Western view: Perth’s Noongar community
Discover more about the Noongar community of Perth with this month’s indigenous.gov.au community profile. We’ll be posting a new story every day this week to showcase the great work happening in Perth to Close the Gap.
The Noongar people of Western Australia are one of the nation’s largest and proudest Indigenous groups.
For the last 45,000 years, Noongar people have lived in the south-west of Western Australia. Their country extends from semi-arid wheat belt land in the north, down to coastal Esperance.
These days around 30,000 Noongar people live on their country, including many who call the capital city of Perth home.
Here, dozens of community groups and organisations have established themselves as meeting places, so no matter how far they’re spread across the city, the Noongar people stay connected with each other and their culture.
The Noongar people have always had strong leaders who have guided them as a people: legendary heroes of the past such as Yagan, Midgegooroo, Bessie Flowers and Mokare, and more contemporary figures like Jack Davis and Ned Mippy.
For Perth elder Richard Wilkes, one of their greatest icons is Yagan. Considered a mighty warrior by his people, Yagan was eventually killed by a settler and his head sent to England for study and display.
In 1994 it was discovered in an unmarked grave in an English cemetery and Wilkes led a delegation to retrieve his ancestor’s remains and bring them back to country. In 2010 Yagan’s remains were laid to rest at a sacred site in the Swan Valley where his body is thought to be. The area is now known as the Yagan Memorial Park.
With Yagan’s body once again whole, Wilkes says his ancestor will finally be able to walk in the Dreamtime.
Land rights remains one of the biggest issues facing the Noongar people. In 2006 they celebrated a successful native title claim over the metropolitan area of Perth. Legal and community negotiations are continuing on the future of the claim however, as it was later overturned.
Of the 2006 outcome, South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council director Ted Hart says native title recognition meant a great deal to Noongars everywhere.
“You have a look at the old people. When you mention recognition, you’ll see a smile on their faces,” he says. “I remember when we won in 2006. I walked out of that court, I was the chairperson at the time, and you had tears in these old peoples’ eyes.”
Dennis Eggington of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, who has been central to many of the land and legal issues which have faced Noongar people, agrees.
“The 2006 decision was just a confirmation of what we already knew, which is that we’ve got our language, we’ve got our culture, we’ve got strong connection to country,” he says.
Looking to the future
These days Noongar heroes are making their mark in education, politics and sport. Nowadays around a third of the AFL’s growing number of Indigenous players across Australia are Noongar.
Twenty-one year old Fremantle Dockers player Stephen Hill is one of them. He knows from experience that having strong Noongar leaders and role models to look up to can really help create successful and happy lives.
“I used to love Peter Matera as a kid so I always looked up to him and wanted to be like him playing AFL and taking the game on,” Hill says. “Me being in the AFL now I guess there’s probably kids that look up to me, so that’s pretty special.”
Noongar author and Curtin University lecturer Kim Scott says his people have always been highly adaptable and are very able to retain their culture in an urban setting.
“We can operate with our cultural roots perfectly in a modern society,” he says. “And Noongars have always been able to do that.”
He says many historians have noted how eagerly Noongars embraced the technology of the Europeans who arrived on their shores.
Scott says one of the ways Noongars are maintaining their traditional ways within a metropolitan society is through telling and re-telling old stories like Mamang. It tells of a Noongar who was so confident in his culture he decided to ride a whale out over the horizon to discover new places.
“He’s come back to his home community enriched and better able to make a contribution because he’s taken a risk and trusted his heritage,” Scott says.
“These old yarns, they’re the ones that help us right now. There are buildings around but that’s a very deep old country. And the sounds, these sounds help bring all that alive again.”Tweet