When I first moved permanently to the Central West about a year ago, I had a conversation with a local amateur historian from a family who has lived in Orange for generations – pretty much since the town was little more than a camp called Blackman’s Swamp. The conversation went something like this:
Me: ‘I’m really interested to know what stories you might have of the Wiradjuri who were originally here – I can’t find anything on them.’
Local: ‘That’d be because there aren’t any, really. They did some bark cutting for the settlers when they came, they wore possum skin capes and then pretty much disappeared. We don’t think Orange was a place they actually lived in.’
Me: ‘Yeah, right.’
Pretty much terra nullius then, ay? Hm.
I mentioned this exchange to my husband, who’s also a Central Westerner, born in Bourke but raised in Orange, and he said: ‘Well, that sounds like a bit of bullshit. Hadn’t the bloke ever heard of Yuranigh?’
Apparently not, and neither had I.
Yuranigh was, in his time, a famous Wiradjuri son of this part of the country, a stockman hailing from the Molong district just to the north-west of Orange. He was a guide and great friend to the surveyor Sir Thomas Mitchell, accompanying him on his 1846 expedition into central Queensland. Yuranigh, along with two other Aboriginal guides, enabled Mitchell and his party to survive the trip, finding them water along the way and acting as cultural interpreters when they encountered groups of other Aboriginal men who were not so much pleased to have them in their country.
No-one knows when Yuranigh was born but he was probably in his mid-twenties when he and Mitchell first met. It was a relationship that obviously deeply affected the much older Scotsman, Mitchell describing him as ‘guide, companion, counsellor and friend’, and writing of him that ‘his intelligence and his judgment rendered him so necessary to me that he was ever at my elbow … Confidence in him was never misplaced. He well knew the character of all the white men in the party. Nothing escaped his penetrating eye and quick ear.’
They remained friends until Yuranigh’s death five years later. Such great friends that Mitchell arranged the formal fencing of Yuranigh’s traditional Wiradjuri grave at government expense and had a headstone erected there at his own, inscribed: ‘To Native Courage Honesty and Fidelity. Yuranigh who accompanied the expedition of discovery into tropical Australia in 1846 lies buried here according to the rites of his countrymen and this spot was dedicated and enclosed by the Governor General’s authority in 1852’.
So famous was Yuranigh, a lagoon, a district in Queensland and a creek near Molong are named after him. His grave still sits where it always has, between Molong and Orange – you can visit it anytime. But what I’ve written here is just about all we know of him. And this is a shame.
History is lost all the time, of course. And it’s always a shame when that happens. It’s like forgetting an essential piece of ourselves. A kind of collective dementia that plagues us humans.
Which is why we should do whatever we can to keep telling and retelling our stories – and passing them on. So that we can try to understand our history whole, both the bits that require black armbands of sorrow and the bits that evoke pride and joy. So that we can keep pushing for a better crack at the future for all of us who live here and those to come. Keep pushing for the respect and understanding that Yuranigh and Mitchell shared.
(Information on Yuranigh sourced from Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1967)