Residents and supporters of the Reconciliation movement walked the floodplain between Shepparton and Mooroopna to relive an historic Cummeragunja walk-off. About 150 people left the Cummeragunja mission, in southern New South Wales, on February 4, 1939, to protest against the conditions and local government’s control over the area.
It was one of the first Indigenous mass protests in Australia, igniting a movement which has since fought for basic rights, such as the right to vote, and the right for Aboriginal Australians to be granted citizenship.
Of those that fled, many ended up settling in parts of northern Victoria, including Barmah, Echuca, Mooroopna and Shepparton.
The area between Shepparton and Mooroopna became known as The Flats and housed Indigenous Australians up until the 1950s.
Yorta Yorta elder Uncle Ruben Baksh said the conditions on The Flats were almost uninhabitable.
“They lived in the old tin huts with hessian bags. They had no running water, no electricity, no proper sewerage,” he said.
“It was pretty hard for Aboriginal people.”
Uncle Ruben recalled the Queen’s visit in 1954, when the local government at the time installed hessian bags and curtains to block the community from the view of the royals.
“Our elders, what they did, what they put up with, it was a pretty hard life,” said Uncle Ruben.
Why these stories need to be told
The era is considered an important part of the Yorta Yorta people’s history. They don’t want the struggles of their ancestors to be forgotten.
“It’s important to let the wider community know about the way Aboriginal people were treated,” Uncle Ruben said.
Residents agreed. Those who joined the throng that turned out to learn about the watershed walk-off said they were interested in learning more about Indigenous culture, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.
“It’s a part of our history. I think more people need to know what that history is,” Tatura East resident Rachael Slorach said.
Helping troubled Indigenous Youth
The group is now looking to bring troubled youths from all over the state to The Flats to teach them about the 1939 movement and their elders.
Uncle Ruben said it was his mission to see these troubled kids thrive.
“If we don’t do anything about it now, we’re not going to have a future.”
The group is also applying for funding to build a men’s shed on country and is working with local schools to teach them about the patch’s haunted history.
A long road ahead
Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go before Indigenous Australians are granted equal rights.
The Australian Constitution for example, doesn’t mention Indigenous people or acknowledge their prior occupancy.
“The Government’s got a lot to answer for,” said Uncle Ruben.
But he’s optimistic about the future.
The Yorta Yorta people are applying for their native title, seeking to prove they had an uninterrupted connection to this land in northern Victoria and that they observed traditional laws and customs on the land itself,” Uncle Ruben said.
“There are a lot of good things happening. The council here in Shepparton is pretty good … They do a lot on the flats so people can come and have a look at what Aboriginal people have put up with.”
Local elder Uncle Ruben Baksh leads locals on a special walk through ‘The Flats’ between Shepparton and Mooroopna
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