On language and culture

Steve Atkinson reflects on the impact of Christian missions for Aboriginal people.



Steve Atkinson reflects on the impact of Christian missions for Aboriginal people.


A lot of people do say that missionaries destroyed Aboriginal culture, they took away language, and things like that. I don’t fully agree with that. In a lot of cases, such as the case with Maloga Mission and Cummeragunja Reserve, Maloga Mission from all accounts was a fairly happy place, that the people wanted to be there. William Cooper himself said that, you know, when he was I think about 13 years old that “there could be no better place than this, I wish to live here for the rest of my life”. So he obviously enjoyed being on Maloga.

And although Daniel Matthews was a Christian and wanted to teach Christian values, he also allowed the tribal men or the older men to come and tell Dreamtime stories if you like, or you know, stories of the past, of creation, different stories such as the Great Flood where everything went under water and, you know, we’ve still actually got that story here from when the Cadell Fault moved, how the floods, all our land here in the forest and surrounding areas all went underwater. So you know, these stories that were traditional stories that were allowed to be told were actually in line with a lot of biblical stories.

So he didn’t actually stop culture being taught and the old stories being taught on the mission. And even down to when the Fisk Jubilee Singers came and they translated a song which is still sung today around Cummeragunja and amongst the Bangerang and Yorta Yorta-speaking peoples, “Bura Fera”. So there was language still being used on the mission. It wasn’t until they came to Cummeragunja – and Cummeragunja wasn’t a missionary reserve as such, or it wasn’t a mission as such, it was a government-run reserve – that the language wasn’t to be spoken and the culture wasn’t to be taught fully.

So it was more the Aboriginal Protection Board or Aboriginal Protection Agency, APA, whatever it was, which started in 1883 in New South Wales, when they enforced those rules and regulations on the reserve, the people were confined to learning and speaking in English and not using their culture. So you find that in a lot of places, right across, in a lot of missions and a lot of places. Even in South Australia where my mother was brought up on a mission, she wasn’t to speak her language or they weren’t to practice their culture, but that wasn’t actually driven by the missionaries, it was more driven by the Aboriginal Protection Board’s rules and regulations. And if they were to allow culture and language to be taught in the mission, then they’d have their rations cut and things like that, or their funding, so they couldn’t look after the children as well as they could without it. So unfortunately, yeah, I put it down to government policy rather than missionaries that hindered the teaching of language and culture.