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Feature Article

What About the Traditional Owners? | Article by Suzie Fawcett

Yugambeh Map.jpeg

In Yugambeh language, the word Gaureima means to tell a story.


Yugambeh language is the first language of South East Queensland, and Yugambeh Country is some of the sunshine state's finest. It stretches from the New South Wales border along the Gold Coast Beaches to the Logan River just south of Brisbane. From there, it heads west down past Beaudesert, taking in the Scenic Rim area of the Gold Coast Hinterland.






















The Yugambeh peoples' story is complex. Like many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories, it is about dispossession, genocide, survival, strength and revitalisation of culture and language. However, this is just a recent story. Of course, there is a much bigger story. This is a story of a sovereign nation of people, caring for Country and kin over many thousands of years, whose lands were never ceded.




Sitting deep within Yugambeh Country on Green Mountain in the Lamington National Park, I heard another story, a much newer story. A pioneer story. 


Each afternoon at O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat, guests are invited to the manager's afternoon tea. It’s a welcome of sorts – not so much to Country, but to pioneering history.


In the rustic dining room, featuring dark wooden panels and a musty smell capturing one hundred years of story-telling, a story of courage and triumph is told. It is a story about eight strong Irish men conquering a mountain. 


In 1911, the O'Reilly family took up eight parcels of settlement blocks in the MacPherson Ranges.  This land was gifted by the Queensland government in exchange for cutting down trees and introducing cattle to Green Mountain. 


Listening carefully while I tucked into a lamington and sipped my complimentary glass of sparkling wine, I wondered what this story was missing.  


"What can you tell me about the Aboriginal people of the area?" I asked.


"There isn't really any," I was told. "They just sort of passed through here on their way to somewhere else."


"But surely there is some history of Aboriginal assistance to pioneering families in this area?" I countered.


"No, as far as I know – there is no history of the Aboriginal people to tell."


And that is the power of story. 


A pioneer story which is a little over one hundred years old has helped to efface the Aboriginal story in this last remaining remnant of ancient Gondwana land rainforest.


In his book, the Conspiracy of Silence, Queensland historian Timothy Bottoms talks about the power of the pioneer myth:


The creation of the pioneering myth during the 1890s began the blurring of the truth about the frontier, so much so that during the twentieth century the myth about the peaceful settlement of Australia came to be readily accepted.


Bottoms’ argues that "The way Australian history has been portrayed has a ring of falsehood about it; something is missing."


The story I heard at O’Reilly’s made me wonder what was missing, and why in 2021, it is still missing.




The Yugambeh Nation is composed of different clan groups known as the Wangerriburra, Birinburra, Gugingin, Migunberri, Mununjali, Bollongin, Minjungbal and Kombumerri peoples.


The Wangerriburra people lived, held ceremonies and hunted in and around the area now known as the Lamington National Park. There is evidence of Aboriginal scarred trees, burial sites, and a cooking cave called 'Kweebani' on the Binna Burra side of the Lamington National Park.

Well-worn pathways connected Bundjalung country and Yugambeh territory, allowing transit between different First Nation peoples for feasts and festivals like the annual Bunya nut harvest.


The Queensland Department of Parks and Forests acknowledge:


First Nations people lived in this area, carefully managing and using its rich natural resources for thousands of years.


Known as 'Woonoongoora" in the Yugambeh language, the mountains of Lamington National Park are sacred and spiritual places to be nurtured and respected.


By the time the O'Reilly family settled in the Scenic Rim, the Yugambeh peoples had been devastated. Just prior the turn of the century, records show around fifty surviving Aboriginal people living in Yugambeh country.


My search for a more inclusive history led me to Yugambeh Museum in Beenleigh, just south of Brisbane.  


Each Wednesday, the Yugambeh Museum is open to the public, and local researchers who are Yugambeh descendants tell the Yugambeh story. It was there, in a small Indigenous community museum, that I heard a horror story. 


I realised this is the real story, the story Australian history and the pioneer myth continue to silence.


This story explains how around four thousand Aboriginal people made up clan groups of up to seven hundred people living in Yugambeh country before 1788. Invasion resulted in decimation.


Waves of small-pox killed Aboriginal peoples, annihilating clan numbers.  


The Yugambeh nation people were largely dispossessed and driven away from traditional land by the new settlers.  Some of these were the timber cutters and pastoralists – all were seeking wealth in the promised new land.


Aboriginal people were killed by Indigenous troupers and settler vigilantes at the direction and discretion of the State.


