Learn About Perth’s Aboriginal History

Perth City is situated in the ancestral homeland of the Whadjuk Nyoongar, who have been the traditional owners of the South West of Western Australia for at least 45,000 years. The development of Perth City over the past two centuries has significantly altered the natural environment and geographical features that were fundamental to Nyoongar culture and subsistence.

The traditional custodians of this extraordinary site are the Whadjuk Noongar people of the Nyoongar Nation, the largest Aboriginal nation in Australia, with 14 clan groups spread across the southern region of Western Australia.

Read on for more information of Perth’s aboriginal history!

Depiction of the foundation of Perth

The Aboriginal History of Perth

The South Perth region was inhabited by Beeloo Nyoongars or river people. Munday was the most significant Nyoongar figure at the time of colonization. The Nyoongars who inhabited this region were known as Gareen, and their settlement was named Gareenup.

Between present-day Richardson Park and Mill Point (Gareenup), there was a significant camping and fishing area known as Booryulup or the site of the Booryul or magic people. Since then, the Kwinana Freeway has occupied this region. The area encompassed approximately 1.5 kilometers of Melville Water’s foreshore and 150 meters of bushland to the east. Today, the foreshore reserve is known as Milyu, which is an Aboriginal word for samphire but not a Nyoongar one.

The Como foreshore was a popular spot for Beenabup and hole-digging. The Nyoongars called the area of rushes close to Millars Pool Goorgygoogup. Nyoongars refer to the South Perth foreshore side of Perth Waters as Gaboodjoolup or “the place of the shore.” Joorolup, also known as ‘site of the jarrahs’, is located further east.

It is documented that when the beere or banksias were in bloom, the Nyoongars would camp in the South Perth region and harvest honey from the blossoms. At this time of year, the Nyoongar widened a spring on the Melville Water side of South Perth and allowed blossoms to percolate in the water. The fermented beverage was then consumed during this special event. 

A group of thirty Bidjareb (Pinjarra) Nyoongar attacked Shenton’s Mill as one of the earliest recorded instances of Nyoongar presence in the region after colonization. Gcalyut, the party’s leader, was subsequently incarcerated.

After roughly 1850, a camp was established near the present Causeway, and Nyoongars occasionally utilized the South Perth region. During the 1930s and 1940s, residents included the Parfitt and Pickett families, among others. Other families visited the area at this time to capture shrimp, bees, fish, and crabs.

The Aboriginal Culture

Noongar performer

At the time of European settlement in 1829, the areas encompassing what is now central Perth were known as Mooro, Beeloo, and Beeliar by the Nyoongar peoples of the south-west of Western Australia. As the Traditional Owners of these lands, the Whadjuk Nyoongar imbued them with a rich culture that supported daily existence.

The river is a sacrosanct site for Nyoongar peoples, who have preserved numerous tales of the Waugal, a water-serpent believed to be responsible for the creation and maintenance of the river and the majority of Perth’s other water features. The Nyoongar peoples followed the seasons, moving interior in the winter and returning in late spring to hunt wallabies, kangaroos, and possums. Kings Park (Mooro Kaarta), which is now known as Mooro Kaarta, was a major picnic site. Aboriginal peoples also frequented the Matagarup mud flats, which subsequently became Heirisson Island, because it was an excellent fishing spot.

Prior to Captain James Stirling’s 1829 colonization of the region for the British, the Nyoongar peoples had contact with a variety of seafaring visitors, including the Dutch and the French. Aboriginal peoples were dispossessed of their land and subjected to sometimes severe and unsympathetic colonial rule, so relations between settlers and Aboriginal peoples were not always harmonious. In December 2009, the State Government signed a framework agreement with the South West Aboriginal and Land and Sea Council to negotiate the settlement of six Nyoongar Native Title claims over Perth and the South West region of Western Australia. The City is collaborating closely with its Aboriginal community to implement the 71 actions outlined in its Reflect Reconciliation Action Plan, which seek to foster respect, relationships, and opportunities with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Rights of Aboriginal People

In the early years following the arrival of Europeans in Perth, Rosendo Salvado played a significant role in safeguarding the rights of Aboriginal people. Following his 1846 arrival in Australia, Rosendo Salvado advocated for the humane treatment of the indigenous population and supported their desire to preserve their authentic culture and traditions.

The passage of the Aboriginal Act in 1905 posed a grave threat to the survival of Aboriginal people and their culture. The Aboriginal Act institutionalized prejudice and authorized the establishment of “concentration camps” for Aboriginal people, where they were to be confined until their race was nearly extinct. Aboriginal children were removed from their parents, who were deemed socially unfit to raise their children. Aboriginal infants were removed from their families until the 1970s.

The Aborigines Act Amendment Act was enacted in 1911, empowering Australian Federal and State government agencies to remove mixed-race children from their mothers if they had European fathers and Aboriginal mothers. Some historians argue that mixed-race children were removed from the Aboriginal community to shield them from abuse and neglect. During those years, between 10 and 25 percent of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families; this phenomenon is known as the Stolen Generations.

After the Native Welfare Act of 1954, which was amended in 1963, things improved for the Native American population. The Native Welfare Act repealed all previous laws pertaining to the unjust treatment of Native Americans. However, after the 1963 amendments to the Native Welfare Act, Australian federal and state government agencies were required to cease removing Aboriginal children from their biological parents.

Native Australian

Modern Times

Approximately 30,000 Western Australians have Noongar ancestry today. Noongar people have survived a history of oppression and marginalization and continue to assert their rights and identity. As one of the main Aboriginal cultural blocs in Australia, they possess a distinct, vibrant, identifiable, and powerful culture. This demonstrates the enormous strength, support, and vitality of Noongar family groups, the majority of which can trace their ancestry back to the early 1800s. 

South West Native Title Settlement agreements were signed by Noongar and State leaders at Parliament House on June 8, 2015, 87 years after William Harris’ deputation compelled the then-Premier to accept “a great obligation to do justice to the Aboriginal.” On 14 October 2015, four months later, the then-Premier introduced the Noongar (Koorah, Nitja, Boorahwan) (Past, Present, and Future Recognition) Bill 2015 into Parliament.   

At the center of the South West Native Title Settlement is recognition and respect for the Noongar people as the traditional landowners. It represents an extraordinary act of self-determination by the Noongar people, and commits the WA Government and Noongar people to work towards a new level of partnership and shared responsibility for the future.

To conclude, aboriginal culture is an integral aspect of daily life in Perth. You can learn more about the aboriginal heritage of Perth by interacting with the Noongar people, the original residents of the area on which Perth is built.