Warrant Officer Leonard Waters
The town of St George is a bustling rural community with a rich Aboriginal history. Today, there are around 600 Aboriginal people living in St George, which has a total population of around 3,300 people. Aboriginal history can best be seen through a walk that begins on the western side of the Balonne River at the picturesque weir, a dramatic sight when the floodgates open after heavy rain. Across the road from the fishing camp is the old Aboriginal camping ground known as ‘Hollywood’, with a sign and artwork to commemorate the site. Hollywood was bulldozed in the 1960s. Further up the road from Hollywood is a group of wild lime trees, and another of quandong trees. Along with rabbit and fish, these trees were important sources of food for Aboriginal people in the camp.
Walking back over the weir, you can either turn left along the river walkway into town or, heading away from the river, walk along Mitchell Street to see the plaque on the corner of Whytes Road that marks the location of Sandy Camp (or Sandy Bank). This is the place to which many of the Hollywood families were sent when their camp was bulldozed. People today who lived in these camps remember both happiness and poverty. Great ingenuity and determination was required to maintain supplies of food, fresh clean water and clean clothes.
As you walk towards the site of Sandy Camp, you pass the place of the outdoor Sunday School where Aboriginal children from the camps took religious instruction each week. A sign painted by an Aboriginal artist is fixed to the massive old tree that shaded the students who sat beneath it on a long bench and were instructed by a Sunday School teacher who today still remembers his students.
Sunday School Tree, St George
As you turn left back towards the town centre, follow Alfred Street where several Aboriginal families were first moved into town housing when Hollywood was razed to the ground. You will also see some streets bearing the names of local Aboriginal families – Weatherall, Weribone – and ‘Sandy Bank Street’, showing how integral Aboriginal people are to the fabric of St George. The Aboriginal Business Centre on St Georges Terrace is named in honour of local Aboriginal identity Lesley ‘Jumbo’ Weribone. And while St George is known for its murals depicting colonial themes, these have been complemented more recently by paintings created by talented local Aboriginal artist Adrian Combarngo on buildings now owned by local Aboriginal groups – for example the Kamilaroi Centre on St Georges Terrace, and the Goondir Health building in Victoria Street.
Goondir Health Services, St George
Kamilaroi Centre, St George
Leonard Waters’ Memorial, St George
If you return to the river walk and stroll along the bank, you will see information boards about the local fauna, and one of the many significant scarred trees in the area, where an Aboriginal person long-ago cut the bark for a container or shield. Sometime since, a council worker has unfortunately nailed a CPR resuscitation sign to the tree, and the old metal sign is now embedded in the scar.
Across the way from the Information Centre in Apex Park is the St George Pilots’ Memorial which pays tribute to Warrant Officer Leonard Waters, who was an 18 year old Aboriginal shearer when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Waters is recognized as the only known Aboriginal Fighter pilot to serve in World War II, and his memory is accorded the deepest respect in St George.
St George Pilots’ Memorial
The long history of Aboriginal people in the St George area includes many distressing events, one of which was the frequent removal of the remains of Aboriginal people who had passed away, to become the objects of study in museums and universities in Australia and overseas. Many of these remains have only recently been repatriated to the St George area and buried with proper ceremony.
However many memories that people have today are of happy times on the Balonne River. For Aboriginal people, especially those who lived in the camps, the River “is our life, it’s our blood, our lifeline. It was our playground.” Today, the Mandandanji and Kamilaroi and other Aboriginal people in the area are working together through the SW Indigenous Cultural Trail to share their stories, both sad and happy, with visitors.
“Now they’re back in their land where they belong”. There is a burial ground in St George, accessible only with permission, in which the repatriated Aboriginal remains of Kamilaroi people were buried with ceremony in September 2014. The repatriation had been a long process over several years – while some remains had already been returned to St George and were awaiting burial, others, including many from overseas museums and universities, had to be tracked down through institutions in Sydney and Canberra, and collected in Sydney (“three utes full”). The Kamilaroi nation cared deeply about the repatriation of their people’s remains – they were no longer “thousands of kilometres away to be stared at and looked at”. On a specially declared reserve that had been returned to Aboriginal people for their use, many people arrived on the night before the ceremony to camp near the burial ground. In accordance with Kamilaroi tradition, the men’s burial ceremony was visually separated from the women’s (in past times, men’s and women’s burials would have occurred on a different day), and each person’s remains was wrapped in stringy bark. It was important to the Aboriginal youth of St George to be involved as well – they comprised most of the ceremonial dancers at the burial: As one Kamilaroi man said, “It was good, beautiful. To have that connection back, and that land.”