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Noongar History

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WARNING: This summary contains terms and descriptions of events that may be upsetting to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers.  The use of historic terminology is included to reflect the attitude and behaviours of the time.

This summary is not definitive and instead provides a snapshot of some of the key events that have shaped Noongar history since British arrival. This summary is drawn from a number of sources including the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council's website. A list of references can be found at the end of this summary. 

We encourage you to also visit the Kaartdjijin Noongar - Noongar Knowledge website which is proudly supported by the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council.

Noongar Boodja

According to their traditional beliefs, Noongar people have lived in the South West of Western Australia since time immemorial.  Archaeological evidence from Perth and Albany confirms that the region has been occupied for at least 45,000 years, with some caves at Devil's Lair in the hills near Margaret River showing human habitation from 47,000 years ago.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, it is estimated that some 6000 to 10,000 Noongars were living in the South West with these populations divided into fourteen language groups (previously known as ‘tribes’). The Noongars shared an ancient body of laws and customs which prescribed rights and obligations in relation to all aspects of their society and landscape.   For those Noongars living in the Perth area the main source of food came from the sea, the Swan River and the extensive system of freshwater lakes that once lay between the coast and the Darling Escarpment.  Noongar groups further south and east lived off the resources of the Karri and Jarrah forests. Those in the southern coastal area around Albany built fish traps and hunted turtle. To the north and east, they lived in the semi-arid regions of what is now the wheat belt. 

Strong spiritual beliefs governed their views of the world, and mythical creatures, stories and obligations were associated with many geographical features of their landscape. Strict protocols applied to visitors; they were expected to announce their arrival, bring food and goods in exchange for access to the land, and pay due respect to the land and its custodians, so that economic and ecological systems were preserved.

British Arrival

Official British settlement of Western Australia occurred first at King George Sound in Albany in 1826, with the remainder proclaimed a British colony at the Swan River Colony (later renamed Perth) in 1829, some 41 years after the First Fleet arrived on the east coast of Australia. The first European colonists viewed Western Australia through the prism of the doctrine of Terra Nullius, as ‘unoccupied’, despite the obvious presence of Aboriginal people. 

In the early years of colonisation, the British newcomers and the local Noongars co-existed in a cautious accommodation of each other, though conflict gradually increased as a result of disputes over resources and access to land.  Ultimately, British force, together with the devastating spread of some introduced diseases, resulted in British conquest.  Surviving members of the older generation of Noongars remained angry at and kept their distance from the settlers. However, most Noongar survivors stayed on areas of their own country, keeping family connections and culture alive. Many camped and maintained traditional practices while working alongside European settlers and becoming valued employees due to their bush skills and knowledge of country.  Relationships developed between some Noongar and early farming families that were characterised by an interdependence and respect, still evident in the present day. 

Measles and flu epidemics caused widespread death around settled areas in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  A combination of increasing European encroachment and the decimation of parts of the Noongar population had a continuing impact upon Noongar culture and social organisation. 

By the late 1800s, with the influence of the racist doctrine of Social Darwinism, there was a commonly held belief that Aboriginal people across Australia were ‘a dying race’.  However, around the turn of the century, some 1,200 or more Noongars were still recorded as living across the South West, some in missions, some living in camps, many working for settlers, particularly on farms, and many maintaining traditional ways of life.  Many settlers continued to rely heavily on the Noongars' knowledge of their country; Noongars were employed as guides, to carry mail, to accompany explorers, and to search for missing livestock.  Occasionally, they helped search for missing children or escorted prisoners.  In addition, some people were called on as interpreters and in many regions police employed Aboriginal people as aides to maintain peace between Aboriginal groups. Others worked as wood cutters, charcoal burners and prospectors.


Entering the Twentieth Century

In the lead up to the turn of the century, growing numbers of Noongars with European parentage and fairer skin contradicted settlers’ assumptions that they were a dying race.  At the same time, the economic climate was deteriorating and attitudes were hardening.  Diggers who had come from interstate and across the world seeking fortune through the gold rushes of the late 1800s now found themselves without work, and the drift to the town centres in the south west meant an increase in farming enterprises and less demand for Noongar labour. Noongars were dismissed from work and ordered off the land.

