Recollections of Brewarrina Aboriginal Mission

By Latukefu, Ruth A. Fink | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Recollections of Brewarrina Aboriginal Mission


Latukefu, Ruth A. Fink, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: In 2013 I revisited Brewarrina Aboriginal Mission after nearly 60 years. This paper describes what life was like for Aboriginal people living on the mission during my fieldwork in 1954. Information from Aboriginal informants at that time is supplemented by Jimmie Barker, whose memoir records 20 years as handyman on the mission (1920-42). There was historical continuity in racist attitudes, fears of child removal, suppression of languages and culture, inadequate schooling and authoritarian controls by the managers from the Aborigines Welfare Board (New South Wales). People felt ashamed to be seen by white people doing anything traditionally Aboriginal, and skin colour and Aboriginal features were socially stigmatised. Apart from its cemetery, Brewarrina Mission, established in 1897, was closed in 1965 and later demolished.

Background (1)

I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1931 of Jewish parents, both of whom were doctors. By 1938 my parents had been deprived of their rights to practise medicine and we were declared stateless, but we were fortunately allowed to leave Germany on Kristallnacht ('Crystal Night', 9 November 1938) because we had exit documents; Australian friends had sponsored us to emigrate to Sydney, where we settled at Kings Cross in February 1939, when I was seven.

Growing up in the early 1940s I was very conscious of being an outsider, as there was intolerance and xenophobia towards foreigners, especially after the outbreak of the Second World War. European refugees were constantly reminded that they must assimilate to Australian ways and forget their past, which for us meant not speaking German in public or behaving differently from other Australians. Older people who had language difficulties and heavy accents tended to mix mainly with other refugees, who were often called 'bloody Reffos' and ridiculed. One had to become like other 'dinkum Aussies' to be accepted.

This childhood experience of being an outsider made it easier for me to empathise with Aboriginal people when I came to know them, and to understand how they felt as an oppressed and socially outcast minority in mainstream Australian society.

In June 1954, as a 22-year-old graduate and tutor-research fellow with Sydney University's Department of Anthropology, I was sent by Professor AP Elkin (2) to study the Aboriginal community living on the Brewarrina Government Aboriginal Station, one of the earliest in New South Wales, locally known as the 'Mission' (it was administered by the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board and was located nine miles from Brewarrina town).

My four months of research became the basis of a thesis for a Master of Arts degree in anthropology from The University of Sydney in 1955 (Fink 1955), in which some of the quotations used in this paper first appeared. However, in my thesis and later published work I disguised all personal names and in an article published in Oceania in 1957 I referred to Brewarrina by the fictitious name 'Barwon' (Fink 1957).

Previous research had been conducted in northwestern New South Wales by the late Dr Marie Reay and her assistant Grace Sitlington nine years earlier at Brewarrina, Walgett, Moree and Cummeragunja Aboriginal Station (Reay 1945, 1948, 1949). Reay had worked with Aboriginal people living in the towns, whereas my study focused on those living at the Brewarrina Mission. Nine years had elapsed but our conclusions were broadly similar, although there had been further cultural loss through the deaths of most remaining Elders during the 1940s. We both noted the status distinctions that existed between people living on the Mission and those individuals and families in town, who aspired to live as white people and tried to conceal their Aboriginal identity where possible.

Apart from these brief anthropological studies, we are fortunate in the eyewitness account of the earlier years at Brewarrina Mission recorded in a remarkable memoir by James (Jimmie) Barker (1900-1972) for Janet Mathews in the 1960s (Mathews 1988; Thomas 2003). …

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