The local traditional Aboriginal people, the Ngunawal, have occupied the area in the vicinity of the present town of Yass which was central to the tribal boundaries of the Ngunawal clans. The tribal boundaries encompassed the area from Goulburn to the north, Gundagai to the west, Cooma to the south and Braidwood to the East. This also includes the entire boundary of the Australian Capital Territory on which the national capital, Canberra, is situated. Descendants of Ngunawal Aboriginal families are known to have been on official and unofficial reserves from the mid-1880s until the 1960s, having a continuous connection with Yass to this day.
Archaeological, ethnohistorical, and oral history records provide evidence for a continuous and unbroken association by Aboriginal people with certain places around Yass. The implementation of the policies of the Aborigines Protection Board also had a profound effect on Aboriginal culture over a much wider area.
During the 1980s, the persistence of local Aboriginal families in demonstrating their objections to various developments proposed by the Yass Shire Council triggered a major study, commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (White and Cane, 1986). The results of the study gave credence to Aboriginal assertions about the significance of one particular site at North Yass which was under threat from major development proposals.
The report did much more. By collating information from a range of sources, including old newspapers, the study provides a sound basis for showing the nature and extent of Ngunawal Aboriginal affiliation with the Yass area.
The Pre-contact period
According to Tindale (1974) the Yass district formed part of the traditional lands of the Ngunawal people but was close to the boundaries of other linguistic groups; the Wiradjuri to the west, the Yuin to the east, the Gundungarra to the north and the Ngarigo to the south. Lists compiled for the Yass area show a mixture of these languages with many common features.
Pleistocene age sites are known from the wider area, including those on the Murray-Darling system and in the Australian Capital Territory, suggesting that Aboriginal occupation in the Yass area may be of a similar antiquity. However, the lack of suitable depositional environments have precluded the accumulation of datable cultural deposits.
The Contact Period
White and Cane (1986) have divided the contact period into three broad phases: -
1. following traditional movement patterns (1820s -1860s);
2. gradual accommodation with Europeans (1865 - 1885);
3. enforced movement and eventual dispersal (1885 - 1955).
Throughout this time, Aboriginal people lived in and around Yass, either in places of their choosing or where they were forced to move.
Phase 1 - Following traditional movement patterns (1820s - 1860s).
One of the earliest accounts of Aboriginal people in the
district was a reference in 1830, to the blacks spearing cattle (Bayley, 1973). It would seem that Aborigines retained control of the north bank of the Yass river in the face of initial white settlement.
The township of Yass was declared in 1838 and most Aborigines avoided it, only coming in for the annual blanket issue. However, traditional living sites must have been present within the town because when construction of the Catholic church commenced, 1400 warriors objected to the destruction of their camping ground.
The Aborigines were able to maintain their traditional seasonal patterns of movement to a certain extent, and there are several accounts of ceremonies occurring throughout the 1860s. These movements, in response to economic resources and ceremonial and religious requirements of their traditional cultural were a cause of great concern to white administrators. The reports of Crown Lands Commissioner Edgar Beekliam from 1840s to 1850s show that efforts were being made to induce Aborigines to stay in one place.
Several Aboriginal reserves had been established by 1851, but they were not being used.
By the 1860s the breakdown of traditional lifestyles was almost complete. The passing of the Robertson Land Acts in 1861 brought close European settlement to the district, making it impossible
for Aborigines to maintain an existence independent of government hand outs. Thus by the mid 1860s, Aborigines began forming small camps on the outskirts of the town and on the stations of benevolent land owners (Clark, 1977).
Phase 11 - Gradual accommodation with Europeans (1865 - 1885).
Apart from references to the annual blanket issue, there
are few records of Aboriginals between 1855 and 1883, when the Aborigines Protection Board (APB) was established.
Several farming leases were taken up by Aborigines, at Pudman Creek near Rye Park and at Blakney Creek. Wheat, maize and potatoes were cultivated on these lands (White and Cane, 1986). Around the town, Aborigines were not considered to be a threat as they were thought to be on the verge of extinction. Their apparent final demise was reported in the newspaper on 2 January 1886. At this time, only full bloods were assigned the status of Aborigines. Half castes were given no status as being either white or Aboriginal as it was assumed they would soon die out. The genealogical research undertaken by White and Cane demonstrates that there exists strong familial links between the first Aboriginal people in Yass and those of today.
