Woorabinda is an aboriginal community in Central Queensland that no one has heard of. Traditionally Woorabinda was part of the land of the Wadja Wadja people. Between 1927-1970 the Queensland Government forcefully removed 1473 Aboriginal people from their traditional lands across the huge state to the Woorabinda reserve, 170km south-west of Rockhampton where the summers are hot, the winters are icy and drought common. These people represented at least 47 different tribes, with different languages and customs.
The first 298 people of Woorabinda were made to walk 200kms from the Taroom reserve, further south. Many of the people walked in chains, though they were not criminals. The relocation occurred due to the proposed construction of the Taroom dam, that would flood the Taroom reserve. The dam remains unbuilt to this day.
“Woorabinda was never a mission” A local councilor told us. “What’s a mission? Either a community run by the church or a vision. Woorabinda was neither of these things.”
We visited Woorabinda in our last week of work at nearby Dingo. It was the first aboriginal community I, a white Australian from southern Victoria, had ever visited. And to be honest, I was quite hesitant about going there. I had no idea if the people of Woorabinda would welcome visitors. I certainly didn’t think there would be tourist infrastructure in place, unlike even the most boring small towns across Australia. My biggest fear was that we would end up being white people driving around the town gawking at how black people live. This was the last thing I wanted to do.
Certainly the locals of Central Queensland (read “white”) hadn’t painted the community in a pleasant light. We’d been told stories of aggressive behaviour of Woorabinda people in Duarringa, the closest town to the community (40kms away), especially since the alcohol prohibition was enforced in Woorabinda. But surely ignoring the signs at the turn off on the highway, that we’d passed many times, was not the right thing to do either.
Now I’m only sorry that I waited till the my last week in Central Queensland to pay my visit.
We were lucky enough to meet Gulfie, William Gulf, the Deputy Mayor of Woorabinda at the Aboriginal council office. The conversation we had with Gulfie was invaluable. Gulfie helped me see how one-sided my knowledge of Australian history has been. For every proud white event of our young country’s history, there is an untold black history running right next to it; often crucial to the success of the event. This includes everything from the survival of the early interior explorers, to the successful tracking which lead to the capture of the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly, and the Aborigines who served on the Australian army front line tracking the Viet Cong in the Vietnamese jungles during the war. These stories don’t make it to the history lessons in classrooms around Australia.
Australian Aborigines have been living on the continent for 40,000 years. They are the original people of the land, walking into Australia from south-east asia before the sea level rose. To put it in perspective, the ancestors of the aboriginal people were likely living in Australia before Homo sapiens were living in Europe. The people lived in harmony with the land. They knew the benefits of bushfires, and tactfully harnessed the knowledge to utilise fire in their hunting. The people didn’t construct permanent housing, as they knew they were better moving around within the boundaries of the tribes territory with the seasons, to ensure food supplies over the whole year. Gulfie refers to this period of their history as “B.C.” That being “Before Cook”.
Everything changed with the arrival of British Captain James Cook at Sydney’s Botany Bay. The royal botanist on board The Endeavour, Sir Joseph Banks assessed the tribe that met them at Botany. Banks classified the aboriginal people as ‘flora & fauna’, claiming the continent to be Terra Nullius: “No man’s land”. Bank’s assessment meant there was ‘No man’ to draw up a treaty with, leaving Cook to claim the land for the British Kingdom. To this day the Indigenous Australians have never signed a treaty or been paid for the land that was taken from them and the traditional land owners are not recognised in the Australian constitution. Sovereignty recognition is what the indigenous people of Australia are now fighting for.
Aboriginals are often accused of being reliant on the welfare systems. Gulfie explained that these dependencies between indigenous Australians and the ‘white fellow’ are deeply rooted. The Europeans of the first fleet began giving food, coffee, tobacco and rum to the Aboriginals. “Our people took one of two paths” said Gulfie. “Either they retreated to the bush or they hang around the white fellows. (For those who chose the latter) There was no need to go hunting anymore, the white fellows were giving them food. So before long, the old ways were forgotten and the people didn’t know how to survive without the white people providing for them.”
The dependencies set up by the early European settlers have led to the alarming rates of alcohol and drug dependency that is seen in the indigenous population today. Gulfie said he would estimate 40% of the Woorabinda population would have alcohol or drug abuse problems. Particularly marijuana, or ‘yandi’, is something he sees as a big problem for his community. He sees that becoming “dry”, the alcohol ban, has done little but push the drinking underground in Woorabinda.
