John 'Sandy' Atkinson

Sandy Atkinson, 2013
Sandy Atkinson, 2013
Image: James Henry
Source: Museum Victoria
You can't beat that, can you, when first-hand knowledge is coming from someone with experience.

My clan is Bangarang and I was born at Cummeragunja Mission. I am the fourth generation that was born there and I left there when I was just 21. The reason why I stayed that long was my dad was a shearing contractor, so I hung around. I met a nice young lady and she didn’t want to live at Cummeragunja so that’s why I left!  

I thought growing up at Cummeragunja was lovely. The manager had all the authority around the place. If he said jump, you jumped. In spite of that, some managers were good, they didn’t interfere with you very much unless you got out of place.

Growing up right on the Murray River, you can imagine in the summer months as kids you’d spend a lot of time in the water and swimming. I can always remember one of the initiations of growing up would be swimming across the Murray. That was the way you proved yourself. There was a great old tree – they call them snags – it fell across and nearly went out to the middle of the river. We’d go right out onto that snag and swim from there. You got better and better until you finally swam right across.

One day my dad told me a story of the generation before him. These old men decided they were going to catch an old Murray Cod. So they put their net in and in the morning they had him. Old blokes, in their big flat-bottomed boat and they were pulling him up. And the old Murray Cod went mad and he ripped the net to pieces and nearly tipped them out of their boat and so they never ever fished for him again. They said no, he's the boss. He stays there.

When I came to the museum and I told that story, they told me that Murray Cod live for 140 years so how exciting was that! I must have been the last to know about that old Murray Cod. He must have been a giant. I don't know of anybody who ever caught him. When we were young bucks, we'd be all walking in mobs down along the river, we used to hear him playing, making noise, and we knew it was him. We never used to swim in near that hole, always upstream from him or downstream. I don't know whether we were scared of him but we never went near there. Maybe we were thinking about the old man saying he's the boss, that's his place, no going near him anymore. It was the same at the bunyip hole. In my generation and generations before me, no one ever swam near the bunyip hole. No one ever seen him but we didn't take the chance. We were told he was there and that was it!

They were fond memories. Life was so simple in them days. You made your own fun – tin rollers and pulled them along, and created wars across the river throwing mudswitches at each other. You go back in time and Aboriginals on missions were as well off as anybody else. When the Depression was on and the whole world was out walking round from soup kitchen to soup kitchen, those people on the mission were in a house and getting rations.

Coming from a big family, there’s a survival thing going on, but there’s lots of love and sharing too. You’ve got to, when there’s eleven of you, there might be two and three kids sleeping in one bed but you grew up and that was life, it was so simple.

My association with the museum goes back a long way. Back in the 1970s when we started on the Keeping Place there was hardly any Aboriginals that had any connection with this museum. So when I walk in here now I feel so proud because there’s lots of Aboriginals working here and they do a marvellous job. They’re very skilled at what they do so that’s a lot of pride, you know. I doubt whether anybody would have that same personal pride in being a part of this place. They haven’t had the lengthy association that I’ve had. It’s very special.

I remember an old man that used to live up at Shepparton. He used to make all his stuff with a tomahawk and a rasp and sandpaper. I went to him because when I made my first plywood boomerang I didn't know how to make it return. And he went mad. How dare you make those things! He was very upset about it. All he ever knew about making boomerangs and spears, with his hands, and he couldn't relate to me making plywood boomerangs. There's a reflection of this transition we’re talking about. Too many times now we hone in on a spear or a boomerang, and that's Aboriginal culture. It's more than that - that was only a wee part of that thing.

One reason I like coming here to our Yulendj meetings is that you know that if you've got a bit of knowledge you can pass it on to the people who are working here. Knowledge has firstly got to come in the way of talking and demonstrating. You could write them down and do what you like with them after you've done that. You can't beat that, can you, when first-hand knowledge is coming from someone with experience.

We are involved in a whole range of things now where we wasn't 20 or 30 years ago. You've only got to look at how the wider community now views our Welcome to Country. I go around our shires and councils and just about anybody, businesses even, they acknowledge Aboriginal Welcome to Country. I think they'll be very excited with what we're about to present them. And what we're doing too will go a fair way into the future. What I've been excited about with Yulendj is we've been able to deal with the transformation of the culture. We're keeping it in touch with the past and showing people that it's alive and it's travelling. That's been exciting to me.