Cummeragunja Mission Station (also Cumeroogunga) is an Aboriginal reserve situated in Yorta Yorta country on a bend in the Murray River in New South Wales, near the Victorian town of Barmah.
The station was founded in June 1888 when many of the residents of the Maloga Mission Station grew dissatisfied with its founder Daniel Matthews, and his authoritarian and highly religious approach to leadership.
Cummeragunja was created following a successful appeal to the New South Wales Government for the creation of a new reserve, with the intention of producing a farm on 1,800 acres, providing a means for the local Koori community to live self sustainably. The station’s first superintendent was George Bellenger whose appointment came as a replacement for Daniel Matthews, prior to the closure of the Maloga station.
Life at Cummeragunja under the control of George Bellenger proved to be disastrous for the station’s residents. Illness and threats of expulsion or removal of rations were constant themes.
Following Bellenger’s resignation in 1891, the station continued on in much the same traumatic pattern under a string of short term managers, until the appointment of George Harris in 1894. Whilst Harris continued the pattern of neglect per his predecessors, he also saw the subdivision of the station, providing individuals and families their own allotments to farm. 20 farm lots, each being 40 acres in size were established at Cummeragunja. These were in addition to a small number of farms taken up in the surrounding area by those who had decided to step away from the stifling controls of mission life.
By their own hand, the community at Cummeragunja thrived. The station’s Koori led management committee oversaw successful commercial enterprises in the sale of wheat, wool and dairy, and conditions were improving. Station finances were being directed back into the community for community benefit. This however was to be short lived.
In 1909 the Aborigines Protection Act was passed, giving the Aborigines Protection Board full control over the lives of Koori people living in new South Wales. In 1915 amendments were made to the powers available to the board which obliterated the limited freedoms still available to the farming community at Cummeragunja, and allowed for children to be removed from their families, and placed into a form of slavery.
Station profits were delivered to the APB, bypassing the community, and Cummeragunja once again fell into a state of neglect. Illness due to a lack of investment into sanitation, quality housing and clean water were again major issues of concern for the community.
By early 1939, Cummeragunja had experienced a number of deaths which were directly attributed to the minimal rations, lack of sanitation and cramped conditions the station’s residents were being subjected to. Petitions and calls for change fell on deaf ears, or resulted in bullying and retribution by the station manager, Arthur McQuiggan.
The dire state of affairs at Cummeragunja resulted in the station’s residents sending a telegram to a former resident Jack Patten, whose family still resided at the station. At Patten’s urging, a majority of the station’s residents packed up and crossed the river into Victoria, in an act of defiance known today as the Cummeragunja Walk-Off.
A majority of the families who left Cummeragunja never returned. They built new communities in Mooroopna, Shepparton, and beyond.
Following WWII, the Government handed parcels of land at Cummeragunja and other Aboriginal reserves over to the benefit of returned servicemen and their families as part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme. This was a form of land grant that was not available to Koori returned servicemen, inclusive of those Cummeragunja residents who had served their country.
In 1983 the title deeds to Cummeragunja were returned to the Yorta Yorta people via the newly created Yorta Yorta Land Council. A number of Yorta Yorta families live there today.