During the 1890s colonisation of Western Australia was consolidated with pastoral settlements established in the Kimberley district to the far north. Aboriginal people worked the pastoral stations for the colonists.  Extensive violent conflict around the killing of cattle led to explosive newspaper headlines of ‘lawlessness’ across Australia and overseas. There were also extensive inter-relationships between Aboriginal women and European and Asian men, such as Asian pearlers, who produced children, creating what was then termed the ‘half-caste’ problem.

It was from this context, against the background of the ‘White Australia policy’ in the newly Federated Commonwealth of Australia, that the 1905 Aborigines Act emerged.  The 1905 Act was designed to ‘pacify’ and bring the Kimberley under the rule of Law, and to control mixed race relationships. However the Act established a repressive and coercive system of control over all aspects of the lives of all Aboriginal West Australians that, because of their proximity to the administrative centre of Perth, particularly affected Noongar people. The 1905 Act, with subsequent amendments, remained in place until 1963. Ironically, this meant that Aboriginal people had a more equal legal status in the early days of British settlement than they did during much of the 20th century.

From 1905 administration of Aboriginal matters was managed by a series of departments – the Aborigines Department: 1905-1936 (in 1909 it was amalgamated with the Fisheries Department); the Native Affairs Department: 1936-1954; and the Native Welfare Department: 1954-1972.  Extensive records were kept detailing every aspect of their lives. Under the guise of ‘protection’, two key imperatives of the 1905 Act were: 1) the segregation of Aboriginal people from the broader population, and 2) the removal of children, particularly ‘half-castes’, so they could be acculturated and assimilated into the white population.

The Act gave the Chief Protector of Aborigines the power to establish government missions and settlements, and the entry of Noongar people into the towns was drastically restricted.  Noongar people were separated from the wider community, confined to ‘Native Camps’ or reserves on the outskirts of towns, and subject to curfews requiring them to vacate town areas by 6pm or face arrest. They were excluded from jobs, and could not move to another area without the approval of a ‘Protector’ – usually the local policeman, who could exercise a wide range of powers supported by the courts. 

To counter concerns about the increasing numbers of ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal people, the 1905 Act made marriage between an Aboriginal and a non-Aboriginal person illegal unless it had been approved by the Chief Protector.  The Chief Protector was also assigned the role of legal guardian of all Aboriginal and ‘half caste’ children to the age of 16. This meant that the government had the power to take children from their families and place them in institutional care anywhere in the state. Police and missionaries could, on their own initiative, remove children as well, and would advise the Chief Protector if they considered a child should be removed from the Noongar reserves. Orders to remove children were provided to police in code to avoid the possibility of someone pre-warning a family. Noongar families would often hide their children or attempt to darken their skin with charcoal for fear of having them taken. A whistle may have been a sign to run to the bush and hide.

The appointment of August Octavius Neville as Chief Protector of Aborigines from 1915-1940 signalled the beginning of a new period of administration in Aboriginal affairs. Neville advocated strict segregation and strict implementation of the 1905 Act. He bureaucratised many dealings with the Noongar people and implemented a range of administrative forms and procedures that intruded heavily in their everyday lives. Employers were required to obtain ‘Permits to employ natives’. A personal identification system of Personal History Cards couple with detailed and voluminous government dossiers created by Neville’s department detailed every Noongar person’s movements, family, relationships and even attitudes. Many of the actions of Aboriginal people required Neville’s approval.

