past and present
In summer, the temperature in Cunnamulla will often reach 45 degrees centigrade. There was no electricity at the Top and Bottom Camps, so there were no fans or air-conditioning; the Warrego River was the place where children went to cool down after school and on weekends, especially at the beach at Sandy Point.
Handling the Heat
Health & Wellbeing
The health issues of the camps continue to challenge the local Aboriginal community today. Like many Aboriginal communities, discrimination and disadvantage has had serious consequences for the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people in Cunnamulla. Importantly, Cunnamulla was one of the first towns to have a health service run by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people (the Cunnamulla Aboriginal Corporation for Health) to address these issues, and the centre remains an important part of town life.
Publications by Aboriginal people of Cunnamulla
McKellar, H. 2000, Woman from Nowhere: Hazel McKellar's Story, Magabala Books, Broome.
McKellar, H. & Thom Blake (ed) 1984, Matya Mundu: A History of the Aboriginal People of South West Queensland, Cunnamulla Australian Native Welfare Association, Cunnamulla.
Mitchell, M.R. 2016, Mary's Story: From Bob's Hut to Personalised Plates, The Author, Cunnamulla.
Wharton, H. 2003, Kings with Empty Pockets, The Author, Cunnamulla.
Wharton, H. 2003, Imba: (listen) Tell You a Story, The Author, Cunnamulla.
Wharton, H. 1999, 2011, Yumba Days, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
Wharton, H. 1996, 2011, Where Ya Been, Mate?: Stories of the City and the Bush from a Masterly Yarn-Teller, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
Wharton, H. 1994, Cattle Camp: Murrie Drovers and Their Stories, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
Wharton, H. 1992, Unbranded, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
Hard work and discrimination
As late as the 1980s, the Aboriginal wife of a non-Aboriginal Bowls Club board member in Cunnamulla was refused entry to the Club. Things have changed, and the Elders particularly stress that through shared schooling, they made close friends with many non-Aboriginal people who have remained friends to this day. They also speak of some generous employers, who treated them like family when they worked as carers or station hands.
However, this was not the experience of everyone, and most work was physically hard, poorly paid, and isolated Aboriginal people from their families for weeks or months at a time. Often people were not paid at all, and this has become the subject of legal battles to recover stolen wages – wages either not paid or retained by the State. Many Aboriginal people started work at the age of 13, as drovers, station hands or housemaids on white people’s properties. Working was one way to avoid being taken away to a mission hundreds of kilometres away. Those who went to work over the NSW border found also that pubs would not serve Aboriginal drovers unless they had an exemption certificate, which in effect meant losing “their Indigenous identity and culture, their family and their homelands, in exchange for living in the wider community” (for more information see ‘The exemption certificate and the erasure of Indigenous identity’ at http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p119111/mobile/ch06s02.html). One Cunnamulla Elder says that he refused to get an exemption for this reason. Exemption certificates were issued by the Queensland Government up until 1967-68.
Aboriginal people from the camps were forced to do the hard labour on white properties and on building works in the town itself. One community member remembers working through summer digging a deep (9 feet) trench across the main road, and an even deeper and wider pit to accommodate what was probably a sewerage tank. The workers were not allowed to leave the trench to get water; instead water bags were lowered by ropes into the pit so that work would not stop.
Despite these major contributions by Aboriginal people to the town and community, the town cinema, the Invincible Theatre, had segregated seating. Aboriginal people had to enter via a side door on the left of the theatre and were made to sit down the front close to the screen while everyone else came in from another entrance, and could sit on the right hand side of the theatre, or ‘even upstairs’. The Aboriginal community bought the picture theatre in the 1980s; it recently staged a play, Cunnamulla Dreaming developed and performed by children, mainly Aboriginal, from the Cunnamulla State School in conjunction with visiting artists. A documentary film has also been made about the project: (https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2016/04/04/cunnamulla-dreaming-story-youth-empowerment-through-performance).
While schools were not segregated, Cunnamulla Hospital’s maternity wards did practice segregation in the days of the fringe camps. Aboriginal people were admitted to the main hospital but Aboriginal women giving birth, and their babies, were accommodated separately.
Cracked earth on the Warrego River walk, Cunnamulla
Cunnamulla Bridge, Warrego River