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Remembering at Woolgangi, by Skye Krichauff

As a lagoon re-emerges and country heals, an Aboriginal past is revealed

In 2010 I spoke with 88-year-old Les Warnes at his home in Burra, South Australia. Les is one of many mid-northerners I interviewed between 2010 and 2013 as part of a project to learn if, among settler descendants who have grown up on land occupied by their forebears in the nineteenth century, stories of Aboriginal people’s historical presence in the district had passed down through the generations. Les had lived most of his life on Woolgangi, a 20,000-hectare sheep station approximately 65 kilometres east of Burra, about a three-hour drive from Adelaide. In the 1890s Les’s great-uncle, C. B. Warnes, purchased the pastoral lease for land that included what was later known as Woolgangi, and Les was the third generation of his family to live and work there. (The name ‘Woolgangi’ is not local to the area but comes from the name of a railway siding in Western Australia where Les’s father spent some time during a return journey to South Australia.) In 1995 Les and his wife retired, and their son, Ian, took over the running of the station. Les ‘didn’t want to leave’ and ‘used to go back and forth’ between Burra and Woolgangi. When I met him, Les was going out to Woolgangi every week—he ‘loves going there’.

When I asked Les if, in his childhood or adult life, he had ever seen any Aboriginal people on Woolgangi, he replied, ‘No. No, they were gone before I ever turned up’. Shortly afterwards I asked, ‘So you never saw any Aboriginal people. Did you ever hear any stories about Aboriginal people?’. Les answered:

LW: No, no. The Aboriginal people out there would have been there very rarely. Only after a good rain. Good rains after every twenty or more years.

SK: So it wasn’t a place they would have gone to frequently?

LW: No.

SK: Did you ever find any Aboriginal campsites or hammer stones or anything?

LW: No, I didn’t. They reckoned they found some out at Glue Pot and Cane Grass [neighbouring stations previously owned by the Warnes family], but yeah, you’ve got to have a special science to do that [i.e. find them and recognise them].

SK: So archaeologists found them—there are no paintings, rock engravings?

LW: It’s all flat country…biggest trouble was water…no dams… No water out there.

The original owners of much of South Australia’s mid-north are the Ngadjuri. Their vast territory extends from around Gawler in the south to above Yunta in the north, from around Crystal Brook in the west to Mannahill in the east. Due to the decimation of Aboriginal populations (primarily from introduced diseases) and dislocation caused by colonisation, by the 1870s few Ngadjuri lived on their ancestral land. A government census conducted in 1871 lists two ‘Aboriginal natives’ living in an extensive area that included the Burra/Hallett/Mt Bryan/Booborowie districts. An 1891 census records no Aboriginal people living in that region. This does not mean that traditional owners did not visit the area when they could, or that their links to those places were forgotten or obliterated. In the 1930s Ngadjuri man Barney Waria spoke with ethnographer Norman Tindale. Barney, a fully initiated man, told Tindale of his Ngadjuri heritage and several Ngadjuri creation stories. From Tindale’s records of these conversations, current generations of Barney’s descendants—people who grew up in other parts of South Australia such as Adelaide and the Point Pearce Aboriginal station on Yorke Peninsula—have (since the 1990s) reconnected with their Ngadjuri identity and some of the country of their ancestors. Les was born in 1922. His comment that Aboriginal people were ‘long gone’ before his time and the absence of Aboriginal people in his memories reflect the reality of his experiences and his knowledge of his forebears’ experiences.

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An absence of Aboriginal people in mid-northern settler descendants’ historical consciousness is common but not ubiquitous. When historian Nancy Robinson interviewed people from the Mannanarie district, north of Jamestown, in the 1960s, several older people recalled childhood memories of Aboriginal people passing through the area. In the Riverton area, one group of siblings now in their seventies—the Hannafords—recalled their father telling them of Aboriginal people travelling over the hills and stopping at the Hannaford farmhouse. In the Wirrabara district, further to the west, I was shown the site where Aboriginal people, the Nukunu, held corroborees in the town.

However, these examples are unusual. The overwhelming majority of settler descendants I spoke with demonstrated a lack of awareness of the historical presence of Aboriginal people in their local district. This aligned with my childhood and early-adolescent perceptions. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s on a farm that neighboured my mother’s childhood home, Cappeedee, which at the time was the home of my uncle, aunt and cousins. Cappeedee is situated in the Booborowie Valley, approximately 80 kilometres north-west of Woolgangi. My great-great-grandfather purchased Cappeedee from the South Australian colonial government in the 1870s. Throughout my childhood and adolescent years, the topic of Aboriginal people was never raised—at home, at school, in the shop or at the pub. When, as an adult, I interviewed my mother and uncles, neighbours and more distant acquaintances, none had any recollections or stories of Aboriginal people being present in the Booborowie Valley or the wider district.

