Kimberley Aboriginal History
Along the current Gibb River Road the country from Derby to Kimberley Downs was home to the Njikena (Pronounced: "Ni-gar-naa") tribe. The Punaba people (Pronounced: "Bp-un-a-baa") lived in the country surrounding and including 'Windjana Gorge' and 'Carpenter's Gap'. The Ongkomi (Pronounced: "Oon-gum-ee") tribes territory included Secure Bay, Mt Hart and Kimbolton and stretched as far as 'Whisky Crossing', 'Inglis Gap' and the area around the 'Lennard River Gorge', where it adjoined Punaba territory. Throughout the current "King Leopold Ranges" the Ongkomi's northern boundary was marked by the range which includes current landmarks such as "Mt Matthew", and "Hann Pass". The Ngarinjin (Pronounced: "Mow-an-jin") people lived throughout the country surrounding and including Imintji, right down to the Pentecost River and right up to Doonjan and Theeda. The Geidja (Pronounced: "Geed-jaa") tribe lived around the country now known as Mt House and Mt Barnett. Geidja's North West boundary bordered The Ngarinjin Tribes Land, and their southern boundary bordered the "Punaba" and "Konejandi" Tribal Lands. The Top Northern Section of the Geidja Tribes Land bordered "Ola" which was "Common Ground" - an area that was shared by the local tribes - this was a meeting and a camping place. The South West section of Geidja Territory bordered "Oond-jaa-din" which was another area of "Common Ground". The "Wunambal", "Worora" and "Umede" tribal lands where located along the Kimberley coastline. The Baada Tribe lived throughout the area now known as "Derby", as far North as the Bucaneer Archipelego, and as far South as the Fitzroy.
The information above was generously supplied by Sam Lovell, a respected Kimberley Elder, who has lived, worked and travelled through this country since the 1940's. Many of the tribes throughout the Kimberley intermarried, and when 'tribal maps' were drawn at the beginning of the 20th Century, this together with language barriers meant that many of the tribal boundaries were recorded incorrectly. In the old maps "Clan Groups" such as 'Warwa', 'Djaui' and 'Ongkarango' were recorded and mapped as "Tribes". Fortunately, the true boundaries, territories and their landmarks still exist in the minds of people like Sam.
Aboriginal spiritual philosophies have been recorded as the oldest continuous religious traditions on the planet. Aboriginal people and their culture have become an invaluable resource for the future of tourism in Australia and The Kimberley region. Their knowledge of the country and the sacred places that are scattered through it are priceless gems in a fast changing world. This history and heritage is something that all Australians can be proud of.
In recent years the Federal Government has been moving towards ending support for remote communities in favour of pushing people back into the town centres.
This will only serve to compound the already dire problems. The town centres are generally not good or healthy places for Aboriginal people who come from the bush to bring up their kids. As a result the entire infastructure of the ‘homeland movement’ is in danger of being a complete waste of years of development.
Initiatives such as the 'homeland movement' have had varying successes and some failures, but they are initiatives that need to be reinforced and supported by future policies. Provisos should be maintained on people supporting their homeland communities and trying to establish sustainable industries for the future employment of coming generations. This has not always happened in the past and will need much more application in order to overcome the substantive problems and hurdles that need to be tackled, in order to improve the situation for Aboriginal people. These initiatives, systems and policies will only succeed if Aboriginal people are included in the process of community cultural development, and if aboriginal people commit to living in their communities, and working for the future generations.
Aboriginal people need to feel ownership of these initiatives, otherwise they will not work. Many Aboriginal people well remember the years when they were ‘Wards of the State’ prior to 1967 and had virtually no rights under law in Australia. They couldn’t drink in a pub, own property or houses, get married to anyone of their choice or have a meal in a milk bar without a special ‘dispensation’ in writing from the government and yet they could fight and die for their country during two world wars.
This made it very difficult for returned soldiers of Aboriginal decent who came back from almost total equality in the army to the strict segregation laws and demoralising socio-economic status that awaited them in Australia. These were very difficult times for many Aboriginal people and returned soldiers and also for many of their white Australian mates who fought with them and found they could not go into a restaurant, a dance or a pub together. Thankfully those times have passed, but we as a nation still need to address the issues that have been borne of that era. The results of those issues are only too obvious in the towns and communities of the Kimberley today. This ‘history’ is very recent and well remembered by Aboriginal people. One such returned soldier was a man called Mortimer Conway from Alice Springs. Mort was well into his nineties before he received his medals from active service in the 2nd World War. His family sort them out on his behalf. Mort never marched in an ANZAC day commemoration, when he returned to civilian life he returned to droving in the bush and turned his back on army life. He felt at that time that it was not in his own interest to celebrate his service to our country. Mort was able to survive and thrive in the ‘in between’ situation that most mixed blood Aboriginal people found themselves in, in those years. Many didn’t!
For more dark skinned Aboriginal people life was much more challenging if they wanted to enter the world of the wider Australian community. But, this is not a case for guilt for the Australian community, far from it! Guilt only engenders anger and frustration and is not conducive to reconciliation. All of the years of disadvantage that were suffered by Aboriginal people can be very accurately traced in ‘black and white’ in the Hansards (records of legislations) of every government – Colonial, to Federal and State – in the short history of Australia. For instance the “Aboriginal Acts” of 1905 enacted by state governments around Australia were some of the most repressive legislations enacted against any racial group of people around the world. These laws stayed in place until the late 1960s. Aboriginal peoples’ land rights were not recognised until the 1990s and then only with many restrictions.
In other words Aboriginal Australians have only been citizens within their own country for 42 years and their existence in Australia prior to European settlement only recognised in law since 1992. We now expect dramatic changes in less than one generation? An unreasonable ‘ask’ in anyone’s terms! The treatment of our Aboriginal population by our legislators is a very dark history indeed. But it is one that needs to be brought to light and acknowledged before Aboriginal people can move on from the past.
This does not need to be a negative movement towards reconciliation as many people appear to fear. This can become one of the most positive processes that this country has embarked upon in its short history. Reconciliation simply means to create the conditions where all people can live in harmony and equality. A ‘fair go’ is ingrained in the Australian culture and spirit. It should be now extended to the first Australians. Australia can set an example for many countries around the world that have to confront these same issues. Australians are known for their innovativeness and their achievements. Surely we can all rise above these ghosts from the past and look to a bright and brilliant future in order to lead the way for other countries.
Ultimately, this is going to be a long and complex journey, but one we all should embrace in order to reach the common goal of equality for all of Australia’s citizens. This should be a positive and energetic process that vitalises the country and the future for all Australians, whilst ensuring the future happiness and health of our Aboriginal people.
Information & "Kandiwal Community School Kids" Photo Generously Provided by Chris Brown (Browney). Copyright: Chris Brown and Kandiwal Aboriginal Community. Photos "Kimberley Tribe" & "Kimberley Tribesmen": Copyright 'The History of the North West of Australia', Edited by JAS. S. Battye, 1915. Photo: "Wyndham Memorial Statues" supplied by Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge