Elders recall life on the Mission: an oral history of segregation

Elders recall life on the Mission: an oral history of segregation

Phyllis Freeman and Sonia Piper.

Nestled in the quiet hills between Tumut and Gundagai is a place soaked in history: a former Aboriginal mission, Brungle Station.

It was established in 1887, in response to white residents in Tumut and Gundagai who objected to Aboriginal people living in town or in camps on the fringes. It was one of the first aboriginal reserves in NSW.

Brungle Station did not have a good reputation from the outset: a letter from the time records that the first station manager was regarded a “monster.”

Managers controlled every aspect of aboriginal life on the stations. They were the only white people, other than those authorised by the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board such as the police, who were legally allowed to enter the missions.

Everything, from who Aboriginal people married to where they worked, was under the control of the managers. Aboriginal people were mostly made to work in exchange for rations, which could still be withheld at will.

In 1952, according to elder Phyllis Freeman, the manager left Brungle Station and a degree of autonomy was granted to the people who lived there. But the practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families, along with countless practices of segregation, continued into the 1970s.

Life on the missions remains a vivid memory for many Aboriginal elders living in Tumut today. This is a picture, in their own words, of life on the missions in the forties, fifties, and sixties.

Pat Connolly (64): Missions were how they used to control Aboriginal people. A place where they put you so they can keep you out of sight. No one has to see a black face in town.

Originally I came from Yass and I ended up in Brungle in about year three. My family moved around from mission to mission, as the government decided they wanted to rip this mission up and close that one down.

So, if they told you to move you had to move?

Had to move. Had to do what the white man said.

Phyllis Freeman (73): They had a manager there from the late 1800s up until 1952, and then they had the welfare people coming to check on the mission.

After the manager left, Brungle sort of came alive. They couldn’t do what they liked, but there was a lot of pressure off them. He was the one who controlled the mission, he controlled who could come in and who could go out.

If you wanted to go out, would he let you? Would he give you permission?

Phyllis Freeman: A lot of the time he wouldn’t. And then they wouldn’t have much to eat. One of the farmers out there, McGruer, they used to donate meat to the mission.

Pat Connolly: My dad would work all day, all week, and then when payday came he’d have to go to the police station and get a permit to say that he’s allowed to go the pub and have a beer with his workmates.

Loretta Halloran (80) moved to Tumut after growing up on the mission in Yass: We were starving. Really hungry. We were given coupons, and if you ran out of coupons, there was nothing.

Lots of Aboriginal people have died, died young, from the diet, from having no food.

Sonia Piper (73): Our parents always made sure we had something to eat.

Pat Connolly: Whatever we could get. We’d make damper or johnny cakes to keep us going. A lot of fish, because dad was a real keen fisherman, and we’d eat an odd bit of roo every now and then – but we used to live off rabbits.

Loretta Halloran: We’d go round to all the rabbit traps that my father had set, barefoot on the frosty mornings, and we’d help him skin them. My father would fish late in the evening, he’d say that’s when the fish get sleepy. We weren’t allowed to make any noise. Then the fish would come in closer to the bank, and he’d reach down with his hand and scoop them out onto the banks. He was so fast with his hands. We’d make a fire amongst the rocks and cook the fish.

Phyllis Freeman: In the old days at Brungle they had a lot of caring and sharing in the Aboriginal community. They’ve lost a lot of that now, a lot of respect.

Pat Connolly: We looked after one another. If you had a loaf of bread, you’d break it in half. If they were short of water and we had some, we’d share it, and if we were short of water, same thing.

Loretta Halloran: There were terrible things on the mission, that I’ve seen. I’ve got to push it away in my head when I’m by myself or else I’ll cry about it, the horrible things that happened to my people.

Starving, not enough coupons, having no money… White men used to come up to the mission to the women to try and make them sleep with them…they got the shock of their lives, they were chased off with brooms!

Records show that there were just under 100 people living at Brungle Station in the late 1800s, and living memory suggests there were 50 or 60 families by the 1960s. However, only four houses were provided by the state, and the rest of the dwellings were built by hand by the people who lived there.

Pat Connolly: It was pretty hard, having nothing. The houses in town were pretty much the same as what they are today, but we were living in self-built huts.

They were made out of galvanised iron and stringy bark poles and dirt floors. We used to go down to the riverbank and try and dig the whitewash out and plaster that on old hessian bags. We would stretch them out and take them to each upright pole in the house, to try and stop the cold from coming through the tin.

Loretta Halloran: I used to walk down the street in town, and I would look at all these houses, all done up beautiful with flowers and sprinklers on. I’d stand there and think to myself, why have they got beautiful gardens? Why can’t we have something like that?

Phyllis Freeman: We didn’t get a tap out at Brungle until 1965.

Sonia Piper: We used to cart our water, and I remember as I got a bit older all us girls would go down to the river and do our washing down in the river.

Pat Connolly: The day came when that one solitary tap was put out on the mission, and we thought it was heaven. You’d turn the tap on and fill up your bucket, and we just thought we’d won the lotto.

Loretta Halloran.

Today there is one small school in Brungle, Brungle Public, with eight students in 2016. This school was established in 1883 on the mission because Aboriginal children were refused entry to other public schools. Even in Brungle, there were two schools: one for white children and one for Aboriginal children. Schools were fully assimilated in NSW in 1972.

Pat Connolly: I remember going to school in bare feet. No shoes, we couldn’t afford shoes.

There was an old cow, and on frosty mornings we’d move the cow out of the way and warm our feet up on the warm patch where the cow used to sleep. The soles of our feet were that hard we could walk on bindi grass and it wouldn’t worry us – but they still got cold.

Sonia Piper: The teachers at the school were nice. But for us as Aboriginal people, we had to travel round a lot for the seasonal work that our parents did. We used to travel over to Young for the cherries and the prunes, and down to Griffith picking grapes and onions and pears, things like that, and I missed a good bit of school.

I left Brungle school when I was sixteen, and that was primary – I didn’t get to high school.

Phyllis Freeman: I went to school in Cowra, and I didn’t learn anything. I’d be sent to work in the kitchen, or sent to work in the laundry.

Then one day they got me up. They knew I couldn’t read properly, but they made me get up in front of the class and I was stuttering and stumbling trying to put the words together, and they all laughed at me. I’ve never forgotten that.

Of course, Aboriginal children had other concerns than school attendance. Between 1910 and 1970, over 100,000 children with European blood across Australia were taken from their families and put into state or church run homes, in an attempt to assimilate them into white society and breed Aboriginality out of the populace. Brungle was no exception.

Pat Connolly: Every family had a plan. If a strange car came onto the mission the mother would scream the house down and the kids would run down to the creek and hide.

We’d be curled up in little rock holes or in the hollow of a tree somewhere, until one of the mums or dads came down and gave us the all clear to come back home.

Phyllis Freeman: An elder told me that one time they came around, they must have worked it out, and they threw lollies out of the car and the kids came up to get a lolly…

And they took them? From Brungle?

Yes.

Have you heard from them?

No.

Pat Connolly: I can’t imagine what those children went through. They were told that their mum and dads didn’t want them. That was embedded into their brain.

Phyllis Freeman: They took them to Coota, to the Cootamundra Girls Home. A lot of them, they left that place, but they left with heavy hearts.

One girl, the matron used to tell her to go down to the gate because her father was waiting for her. So she used to go down everyday and he never came. She ended up hating her father.

So the matron would just say that to be cruel?

Yeah.

Pat Connolly: As a kid, you were scared of the law coming to take you away from your mum and dad. That was just a part of our life.

Phyllis Freeman: Welfare people came back and forth all throughout the 1960s. They came one time, didn’t see me, came another time, didn’t see me. Then, once, at the end of 1969, when I had four kids at the time…the man saw that I was fair, that I looked like a European woman, and he said to me next time I come I’m going to take your children.

I didn’t muck around, I just left. I moved into Tumut, and I lived in Tumut for more than 20 years, until my children were all grown up. Then I moved back to Brungle.

Pat Connolly: I’d like to reverse that role and knock on everyone’s door here and see how they would feel, if we just walked in and took their children. Three months old up, for no reason at all, just taken.

Sonia Piper: A lot them were taken from their family, and they would put them out to work for white people. A lot of them now, the stolen generation, are trying to get compensated because they never got paid to work for white people.

Phyllis Freeman: At the Cootamundra Girls Home, they used to have to go outside to go to the toilet and it was right down the back. So when they used to go to the toilet they’d look out and all the old Aboriginal people would be in the paddock, watching them. They were keeping an eye on them.

Even for the children that weren’t taken, racism was pervasive and unavoidable. Segregation was practiced throughout Australia well into the 1960s.

Sonia Piper: For years, when we were growing up, we were ashamed to say that we were Aboriginal. [Whites] thought that we were dirty people, because of our skin.

They’d look you up and down, making us feel real uncomfortable. That made us feel no good, as if we were nothing.

Loretta Halloran: I remember once my sister went into a shop and I went in with her, and she asked for a milkshake. They put it in this old tin. They wouldn’t give her a glass to drink out of. I just looked at her drinking it, and I thought, how mean. We were only little girls.

