Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 1. 1969.
Society In Transition: Koonibba Aboriginal Reserve
Society In Transition: Koonibba Aboriginal Reserve
Ross Sutton, Victoria University honours student in Political Science, joined 11 other students on a work camp in South Australia —organised by the National Union of Australian University Students.
Koonibba Is One of the several reserves controlled by the South Australian government, and is nearly 500 miles west of Adelaide. Ceduna (pop. 3,000) is the nearest town from where supplies are bought. The reserve itself has about 150 inhabitants most of whom are not full-blood Aborigines. For the Australian census anybody with Aboriginal blood is counted as Aborigine, but it is estimated that there are 45,000 full bloods and 120,000 of mixed race.
There was no evidence of racial hostility at Koonibba. Our group of eleven students were welcomed most enthusiastically. Attitudes differ however depending on how the Aborigine has been treated in the past in different parts of the continent. In early times, pastoralists had their sheep stolen and they would set out to teach the Aborigines a lesson. The Aborigines however could sec no difference between them taking sheep and the while killing kangaroos. Australians have always thought the Aborigine to be an inferior race, A friend of mine said that her grandfather at the turn of the century. used to go out and shoot Aborigines for Sunday afternoon sport. The Aborigines lived in small family or tribal groups and it was easy to beat them into submission. This past experience is making it very difficult for a more enlightened policy to get off the ground.
The SA government has initiated a policy whereby the Aborigines elect a council with certain powers. At Koonibba this entailed sole jurisdiction on who came onto the reserve. The superintendent can only overrule the council with the Minister's approval. The purpose of such councils is to encourage leadership and responsibility amongst the Aborigines. At Koonibba the task is much more difficult since the inhabitants have come from various parts of the state and thus there is no indigenous authority. An extrovert personality could lead but he must be taught the principles of government. The government and universities are giving a lead in this direction with seminars and leadership courses.
Koonibba reserve consists of 2,200 acres and a further 18.000 acres is leased from the Lutheran Church. The smaller bloc is used for running a few hundred sheep and for collecting the reserves supply of firewood. The latter is sub-let to farmers who can afford the huge cost of machinery but the ultimate aim is lease to Aborigine farmers as they become capable of managing a farm. The area is part of the wheat belt.
The SA Dept. of Aborigine Affairs maintains seven officials at Koonibba, superintendent. nurse, welfare officer, farm supervisor, building supervisor, mechanic and grocer-accountant. The Luiheran Church maintains a lay preacher and there is a primary school on the reserve run by the Education Dept. Hygiene is a great problem. It is heightened by the fact that there is only about fifteen inches of rain a year. There is not enough water for everyone to shower every day. Willi exception, there is a lack of willingness to wash or keep clean. In summer months temperatures run into one hundred degrees and above, and on top of this there is a fly menace.
Housing standards are low. There are two groups of houses, one made of bricks with separate areas for kitchen and wash-house, the other, corrugated iron sheds with a partition in the middle. There is little furniture in either but the people in the better style home have a somewhat better living standard. Where people have come from a tribal life, there is often no desire for a westernised type of house and if placed in one, will often destroy it through not knowing belter. They seem quite content to live in these small dwellings together with all. their dogs.
Parental discipline and affection did not appear to be strong on the reserve. A lot of the adults on Koonibba had been brought up in a children's home on the reserve and thus never experienced a proper family life. Combine this with poor housing and hygiene levels and one sees that education becomes of great significance. It is the one great hope but it is a long uphill struggle. The home environment is not inducive to study and by time children reach high school they are behind their age. Because of the policy of full employment on the reserve boys are assured of a job when they leave school. There is nothing however for teenage girls to do when they leave school. They can only migrate to the cities where they lose all contact with home and are likely to gel into trouble. Nevertheless, education is slowly raising their level of expectation and while their hopes may not be fully realised, they know what is expected of them. and are striving to improve their position.
Crime is another factor to be covered on any study of the reserve. Theft is quite a common occurrence. Often at the end of the week, young children will go hungry until pay day arrives again. Combine an empty stomach and school holidays with nothing to do and theft becomes a natural adjunct. The lack of facilities created by lack of finance is a contributary cause. All there is, is a dry football field and trampoline. There is neither money nor interest in hobbies. What is wanted urgently is a swimming pool. Twice while we were there, we took the children to the beach on the reserve bus. On the second trip we only had a dozen children as the other thirty or more could not afford the ten cent bus fare.
Alcohol is a problem amongst the adults. Often at the end of the week the men will go to Ceduna to buy flagons of wine and then bring it back on to the reserve for the weekend. Drunkenness is therefore quite a common sight during the weekends. Again the cause is nothing to do. Few have cars to go for trips to the beach or elsewhere. They don't know how to spend their money more wisely. Besides, it keeps them happy when they have so little in life to look forward to or enjoy.
So much for life on the reserve and its problems. During our stay on Koonibba we participated in the general life of the communit:. Some of us went out and helped chop wood, slaughter the sleep, and make bricks, while the girls concentrated on giving art and craft lessons to the children in the afternoons. We converted an old building into a library and several of the others took books and magazines. By working alongside the Aborigines it was felt that we would get to know them better than working on a single project.
One day we went to Yalata Mission one hundred miles west. While we saw another reserve, we were unable to visit the Aborigines who are still living tribally, holding corroborees, living in murlies, hunting with spears etc. In comparison, the people at Koonibba have indeed some a long way. Given patience, education and understanding the Aborigine will be able to lake his rightful place alongside his white Australian brother. Koonibba is a society in transition. Unfortunately prejudice against them is still strong in parts. Departmental officials told us that some cattlemen up north still thought of them as 'dingoes', and while up the Queensland coast, I often heard them referred to as 'coon', 'boong', 'abo' or 'nigger'. In my opinion it is not only the black Australians who need educating but the whites as well.
It is the policy of the South Australian government for integration between the two ethnic groups. At the moment everyone is buying Aboriginal art but it is my opinion that we could learn much more in adopting some of their values and mores such as community spirit. The policy of the federal government and other states is assimilation. This policy has to be changed if Australian society is going to gain anything from their racial diversity.
For me, the opportunity of living amongst and working with a section of the Aboriginal population has been a tremendous personal experience and of great educational benefit. The sight of such beautiful, young and happy faces of the children is something I shall always remember.