Long-time resident of the Macpherson Ranges and Binna Burra joint founder, Arthur Groom explains:


By 1850 the hostility between the blacks still trying to exist in the wilderness and the inexorable spread of civilisation had increased until black troopers, usually from far afield and without local ties of race and kinship were trained to the orders of white patrol officers; they ranged the countryside to keep law and order.  Many of the natives, who could not comprehend, and who longed for the peace and freedom of the years gone by, went right back into cliffs and deep gorges of the McPherson Ranges, and there lived in stealth and fear.


Writing for the Griffith Review in 2008 Queensland historian Raymond Evans confirms:


No person was successfully punished in Queensland for anything harmful done to an Aborigine from the 1850s to the 1880s – that is, during the most tumultuous era of violent frontier expansion, three to four decades in extent there was open slather.


Protection policies under the Acts rounded up Aboriginal people and placed them on missions – killing Aboriginal people. Children were separated, stolen and brought up in institutions; language and ceremonies were forbidden. This is the story of colonisation in Queensland.


And yet, despite this, the very development of this state was dependent on help from Aboriginal people. 


Surveyor Francis Roberts completed the survey of the Queensland border in 1865. Without help from the Blacks, Roberts says the border survey would not have been possible:


"With my party it would be quite impracticable to perform this part of the work (along the ranges). White men with heavy loads on their backs could not keep on their feet in such steep and broken places. I was consequently obliged, with much persuasion, to employ the Blacks to assist in humping, and that frequently over distances ranging from twenty to thirty miles through this scrubby broken country. Were it not for this expedient, the work would have to be entirely abandoned."







(Bilin Bilin, Yugambeh Elder is thought to have assisted the Roberts Survey – yet

the evidence remains inconclusive as Roberts only referred to his help as the Blacks)


This border track is the same track that visitors to O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat have traversed over one hundred years. The trails on the boundary and within the Lamington National park allowed the opening up of Queensland for development and settlement – and for fortunes to be made.


Along the walls of the Yugambeh Museum are pictures and stories of ancestors.  Stories of tenacious people who dedicated their lives to saving culture and language despite the odds – and their people. Stories that have been pieced together through the art of remembering, of oral histories passed down through generations of families.


Yugambeh spokesman, Rory O'Connor, is the first to admit there were many less than palatable facts about the local history. But he acknowledges:


There were also remarkable successes achieved by individual Aborigines who managed to stay living in the region. There were also some powerful friendships that were forged between Aborigines and non-Aborigines across the cultural divide in this part of the world.


The stories of the Aboriginal people lining the walls at the Yugambeh Museum – Bullumm, King Koolum, Bilin Bilin, Keendanh, Jenny Graham – may not be as well-known as the pioneer histories of the area or barely acknowledged outside of this Museum. But their contributions and assistance to the early Queensland pioneers cannot be denied.  To the Yugambeh peoples – they are all heroes.




The first calls to establish the Lamington National Park came in 1878 by local identity the Hon. Robert Collins, MLC.  The Collins family took in Bullumm as a young child and developed a close relationship over the course of their lives. Both Collins and Bullumm acknowledged the great bushman skills of the other and have been recorded by history as experts on the McPherson Ranges.


Forty-seven thousand acres was proclaimed as the Lamington National Park in July 1915. While Collins had died some years earlier, his campaign for the National Park was taken up by the son of a Canungra sawmiller, and joint founder of the Binna Burra lodge, Romeo Lahey.


Lahey was an enthusiastic lobbyist for creating the national park and for this park to be called its Aboriginal name - Woonoongoora. From the trenches in France in 1918, Lahey wrote to the Queensland Government calling for acknowledgement of the Aboriginal peoples of South East Queensland:


A National park is a place to perpetuate the original plants and animals of Southern Queensland why not make it also a place to perpetuate the language of the aboriginals of the district. I would suggest that all names of places in the Park be aboriginal words of meaning.


It's a sad reflection that the Park continues to be named after Lord Lamington, the first Governor of Queensland.  Lamington presided over the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 – one of the harshest legislations introduced in Australia to control the movement of Aboriginal peoples.


Lord Lamington, on his first and only visit to the area, shot dead a koala in 1918.  Perhaps that was his way of conquering a mountain.


The Yugambeh people have their own story about the Lamington National Park. It's a creation story called  Birian Balunah: Birthing of the Rivers and tells the story, passed down through generations of Woonoongoora. It's a reminder that we are always on Indigenous lands.


My trip to O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat was initially about connecting to this Indigenous land, walking on Country and immersing myself in the ancient remnants of Scenic Rim Rainforest.


But it provided me with a much deeper reflection.  Can we be truly be present on Country and not acknowledge the traditional owners of the area or the rich Indigenous history?


I think not.


It's 2022 – it’s time to uncover the missing pieces and acknowledge a shared story as we walk together on this stolen land.  In the name of truth telling and reconciliation – a different Gaureima must be told.

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