Phase 111 - Enforced movement (1885 - 1955)
During the early part of this phase, the remaining Aboriginal families were constantly moved around and numbers were diminishing at an alarming rate. In addition to the existing reserves at Pudman and Blakney Creeks, two new reserves were proclaimed at North Yass.
North Yass seemed to have been a settled and relatively autonomous place for Aboriginal families, with 78 people living there in 1890, in houses and bark huts. The descendants of many of these families continue to live in Yass and the surrounding area.
By 1900 the APB was under pressure from Council to move the Aborigines further away from the town, that is to Pudman and Blakney creeks. All efforts to move the Aborigines failed; the reserves were too far from the town and its employment opportunities, goods and services.
In 1909 the Edgerton reserve was established some 20 klms from Yass but again there was strong opposition to the forced move. Edgerton was a failure and probably only operated for two years. However a number of Aboriginal people are buried in the cemetery and there are strong collective memories of the place.
People kept returning to North Yass and the Yass River, but half castes were being discouraged from settling there and encouraged to move into a white community, who did not want them. It was between 1909 and 1930 that the APB had a policy of removing children from the reserves.
In 1926 an area in North Yass was designated for a new water works and again Aborigines were forced to move from their most secure living place. Some moved to the reserve at Brungle and for the others, a new reserve, called ironically "Hollywood", was established, just to the west of the town. By all accounts Hollywood was not a pleasant place, near a cemetery and slaughter yards on stony, unproductive ground. It was beset with problems including an outbreak of cholera in 1935. Nevertheless 117 people were living there in 1937 under unsatisfactory conditions.
People continued to move back to North Yass and the APB began looking for new sites to establish reserves, but none were found. By mid 1944 the APB adopted the assimilation principle and houses were bought in the town to house Aboriginal families. For those not provided with houses, North Yass was the option once more.
In 1975, a local landowner expressed concern about the possible disturbance of Aboriginal burials by the proposed Yass By Pass. The site he referred to was at North Yass, near the water works site. His family history referred to the graves of Aborigines along the ridge top north of the waterworks site, now followed by Yellow Creek road. A number of Aboriginal people also claimed oral history knowledge of burials in the area.
A debate which was to last over a decade began, leading to much acrimony and the eventual departure of Aboriginal families with familial ties to North Yass.
Although the Yass By-pass was designed to avoid the burial site, it was again threatened, this time by a proposed garbage tip in the 1980s and then augmentation of the existing water works. After much discussion, including the site which had a federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander protection application in place under the Heritage Protection Act (1984), the augmentation went ahead.
Despite careful monitoring by archaeologists and local traditional custodians during construction, no skeletal remains were found. However, the burial sites referred to above by the landowner, have not been disturbed and are protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act (1974). After extensive archaeological research by White and Cane (1986) a newspaper article describing the burials was eventually found.
It must be understood that the problems faced by the Aboriginal community in convincing the Yass Shire Council of the significance of North Yass are understated in the above discussion.
The brief history of Yass presented here is a microcosm of the post-contact history of Aborigines throughout New South Wales.
The area can be considered as culturally and historically significant for a number of reasons.
1. The Aboriginal history and prehistory of Yass is relatively well documented and researched (eg. Read,1982) providing a good context for assessing the significance of individual places or historical events.
2. Because of the resistance by Aboriginal people to movement away from their traditional lands, strong oral history traditions persist within the Aboriginal community today. This oral history complements the written records and provides a sense of continuity and solidarity for Aboriginal people.
3. The genealogical research undertaken by White and Cane gives clear evidence of familial continuity from at least the mid 1800s from when European settlement began and records were kept to the present.
4. The persistence of the opposition shown by Aboriginal people towards the developments that threatened the North Yass site, against almost overwhelming odds. This has demonstrated the ability to reserve places of cultural significance is critical to Aboriginal self determination and cultural identity.
5. Although at one level, the whole of the Yass district is significant to Aboriginal people, because of its abundant visible and documentary evidence of Aboriginal history, there are specific places which can be considered to be of special significance. Further research and recording of these places is essential, including North Yass, Edgerton, Hollywood, Bango Creek, Pudman Creek and Blakney Creek.