The Yorta Yorta Clans Group has made a claim for traditional lands along the Murray River. During a recent trip to the north of Victoria, Peter Murray and Alison Thorne had a conversation with Elizabeth Hoffman, who is chair of the Group. Elizabeth is pioneer in the fight to set up autonomous organisations for Aboriginal people and has been a leader of the struggle for Indigenous rights for many years. At one time she was the convenor of the Aborigines Advancement League. For legal reasons, Liz was not able to talk much about the claim itself. However she shared insights into the hidden history of the Indigenous peoples of the continent’s south-east. Like so many other such histories, it is about the murderous onslaught of the white invaders and of the struggle of the people to survive.
PM: Liz, could you tell us about your background?
EH: I was born on Cummeragunja across the river on the New South Wales part of Yorta Yorta lands. I was educated there and left school at 14. My first job was working for a doctor in Deniliquin. It was domestic work — that was all Aboriginal people could get round there.
I worked here and there and went to Melbourne and worked at the Salvation Army Hostel as a housemaid/waitress. Then I took over as administrator of the Aborigines Advancement League and got involved with the Aboriginal Women’s Council — we were very strong in those days, in the sixties and seventies. We were fighting for the right to set up Aboriginal organisations. People would rather do without than front up to the existing services.
PM: What is the extent of the lands being claimed?
EH: Well it’s all the lands used and occupied by the Yorta Yorta clans group. It goes from Yarrawonga to past Echuca on both sides of the river. The river wasn’t a boundary, it just happened to run through. At one time our people redirected the course of the water. It’s documented in a local history book called Neighbours.
PM: The press always makes out that there was no technology used before white settlement.
EH: It’s crazy — we were the inventors of a lot of things. How else could we have survived and lived in this country? We used to have lots of contact with other tribal people. We have an area, a plain in the forest where trees don’t grow. The whites call it the “War Plain.” But that’s where we met with other tribes to talk about new inventions and new advancements. It was like our United Nations. We got together to talk and help each other.
It was important to do this. The seasons changed and you had to change with them. So we met and helped each other, and this went on for thousands of years. We are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, race of people in the world. We did not migrate here, we grew with the land. We’ve been living with nature for thousands of years. But because we have nothing documented, they don’t believe us.
AT: How did people live in relation to the river?
EH: That’s a really amazing story on its own. Our basic diet was fish and other things that came out of the river. There were strict laws about when you could take fish and when you couldn’t, the time of the year when things couldn’t be touched. They called us nomadic, but we moved so that things could regenerate, and with the seasons. You’d camp somewhere for three months then go, and when you came back at the same time of the year, whatever you’d used would have grown back.
AT: So it was a sophisticated form of sustainability?
EH: It was very sophisticated and one of the things we learned from each other. We had trade routes all over the country. We traded languages. I was at an Aboriginal cultural seminar in Canberra in 1972, and met some women from Barthurst Island and found that the word for feet was the same. That was because of the trading that went on. And there was a special sign language for trading.
We cooperated. If you did somebody a good turn, you didn’t worry about receiving something back. Somewhere down the track, you’d be in need of aid and assistance and someone would always be there to give it.
PM: Have there been many bad reactions to the claim from locals — people with logging coups and pastoral leases?
EH: Yes, there’s a lot of that. It’s understandable in one way, they’ve got their lives to worry about. But they don’t learn from nature like we did. They don’t listen to what we’re on about: the survival of the forest and making sure it’s taken care of.
AT: Is Cummeragunja recognised as Aboriginal land?
EH: When the NSW Land Rights Act was passed, it was handed back. But government policy changes like the weather. When the Liberal government got in, they tried to change the Act but didn’t have the numbers in the Upper House, so it’s still our land. We’re very much used as political footballs. The politicians don’t know, some don’t want to know, the history of the place. They don’t know about what happened to Aboriginal people in the early days of contact. There’s no record of how many people were killed off and slaughtered, and those sorts of things.
The history hasn’t been told in this country — how many women were raped. How many young children were buried and had their heads kicked off. This country has to come to grips with that. That history has to be told and will be told.
Forty years ago, there was this fellow collecting all the remains of people slaughtered on the river. We had a battle with Canberra to get them returned and most of them are buried at Cummeragunja. The anthropologists said, “You’re taking away your history, we’ve got to find how long you’ve been here.” We said, “If you haven’t done it in forty years, thanks very much. We’ll tell you how long we’ve been here.”
PM: A lot of people have had trouble with that, haven’t they? The other day, people had to get a ministerial order to stop the Strehlow collection being sold.
EH: He was only one of the many people who collected remains and artefacts. The missionaries, particularly the German ones, in these parts used to send a lot of things back to Germany. One of the largest collections is in Berlin. People need to be aware of how much was sent out of the country on top of the damage that was done here. One day we were in Melbourne at the museum and a chap came running up to us. He said he’d studied the remains in Sweden. He said one of the largest collections of remains outside this country is there. Some countries have been prepared to tell us about the collections, others weren’t. We’ve just had a lot of remains returned from Edinburgh. And we never seem to find out what the findings of all these studies are, not from the Australians. Two people from England have said, “Yes, we’ve found you’ve been here for 100,000 years.”
