginal people in New South Wales suffer many disadvantages in comparison to the non- Aboriginal population. Many Aboriginals still live in sub-standard conditions, are unemployed, have poor health or low educational achievements. They are far more likely to be imprisoned, mostly for minor offences.

In an effort to solve these problems many Aboriginal self-help organisations have been set up. These organisations, established over the last 20 years, provide services in areas such as health care, housing, education, employment, broad- casting and the law. The Aboriginal people of New South Wales have been leaders in this movement. Aboriginal Australia's first medical service and first legal service began in Sydney in the early 1970s. Today a multitude of State, regional and local organisations (including the Land Councils established under the Land Rights Act) service the Aboriginal communities of . New South Wales.

Aboriginal culture is being revitalised. Growing numbers of Aboriginal artists are involved in painting and print-making, photography, film and theatre, and music and dance. Sydney is a thriving centre of contemporary Aboriginal art - an act ' uses new forms and media to express artists' sense of identity .... values of their culture.

Another important issue is the management and protection of Aboriginal sites and heritage items. Land Councils and other organisations provide advice to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, museums and consulting archaeologists on community wishes in these matters. For the original inhabitants of New South Wales the struggle that began with white occupation of their country is continuing - the struggle now is to retain heir identity and Culture, to raise their .......

Source:
Aboriginal Australia
Aboriginal People of NSW
Produced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1997
(c) Comonwealth of Australia 1997
ISBN 0 664 10152 0

Art and decoration

Aboriginal people in New South Wales expressed themselves artistically in many different ways and on many different surfaces, including:

  • painted and scarified body decoration (cicatrices)
  • painted and carved designs on wooden tools and weapons
  • incised designs on the inside of skin cloaks
  • woven designs in basketry
  • paintings, drawings. stencils and engravings in rock shelters
  • engravings on open rock platforms
  • carved designs on living trees
  • ground sculptures.

Bark paintings are also known from certain areas such as the south coast. Although some of this work was for decoration, much was associated with the ritual and ceremonial side of life. The designs and figures depicted varied across the State. Many of the materials used to produce artworks (wood, fibre, feathers,the human body itself) have perished, but important examples remain in the form of rock paintings and engravings, carved trees and wooden artefacts.

Equipment

Tools and weapons were made of wood, bark, reed and other plant materials, as well as stone, bone and shell. The design of the implements and the materials from which they were made varied according to regional traditions as well as the materials locally available. Important materials not readily available (for example, certain types of stone) were obtained by visiting the source of the material or by trade with groups in other regions.

All groups in New South Wales used the same basic range of items - spears, spear throwers, clubs, shields, boomerangs, stone axes, digging sticks and containers such as net bags, bowls and baskets.
However, the toolkit varied according to each group's subsistence practices. Fishing spears, fish traps and bark canoes were used in coastal and riverine areas; fishing hooks (of shell) and lines were used along the coast. The people of western New South Wales and along the Murray River had special grinding dishes for grass seeds. Along the Murray, Murrumbidgee and lower Darling Rivers large nets of fibre were widely used for catching ducks, yabbies and fish. Throughout Aboriginal Australia fire was used in hunting and to 'clean' the country.

Shelter and clothing

Huts were constructed using a frame of branches or boughs, with sheets of bark, leafy branches or grass laid across. Methods of construction varied, some huts being quite substantial and others more casual bark structures. In sandstone or other rocky country, overhangs in cliffs or under boulders were used as overnight campsites or as 'retreats' during the day in which to eat a meal or shelter from the weather. The walls of these shelters were sometimes decorated with paintings or stencils.

Aboriginal people generally wore no clothing except for ornamental bands and belts made from hair or animal fur. In some areas - for example, in the mountain ranges, and along parts of the Murray River and the north coast -people wore cloaks in winter. These were usually made from the skins of possums or flying foxes.

Hairstyles varied from group to group. Many groups decorated their hair with small objects such as parts of plants, animal bones and teeth.

The arrival of european settlers changed Aboriginal cultures for ever. Much of our information about Aboriginal life before contact comes from the records of the first British colonists and later explorers and settlers, the collections of artefacts held in various museums, as well as the oral traditions of present-day Aboriginal people. Yet another, different source of information is the archaeological record.

Source:
Aboriginal Australia
Aboriginal People of NSW
Produced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1997
(c) Comonwealth of Australia 1997
ISBN 0 664 10152 0