Missions, Reserves and Stations
In order to control our movements, colonial governments set aside areas of land for us to live on called ‘reserves’. Managed reserved (called stations) provided rations, education and housing, while unmanaged reserves provided only rations. Reserves took us away from our country, our sources of food, our sacred sites and our families. Many of us adapted to these changes and engaged in agricultural pursuits such as growing hops and establishing craft industries. We had some freedom of movement in the early days and were able to work but the laws were changed over time, restricting our abilities to travel and control our lives.
In the Torres Strait, too, we were subjected to controls over our movement. Cinemas, schools and churches were segregated and we were excluded from hotels, and from Thursday Island at night. We were not able to travel freely and were made to live apart, while being offered fewer health and educational opportunities than non-Indigenous people.
The influence of the Church
Religious bodies sometimes set up schools, churches and dormitories on both reserves and missions. While reserves were set up by the government, missions were set up by the church. Ultimately though, they served the same purpose. The missions varied according to the financial support they received and the personalities of their directors. However, all were united in their view that until we became Christians we had no hope of civilisation.
While protection may have been the main aim of the Protection Acts, in practice the Aboriginal Protection Boards were given complete power and control over the lives of the Aboriginal people on reserves.
Some reserves essentially operated as prisons. Children were separated from their families and lived in dormitories.
Depending on the place and the people in charge, the treatment was in some cases physically cruel and authoritarian. Stories of brutality and unnecessary cruelty have come from many missions, including from Moore River (WA) and Palm Island (Qld).
Under the various Land Rights Acts, many of us who remained on the government reserves and missions were granted ownership of our land. Mission stations such as Lake Tyers and Lake Condah in Victoria and some in most other states are now under our control. In Western Australia the land was not transferred.
Aurukun Presbyterian mission, far north Queensland, 1962. Photo © Webb Collection, AIATSIS
Regret and Disgust
Life on the Frontier
Coranderrk Farming Success
Cape Barren Island
On stations we became an accessible workforce for pastoralists: men were seasonal drovers and labourers, and women domestics and very occasionally stockworkers.
Pastoralists were responsible for the distribution of government-issued rations to those of us who were too old to work. In reality they dispensed rations as they chose, sometimes withholding them as a method of discipline. This had a devastating effect on the health of those with limited access to bush tucker. Pastoralists justified not paying Aboriginal workers a cash wage on the basis of poor returns and our supposed unreliability. However, our cheap labour sustained the economy of pastoral Australia.
Sometimes we refused to undertake some tasks, and on occasions, we went on strike. The decision of the Northern Territory Cattle Station Industry Award Case in 1966 granted equal wages to Aboriginal people. Although long overdue, its poor planning and implementation in 1968 had devastating consequences. Pastoralists refused to employ us and we were exiled from our land. In the subsequent exodus into towns, we faced the dangers of access to alcohol, the loss of our skills and our self-esteem. Many communities are still recovering from these losses