Oped: Marking the anniversary of the Cummeragunja Walk-off — Geraldine Atkinson

On this day, 82 years ago, some 200 Aboriginal people, including my grandmother and her children, walked off the Cummeragunja Mission in protest of decades of cruelty and mistreatment at the hands of white mission managers and government control of country.

Followed by a nine-month strike across the Murray River in Barmah, it was the first major protest by Aboriginal people in Victoria.

Now more than 80 years on, we are still fighting against the colonial violence and oppression faced by Aboriginal people – with the legacy of the Cummeragunja walk-off living on through Aboriginal-led protests, constant calls for change, and more recently the establishment of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria.

After the walk-off, my parents moved to a fringe dwelling community out near the tip in Leeton, New South Wales, where I was born.

I can remember up until I was five, it was beautiful living there – we were surrounded by Aboriginal families and community, I went to school, there were orchards, channels to swim in and the tip where we could always get stuff.

My father passed away when I was five. It was a time where children were being removed, and when word got out, people from the welfare system warned my mother, “Lulla, you should pack up and leave – cause they’ll take your children next.”

So that’s what she did. She packed us all up and she brought us back down to live on country – at Cummeragunja.

That’s when my mother began telling us stories about the things that happened at Cummeragunja – about her life growing up and about the cruelty they experienced, how children were beaten and taken away, how we were banned from speaking our language, about the lack of food. She told us about the strength and resilience of her community who fought for their rights and country.

As kids, we would lay down and ask to hear these stories, listening as she spoke passionately about culture and her pride in her community. She instilled into all of us pride about being Aboriginal and a desire to be of service to our community that is with me to this day, and that I have passed on to my children and grandchildren.

The experiences and legacy created by my mum, family and community that came before me, and the tireless strength of Aboriginal activists and leaders, drive me today in my fight for generations to come.

We may not have mission managers today, but we are still living under a system that sees our people over-represented in the prison system and dying in police custody.

Our children being removed by the State at 16.1 times the rate of non-Aboriginal children in Victoria.

Our people are still fighting that same fight for our rights, for self-determination, for our land.

Sometimes I wonder – has anything changed?

Seeing the thousands of people across the continent who took to the streets to stand with us on January 26, I have hope.

We have a government in Victoria which is committed to progressing Treaty and a Truth-telling process with the First Peoples of this land.

Acknowledging these painful memories, and the ongoing impact that has been passed down through the generations, is hard but unavoidable for us.

As more of our fellow Victorians also recognise the connections between past and present, we can build a better future together.

I believe we are living in a moment in time where we have a real chance to effect profound and lasting change for our people.

None of this would have been possible without the activism, courage and leadership of our community – and the legacy created by our Elders who fought before us, including every person who walked off Cummeragunja Mission in 1939.

From 200 Aboriginal people walking off the Cummeragunja Mission only 82 years ago – to today, tens of thousands of people joining our fight and walking beside us.

We still have a long road ahead, so I ask you – will you walk with us?

— Aunty Geraldine Atkinson, Assembly Co-Chair and Member representing the North East region.

This oped was featured in The Guardian Australia. To read it, click here.