Roma, with a population of around 7,000, is the largest of the towns on the eastern edge of the South-West Indigenous Cultural Trail, and for many travellers on the eastern seaboard it is the gateway to the southwest. At first glance it may seem like other large towns, with a less visible Aboriginal history and a less obvious connection to the surrounding cultural landscapes. But Roma is at the heart of many Aboriginal stories. It embraces the intersection of stories and experiences for the entire southwest. Aboriginal families from across the region have lived in Roma at one time or another – and the stories in Roma reach out into each of the towns of the Indigenous Cultural Trail and the surrounding landscapes. The waterway that runs through Roma is Bungil Creek. Like the waterways in other towns on the Trail, Bungil Creek has been an important source of food, water and recreation for Aboriginal people for thousands of years.
From whichever direction you approach or leave Roma, there are significant sites and places to visit or stop at for the night. This includes Judd’s Lagoon and the Native Wells at Yuleba to the east of Roma, the Walkabout Park at the eastern approach to Roma and Bungeworgorai Creek or Bunge Creek to the west.
Aboriginal residents in Roma hold many of the shared stories from surrounding towns including those of living on reserves and camps on the fringes of town and of being moved into houses after the camps were demolished. These stories from within Roma and further afield make up important fabric of Aboriginal stories and identities in Roma. For the many families whose parents were employed on stations in this region, and over the border in nearby New South Wales, farming and pastoral stories are very important parts of Aboriginal identity. Living on the land forged strong and resilient characters and inventive survival techniques that remain important today. Older people fondly recall eating kangaroo tail or fish cooked in ash, and porcupine (echidna) that “tastes like pork.” Aboriginal families in town continue to share Johnny cakes and damper baked over open coals outdoors.
Many local Aboriginal people spent time as children not only in Roma but also in Mitchell, Surat, St George, Cunnamulla and other places. Their families were constantly on the move so that they could stay one step ahead of the ‘Protector of Aborigines’ and the police, who would remove them and take them to missions such as Cherbourg and Woorabinda, or even further away to Palm Island. The Aboriginal people of Roma are still trying to find out what happened to many of these people so that they can “bring them home”. The mobility of the Aboriginal population means that people have close ties, including marriage, with many other communities in the region and beyond.
Bottle Tree, Roma
Aboriginal contributions are widely recognised in the significant number of Aboriginal sportspeople who have represented their clubs, town and state at the highest levels. Among the sports stars commemorated on the Roma PCYC Wall of Fame is legendary Rugby League Star, Artie Beetson.
And among the many and varied Aboriginal groups are the Mandandanji, who are the ‘fishing net tribe’ and the Traditional Owners of a vast tract of country east and west of the Carnarvon Highway. Many Mandandanji, like Aboriginal people throughout Australia, were displaced and removed from their land, but have nevertheless fought to maintain, build and re-establish connections to this region. Since colonization, many scarred trees and birthing trees, and other sacred or significant sites have already been destroyed. A major cultural program for the Mandandanji is their Cultural Heritage Service which trains Cultural Heritage Field Officers in both archaeological and cultural approaches for the identification, protection and care for ancient Aboriginal sites. The Field Officers are hired out to companies and government organisations undertaking exploration or development to undertake clearance of sites within the Mandandanji land claim area. There are hundreds of sites with stone tools and other significant remains throughout Mandandanji country, including one site dated as 8,000 years old. These sites lie most commonly along rivers and creeks where the people of the ‘fishing net tribe’ lived and practiced their culture. It is possible to see some examples of these cultural materials at the Walkabout Park and Interpretation Centre.
Plaque at Walkabout Park, Roma
The character of the Aboriginal people of Roma comes from diversity, as well as continuity. As with many small regional towns, Aboriginal people lived in areas segregated from the non-Aboriginal community. In Roma the Aboriginal camps were alongside and interspersed with China Town, an area of Roma occupied by the Chinese market gardeners. Some of the history of China Town is documented along the Adungadoo Pathway.
There is a generosity and determination about the Aboriginal people in Roma – despite discrimination they have seized every opportunity to contribute to the wider community, while maintaining pride in their Aboriginal identity.
Aboriginal Sport & the PCYC Wall of Fame
Site where Artie Beetson grew up
Sportspeople from Roma who have represented Australia, are acknowledged on a wall of fame at the PCYC in Roma. Among the many outstanding individuals is the legendary Aboriginal footballer Artie Beetson. The site where the PCYC now stands was previously an oval bearing Artie Beetson’s name. While the oval is no longer visible, the site where Artie grew up is now a vacant block adjacent to the Roma History Lodge, marked by a strand of majestic bottle trees. Arthur “Artie” Henry Beetson was born 22 January, 1945 in Roma, and played rugby league for Australia and Queensland from 1964 to 1981. Artie is arguably one of the greatest attacking forwards the game has produced. Artie is the first Indigenous sports player to captain Australia in a major sport and he captained Queensland for the first time in 1980 in the first State of Origin game. Queensland beat New South Wales 20 to 10 and thus began the legend of the infamous Queensland spirit!
The sporting achievements of Aboriginal people have come despite a number of hardships and outright discrimination. One former athlete recalled how she and other Aboriginal kids were excluded from sports and athletics training at school. She says with defiance that the Aboriginal kids used makeshift equipment to train and ‘we won anyway’. This resilience, talent and determination has seen a number of Aboriginal people from Roma excel in sport and proudly represent their town, region and state at the highest levels of competition.