Cunnamulla lies furthest west on the Indigenous Cultural Trail. A small town surrounded by a distinctive landscape of deep red soil, flat clay-pans that become lakes in the wet season, and great white sand dunes that drift and merge into the edges of town. The people of Cunnamulla are strongly connected to this place. Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents talk about its special qualities; a place that will always be home.
Cunnamulla has a significant and rich Aboriginal history, and the Aboriginal community is an integral part of the town today. Aboriginal people in Cunnamulla can trace their families back to many different language groups of the region – the Badjiri, Budjeti, Kooma, Kunja, Mardigan and Muruwari. These diverse groups are connected to Cunnamulla through both customary exchanges and intermarriage, and colonial warfare and government polices of segregation and assimilation. Some Elders remember hearing the wailing of families forced into trucks and removed from their lands. Many were taken to missions and reserves like Cherbourg and Palm Island, hundreds and thousands of kilometres away. There are astonishing stories of people escaping these distant reserves and walking all the way home to Cunnamulla, such was their longing for family and country. Visitors can learn about the ways that Aboriginal people lived on, and cared for, country, by visiting nearby properties run and cared for by Aboriginal people (Murra Murra and Bendee Downs)
Warrego River, Cunnamulla
For the Aboriginal people who remained in Cunnamulla, most ended up in the two main Aboriginal camps. ‘Top Camp’ was located on the north-west side of town, beside a stretch of the Warrego River that runs alongside the Old Charleville Road, and the larger ‘Bottom Camp’ or ‘Yumba’, was on the south-west side, near the Weir Road and the cemetery, and also only a short walk to the river. As the fringe camps grew into strong, resilient communities, other displaced people and family members came to join them, sometimes from interstate. One Elder remembers being collected by his grandmother from a town over the New South Wales border and brought to the Bottom Camp for a better home life. At the Yumba, he became part of a close family unit, with tough discipline and the chance to work alongside other hard-working family members.
Close to the site of Bottom Camp, near the edge of the sand hills, along Weir Road to the south of Cunnamulla lies the town cemetery. Many Aboriginal people are buried here, including the people and children who lived in the camps. According to his descendants, a king is also buried here (Willie Widgell, King of Tinnenburra). Many graves are unmarked or unnamed but they are remembered by family and the cemetery remains an important link with ancestors and family.
The recollections of Elders helps build a picture of life on the camps and the lives that Aboriginal people led there (Life at the Bottom Camp - Yumba). Cunnamulla can be scorching hot in summer and piercingly cold in winter, and in houses with no insulation, dirt floors and holes in the walls, life was tough. These living conditions and the absence of running water led many Aboriginal people, including young children to become sick. Despite the hardship, the camps were socially and culturally vibrant places where Aboriginal people continued many traditional practices, holding corroborees and sharing the little they had with family members. This diverse and cohesive Aboriginal community maintains a strong attachment to their lands to this day. People remember the camps fondly and lament how they were forcibly removed to houses in the main town. The large area of land that was the site of the Bottom Camp today bears no trace of the many humpies and makeshift buildings that the resourceful Aboriginal community built to house themselves. What was once a large clearing, with dwellings arranged in a horseshoe shape around a central community area, has been bulldozed and is covered with introduced grasses and trees such as black wattle, the seeds brought in on the wheels of cars. A few bush medicine trees remain (Life at the Bottom Camp - Yumba).
Sign at Bottom Camp (Yumba) in Cunnamulla
Aboriginal people remain an integral part of the past, present and future of Cunnamulla. A number of Elders have shared their stories in publications, and young people are recognised as integral to the future of the community with the establishment of a ‘Junior Council’. Consisting of mainly Aboriginal young people (Year 6 to 24 years of age) the Junior Council advises Paroo Shire Council on issues of particular importance to youth.