Missions, Settlements and Reserves

Article | Updated 4 years ago

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Aboriginal art owls

At the age of six my parents placed me in the Mission to avoid capture by the Government and the police because I was a half-caste child. My mother used to keep me away from the towns, and, when I was still small, carried me hidden in a sugarbag to protect me. If I had been caught I would have been sent away from my country.

Laurel Cooper, 2007

As early as 1900, white settlers in the Goldfields demonstrated a keenness to separate their lives from those of Aboriginal people. This was applied to both Kalgoorlie-Boulder traditional owners and travellers from other traditional lands.

Ration depots were established in more remote locations, including pastoral stations, with the intention of keeping people away from towns.

Missions of different denominations were set up to pursue various evangelical agendas. As well as these impositions on Aboriginal lives, Government legislation also continued to have a major impact. 

During the 1970s and 1980s many of the missions, institutions and reserves were transferred to the Aboriginal Lands Trust. These locations are the foundations of many of today’s Aboriginal communities, although most of them are still administered by government agencies.

A home for many people: Mount Margaret Mission 1921-1975

As a minority in their own country, they must have education to have a voice.

Rod Schenk, Mount Margaret, c.1932

Rodolphe (Rod) Samuel Schenk established Mount Margaret Mission in 1921. Over the next 50 years the mission impacted upon the lives of many Aboriginal people in the northern goldfields. 

Schenk pursued his evangelical vision through education to provide an environment that met physical and emotional needs. His aim was to develop a self-sustaining community where he could minister without interference or distraction. 

The Mission was also an alternative for children of mixed descent who otherwise were likely to be removed to the distant Moore River Mission, near Perth.  The Moore River Mission had a cruel reputation, and so some parents placed their children with Schenk voluntarily, though some children were forcibly removed to Mount Margaret. The use of Aboriginal language was discouraged and controls were placed on children to stop them leaving; some ran away, others simply didn’t return after holidays.

Work for the Women

Mum went to the raffia room and would work there. By 12 o’clock the ladies were paid. They then took the money and went to the shop to buy flour, tea etc. That was Monday to Friday, every day.

My mother was doing the art & craft. I picked it up from her.

Marjorie Bonney, Wongatha, 2009

The arrival of Rod Schenk’s wife Isobel May (Mysie) in 1923 marked the beginning of Mount Margaret’s art and craft production.  Mrs Schenk taught the women how to make a range of raffia products. She also built on the local traditional use of spinning fur and human hair with hand spindles. Once women learnt how to use the new wooden spinning wheels and looms, they began to make their own clothes from hand-spun and woven angora wool. 

From the 1930s onwards, the ‘women of the raffia room’ began producing stencilled and pokerwork plywood plaques, featuring wildflower designs and bible phrases. The art and craft works were sold predominantly in Melbourne and Perth, generating an income for the mission.

Some of the daughters of the original ‘raffia room women’ continue to produce objects they saw their mothers make.