Family is the most important thing to Gulfie. He told us proudly of his 27 grandchildren. “You love your children so much, you don’t think you can love anyone more. Then your children have children and you love your grandkids even more. Especially when they look like you; you can see yourself in them. And it breaks your heart to see their parents not doing best by them. Then you hate your children!” He told us with a laugh.
The decades under the Queensland Government’s management of Woorabinda tell tales of police brutality, ill equip conditions, and loved ones sent away from their families for “crimes” such as looking a white man in the eye. From the start the community was underfunded, with the children sleeping on the ground in a bark and iron “dormitory”. Overcrowding and poor sanitation meant disease spread easily; fatal outbreaks of influenza, mumps and gastroenteritis were reoccurring. In the early days, resident of Woorabinda were unable to leave the reserve without a pass. Gulfie recalls his father needing to apply for a pass just to go kangaroo hunting. These passes meant the white authorities to know the coming and goings of every residents.
During WWII, 271 people from the Cape Bedford aboriginal mission were moved to Woorabinda, away from the threat of Japanese invasion in the north. A councilor from Palm Island later told us that this relocation was far from governmental concern for the wellbeing for the Bedford people. Rather, the government feared if the invasion were to occur the aborigines would side with the Japanese; Japan were establishing local dependencies across South East Asia, ruled by people who were previously oppressed by their Western colonisers. Cape Bedford is in coastal, tropical far-north Queensland and the people were not adapted to the winter cold of Woorabinda, 1500 kilometers south; nor was Woorabinda set up with the facilities to accept these additional people. 39 (mostly children) of the relocated people died in the winter of 1942 at Woorabinda as they were not supplied with adequate blankets or clothing and the overcrowding lead to spread of disease.
Woorabinda was handed back to the aboriginal people in 1982. While this was something the people were glad of, it was also abandonment on the part of the Queensland government. The people were given no training in how to manage their community and finances. After years of white people organising it for them, they now really were on their own. Woorabinda was forced to fit into a system, totally foreign to its people. And the government failed to provide any help in how to deal with the system.
Today the community has an aboriginal shire council managing finances and affairs. The community owns four large farming properties in the region, producing grain, cotton, chickpeas and beef. The Woorabinda farming enterprise is one of the largest in the Central Queensland district. These farms are the major employer for Woorabinda residents, though located hours away from the community. This means family members are often separated for weeks at a time, with people working on the farms.
There is a small hospital, a school and a very expensive shop in Woorabinda. Residents told us that for basic essentials like milk they pay almost double the price in the Gracemere Woolies. For affordable shopping and specialist services, people need to travel to bigger towns. With a population of 1500, Woorabinda the biggest towns for a decent radius (~100kms). However, the township is very far from anything: 2 hours driving on a minor highway from Rockhampton, turn down a small road with only a few cattle stations along it (bitumen only on the northern side, dirt to the south) continue for 40 minutes till you see the turn off – 6kms further till the road ends in Woorabinda. There will be no through traffic passing. All of this is no doubt as planned.
Being a place built on a history of forced relocation, taking indigenous people further away from their traditional ways and the lands of their ancestors, I expected people would resent the place. But for Gulfie, who crawled around in the dirt as a baby (there were no paved roads in the early days) and who’s mother was born here – the Woorabinda mob are the only tribe he’s known. “This is where we are now. And you have to try to make the best of it.”
The main difference between Woorabinda and other Australian towns that’s stuck with me, is that there were so many people out on the street. Young boys were playing a game of touch football of the field till dark. Children were playing games and using stair rails as monkey bars. Adults were walking around. People were just out being together.
Woorabinda is one of many communities formed on a history of forced relocation in Queensland. This is an Australian history many of us have been kept ignorant about or are taught to fear. Discrimination of these communities will continue if we do not start acknowledging this history and spreading the word. I’d love to see a different history be taught in our schools. If you ever get the opportunity to visit a community like Woorabinda, approach with respect and an open mind and you’ll meet people who can teach you a lot. You’ll meet people who’ve been waiting a long time for you to listen.
We were really surprised that of all the wonderful organisations we know of in Melbourne, here is a community that really could use some help and there is no organisation. What Woorabinda needs most is an organisation that would be able to animate the community. If you or your organisation think Woorabinda could be a community you could assist, please contact us through our email form or get in touch with the Woorabinda council directly.