Aboriginal people were pushed into camps, like this in Lake Monger, pictured in the 1920s. (Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)
Just a few kilometres from Perth CBD is a quiet cul-de-sac street, lined with native banksia scrub on one side and a tilt up concrete warehouse on the other.
This pocket of bushland in the wealthy suburb of Shenton Park was once home to one of the many Aboriginal camps dotted along fringes of Perth.
It’s also the exact spot where Noongar woman Lynnette Coomer grew up in the 1950s.
“They can build their buildings here, but the land here, the bush here, the mother earth here — that’s my boodja [country] and it always will be,” Ms Coomer told Hilary Smale on ABC Radio Perth.
Lynnette Coomer grew up in bush land in Shenton Park in the 1950s. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
“They were pushing Aboriginal people away from their traditional sites because they were building this city and building all the suburbs.
“They were chasing all my ancestors and my family into whatever bit of land we could find and squat there.”
A hidden slice of local history
Life in those camps is an obscure piece of local history that is being unearthed by historian Denise Cook.
She has completed a PhD on the subject and is working on a book analysing life at several of the city’s old camps.
Dr Denise Cook has published a PhD and is working on a book analysing life at several of Perth’s old camps. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
Dr Cook said most people are unaware vibrant Noongar bush camps existed for decades just metres from their homes, or in many cases on the land their homes are built on.
“It was very, very hard for Aboriginal people to rent a house and most of them didn’t have the money to do it anyway,” Dr Cook said.
“They were kind of forced into camps.
“It was the kind of land where they could be on the outskirts of suburbs where they could get work and find water but also far enough from houses that they would be more or less left alone.”
The Department of Native Welfare attempted to set up designated reserves for camping, but encountered fierce opposition.
“Every time they found a place in the metro area that might be suitable, the local residents and local council would all mount up this huge opposition to it and nothing would happen,” Dr Cook said.
The Shenton Park camp site was just a few kilometres from Perth’s bustling CBD. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
A sense of freedom
Ms Coomer’s most striking memory of life at the camp was an overwhelming sense of freedom.
“There was no neighbours, no fence line,” she recalled.
“It was just being free and having those strong family ties and connections.
“You were never too far out of sight out your parents — if my mum wasn’t home, my grandmother would be there.”
But once Ms Coomer or her relatives stepped out of the camp, that sense of freedom was gone.
Between 1927 and 1954 there was a strict curfew on Aboriginal people being on the streets of Perth after dark.
“My aunts and uncles, who were fortunate to have a part-time job, had to be off the streets by six o’clock,” she said.
Some homes at the camp were built with sheets nailed to large trunks of wood, like this one pictured at a Perth camp in 1971. (ABC News)
Life in the camp
Homes in the camp were made of strips of tin salvaged from the local tip, or trunks of wood held together by rags and other fabric.
“One thing about that little home that my parents and my grandmother had built, it didn’t get knocked down in any stormy weather — it was firm and strong,” Ms Coomer said.
“My dad used to work on the Melville Roads Board and he used to bring home black tar bitumen, warm it up and putty up holes that were in our house.
“We had no doors, we used to put up a rugs handed out to us by the department.
“The beds we did have were from the tip and mattresses we made do with what we could, most times it would be bits of clothing.
“There was no TV, no electricity, no technology so we had that very strong family connection.
“You made do with what you had — but you never complained, we were just happy and content with what we had.”
A typical meal at the camp was either damper, kangaroo meat or canned food.
“Even today in the pantry at my house, what do I continue to buy? Tinned food,” Ms Coomer said.
“I think it’s just a habit — I don’t think I’m the only one that does that, it’s a natural instinct for me.”
Suburbia has devoured the Shenton Park bush camp Lynnette Coomer once called home. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
‘It’s a shared history’
Dr Cook said she would like councils to include the experiences of Aboriginal people when promoting Perth’s local history.
“I want people to understand that it’s a shared history,” she said.
“We don’t just have this white history — we have all these different layers and elements.
“It brings a richness to our history that otherwise wouldn’t be known.”
Ms Coomer agreed.
“When it boils down to it, we were refugees in our country, we had to fend for ourselves,” she said.
“By listening to the true storytellers who speak from the heart — we get the story right.
“We are people talking from the heart, not from a textbook.”
Lynnette Coomer and Denise Cook want more people to know the history of Aboriginal people living in their local area. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)