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The people of Fraser Island: Working through 250 years of racial double coding

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I am from the Wondunna Clan of the Badtjala nation. Our traditional country is the region encompassing all of Fraser Island. On the mainland, our traditional boundaries extend from Double Island Point in the south, to Bauple Mountain in the west and the mouth of the Burrum River in the north. We speak as a sovereign nation as our rights have not been ceded.

In the historiography of place, there have been many events that have shaped who we are as a people beyond our control. In a European linear narrative, one of those key dates was 1836 when the Badtjala name for our island K’gari became known as Fraser Island after the shipwreck of a white woman, Eliza Fraser and her husband Captain James Fraser who carried this surname. To reintroduce our language back into common usage has been an active and ongoing trait of the tenacity of the Badtjala people today. My story will not be a linear retelling but one with a Badtjala lens as seen through the eyes of an artist and academic.

Our first brush with English men goes back even further to an encounter on the 20 May 1770. The Badtjala people are unique because not many in the world would be aware, we have a song existing from 1770 that talks about the Endeavour voyage sailing past our country on the east coast of Australia when the first Aboriginal racial double coding took place. Indeed, many Aboriginal sovereign nations watched this vessel sail up the east coast passing nation after nation for days communicating with one another about its progress. The gaze went both ways. The intensity of the unknown from both races, I imagine, would have created a heightened sense of vigilance.

The Badtjala recorded this encounter in song: The ship rose up out of the sea like cloud, and kept near land for three or four days, One day it came in very close to Takky Wooroo (Indian Head). And they saw many men walking around on it. They asked each other who are these strangers? And where are they going?What I love about this song are the layers of metaphors contained within this verse.

One of those strangers was Captain James Cook, who named three sites on Badtjala country. The first naming by the British is the most interesting. For a volcanic headland on K’gari, he called it Indian Head, and this goes to the crux of the construct of race and its definition to, “categorize and rank groups”. At this stage, the British had not worked out the hair texture of this new race. It was not woolly like a negro’s they noted. Nicolas Thomas writes an observation made about Aboriginal people, “their hair which was not woolly or frizzled but as Cook put it ‘black and lank and much like ours.’”

At the site of the first Aboriginals, Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks were engaged in a discussion about their skin colour and hair texture to try and define this new race of humans. Not wanting to classify them as negroes, they referred to them as Indian at different stages. The evidence is writ large and left behind by Cook for all to witness when he renamed the spot Indian Head.

Text Box: Fiona Foley, Horror Has A Face #8. (2017) Fujiflex Digital Print. Edition 15. 45 × 80 cm. Watching and Waiting.
Fiona Foley, Horror Has A Face #8. (2017) Fujiflex Digital Print. Edition 15. 45 × 80 cm. Watching and Waiting

The rocky outcrop was not named because it looked like an Indian’s Head but because of the thousands of Badtjala people amassed on top of the rock observing them. Unfortunately, Nicolas Thomas does not write about this encounter in his publication, Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook. I assume Thomas is not aware of the existence of the Badtjala people and their song, like many of the international tourists who visit the island on a daily basis.

This brings me to Alexis Wright’s 2016 article in Meanjin when she argues, “the physical control and psychological invasion of Aboriginal people has continued as it began, from the racist stories told about Aboriginal people from the beginning of colonisation two centuries ago.” Aboriginal artists, Aboriginal public intellectuals, Aboriginal academics and Aboriginal writers have been at the forefront in changing the dominant colonial narrative of invasion and sovereign warfare.

In Bruce Pascoe’s publication, Salt, he states, “Any nation’s artists and thinkers set the tone and breadth of national conversation.” In Australia, that national conversation must take into account the invasion and subsequent frontier wars of Australia and reparations to the sovereign Aboriginal nations from this continent.

Fiona Foley, Horror Has A Face #18. (2017) Fujiflex Digital Print. Edition 15. 45 × 80 cm. Silent Witnesses.

De-colonising the histories of Queensland has been a lifetime passion of mine. As a five-year child, I remember looking across to K’gari and experiencing a deep sense of loss. It was a loss for my country, for my culture, and for my old people.

Growing up from an early age, I wanted to know more because I have an intellect and am curious. That is not a crime. I became a racialised person—not from my family, but by others—when I entered the school gates at Urangan, Hervey Bay. My parents faced much racism in the 1970s and at one point were forced to move to Mt. Isa to escape the pressures of race hatred because of their mixed marriage. By then, I was in third grade.

