History of Injinoo Community

The community, now known as Injinoo Aboriginal Community, officially changed its name from Cowal Creek Community in 1988. Injinoo is a local word meaning ‘Small River’ and refers to the creek on which the settlement is located. The renaming was a political act through which the community sought to reclaim and redefine itself as it emerged from the restrictive Queensland reserve period.

Unlike many other Aboriginal communities in Cape York Peninsula, Cowal Creek? was not originally established as a mission or government reserve. In 1918 the report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals referred to a small settlement that had been established at Small River (Cowal creek) by the remnants of the Red Island and Seven River tribes somewhere around 1915. Bleakly (1961:157) notes that people at Cowal Creek supported themselves by fishing and gardening and that the Chief Protector had decided to encourage this self?help by providing advice and some equipment but leaving the management of the community to an elected council. As this was not a government reserve or church mission there is relatively little archival information relating to it. In 1924 a Torres Strait Islander teacher was sent to Cowal Creek (Chief Protector’s Report 1924) and at some point, the Anglican diocese of Carpentaria sent a trained Islander Deacon there. In 1936 the Chief Protector of Aboriginals commented in a letter to the Under Secretary

It must be pointed out that the natives of this settlement at Cowal Creek are a very primitive type, being the remnants of the old Seven Rivers and Red Island tribes, who formed this voluntary native village, and are conducting the affairs of their little community with no other supervision than a Torres Strait Island Native teacher (QSA A/3866 1936/ 9033).

A commonly told local story maintains that 6 tribes of the area in northern Cape York Peninsula (i.e the Gudang, the Yadaigana, Undayamoo, Gumekadin, Angamutthi and Attambayah people) came together and decided that they should settle down and form a community in order to survive the effects of European invasion. These ‘tribes’ were also known colloquially as the Seven River, McDonnell River, Red Island Point, Cairn Cross, Somerset and Whitesand people.

Some people amongst the most northern of these people (the Gudang) instead chose to join their Kaurareg neighbours to whom they were affiliated by marriage. They went to Prince of Wales Islands (Muralug) then were moved to Horne Island (Narupai) and were later removed to Hammond Island (Kirriri). During World War II they were forcibly removed to a village called Poid on Moa Island and later to a new village Kubin on the same Island. Thus strong links remain today between Injinoo and the Kaurareg people and in particular people from Kubin.

While Cowal Creek was not established by the government there is clear evidence that not all people came in voluntarily. For instance, the account told by McDonnell River people of their ‘calling in’ is not quite so peaceful. Alec Whitesand, the Aboriginal man credited with drawing the tribes together, on this occasion was accompanied by police with guns when he ‘called in’ the people from McDonnell River (Goody Massey Tape # 1992/1). Actually the establishment of Cowal Creek with all 6 tribal groups must have occurred in stages. Bleakley records that in 1918 only the Red Island and Seven River people were present at Injinoo (Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals 1919). Alec Whitesand is reported to have been a Wuthathi man and unlikely to have been the original founder of Injinoo as he is likely to have settled at Cowal Creek sometime after it was established. The McDonnell River people who were brought in by Alec Whitesand were the last to be relocated to Cowal Creek, probably during the 1930′s.

Injinoo today is a result of this alliance between these groups. Mr Wilfred Bowie (now deceased) recalled to me how the village at first consisted of separate clusters of bark houses. Each cluster was comprised of a single traditional group. The original village was built on the sand in the area now known as the lookout or camping ground but was later moved back to firmer ground. The occasional concrete stump foundation can still be seen towards the rear of the camping ground area.

The early years in Cowal Creek would not have been easy with people living so close to groups that they would not have previously had daily contact with. Interactions including marriage seem to have continued to follow traditional alliance patterns and to some extent this can sometimes be detected in the modern Injinoo. Tensions must have run high at times and as Wilfred Bowie (pers comm 1989) remarked ‘puri puri let fly’ [black magic was rife]. It is a testament to the people of Cowal Creek that despite this they managed to forge a community and a unique identity that continues today.

The fact that Cowal Creek was not a government station (until after World War II when it became part of the area managed as the Northern Peninsula Area Reserve) means that there is little archival information available about the village and its development. The only information in government records are passing references in correspondence based on visits by the Chief Protector of Aboriginals or other official visitors. Despite having a government funded Torres Strait Islander teacher in the village, detailed records relating to the school and its operation at Cowal Creek do not appear to have been kept. It is likely that many of these records were kept locally at Thursday Island and have since been lost. For instance there is not a complete record of annual school supply requisites for the school although one or two can be found in QSA A/15996 (e.g Dec 1941/ 53/40). Where documentary evidence does exist it is often of a dubious nature representing as it does only fragments of debates or conversations.

In 1936 the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, J.W Bleakley, noted out that all cottages at Cowal Creek (which had been built by the Aboriginal people themselves) were raised on stumps, and set in clean sand with fresh running water nearby. He also went on to protest the Professor’s claims that half- caste Aboriginal girls at Cowal Creek were in ‘moral’ danger and forced to live with ‘blacks’ when they should be ‘put in their right place amongst the whites, where their fathers live’ (QSA A/3866/9033:1936).

World War II brought many changes to Cowal Creek. A large air base was established Higgins Field – at the location of the current Bamaga Airport. For the first time Aboriginal people met Negro Americans who acted ‘like Whitemen and had real money’ (Caroline McDonnell pers comm.). While all non indigenous residents were evacuated south, Aboriginal people were not. In concern for the safety of their people? Elders at Injinoo moved people into the bush, however some young people found the changes exciting as the large bases that were established incorporated social activities such as movies and dances.

The end of World War II and the withdrawal of troops from the region heralded a new era of government control over the lives of Aboriginal people in northern Cape York. The government began to encourage and coerce communities to resettle in what was to become the NPA. Those non-indigenous people who had returned to the area were soon to find their leases resumed to enable the establishment of the NPA Reserve. For example Stan Holland had in 1949 taken a 30 year lease over a pastoral holding at Cody Hill (not far his home at Red Island Point). This lease was resumed on 23/3/1966 for ‘Departmental purposes’ (QSA:DUP A/47706: Cody Hill Register Entry). McLaren and Graham’s 20 year lease on Utingu had already expired in 1934 and Frank Lascelles Jardine’s lease over Somerset which had following his death, been transferred to Hew Cholmondely Jardine (transferred on 26/5/1920), had expired in 1934 (QSA: LAN P489). Cowal Creek’s neighbours were about to change. Sometime in the late 1960′s after the Department of Native Affairs had subsumed Cowal Creek into the Northern Peninsula Area Reserve, the village was moved back from the beach on to the red dirt (its current location and the old village was demolished (this area is now the camping ground or ‘Injinoo lookout’ as it is known).

Today Injinoo village has approximately 475 residents. Housing standards have improved dramatically and substantial housing construction works have been undertaken over recent years. The re-establishment of a school has been one of the community’s great achievements. The Cowal Creek school, originally commenced after petition from the Aboriginal people at the settlement, had been closed down by the Department of Native Affairs once they assumed management of the reserve. Injinoo has a local female Anglican Deacon (the first female indigenous deacon ordained in the Anglican Church) and local indigenous headmaster at the primary school. Not all of the Traditional Owners of the area live in Injinoo, some have married and settled into the other 4 communities in the Northern Peninsula Area and others have moved farther afield.

Extracted from

Mcintyre-Tamwoy, S 2002 ”Red Devils and White Men” unpublished PhD thesis James Cook University