First Nations people would say they have lived in this country “long time”, scientific dating shows for at least 65,000 years.
‘Nyoongar’ means ‘a person of the south-west of Western Australia.’ There are several ways of pronouncing this word, as reflected in different spellings: Noongar, Nyungar, Nyoongar, Nyoongah, Nyungah, Nyugah, Yungar and Noonga.
The Nyoongar people, (also known as Bibbulman) lived in balance with the natural environment. Their social structure was focused on the family. Family groups occupied distinct areas of Nyoongar Country. It is estimated that the Nyoongar population, prior to the arrival of Europeans, was between 6,000 and tens of thousands.
For the Nyoongar people living in this area the main source of food came from the estuary, rivers, wetlands, and the resources of the jarrah forests. They hunted and trapped yongka (kangaroo), koomool (possum) and kwer or kwoora (wallaby), yoorn (bobtail), bardi grubs and nyingarn (echidna). They fished using spears and fish traps, as well as gathering an extensive range of native plants and wildlife, such as Grass Tree (Balga) sap, for medicinal purposes. They used quartz instead of flint for spear and knife edges and developed the art of working quartz crystals. They used the sinew from kangaroo tails as string and wore the skins of the kangaroo and possum for warmth, especially in the colder areas of the south-west.
With the establishment of a British colony at the Swan River and the arrival of European settlers in Western Australia, land that had been used as a source of food and was essential to Nyoongar cultural practices began to be settled, resulting in conflict between the two populations. On a number of occasions, conflict led to the massacre of First Nations people including those at Pinjarra in October 1834 and at Wonnerup in February 1841. A wave of diseases throughout the 1800s decimated the Nyoongar population which had no immunity to illnesses like cholera, typhoid, whooping cough, influenza, smallpox, and measles, even the common cold. In light of past treatment and in fear of worse, Nyoongar people may also have hidden themselves, keeping as low a profile as possible during these times. George Fee, a farmer at Dardanup noted this decline in the local population in his diary on Christmas Day in 1892.
Government legislation to control the lives of Nyoongar people, the Aborigines Act 1905 and the Native Administration Act 1936, limited where they could work and live and attempted to prevent them engaging in cultural activities and speaking language. In the 1900s, children were removed from their families and sent to missions like the one at Roelands on the Collie River.
Despite these policies, Nyoongar people continued to live in and around the Dardanup area, in camps at Burekup, Brickhill (between Waterloo and Burekup) and Picton. Men, women, and children did seasonal work for farmers at Binningup, Dardanup, Ferguson, Waterloo, Burekup and further afield. After the Roelands Mission opened in 1941, young men, women and children were sent out to farms to work as farm hands and housekeepers. They were often not paid, surviving on handouts from employers and returning to camps between work.
In 1967 a national referendum was held, and Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the Constitution to include First Nations people in the census. At around this time, Nyoongar families living in Burkeup began moving into state-owned housing, at Waterloo and in Bunbury.
On 3 June 1992, in the case of Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2), the High Court ruled that the lands of this continent were not terra nullius or ‘land belonging to no-one’ when European settlement occurred. Following this decision, the federal government enacted the Native Title Act 1993 which commenced on 1 January 1994. The Act creates processes through which native title for First Nations people can be recognised and protected. There are currently eight registered Nyoongar native title claims and Dardanup is within that for the Gnaala Karla Boodja.
The Nyoongar language was spoken, not written. Knowledge and culture were memorized and passed on through storytelling. Preventing language being spoken meant for many years that cultural knowledge could not be passed on.
Today, through the efforts of Elders and communities, language is being revived and culture is once more being taught to the current generation of Nyoongars and aspects of culture like the six seasons are now being learnt and understood by the wider population.
The story of one Nyoongar family, Charlie and Rachel Hill and their descendants, is recorded in a publication from 2017. Download here: The Gravel Pit – Our Stories.
The six Nyoongar seasons
The Nyoongar people have a close connection to the earth and divide the year into six distinct seasons that historically corresponded with moving to different areas and feeding on seasonally available foods.
Birak(December/January) Dry and hot. Nyoongars burned sections of scrub land to force game into the open for easier hunting.
Bunnuru (February/March). Hottest part of the year, with sparse rainfall throughout. Nyoongar people moved to the estuaries for fishing.
Djeran (April/May). Cooler weather begins. Fishing continued and bulbs and seed were collected for food.
Makuru (June/July). Cold fronts that have till now brushed the lower south-west coast begin to cross further north. This is usually the wettest part of the year. Nyoongars moved inland to hunt once the rains had replenished inland water resources.
Djiiba (August/September). Often the coldest part of the year, with clear, cold nights and days or warmer windier periods. As the nights begin to warm up, there are more clear sunny days. Roots were collected, and emus, possums and kangaroo were hunted.
Kambarang (October/November). A definite warming trend is accompanied by longer dry periods and fewer cold fronts crossing the coast. The height of the wildflower season. The Nyoongars move closer to the coast here frogs, tortoises and freshwater crayfish were caught.
If you would like to find out more about Nyoongar culture, the following sites may be of interest:
- Woolkabunning Kiaka, the current Roelands Village, is an organisation looking to create a positive place of healing and development for the children of the mission and their families. Roelands Mission was home to over 500 stolen generation children. Today it is about creating an area where culture can be re-discovered. If you would like to find out more about this organization, go to: https://www.roelandsvillage.com.au/.
- Nyoongar Culture – access the following site: Kaarditjin Nyoongar: Sharing Nyoongar Culture; https://www.Nyoongarculture.org.au/ .
- Nyoongar Language – Information about Nyoongar language: https://www.Nyoongarculture.org.au/language/
- Nyoongar Word List: https://www.Nyoongarculture.org.au/glossary/Nyoongar-word-list/
- An Introduction to Nyoongar History and Culture, Pamphlet published by Kaarditjin Nyoongar: Sharing Nyoongar Culture.
- Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), The Mabo Case https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/mabo-case, accessed on 25 January 2022.
- Collie River Heritage Trail; https://www.dardanup.wa.gov.au/our-shire/tourism/collie-river-heritage-walkway/. Accessed 14 January 2022.
- ETHNOGRAPHIC AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL HERITAGE ASSESSMENT FINAL REPORT Site Avoidance Assessment, Industrial and Urban Expansion areas, Shire of Dardanup, Western Australia, Prepared for Shire of Dardanup, Survey Dates: 30th November – 1st December 2014; https://www.dplh.wa.gov.au/getmedia/a2f32e39-5eb5-4825-abae-a1f576c2f22e/DSP_Draft_Wanju_Ethnographic_and_Archaeological_Report_-_Dardanup. Accessed 28 September 2021.
- Flynn, Norm (editor); George Fee of Roseland – Dardanup – Diaries – 1886 – 1942 (2001), Dardanup, Western Australia.
- Green, Neville; Aborigines and White Settlers – A New History of Western Australia (1981) Edited by C T Stannage, University of Western Australia, Perth.
- Kaarditjin Nyoongar: Sharing Nyoongar Culture; https://www.Nyoongarculture.org.au/ Accessed on 14 January 2022.
- The Gravel Pit – Our Stories – Community Arts Network (2015) Perth, Western Australia.