Racism in this country is a topic we like to avoid discussing, but it manifests itself everywhere. It is a societal burden I’ve learned to carry—that gaze wrapped up in judgment from a white society and white individuals. For me, it manifests itself in everyday educational environments, including my present-day status as a Doctor at Griffith University.

As an adult, I can reflect on a broader understanding that many in Australia carry deep psychological scars from what Judy Atkinson terms “generational trauma.” Aboriginal people were not allowed to bury our dead after massacres had taken place. I believe this country carries deep wounds from the trauma of these frontier wars. We carry it inside our souls, whether we are conscious of them or not. The brutality, in turn, has also affected the perpetrators and their descendants.

A person sitting on a bench posing for the camera

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Shirley Foley on K’gari (Fraser Island). Photograph courtesy of Fiona Foley

I did not know I was destined to be an artist, but my art practice has sustained me for the past 35 years. In 1986, while studying in the sculpture department at Sydney College of the Arts, I created a sculpture based on a story my mother, Shirley Foley, told me about a massacre on my country along the Susan River.

Many oral histories of genocide are carried, in the living memory, by Aboriginal people. That image stayed with me of Badtjala people being maimed, killed, or fleeing on foot. It was a powerful history to carry and to make of it – something. The sculpture I created back as a 22-year-old art student was titled, Annihilation of the Blacks and was bought by the National Museum of Australia. According to the National Gallery in Australia, it is one of the museum’s “first major acquisitions of a city-based Aboriginal artist” (Quail 2000).

Fiona Foley, Annihilation of the Blacks (1986). Permanent collection of the National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Image reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Aboriginal art and politics have had an uneasy relationship in this country. Years after the initial purchase of my sculpture, Annihilation of the Blacks courted controversy from the John Howard government in the early 2000s and played a role in the History Wars unfolding nationally. In 2003, the National Museum of Australia produced “Contested Frontiers,” an exhibition with a companion book that reconsidered the primacy of frontier violence and the impact of generations of forced separations, known as the “stolen generations,” of Aboriginal children from their parents (Attwood and Foster 2003). After conservative commentators protested the exhibition, the museum board did not renew director, Dawn Casey’s contract, which signalled, to both artists and curators, a wave of censorship in public institutions.

Contested Frontiers challenged a statement that I have often heard from white Australians: “Australia was settled peacefully”. In fact, we were not passive in the takeover of our country. Every inch of Queensland soil has been fought over and bloodied. The history of Queensland’s occupation and resistance is not taught in schools or universities. It is a history I’ve pieced together through reading books since the age of 24. I wanted to learn more about the attitudes held by colonial men and women, and the Aboriginal people who repeatedly attacked their invaders with strategic guerrilla wars. In 2008, I created Dispersed after reading historians such as Rosalind Kidd, Tony Roberts, Raymond Evans, and Jonathan Richards (Kidd 1997, Roberts 2005, Evans 2007, Richards 2008).

Fiona Foley, Dispersed (2008). Charred laminated wood, polished aluminium, 303” calibre bullets (blank). Each letter 51 cm high x 25 cm wide. Permanent collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Image courtesy of the artist.

Like my known and unknown ancestors, my life has been about the fight for justice for Aboriginal people: telling the true history of Australia. My platform has been through the visual arts, which has included solo exhibitions, public art commissions, a PhD, and a publication titled Biting the Clouds (UQ Press, 2020). Over decades my research has taken me into areas of Queensland’s hidden histories.

There is a long history of opium use in Queensland up until it became illegal in 1897 when legislation was introduced with the long title, The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. My grandfather Horace Wondunna and great grandfather Fred Wondunna did not come under the Act due to clause 10, which states.

Cover of Biting the Clouds – a Badtjala perspective on the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897, by Fiona Foley.

10. Every aboriginal who is—

(a)  Lawfully employed by any person under the provisions of this Act or the Regulations, or under any other law in force in Queensland;

(b)  The holder of a permit to be absent from a reserve; or

(c)  A female lawfully married to, and residing with, a husband who is not himself an aboriginal;

(d)  Or for whom in the opinion of the Minister satisfactory provision is otherwise made;

shall be excepted from the provisions of the last preceding section.

Clause 10 of The Act saved my extended family from a mission life as my patrilineal line were employed either in the fishing industry or the timber industry on K’gari. They were strong individuals who led independent lives free of government control.

