Posted On 04 Feb 2019
Yorta Yorta people return to Cummeragunja 80 years after historical ‘walk-off’
Posted 4 Feb 2019, 1:18pm
Australian soprano and Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham AO is a member of the Stolen Generations.
At a young age, she was forcibly removed from her family by the Australian Federal and State Government agencies and church missions.
She grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney and it was only in 2009 that she found her way back to Shepparton, and to the land where her parents once resided.
“I grew up without really being connected to community,” she said.
She was writing an opera and in search of a fitting story to tell.
It was here that she learned of her ancestors’ involvement in one of the most significant “acts of defiance” in Aboriginal history — The Cummeragunja Walk-Off.
“I’d heard about the story of the walk-off from Cummeragunja, so I came up to Shepparton to do some research and I was really fortunate to be able to meet an elder in the community, Aunty Francis,” Ms Cheetham said.
“Aunty Francis had been nine years old when the walk-off took place and she could recall that story so vividly.
“It was as if she was able to transport me there … she [could] remember the dust flying up as the people walked off the mission station … she could recall the smells and the way the dust would hang in the air and the grittiness in her throat and in her eyes.
“Before she would share any of the stories with me, she asked a very critical question. She said, ‘Well, what’s your connection to this?’
“I said, ‘Look, I don’t know what my connection is, but I do know that my uncle Jimmy Little was a Yorta Yorta man.’
When I told her that she just smiled and said, ‘Your grandparents were part of this’.”
What is The Cummeragunja Walk-Off?
Today marks 80 years since The Cummeragunja Walk-Off, which saw around 200 people leave the Cummeragunja mission, in southern New South Wales, to protest the conditions and the local government’s control over the area.
By 1939, many Indigenous Australians had died on Cummeragunja because of the minimal rations of food given to them, the lack of sanitation, and the cramped living conditions.
Many feared the station manager, Arthur McQuiggan, and so eventually called on former resident Jack Patten to return to Cummeragunja and help them spark change.
Upon Mr Patten’s arrival, a throng of residents packed up their belongings and crossed the Murray River into Victoria.
Of those who fled, many ended up settling in parts of northern Victoria, including Barmah, Echuca, Mooroopna and Shepparton.
It was one of the first Indigenous mass protests in Australia, igniting a movement that has since fought for basic rights, such as the right to vote, and the right for Aboriginal Australians to be granted citizenship.
“I think that you can’t overstate the significance of the walk-off from Cummeragunja,” Ms Cheetham said.
She said the walk-off was the first spark that ignited the 1967 referendum.
“This early action by the Yorta Yorta people has really contributed to the progress that was made in Australia towards understanding and valuing Aboriginal culture and people,” she said.
“I think it’s testimony to the people who walked off, the way they raised their children to see the very best in the world, and to remain connected to country.
“It really strengthens me and strengthens my resolve to remain connected to country.”
Ms Cheetham returned to country this weekend, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of The Cummeragunja Walk-Off.
“It’s always really special to have the opportunity to come up onto country.”
“We’ll mark the 80th anniversary with a really powerful and symbolic moment when we all come together and walk back on to Cummeragunja, to signify our relationship with that particular part of Yorta Yorta country and to signify that we are still connected to the land.”
Cummeragunja Walk-Off ‘widely unknown’
Despite its historical significance, the story of The Cummeragunja Walk-Off remains widely unknown.
“It may well be that there are many Australians who have never heard of this act of defiance,” Ms Cheetham said.
She believed that for a long time the history of Indigenous communities was considered a taboo subject.
“The suppression of the many details of our early shared history has been quite deliberate on the part of successive governments,” she said.
“We’re emerging from a very dark time where certainly Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land, their culture, and even their children.”
She hoped all Australians — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — would take a moment today to reflect on the sacrifices and acknowledge the bravery of those who walked off Cummeragunja 80 years ago.
“I think this is a celebration for everybody … The very beginnings, the very genesis of the idea that we could connect came about on the 4th of February 1939,” she said.
“It’s a celebration of resilience, it’s a celebration of a strong and proud nation, and it’s a celebration for all Australians.”