Preserving Aboriginal history

By Tom Lawrie 2 March 2012
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Mary-Jean Sutton, with the help of AG Society, is preserving the memories of the Mapoon Aboriginal community.

IT’S A MUGGY, HOT day in the small community of Mapoon on the western shores of Cape York, Queensland. The local fishermen are hauling in the day’s catch of mud crabs from the waters, nestled in Port Musgrave less than 150km from the northern tip of the Australian mainland. And in the township, PhD candidate Mary-Jean Sutton is using funds given to her by the AG Society to have tea with local elders.

It may sound like a lark, but in fact this is all part of important work. Mary-Jean is in the midst of recording the oral history and cultural heritage of an Aboriginal community that returned after being compeletly relocated, and assisting to transmit this cultural knowledge to younger community members.

Mapoon, a Tjungundji word meaning ‘place where people fight on the sand-hills’ now has a population of about 250 and manages its own school, council office, nursing station and small shop for food and fuel. Despite its remoteness – inaccessible except by air and sea from December to April – it attracts tourists to campsites at Cullen Point and Janie Creek, a base for the excellent fishing and crabbing for those adventurous enough to journey to the far north.

Aboriginal community has complex past

A presbyterian mission was established in Mapoon 1881 to provide education and healthcare to the local Aboriginal community. It was the ‘mother mission’ to the former presbyterian missions (Aurukun, Mornington Island and Weipa) in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It survived into the ’50s till the discovery of bauxite in the area, when large pieces of land were given to large mining companies and many residents were moved to New Mapoon to accommodate the expansion.

Some residents who were relocated in the ’50s and ’60s, began returning in the 1970s after a lengthy public debate. Today, this rich history is at risk of dying off with the advancing age of its Elders.

“It’s so the children will know about their family history,” says Mary-Jean. The former mission sites are, she says are also, “significant heritage sites valued by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and are an important part of Australia’s story.”

For future indigenous generations

Mission History Day with the Elders and the schoolchildren of Mapoon was established to pass on the knowledge of the Mission and its legacy, the oral histories of the Elders, former missionaries and their family members has been documented and recorded, and the local rangers have been through cultural heritage site preservation training. And 2000 photos have also been returned from various sources to the community. “They’ve never seen these images of their families before,” Mary-Jean says.

But Mary-Jean’s work isn’t over. She will soon being ground penetrating radar surveys of the former mission cemeteries to identify their heritage value, after finding 120 unmarked graves from the pre-mission and mission time era in what was assumed to be a small graveyard.

She also plans to publish her collation of oral histories about the Mapoon Mission, will continue repatriating historical records and photographs of the mission back to the community, and presented a paper on the subject with Elder William Busch and ranger Geraldine Mamoose at the Australian Archaeological Association Conference in December 2011.