There are various reasons that Aboriginal people are largely absent in mid-northern settler descendants’ historical consciousness. Memory scholars and those interested in the relationship between history and memory have shown how people draw on their own lived experiences and everyday life to make sense of the past. My own research has demonstrated how people additionally draw on their knowledge of the experiences of their forebears. In the mid-north, pastoralists and their employees occupied land from the early 1840s, when Aboriginal people outnumbered the newcomers, and cross-cultural interaction was relatively frequent and relations were dynamic and fluid. Freeholders arrived from the 1870s, following the subdivision of the enormous pastoral stations. Most non-Aboriginal people with connections to the district dating back to the colonial era are descended from freeholders—descendants of pastoralists and pastoral employees are few and far between and, tellingly, did have stories of Aboriginal people that dated back to the early colonial period. The lack of a regular and visible Ngadjuri presence across much of the mid-north since at least the 1870s is significant.

In addition, as oral historians have pointed out, individuals construct and compose their memories and narratives in accordance with the norms and understandings of the culture in which they are ensconced. During my interviewees’ formative years (ranging from the 1920s to the 1970s), the myth of terra nullius dominated national historiography and foundation narratives. Understandings of Aboriginal people as transient, nomadic and primitive are reflected in local written histories produced in the 1970s and 1980s to celebrate the centenaries of various towns and districts. These histories impacted on and bolstered settler-descended interviewees’ perceptions of Aboriginal people and the colonial past.

It is worth pointing out that, even if stories of Aboriginal presence do exist among settler descendants, this does not translate to the keepers of those stories being able to envisage Aboriginal people residing in those places or interacting and sharing experiences with settlers. Kay Hannaford, for example, said that before our conversation it had ‘never occurred’ to her that any Aboriginal people might have lived on the family farm prior to her family’s arrival in the district. Across the mid-north and beyond—to the southern Flinders Ranges, upper Eyre Peninsula and Yorke Peninsula—I sensed that, although settler descendants were not uninterested in hearing about the original owners, Aboriginal people’s histories were perceived as separate from their own family history and the history of the local district. Nor do stories of historical Aboriginal presence translate to empathy for the multifaceted and enduring injustices and hardships suffered by Aboriginal people as a result of colonisation.

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Before I asked Les about Aboriginal people, he said that, on Woolgangi, there were:

No creeks, springs, waterholes, only an 8-inch rainfall. It’s flat country until you get to the Darling. Water was always in short supply. Sheep watered out of dams, catchments—had thirty dams on Woolgangi. Used to dry up all the time… Saw a flood in 1929 and 1973–4. Water only in the watercourses, and was up and down really quickly.

Woolgangi is indeed dry country. When Les told me he thought Aboriginal people would rarely have been on Woolgangi, and only after a good rain every twenty or more years, although I was aware that Aboriginal people intimately knew, cleverly managed and lived well on country that to European eyes is inhospitable, Les’s explanation seemed logical. By emphasising that Aboriginal people traditionally passed through rather than spent time on this land, Les reiterated commonly held perceptions of Aboriginal transience and nomadism.

This inability to envisage Aboriginal people living on the family property was not limited to Les or the occupants of other pastoral leases—it similarly prevailed among those who lived in the more well-watered freehold districts. When I interviewed my cousin Angus, who had recently taken over the running of Cappeedee, he sincerely asked me if Aboriginal people had ever lived in the district. Our 90-year-old neighbour, Max Rayner of The Bluff, said ‘there were no springs on The Bluff’ and ‘I think down on that open flat country [the valley floor] it would be too jolly cold, I think, in the winter time and they’d [i.e. Aboriginal people] be back in the scrub country’.

Interviewee Andrew Gebhardt told me that, after having had a formative experience during his adolescent years—Andrew saw an Aboriginal man standing on a hill in the Flinders Ranges whose demeanour powerfully conveyed that he was the owner of that country—he always imagined where Aboriginal people might have lived. Andrew knew Aboriginal people historically resided in certain places in the Burra district for two reasons. First, because paintings by colonial artist T. S. Gill hung on the walls of his family homestead, Mackerode, and these paintings depicted Aboriginal people at the Burra copper mines in the 1840s and 1850s. Second, because ‘Out east of Burra to Baldina Creek you’ll see a lot of Aboriginal carvings…turtles and tortoises, emus and stuff, just carved into the rocks. So they definitely lived out there. Well, that would have been permanent water, too’. The Gill paintings and the Aboriginal carvings provided Andrew with tangible and culturally intelligible evidence of historical Aboriginal residence in those places. Regarding his own property, Andrew continued that ‘there might be some carvings somewhere else, but I’ve never seen them on Mackerode…but it [Mackerode] doesn’t lend itself, the creeks aren’t [permanent]’.

Les, Angus, Max and Andrew projected their experiences of a lack of permanent surface water onto their understandings of the pre-colonial past to explain or justify the perception that their properties would not have been popular places for Aboriginal people to reside before European invasion.

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When I first met Les, he said his son, Ian, was in the process of destocking Woolgangi and trying to restore the native vegetation—‘black oak and sandalwood, blue bush, salt bush, geranium, and lots of other things that are gone now [because] the rabbits ate them all off’. Les has never got over the rabbits; there were ‘over 6000 rabbit burrows [at Woolgangi] in the 1960s’ and it took Les three years to plough them in. When I asked about damage caused by sheep, Les said, ‘Rabbits did all the damage, then sheep contributed to it years later because of a shortage of feed’, but it was ‘rabbits in the first place…rabbits have wrecked Australia’.