My grandfather, Horace Wondunna, was to die young aged 31. This tragedy set in train a momentous change for the lives of his children. That fateful fishing trip would have been the last payment on his commercial fishing boat. His body was never found, lost at sea. He is remembered on the plaque along with others, In Memory of Fishermen Lost at Sea, Urangan. He left behind four children Noela, Coygne, Horace, Shirley and wife Alma. This meant that my mother (Shirley), the youngest of the four children never grew up knowing her father. Yet she too would inherit a decisive strength of character and an independent way of viewing the world.


In 1986 the newspaper headline read, Fraser Island Lease Sought accompanied by an image of my mother Shirley Foley teaching Aboriginal culture at Hervey Bay College. She was a community leader and understood how to involve political figures and key advocates to support visionary, large scale projects. At an early stage, the project had the working title Hervey Bay Aboriginal Education and Culture Centre, but would later be recognised as Thoorgine Education and Culture Centre. Mum’s dream and one that my family also lived and breathed alongside her was to get land back on Fraser Island. Our old people had all been removed in 1904 by the Anglican church and supported by the state. This meant that our relationship to the island was always one of longing to get back. Decades filled with ‘cultural deprivation’.

The Chronicle article stated an Aboriginal group had applied for a 6-hectare parcel of land on K’gari. The local Mayor, Ald. Judy Rice and politician Bob Katter and Queensland University anthropologist Dr Peter Lauer were fully supporting the venture. A 20-year, Queensland Special Lease for 6.005 hectares of land did eventuate but a few years later commencing on 1 January 1990 adjacent to the Worali Road. Mum was a visionary and dreamed big. This was a huge achievement long before Native Title was granted in 2014 to the Badtjala people.

Cover of the Badtjala – English, English – Badtjala Word List, 2018, Illustrated by Dr Fiona Foley

Her passions in life were many, from the retrieval of Badtjala language to cultural exchanges with other Aboriginal people from Maningrida (Arnhem Land), the Mutitjulu community (Uluru) and Tasmanian women weavers. She hosted large workshops at Thoorgine and other places on the island with the assistance of QPWS over the years with whom she had built a great relationship.

Mum passed away in 2000 aged 62, still active in the community and working with education as an adopted elder with Urangan Point Primary School. She always saw the future through educating children from all backgrounds. She had set up two scholarships with the local university. One was named the Horace Wondunna Scholarship after her father and the Wondunna Scholarship named after our clan. Looking back over the past twenty years, it seems to me how quickly we can lose sight of important legacies if they are not talked about and celebrated. In my community today, her name and cultural leadership do not rate a mention.

That is why it was important for me to look at mum’s work again in the area of Badtjala language retrieval and maintenance in 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Over many years one of her outstanding legacies was the out of print, Badtjala- English English – Badtjala Word List, first published in 1996. A comprehensive gathering of Badtjala words structured into subheadings and categories. This level of scholarship would be worthy of a PhD in the academy, but mum only attained a grade 6 education due to poverty being raised by a single parent.

Mum’s work activated the third and fourth iteration of the Badtjala Dictionary in 2018 and 2019 and a short film titled, Out of the Sea Like Cloud. The film was set over two locations on K’gari at Takky Wooroo and a historical building on Wharf Street, Maryborough where I created with set designer Scott Harrower a luxurious and textured opium den. Two historical timelines are present in the film, from 1770 and 1897. The song features the English translation and re-presents new verses in our Badtjala language for the first time of the Endeavour encounter.

I commissioned Teila Watson, also known as Ancestress, to write and record a new song using the Badtjala Dictionary. When Teila first sang the song to me, I had tears rolling down my cheeks; it was the first time the full weight of my mother’s work had been activated in such a space. I got to witness all of her hard work in that instance through that solo rendition. Teila also plays the character named ‘spirit woman’ in the film. The other lead actor is Joe Gala, who keeps the film moving along through his various antics and realisations.

The production was an epic feat filming at Indian Head racing against king tides and full moon. We were able to access the Endeavour replica owned by the Maritime Museum in Sydney for authenticity. The cast comprised of eleven non-actors from the region and we premiered the film on 14 December at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

I learnt many things off my mother and had a close relationship with her. Shirley Foley was a powerhouse of determination in promoting Badtjala culture wherever she went. I am sure I have inherited that from her.

Article submitted by Dr Fiona Foley

Dr Fiona Foley’s paper: The People of K’gari/Fraser Island: Working through 250 Years of Racial Double Coding was published in Genealogy 2020, 4(3), 74

1 Comment

  1. Zela Bissett says:

    Fascinating story. Thanks for sharing Fiona.

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