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The Wonnarua people's traditional lands are located in the Hunter Valley area of New South Wales. A dreamtime story from the Wonnarua explains how the hills and rivers in the Hunter Valley were created by a spirit called Baiame. Groups living near the Wonnarua include the Darkinjung and the Wiradjuri peoples.
No one knows exactly how many Aboriginal people lived in the Hunter Valley before Europeans arrived, but the population is thought to have declined rapidly after European settlement. Throughout the 1820s and 30s settler numbers in the Hunter Valley increased. The influx of settlers caused disruption to the movement of Aboriginal groups. As well as losing their traditional lands to agriculture, the introduction of tobacco and alcohol badly affected the health of Aboriginal people. As European settlements grew along the Hunter River, the town of Singleton became the area most identified with the Wonnarua people.
By the 1860s Aboriginal people were being encouraged to settle on government run reserves. The St Clair Mission was established in the Hunter region in 1893.The Wonnarua made up a significant proportion of the population at St Clair. Many of the objects from Singleton-born Alexander Morrison's collection are believed to have been sourced from the St Clair Mission.
St Clair Mission operated until 1918 when it was taken over by the Aborigines Protection Board and renamed Mount Olive Reserve. Many people were asked to leave Mount Olive for failing to obey the strict rules imposed by the Station Manager. By 1928 the Aborigines Protection Board closed the reserve to Aboriginal people.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century government authorities and religious groups continued to have a great deal of control over the lives of Indigenous people throughout Australia. Significant changes only began to occur from the 1960s, particularly after the referendum of 1967. This referendum recognised the citizenship rights of Indigenous people and led to Land Rights legislation being passed in the 1970s and 80s.
The Wonnarua people have maintained a strong sense of their own cultural identity and links with the land despite the impact of European contact on their traditional lands and culture. Through this sustained identity, they are today continuing to reinvigorate their traditional culture, led by the Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation. An example of the Corporation's cultural projects is the development of a dictionary of the Wonnarua language.
- Blyton, Greg; Heitmeyer, Deirdre and Maynar, John. 2004. Wannin Thanbarran:
- A History of Aboriginal and European Contact in Muswellbrook and the Upper Hunter Valley. Muswellbrook Shire Council Aboriginal Reconciliation Committee: Newcastle, New South Wales
- Mulvaney, Richard. 1983. Bachelor of Letters Thesis From Curio to Curation: The Morrison collection of Aboriginal wooden Artefacts. Australian National University: Canberra. Australian Capital Territory
- Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative. 2009. Awabakal & Wonnarua (HRLM) Language Revitalisation, retrieved 16 November 2009 Muurrbay.org website
- Walsh, Robin. 2009. Journeys in Time – Australian Aboriginal Tribes. Retrieved 16 November 2009 from Macquarie University
- Wonnarua Aboriginal Corporation. 2009. Our History. Retrieved 16 November 2009