When I went out to Woolgangi with Les in December 2010, I met Ian and saw how he had facilitated the revegetation of country. Ian had ploughed up the clay-pans about every 100 metres. Clay-pans, vast sheets of pure clay upon which nothing can grow, are caused by a combination of overgrazing and hard sheep hooves compacting the soil. Ploughing the pans up and, importantly, taking off the stock allowed seeds to blow in and take root. On Woolgangi, native vegetation had returned and was thriving. Even Les, who was sceptical at first, could ‘see the advantage in it… The native vegetation is all coming back; I can see it coming back’.

When Ian got rid of his last mob of sheep in late 2010, he was finally able to block off all the dams. This act, coupled with an unusually wet spring, allowed the natural watercourses to run. A large, lagoon-like body of water collected and remained for months, lasting throughout the summer of 2010–11. Algae, tadpoles, reeds and birds appeared. And because Ian and his wife, Sue, no longer had to check stock, fences and water, they had time to walk around places of interest, monitoring regrowth and watercourses, and appreciating the return of wildlife. One day, while walking around the lagoon, they noticed a proliferation of hearths and stone artefacts that no member of their family, past or present, had either noticed or paid attention to before.

Ian rang me excitedly to tell me this news. I asked him if I could bring Ngadjuri elders and an archaeologist to see the lagoon and the artefacts. Ian was immediately agreeable. When archaeologist Keryn Walshe came to Woolgangi, she told us that the hearths were not Aboriginal hearths but, most likely, those of Europeans (drovers and shepherds) dating back to the 1800s. She was impressed with the stone artefacts and said that historically this place was much frequented and utilised by Aboriginal people. Prior to European occupation and the blocking off of the natural watercourses, the lagoon would have held water for a large portion of the year. The water would have provided for diverse and numerous forms of life, and the shady trees surrounding the lagoon would have made it a pleasant camping site. Our perceptions of Woolgangi and Aboriginal presence immediately changed; the quantity and diversity of stone artefacts indicated that this had not been dry, inhospitable country that people and animals passed through quickly on their way to somewhere else but a popular place to reside for lengthy periods.

In March 2012 Ngadjuri elders Vince Branson, Quenten Agius and Carlo Sansbury, and archaeologist Kylie Lower came with me to Woolgangi to meet Ian and Sue and see the artefacts. Over a cup of tea at the homestead, a rapport was established between Ian and the Ngadjuri men. All present were moved by these descendants of the original owners returning to the country that had sustained and nourished their ancestors for millennia. As we drove over the station to get to the lagoon, Ian pointed out signs of his forebears’ occupation—old troughs, tanks, tracks, all with stories attached to them—and the Ngadjuri elders listened with interest and respect.

Walking on the shores of the lagoon with Vince, Quenten and Carlo as they examined the abundant signs of their forebears’ presence in the place was an emotional and unforgettable experience. As they examined the artefacts lying on the ground, they looked at the craftsmanship, they were interested in the location of the original stone source, and they deduced how far these items had been carried, what they were used for, how valuable they might (or might not) have been. They drew on their own experience and their knowledge of their forebears’ experiences to make sense of these objects and their forebears’ lives. Like Ian, they were inclusive and gracious in their sharing of stories and knowledge. As Vince phrased it, ‘What we’ve got to do is share this…there are two cultures here. Both cultures have to work together in harmony so we can move forward together and get a better understanding and respect of each other; so we can take care of each other’s culture’.

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Settler and Aboriginal descendants alike draw on their own lived experiences and their knowledge of their forebears’ experiences to make sense of the past. For mid-northern settler descendants who have grown up on the family property, their embodied and lived experiences of country—as cold in the winter and as lacking permanent surface water, native animals and vegetation—are drawn on to make sense of and to justify the absence of Aboriginal people in their historical consciousness. However, as the story of Woolgangi so powerfully demonstrates, today’s depleted country is the creation of the colonisers and, when given a chance, country can restore itself. Ian and Sue Warnes have enabled Woolgangi to be a place of abundant life, and the contrast between Woolgangi and neighbouring stations is dramatic. Where Woolgangi is a kaleidoscope of colour, sounds and smells, the neighbours’ paddocks contain sparse and monotonous vegetation and lifeless clay-pans that are expanding at a frightening rate.

Across this nation, whether stories are recognisable and known or lie dormant in wounded country and/or places that are currently not accessible to their Aboriginal custodians, country is a crucial repository of stories. The re-emergence of the lagoon and the artefacts at Woolgangi are a powerful reminder to current generations that the environment of the twenty-first century bears little resemblance to country as it was managed by its Aboriginal owners at the time of European occupation. Woolgangi reminds us that, when managed by knowledgeable people who are deeply connected to that which sustains them, country can support diverse and abundant life.

This article is dedicated to Deborah Bird Rose.

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