While Noongar culture continued through connections with land and family, social and economic conditions were very difficult.  Many white communities in country towns actively campaigned to have Noongar children removed from schools. In 1914, 70 residents of one town attended a public meeting and tabled a motion that:

"…the Minister remove the black children from the … School. The horrible menace to the health and morals of young Australians admits no further delays…"

A strike by white parents followed and all Noongar children were removed from the school by the Minister for Education.  Residents in Perth and other regional areas made similar petitions. Land was granted to some Noongar people, in similar ways to the Group Settlement schemes for arriving Europeans. However most could not get finance to develop the blocks of land as banks would not lend them money. This meant that their leases over the land lapsed and it was handed back to the government.  If they lived on settlements, the Commissioner of Native Affairs had the power to close them down and order the people to move on, by force if required. As a consequence, many Noongar families lived without education, on the outskirts of town, with little or no work, living on what little rations they received.

William Harris, a farmer who had been educated at the ‘Swan Natives and Half Castes Home’, and whose mother and grandfather were Noongar, fought the impacts of the 1905 Act for some twenty-two years.  In 1928 he led a deputation to Premier Philip Collier with other farmers who had fought the Education Department for the right to send their children to State schools. At the meeting Harris raised strong concerns in particular about the Moore River Settlement, where families were split and different Aboriginal groups kept together under police control.  At that meeting, the Premier recognised 'a great obligation to do justice to the Aboriginal, because [the white man] had deprived him of his country'.

However it was many more years before there would be significant legislative change.  The economic depression during the 1930s was another blow for Noongar people. Aboriginal people from all over Western Australia headed to Perth in search of employment. However the State Government had declared Perth a prohibited area in 1927 – this was to last until 1954. Aboriginal people could only enter with a ‘native pass’ which was issued by the Commissioner of Native Affairs.

In some towns the Government authorized the removal of the entire Aboriginal population to Moore River Native Settlement.  Certain towns were declared prohibited areas for Aboriginal people.  In the context of international trends in eugenics in the USA and Germany, Neville became a strong advocate for ‘breeding out the colour’ across generations, through inter-marriage with lighter castes and eventually with whites. This philosophy was reflected in the 1936 Native Administration Act which further increased the government’s power to remove children and sought to re-classify Aboriginal people according to their percentage of ‘Aboriginal blood’.  During this period all marriages involving Aboriginal people had to be approved by the Commissioner of Native Affairs. 

Many of the older Noongar people had worked all their lives on farms, effectively ‘building the country,’ clearing the land and fencing the farms, shearing the sheep and working stock; however, without the status of citizens, they were not entitled to a pension.  Health care was often denied, or sub-standard, as the government claimed they had little money to pay for it.

In 1938, on the other side of the nation, Aboriginal organisations in Victoria and New South Wales declared the 150th anniversary of British colonisation of Australia a Day of Mourning, protesting the seizure of their land and the callous treatment they had endured. They called for new laws in relation to their education and care, and policies that would deliver equality and status as full citizens.  The protest became an annual tradition.

The Second World War and its aftermath resulted in both practical and attitudinal changes. Some Noongar men fought alongside their non-Aboriginal counterparts, and on the battlefield at least, were treated ‘almost as equals’. For the Noongars at home, they were able to take advantage of a depleted labour force, finding more jobs with better pay in Perth and other towns. The ban on living in the metropolitan area that had been in place since the 1920s was finally lifted in 1954.  At the same time, the nation’s participation in the ‘fight for democracy’ meant a shift toward more liberal attitudes. 

The 1944 Native (Citizenship Rights) Act enabled Aboriginal people to apply for a Certificate of Citizenship provided that they had ‘dissolved tribal and native associations’ for a period of two years and ‘adopted the manners and habits of a civilised life’.  The Certificate papers, referred to as ‘dog tags’ by the Noongar people, allowed them the same legal rights as the broader community.  However they had to be presented on demand, and could be revoked if the criteria were not followed.  Many ultimately relinquished this status due to the impossible conditions; as a result, the majority of Noongars continued to live on reserves on the periphery of the towns, or in the surrounding bushland, separate from the rest of the community.  The distinction between those who did and did not become citizens in some cases caused lasting divisions. 


