Bill Homenko, an elderly descendent of Russian immigrants talks to camera about his childhood recollections. Ngadjonji country, around Rosser River, is the thousand-year-old home of Kitty Clarke’s people. Historical stills are intermixed with re-enactments of Kitty Clarke’s mother’s first glimpse of white men 25 years before the arrival of the Russian immigrants to the Atherton tablelands. Historical footage shows the clearing of the land.
Russian immigrants took up selections around Atherton, the area came to be known as ‘Little Siberia’. The settlers soon came to realise that the land already had residents in the form of the Ngadjonji peoples, who had lived there for thousands of years. The clearing of the forest for pastoral purposes effectively dispossessed the Ngadjonji people, who had once depended on the food harvested from the forest. The Ngadjonji people were forced to participate in the white economy or starve. The gradual appropriation of the Ngadjonji people by western economy and society was the outcome. The experience of the Ngadjonji peoples is one repeated all over the land now known as Australia.
This clip shows Bill Homenko remembering his ancestors clearing sections of rainforest. Historical footage of land clearing, archival photographs of the Russian immigrants and the Indigenous Ngadjonji people, and a re-enactment of the first meeting between Ngadjonji and Europeans is accompanied by a narration. Flora Hoolihan, the granddaughter of one of the first Ngadjonji to meet Europeans, speaks about the changes in the lives of the Ngadjonji people at the time of European settlement.
Educational value points
- The clip illustrates the environmental changes brought about by Europeans who settled on the traditional land of the Ngadjonji people in the north Queensland rainforest of the Atherton Tablelands. In the early years of the 20th century, European settlers arrived in the area to take up their free 'selection’, and then cleared 30 acres (more than 12 ha) of rainforest a year to prepare the land for European-style pasture. The destruction of the rainforest was a key factor in the displacement of the Ngadjonji people.
- The Ngadjonji had developed various technologies to survive in the rainforest, some of which are shown in the archival footage. Their tools included baskets, food graters, traps for animals, birds and fish, ropes for climbing trees and stones for cracking nuts. The Ngadjonji’s displacement from their land and their subsequent exploitation by the European settlers, who employed them as cheap labour, disrupted their traditional livelihood and cultural practices.
- The clip shows the Russian immigrants to the Atherton Tablelands who had fled political persecution during the build-up to the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1910, Russian noble and dissident Nikolai Illin and his family arrived in Qld. He took up a selection on the Atherton Tablelands and, with 11 others, founded a Russian community known locally as 'Little Siberia’. His son, Leandro Illin, married Ngadjonji woman Kitty Clarke.
- The clip’s soundtrack incorporates Ngadjon dialect, one of the ten dialects of Dyirbal, the language once spoken by Indigenous people living between Atherton and Cardwell. Ngadjonji woman Molly Raymont worked in the 1960s with linguistics Professor RMW Dixon and in the 1970s with botanist Tony Irvine to record some of the Ngadjon dialect and her knowledge of rainforest plants. Raymont was the last person to have full knowledge of the Ngadjon dialect. She died in 1992.
- The clip is from the documentary Pioneers of Love (2005), directed by Julie Nimmo and inspired by Elena Govor’s book My Dark Brother: The Story of the Illins, A Russian–Aboriginal Family (2000). Nimmo is an independent filmmaker who has worked on television programs covering Indigenous affairs, multicultural and multimedia arts, Australian history and current affairs. In 2002 she became the first Indigenous person to win a Walkley Award, for No Fixed Address (2002).
Bill Homenko is interviewed on his porch.
Bill Homenko, a descendant of Russian immigrants Mum helped Pop to clear the country and quite a bit of brushing and chopping, helping Pop.
Archival footage and photographs show the clearing of the land, the settlers and the Ngadjonji people. People speak Ngadjon dialect as part of the soundtrack.
Narrator But the same patch of land was already supporting a community – the Ngadjonji tribe, Kitty Clarke’s people. Her country was the Rosser River which runs around the highest mountain in Queensland, Bartle Frere. Her people had lived for thousands of years in the isolation of the rich, dark rainforest. Their first meeting with white people was only 25 years before the Illin family arrived. Flora’s grandmother, Emily, passed down her memory of the event.
An interview with Flora Hoolihan is intercut with a re-enactment of the events she describes.
Flora Hoolihan, Ngadjonji woman The story she told me – they were curious, you know, looking at the white people, men. And they chased them and caught my grandmother and took her back to where they were and when they would give her something to eat, she was frightened to eat it. She reckoned she’d go and push it under a big log somewhere.
Archival footage shows the clearing of the land.
Narrator Five years after this first encounter Flora’s mother, Kitty Clarke, was born. Kitty’s generation was the first to be born with white neighbours, whose very survival depended on farming land covered in dense forest. Each selector was obliged to clear 30 acres of virgin forest every year. Trees were cut down and dried out until finally, in December, it was all set alight, burning for days, sometimes weeks. What had been lush forest was left black and bare, ready for pasture. They called the place Malanda.
Tom English is interviewed.
Tom English, descendant of settlers My grandfather had a big patch of scrub in the top of Malanda and there was about 200 of them camped on my father’s. They lived off the rainforest and walnuts – that was their food and we came in and chopped it all down and burnt it and they were all displaced. They had no food left.
Flora Hoolihan’s interview is intercut with archival photos and footage of the settlers and Ngadjonji people.
Flora Hoolihan They lost all their hunting ground. So what do they do? Try to get into the white people’s way. But, knowing nothing, they were exploited. They’d work ‘em for nothing. Might give them a shirt and a trousers so that they wouldn’t be walking in front of everybody naked. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t have gave them a shirt and a trousers to put on.