I have to fully agree with Anthony Sharwood, who wrote recently in the Punch that by banning grazing in the Alpine National Park, Tony Burke, Federal Minister for Sustainability and Environment, had put the “kybosh on Victorian premier Ted Baillieu’s absurd, cynical and dangerous plan to reintroduce grazing to the High Country”.
There has been some rather strange comments from the Mountain Cattleman’s Association of Victoria, with a bit of nationalist tub thumping (“It’s like spitting on the Australian flag”, said Charlie Lovick) but one statement especially disturbed me.
Association president Mark Coleman, while describing his belief that Mr Burke had made his decision to “appease the Greens”, said “there is nothing more historical about the alps than the mountain cattlemen.”
There are so many aspects to the human story of the Alps: Indigenous people, settlers, loggers, graziers, the Anglo and Chinese people who worked the high country mines, the women who kept rural families together, the posties who crossed the alps on skis, the European workers who provided much of the labor for the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme and so on. Yet we fixate on one group.
There are roads, buildings, and events all named after the cattle families that, for generations, drove their stock into the mountains. There are stickers on cars, photos and sculptures, and endless homage to these people and their way of life. We have the strange icon of Craigs Hut, not even a cattlemen’s hut (built for a film and placed on a ridiculously exposed site that surely no cattleman would have chosen) that acts as a magnet for those paying homage to the ‘Man from Snowy River’ image.
This is all well and good, but almost all the other voices have been liquid papered out of mountain history. In particular, where are the images or mention of the Indigenous people who lived in this country for perhaps 1,000 generations?
I find Mr Coleman’s statements offensive but also informative. It is a window to a world view that is so self obsessed that it loses perspective. I see this in the strange and self serving claims that alpine grazing ‘reduces blazing’ (a theory that’s been discredited by any number of scientists).
We have a sanitised version of history that constantly gets regurgitated around mountain ‘history’. Where do we hear about the Buckland Riot, an anti-Chinese race riot that occurred in July 1857, in the goldfields of the Buckland Valley, in north east Victoria? At the time approximately 2,000 Chinese and 700 European migrants were living in the Buckland area. Instead we only get the tourist friendly ‘Akubra, horse and Driza–Bone jacket’ view of the world.
Yet even a cursory web search reveals a different story. In particular, the largely untold story of the decimation of the Indigenous peoples of the Alpine region. One example from a conference held in 2002 (Land Affinities Of The Mountain Aborigines Of North-Eastern Victoria) looks at the fortunes of the Yaitmathang, a mountain people whose ancestral territory includes what is now the Omeo region.
“It is evident that there were incremental changes in Yaitmathang numbers during the first decade of European settlement at Omeo, but that the most significant change occurred in a single event. The 1842 massacre was recorded by both Wills and George Robinson who wrote in 1844 that “it was two years ago when two bush rangers shot the Omeo blacks and scattered them”. This massacre depleted Yaitmathang people to about one-quarter (my emphasis) of their pre-settlement numbers. Further declines in Yaitmathang numbers occurred between 1843 and 1865, so that by 1895, there were no Aborigines living at Omeo”.
As a foot note to this story, the Yaitmathang Indigenous Lands Incorporated group applied for registration as a Registered Aboriginal Party with the Victorian government in 2009.
Aboriginal people didn’t just quietly leave. They were dispossessed and in some well documented cases murdered and the crimes covered up (Our Murdering Founding Father, by regional historian Peter Gardner details the ‘raiding parties’ raised by settlers that ran a covert war against indigenous people in Gippsland, or check Our black history: the Kurnai of Gippsland, by Julian Drape, or the listing of massacres in Gippsland).
The cattlemen invoke a connection to Indigenous people when it suits them (“The cattlemen were following the practice of the aboriginal people by using fire to keep the forests open”. MCAV Submission to the 2009 Bushfire Royal Commission) and talk about European ‘settlement’ while ignoring the realities of what this meant for the people who were there before them.
If the mountain cattlemen seriously want us to respect their “history and … heritage” (as Mr Lovick puts it) then surely they should start respecting the peoples who have been in the Alps for several thousand years longer than them.