Organisers Bhiamie Williamson and Charlee-Sue Frail at the first Brewarrina Mission open day. (Supplied: Madelaine Pickwick from Culture is Life)
The organisers of an inaugural open day at one of Australia’s largest former Aboriginal missions hope the event will become a national movement towards Indigenous reconciliation.
Australian National University researcher, Bhiamie Williamson helped to establish the open day at Brewarrina, which was home to the oldest institutional-type community in New South Wales.
Aboriginal people and children from across far-western NSW were taken from their families to the mission, which operated from 1886 to 1966.
Up to 100 people from NSW, Queensland and the ACT travelled to the open day, which was held during the Easter long weekend.
Mr Williamson, whose grandmother grew up on the reserve, said it aimed to reflect on the confronting history of site, as well as forge a way forward to promote culture and family heritage.
He said since the event, other Indigenous people have contacted him about hosting open days at various other former mission sites.
“I think there is a real opportunity here to turn this into a bit of a larger movement of Aboriginal people and communities reclaiming the spaces that have such a huge ongoing impact on their community members, on their families,” Mr Williamson said.
“Just to help them with the process of moving forward in the world with a sense of healing.”
Cherrie Frail-Green with her son Warraan, 18 months, at the Brewarrina Aboriginal Mission open day over the Easter long weekend. (Supplied: Madelaine Pickwick from Culture is Life)
Reconnecting family links
The return to the mission was confronting for Mr Williamson’s grandmother Aunty Mavis Eckford, who said she cried when she arrived at the open day and recalled being forbidden from learning traditional language.
While there were happier memories of growing up on the mission, Aunty Mavis said recollections of her friends being taken from their families on the mission was harrowing.
“We used to play a lot of soccer, all the girls. But to see all of our friends going away, it was really sad,” Aunty Mavis said.
Former Brewarrina resident, Cherrie Frail-Green retold a story she heard from her great aunt, where a boy and his three sisters were brought from Wilcannia to the mission and taken in by her family.
“It was not long after [arriving at the mission] that the boy had passed away, she said he died from a broken heart,” Ms Frail-Green said.
Memories of the mission
The separation of Aboriginal families during the operation of the Brewarrina mission was one of the reasons historical records were provided on the open day.
Mr Williamson said there was scope to work with researchers to develop an archive by tracing records scattered across Australia and around the world.
For Ms Frail-Green, the concept of gathering long lost records would be very beneficial in helping those raised on the mission, like her great aunt, learn more about their family heritage.
“Technically she didn’t exist because her papers were never handed in,” Ms Frail-Green said.
“And that’s one way I think can help some families heal and to find out some of their identity.
“There are going to be many people who don’t have any records of where their traditional families come from, so that can make it very hard for services like Link Up to try and trace back [their family heritage].”