PM: Talking of hidden history, what was the effect of first contact here, on your lands?
EH: There has been a history written recently about the Sturt Expedition. They were responsible for some of the massacres. Sturt himself said that the first time he came, he found a lot of very healthy people, but on his second visit they’d just about all died from diseases — the ones that weren’t shot, that is. This country has to understand that. People say it’s not our responsibility, that was done by somebody else, years ago. It’s only 200 years ago; in this area it’s a lot less.
PM: The claim is for your lands here, but are there communities involved who live elsewhere, like Shepparton and other places?
EH: Yes. The Yorta Yorta clans group is made up of peoples from all over this part of the country. Yorta Yorta is the language basically now. It started with the Yorta Yorta tribe. But it’s like England. They’re the only ones left, they call themselves the English. We weren’t all from the Yorta Yorta tribe, but we’re the only ones left.
PM: And people were farmed off to other places like Lake Tyers and Coranderrk, weren’t they?
EH: People from Lake Tyers came here. People from here were sent to the school at Coranderrk but came back home when the mission was set up. They were sent down with a party that went from Murchison to the mission that was set up for the Murray and Goulburn river tribes. This is why most of the clan groups around the area are basically one — they married into the various other tribes. You weren’t allowed to marry into the one that you came from.
PM: You met the other day with the Kennett government after they passed their new Mabo law?
EH: We accepted an invitation from them to talk about it. He said we didn’t consult with him about the claim. We said, well you didn’t consult with us.
PM: Have you had any consultations with the Keating government about its new Mabo law?
EH: I think he’s talked mainly with the people from up north. I doubt whether he’s had much consultation with the people from down this area.
PM: Do you think that’s because they’ve distorted history to say that people in Victoria and Tasmania were just killed off?
EH: Some of the whites use this “they’re darker than you” line; “they’re Indigenous and you’re not.” People like to pull that one and use it. I always remind them that my great grandmother was tied up in the sawmill up the road for sex and she had half-caste children before she was fourteen. So when they start talking about where the white blood came from, I like to remind people that’s where my white blood came from, and my children’s.
PM: Which goes back to what you said before about the responsibility still existing.
EH: That’s right. Some of the stories that haven’t been told. I promised myself that when I retired from Melbourne ten years ago I would do it, but I’m still fighting the issues. I hope this is the last fight before I start to do that.
AT: So what do you want to do after this claim has hopefully been won?
EH: Retire and write my life story, and part of that is to do with the stories that I was told as a child by my great grandmother and my great uncles about their problems and what they did to survive, which we’re still doing today. It’s about survival as a race of people. This country’s going to have to answer for that. It’s not clear if there’s a future or if they’re planning to still do away with Aboriginal people. One of the subtle ways of this was integration.
PM: Stealing people’s children?
EH: And moving them away from their traditional lands. Half of us can’t claim traditional lands, because we’ve moved away from our tribal lands and are living on other people’s tribal lands.
PM: It seems to me that it’s one of the reasons that the Wik people’s claim in Cape York is so important — they are saying that they were forced off the land.
EH: That’s right. They were bulldozed off. I remember when they came down to Melbourne and spoke at the Town Hall. Everybody in the audience was crying, weeping at the story they told at that time when it was being done to them. This cruelty — it’s amazing that people wish to forget it. And yet they tell stories about horrible things that were done to people in other countries. Like with the Olympics. They worry about the atrocities in China. What about the atrocities that are happening here?
AT: When we spoke in January I remember you mentioned the big meeting in Brisbane where ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission] spent a lot of money, but they’re not good at funding things at the grassroots.
EH: We’ve got a hostel here for elderly people that we can’t get funding for. The staff are working for wages that other people would refuse to work for. They said they don’t fund for elderly people, that we’ve got to go to the government for that. I said what do we do, put them up against the wall and shoot them?
PM: You’d think that they’d take the trouble to look after the Elders as a matter of priority.
EH: We were taught that — to respect and look after your elders. The longer you keep them alive, the more you’re going to learn from them.
AT: It seems to me that many of the strongest leaders at the grassroots are women. Have you got any thoughts about why women are such strong fighters and had the staying power?
EH: There are parts of the country where women were leaders, where the system was matriarchal. There’s a line across the country, and south of that, women were strong. Up further it’s different. When we went up to the Northern Territory, women weren’t allowed into the meetings although our chairperson was a woman, and she was invited in. But the rest of us had to sit outside.
In lots of ways men were excluded down our way, because women had to make the decisions. It was to protect the children. Before the whites came, the mothers and the children would live separately. And we’re trying to get some of that back, so we can pass on the culture to the children.