Pat Connolly: We weren’t allowed to speak Wiradjuri. There was an old couple when I was growing up, a couple of elders, and they would speak in language very fluently. We used to sneak up behind the old tin huts and listen to them. We’d make a noise, and that would interrupt them and they would stop talking, because they knew by white man’s law that they weren’t allowed to speak in language. That was enforced. You would be arrested, if you were heard.

Phyllis Freeman: [The elders] were frightened that if they taught us culture, the kids would be taken for sure. They’d use language inside the home, in secret, but we wouldn’t understand what they were saying.

Sonia Piper: What were we classed as for a long time, as Aboriginal people? Flora and fauna. It made me feel terrible, to think that we were born and bred in Australia and that we couldn’t be proud of who we were. We would see different nationalities in town and they were talking in their language, out loud. But for us, the people that were born and bred here, we couldn’t.

Pat Connolly.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. Kids are kids no matter the circumstances, and Aboriginal people had each other to rely on. They have lived in the Brungle hills for sixty thousand years, and no matter what is happening on its surface, the land has its own magic.

Sonia Piper: We had our sad days but we had our good days too.

Pat Connolly: We’d do what kids did back then, go swimming in the creeks – climb out with leeches on us!

Sonia Piper: When we were teenagers one of the girls, Gloria Penrith, she used to bring the guitar round and strum the guitar and all of us girls would sing, get round the fire and sing. That was good entertainment for us. We used to have little Aboriginal concerts, in the early sixties. We thought we were great, getting up on stage and doing the hula! Doing different little acts.

Loretta Halloran: My father had a lot of brothers, six brothers and one sister, and they all fought in the boxing tents near Yass. They were all good fighters. Us kids would crawl under the boxing tent amongst all the people’s legs and watch them fight. They’d come and put us on their shoulder, ‘you weren’t supposed to be in there!’ But they’d start laughing, they loved us.

He taught me so much, about the stars and the moon and the trees. He said the trees talk to each other, they connect with each other. A lot of that knowledge has been lost, but it’s coming back to me. Like the language, it’s coming back.

Sonia Piper: I love Brungle. It’s so nice and peaceful out there. I sit on my back verandah and look up at the big hills. It’s beautiful. Even when you go away – I don’t mind going to the city for a holiday for a few days – but when you come back you get to the top of the hill out from Gundagai and you look down, and you just feel relieved, knowing that you’re back home again.

Phyllis Freeman: Now, in the school holidays in autumn, my grandsons round up all the kids and they go together up Mt Ray – that’s the biggest one in Brungle. They’ll get up there and make a little fire, cook sausages, carve their names in the trees, take photos and a couple of days later they’ll go to the little waterfall and come home just before dark. In summer they’ll go down to the river swimming.

Times are changing, slowly. Discriminatory legislation began being wound back from 1961. In 1967 Aboriginal people were recognised as human beings in a national referendum. The NSW Aborigines Welfare Board was abolished in 1969, and in 1975 the Racial Discrimination Act came into effect, put forward by the first Indigenous member of parliament, Neville Bonner. Life is significantly different today for the Aboriginal kids who grew up on missions all those years ago.

Sonia Piper: It wasn’t until I got older, got married, that I started to think about it and now I’m proud to be an Aboriginal woman. And I’ll tell anybody. And if anyone says anything about Aboriginals in front of me I’ll argue with them about it, because I’m not frightened to say that and I’m not ashamed of it today.

Phyllis Freeman: I like it out in Brungle. We’re very happy. We did a lot to try and get the health centre out there. Out at the Brungle school, different schools come around to see the Dream Room, where we talk about our culture. I’ve been volunteering there for years now.

Pat Connolly: Being Indigenous – would I change it? No. Because we’ve got our culture. I’m a proud Wiradjuri man. I wouldn’t change it for any amount of money in the world.

I’m very proud to have an opportunity to go to uni and learn my language. Fifty years after I left school at fourteen, I’m at uni. I’m getting my language back, and I’m going to pass it on to my children and their children, as it’s been for centuries.

Sonia Piper: It makes me feel so proud when we’re out at the Brungle school and the little kids are learning how to do welcome in Wiradjuri. That hits me right in the chest there, it makes me feel really proud to see those little ones saying that.

Loretta Halloran: People always said, as you get older you’ll start remembering the language. And it’s true, I’ll be walking around, and a word comes into my head. It’s wonderful.

Pat Connolly: Things are moving very slowly, we’re still trying to get recognised in the constitution or get a treaty. We’ll see what happens in the next 200 years.

We all come from the land and we’ll all end up in the land. It’s a fact of life. If you cut us, we’ll all bleed red. We’re all the same colour under this thin piece of skin. We’re all human.

When I go down to Brungle today I visualise how it used to be. It’s changed many, many times over the decades and over the years. I can walk to the exact spot where we used to live, and just recall the past.