The Gradual Restoration of Rights

Following Neville’s retirement in 1940, Stan Middleton replaced Neville’s successor, Francis Bray, assuming the role of Commissioner of Native Affairs from 1948 to 1962.  Middleton pursued a ‘policy of assimilation’ reflective of the more liberalist post-war climate.  Attorney General Paul Hasluck later articulated in 1961 that:

'…the Policy of assimilation means in view of all Australian governments that all Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected eventually to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other Australians'

Any ‘special measures’ were therefore seen as temporary initiatives to assist them in making this transition. Impacts on the Noongars included the closure of the Moore River and Carrolup settlements in 1951 (after the re-opening of the latter during the war), and, notwithstanding continued white resistance, Aboriginal children were allowed back into the schools in the 1950s. After 1954 Aboriginal people became eligible for many Commonwealth social service benefits.

The 1960s was a decade of significant change across the nation, with the growing assertion of Aboriginal rights by Aboriginal activists supported by white counterparts.  From 1962 Aboriginal people were granted the right to vote in Commonwealth elections.  In 1966 at Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory, a strike led by Vincent Lingiari in protest against unequal pay and conditions ultimately led to Aboriginal workers being entitled to receive the same amount as white workers.

In 1966, the United Nations proclaimed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  In 1967, a Commonwealth Referendum was held in order to amend the Federal Constitution to allow Aboriginal People to be counted in the census as Australians. The referendum also gave the Commonwealth the power to legislate for Aboriginal affairs, which until that time had been the sole responsibility of the States. Ninety percent of Australians voted yes in the referendum, although the highest no-vote of 19% was in Western Australia. The granting of citizenship rights in 1969 finally restored to Noongars the legal rights they had possessed prior to the 1905 Act.

The Native Welfare Act of 1963, which had repealed all prior legislation, provided that the Commissioner of Native Welfare was now no longer the guardian of Aboriginal children, but was still responsible for the 'custody, maintenance and education of the children of natives'. The Chief Protector’s powers to remove children of Aboriginal descent from their biological parents were abolished, but the removal of children continued under the Child Welfare Act of 1947.  In 1972, the Native Welfare Act 1963 was repealed by the Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority Act, and the functions of the Department of Native Welfare were split between the newly created Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority and the Department of Community Welfare.  The former was no longer directly involved in out-of-home care for Aboriginal children, and for the first time policies were enacted which allowed those children at risk of neglect to be fostered by other members of their families, finally signalling an end to the ‘Stolen Generation’.  

In 1972 the Federal Government under Prime Minister Whitlam pledged to promote Aboriginal development and self-determination.  In the South West, as elsewhere across the nation, Aboriginal-run organisations began emerging to promote the rights and interests of local groups.  In 1975 the Australian parliament ratified the 1966 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination through the passing of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.  The policy of the Coalition government in the election campaign of that year was expressed thus:

"We recognise the fundamental right of Aborigines to retain their racial identity and traditional lifestyle or where desired adopt a partially or wholly European lifestyle”. 

The Land Rights movement, which had grown out of the Wave Hill strike, had gathered impetus, and in 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights were recognised in the Northern Territory.  Notwithstanding the recommendations of the 1984 Seaman Enquiry, Western Australia did not follow suit.  However the 1992 High Court Mabo decision reversed the notion that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ and in 1993 the Native Title Act was passed in Federal Parliament, providing for the potential recognition of native title rights across the nation.   Native title claims were made across the South West, as the native title process finally provided a vehicle through which Noongars could seek formal recognition of their ongoing connection to country. 

During the same period, recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody led to the establishment of the national Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. A central acknowledgment was the importance of improving understanding and relationships between Aboriginal people and the broader community, and developing effective partnerships for change.   Notwithstanding the historical legacy of division and inequality, many Noongars and non-Aboriginal locals shared their stories and reached out a hand to one another in reconciliation initiatives across the South West.


Today

There are, today, around 30,000 Western Australians with Noongar ancestry. Despite the history of oppression and marginalisation, Noongar people have survived, and continue to assert their rights and identity. They have a unique, vibrant, identifiable and strong culture existing as one of the largest Aboriginal cultural blocs in Australia. This is reflective of the immense strength, support and dynamism of Noongar family groups, most of whom can trace their lineage back to the early 1800s.

