The original Wallaga Lake and Mumbulla Mountain Aboriginal land rights claim documents submitted by Guboo Ted Thomas to the NSW Parliament in the 1970s were recently found at the Bega Aboriginal Land Council. The documents capture the tone of dispossession and emerging Aboriginal activism of the time. They are also the powerful submissions that ultimately led to the handing of title to the Yuin people of the Wallaga Lake Reserve and the protection of Mumbulla Mountain as an Aboriginal Place.
“We, the Aboriginal people of Wallaga Lake and members of the Yuin tribe, do hereby place before you and the Government of New South Wales our claim for our Land Rights.”
The claim was for the title deeds of Yuin tribal lands at Wallaga Lake to be handed over to the Aboriginal people.
It was the beginning of a battle for lands rights that would last many years.
“When white people first came to Australia, they took all the land, with dreadful consequences for our people,” he wrote.
“Even though there was plenty of land for everyone, they took the lot!’
The Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Reserve had been created in 1891 by the NSW Aborigines Protection Board and run by a state appointed manager.
Aboriginal people from the Yuin tribe as well as people from the Monaro and Victoria were moved there.
The speaking of Aboriginal language was banned, traditional culture discouraged, and the managers controlled movement to and from the reserve.
Guboo Ted Thomas was born in 1909, grew up on the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Reserve, and as a young man was educated in the rites, laws, and customs of the Yuin people.
He was 58 years old when all Aboriginal people were finally made Australian citizens following the 1967 referendum.
In the early 1970s he began campaigning for Aboriginal land rights and remained an activist until his death in 2002.
In his 1978 submission to then NSW Premier Neville Wran he wrote that almost all of land on which generations of Aboriginal people had lived had been taken from them, leaving them only a few acres of which did not even have title.
“We must always live in fear and insecurity, worrying if even the little we have will be taken away from us,” he wrote.
He pointed to section once part of the reserve, now the coastal suburb of Akolele, that in 1949 ‘was taken away from us and given to white people for their holiday homes’.
“This bit of land was very important to us because it contains one of our sacred burial grounds.”
The claim did not contest that land ‘as we do not wish to disturb these people’.
He expressed worry that with the white population increasing they would lose even more land.
The claim asked that the title deeds to the remaining reserve, as well as Merriman’s Island, and adjacent Crown Lands be handed over to the Yuin people in perpetuity.
“This land is part of us and we are part of it. It has always been so in the past and it will always be so in the future. We and the land are one.”
Five years later, after continued lobbying and demonstrations, the title deeds were handed over to the Yuin people.
Meanwhile, in 1979, Guboo Ted Thomas began seeking the support of the white community to recognise the cultural significance of Mumbulla Mountain, about 30 km south west of Wallaga Lake.
He explained how it was a sacred mountain where boys would be initiated and ‘taught about the Tribal Law and how they should behave, and they were taught the special secrets of our Culture’.
“They had to spend a long time on the Mountain away from their people, and they were put through special tests to prove that they were men.
“Then they were initiated and brought back to the tribe as young men who respected their Tribal Law and Culture.
“The law has been handed down from one generation to the next, ever since the Dreamtime.”
He wrote how the last initiations had been held around 1918 and how he had been too young.
He was concerned about logging destroying the sites and wrote of his distrust of the then Forestry Commission who he claimed were ignoring a provision to survey sacred sites before beginning logging operations.
He was successful in getting the logging stopped while an archaeological survey was carried out by archaeologist Brian Egloff.
He lobbied for support that the ‘whole area of Mumbulla Mountain in which sacred sites are located should be gazetted as an Aboriginal Place … administered by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.”
Mumbulla Mountain was gazetted as an Aboriginal Place in 1984.
In 2006, four years after Guboo’s death, it was incorporated into a complete handover of the Gulaga and Biamanga National Parks to the Yuin people, as he had envisaged, jointly managed by the Aboriginal owners and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Max “Duramunmun” Harrison, an elder of the Yuin Nation of Southeast Australia, explains why Aboriginal understandings of the land have no credibility in wider Australian society. Developers refuse to respect sacred land when they cannot see what is sacred about it. But Max asks, is sacredness something to be seen with the eyes or something to be felt and lived?
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