Solidarity and Empowerment


Solidarity and empowerment were two key themes in a presentation by Dr Wayne Atkinson to more than 130 Jews, Christians and Kooris gathered at the Museum of Victoria in Carlton, Sunday afternoon, July 31. This event honoured the initiative of William Cooper of the Yorta Yorta Nation , who in December 1938 sought in vain to petition the German consul in Melbourne about the unjust treatment of Jews by the Nazis. In this way the CCJ (Vic) marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

To introduce the program, Rev Dr Paul Tonson, outgoing chair of the CCJ Program Committee, acknowledged the traditional owners of the land and affirmed that regardless of our culture, we are but trustees of all our resources for the sake of those who come after us. He especially thanked the Museum and Bunjilaka Centre director, Caroline Martin, for providing the venue without charge. Those attending had been invited to arrive from 3.30 pm to view the Koori cultural displays in the Centre and to share light refreshments prior to the main presentation around 4.30 pm. It was heartening to have to provide twice as many chairs as expected.

In his opening remarks, Tonson referred to the delightful discovery via the Web of the crucial influences upon Cooper of both the Christian and Jewish traditions. These facts are recounted in Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines' League, by Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005), who tell how before 1870 Cooper?s mother and some of his brothers and sisters settled at the Maloga Mission near Echuca, a Victorian town on the Murray River. The mission was set up by a Wesleyan missioner, Daniel Matthews, a private citizen who had responded to the degradation of Aboriginal people by white settlers.

Cooper soon joined his family and in August 1874 Matthews noted in his diary: The boy, Billy Cooper, shows great aptitude for learning. By 1876 Cooper had apparently decided he wanted to stay on Maloga, telling the missionary: There couldn?t be a better place than this. After an absence of some years, Cooper returned to Maloga around 1884 and converted to Christianity. ?I must give my heart to God?, he told Daniel Matthews after a service one day.

As we might expect, Matthews attempted to ?civilize? the aborigines in the mission in ways that denigrated their culture and later alienated him from them. For example, in his book Barmah Forest ? A History, Charles Fahey notes, how In September 1878 Matthews declined to allow the young men to hold a corroboree as he considered it was retrogressive to the education of the young people. However, it was Matthews who directed Cooper to the Jewish scriptures, to find in the Book of Exodus a strong foundation for the emancipation of his people.

The CCJ were most grateful for the attendance of several members of the Yorta Yorta Nation, including young staff members of the Bunjilaka Centre where the event took place. Many of them were descendants of William Cooper. Tonson introduced the guest of honour, Alf Turner from Wangaratta, who spoke of his boyhood experience of his grandfather, William Cooper, and introduced Wayne Atkinson, his cousin.

Atkinson, a teacher of Melbourne University, and member of the Council of the Yorta Yorta Nation, provided a well illustrated account of the efforts of Cooper and his associates striving for their rights in Australia around the sesquicentennial of European settlement. His address told how William Cooper was born in his peoples country on the junction of the Murray and Goulburn rivers on 18 December 1861. He was the fifth of eight children of a union between a white labourer, James Cooper, and a Yorta Yorta woman, Kitty Lewis. In later years Cooper and his third wife lived in Melbourne until 1940 when, his health failing, they decided to return to Coopers own country. He died shortly afterwards, on 29 March 1941, and was buried at Cumeroogunga.

Around 1932, Cooper founded and led the Australian Aborigines League, and thus became a significant historical figure in Australia. His distinctive political programme presented a considerable challenge to governments in the past and continues to resonate strongly today. Atkinson made plain to us all the significance of his PhD thesis title, a quote from William Cooper: ?NOT ONE IOTA?. In these words, Cooper summed up precisely the amount of remuneration and compensation his people had received for the loss of their vast traditional lands.

In response to the presentation, Mark Leibler spoke on behalf of the Jewish Community and as a key player in the Yorta Yorta land claim, represented by Arnold Bloch Leibler. He illustrated the narrow interpretation on which the Yorta Yorta appeal had been struck out by the High Court in 2002. Ironically, the Yorta Yorta adaptation to European settlement, including the mission influence, became an obstacle to their demonstrating a continuous observance of their traditional way of life on the Yorta Yorta lands since 1788! Justice Olney declared that the Yorta Yorta native title had been, by 1881, ?washed away by the tide of history?.

Leibler affirmed that ?William Cooper is a national icon. His truly is the quintessential Australian story of refusing to buckle and of speaking out in defence of the truth, upon which a reconciled national identity can be forged?. He added: ?William Cooper?s legacy goes far beyond his people. It extends to the people I belong to: Australian Jews and their brethren worldwide?.

Apart from words of thanks, the gathering drew to a close with spontaneous words of appreciation expressed by Mr Henry Atkinson of the Yorta Yorta.