Anyone who watched the recent SBS documentary, The First Australians, would have been left in no doubt about the evil influence that missions and state Aboriginal Protection Boards had on Aboriginal communities.
But is that justified? The story of the small community of Oombulgurri in the Kimberleys of Western Australia is an object lesson.
Somewhat typically, it is alleged that the place had a tragic history, but studies since, place serious doubts on this claim. This website gives us (page 13) further historical background about the settlement:
"The Oombulgurri community is situated...close to the Forrest River. The Anglican church tried to start up a Mission in 1897 but ...that attempt was abandoned due to ‘an affray with the natives’.
The Reverend Gribble had another try and he managed the mission from 1914 to 1926, although the mission continued until 1968 under several changes of management. In 1934, complaints about the lack of proper management of the mission led the Chief Protector of Aborigines to start pushing for more Government control and regulation of the mission.
In 1965 the Native Welfare Department decided that the mission should close down and relocate to Wyndham. Many of the Aboriginal residents did not want to move to Wyndham but the isolation of Forrest River made it difficult for them to stay without the mission.
In 1970 the Oombulgurri committee was set up by senior Traditional Owners who had lived at the mission and wanted to return to Forrest River to start up a community. This was achieved with the assistance of the Uniting Church and a joint State Commonwealth committee set up to re-establish service and staff and to resolve the ongoing water supply problems. This had been achieved by 1982."
Now let's check in on how - in the new enlightened times, with land rights and freedom from the evil missionaries and Protection Boards - this community is going.
The lesson is this: land rights and political autonomy have not improved the lives of many Aboriginal people. If Aborigines continue to accept roles as victims and ignore their failures, (as they do in the documentary) there is little hope for their future. If Aborigines are to improve their lot, they must learn to take full responsibility for their own actions. Simple.