On 8 June 2015, some 87 years after William Harris’ deputation had prompted the then Premier to acknowledge 'a great obligation to do justice to the Aboriginal’, a group of Noongar and State leaders gathered again at Parliament House, this time to sign the agreements comprising the South West Native Title Settlement.  Four months later, on 14 October 2015, the then Premier introduced the Noongar (Koorah, Nitja, Boordahwan) (Past, Present, Future) Recognition Bill 2015 into Parliament.  

At the heart of the South West Native Title Settlement is an acknowledgment and honouring of the Noongar people as the traditional owners of this land.  The Noongar (Koorah, Nitja, Boordahwan) (Past, Present and Future) Recognition Bill recognises:

The living cultural, spiritual, familial and social relationship that the Noongar people have with the Noongar lands, and the significant and unique contribution that the Noongar people have made, are making, and will continue to make, to the heritage, cultural identity, community and economy of the State”.

The commitment to the South West Native Title Settlement represents an extraordinary act of self-determination by the Noongar people, and now binds the WA Government and Noongar people to work together towards a new level of partnership and shared responsibility for the future.

References

  • Australians for Reconciliation (WA) 1996, Western Australia’s Other History – a Short Guide, Western Australian Advisory Committee on Reconciliation, and Australians for Reconciliation (WA), Perth.

  • Belsham, Bruce & Pitt, Victoria 1997, Frontier: Stories from White Australia’s Forgotten War [Television documentary series], Australian Broadcasting Commission, Canberra.

  • Berndt, Ronald M., & Berndt, Catherine H. (Eds) 1979, Aborigines of the West: Their Past and Their Present, UWA Press, Nedlands.

  • Find and Connect, Western Australia, Legislation: Native Welfare Act 1963 (1963 - 1972). Available from: <http://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/wa/WE00423> [21 July 2015].

  • Haebich, Anna 1992, For their own good: Aborigines and Government in the South West of Western Australian 1900-1940, UWA Press, Nedlands.

  • Haebich, Anna & Delroy, Ann 1999, The Stolen Generations: separation of aboriginal children from their families in Western Australia, Western Australian Museum, Perth.

  • Hodson, Sally 1993, ‘Nyungars and Work: Aboriginal Experiences in the Rural Economy of the Great Southern Region of Western Australia’, Aboriginal History, vol. 17, part 1.

  • Johnson, QC, Commissioner E. 1991, An extract from…The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: Final report.  Chapter 38 – The process of reconciliation, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

  • Reynolds, Henry 1990, The other side of the frontier: Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion of Australia, Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Melbourne.

  • Reynolds, Henry 1999, Why weren’t we told?  A personal search for the truth about our history, Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Melbourne. 

  • South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, Noongar History.  Available from: <http://www.noongar.org.au/noongar-people-history.php>.  [21 July 2015].

  • South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, John Host with Chris Owen 2009, It's Still in My Heart, This is My Country, UWA Publishing, Nedlands.

  • South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge. Available from: <http://www.noongarculture.org.au>. [21 July 2015].

  • Tilbrook, Lois 1983, Nyungar Traditions: Glimpses of Aborigines of South-Western Australia 1829-1914, UWA Press, Nedlands.

  • Tilbrook, Lois, 1983, Harris, William (1867–1931), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9 (MUP).  Available from: <http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-william-6582> [21 July 2015].

  • Ward, Glenyse 1987, Wandering Girl, Magabala Books, Broome. 

  • Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Aboriginal history of Western Australia.  Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aboriginal_history_of_Western_Australia   [21 July 2015].

  • Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Day of Mourning (Australia).  Available from: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day_of_Mourning_(Australia)> [21 July 2015].

  • Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Indigenous Australians. Available from:  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigenous_Australians> [21 July 2015].

Acknowledgement of Country

The Government of Western Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.