Rusty signs, bearing the Aboriginal flag, and perforated by bullet holes, mark the boundaries of the Jerrinja community, which are otherwise spelt out, as you enter, by the marked deterioration in road quality1. The living area is narrowly buffered from the surrounding white neighbourhood by grassy strips, overgrown with weeds and littered by old car bodies. Although there are no physical barriers to entry and the streets are contiguous with public roads, outsiders are reluctant to venture onto Jerrinja land. Rumours circulate amongst the whites of cars being stoned and people assaulted. A further deterrent exists in the form of hordes of large, territorially- minded dogs, who terrorise pedestrians (Jerrinja included) and can stop a car dead in its tracks.
Amongst many whites, the presence of the mission is resented, as a burden on
otherwise prime real estate and as a perceived source of delinquency which spills out to sully public spaces and endanger their streets and homes. Such attitudes represent an ironic twist, and one might also say an obstinate denial, of the reality that the major invasion of space and bodily encroachment in black/white relations has taken, and continues to take, place in the opposite direction.
Despite, or because of their fears, and due to the sense of closure it projects, the ‘mission’ attracts intense interest from outsiders, so that, even in the space which is considered most their own, the Jerrinja feel themselves under constant surveillance from watchful eyes. Notwithstanding the powerful effects of surveillance, there are, as I will take up later, more insidious ways in which hegemonic forces penetrate the inside domain than the prying eyes of nosey neighbours; a fact of which Jerrinja people are not unaware. Anthropologists may be counted as one. Nevertheless, at this point, I want to look at the ‘mission’, as it is commonly experienced, as a place where Jerrinja people can conduct their affairs in relative isolation.
In 1995, at the time when my major fieldwork was undertaken, the population of Jerrinja, including 11 non-indigenous residents, stood at just over one hundred and
1 Such was the state of things when I first arrived at the mission, since that time both signs and streets
seventy people. It should be noted that Jerrinja, an indigenous revival, is not a name or identity that everyone who lives on ‘the mission’ accepts, nor, some would argue, is it one to which everyone who lives there is entitled to claim. The issue will be explored in further detail later, for now it provides a convenient label which will be used broadly to specify both the place and all its residents. Jerrinja is also commonly known by its members as ‘the mission’ or ‘mish’, although it was never a religious institution, and sometimes as the ‘middle east’.
The land on which they live belongs to the Jerrinja, or at least to the Jerrinja Local Aboriginal Land Council which is not, as will become clear, the same thing. Jerrinja land covers an area of 105 hectares, comprising an original 22 hectares signed over to the Jerrinja Local Aboriginal Land Council under the provisions of the NSW Land Rights Act and a further 83 discontiguous hectares of bushland granted to the community by the NSW government, following a dispute with the Shoalhaven City Council (Fox u.d.: 31.36). The original reserve, which includes the current living area, straddles Orient Point and is flanked on two sides by reaches of the Crookhaven River (see map 2). This land is now carved in two by the road, previously mentioned, which leads to the suburban precinct of Orient Point. Once a focus of community life, the southern side of the property, fronting the backwater of Curley's Bay, is now simply a grassy paddock, little used. Jerrinja living is concentrated on the northern half, overlooking the final stretch of the Crookhaven before it meets the sea.
From Jerrinja, multiple tracks descend 'down the front', to the river foreshore. Up river, the Crookhaven's original flow is swelled by the convergence of the
Shoalhaven, the artefact of early settlers' canal building efforts. Across the river, brought into being by the same pioneering stroke, is Comerong, an island of sizeable proportions, long farmed but still bearing thick stands of rainforest. Various other small islets stud the river. Flowing between Comerong and Jerrinja, the water of the river is estaurine, subject to tidal influence and lightly fringed by mangrove
vegetation and oyster encrusted rocks. Low tide exposes broad muddied flats and once prolific, now sparser populations of edible shellfish. The sandy shoreline leads seaward, past the boat ramp - favoured haunt of casual fishermen and pelicans - to
have been upgraded.
Crookhaven Head, which, anchored by a narrow isthmus, juts boldly out into the Pacific. Surrounding rock platforms support a rich maritime habitat, while the ocean, pounding the rocky shore, has carved tiny coves in places between solid outcrops. On the far side, a long sandy beach stretches southward toward Jervis Bay.
The ‘mission' itself is laid out in two linked cul-de-sacs: one street fronting the river and a second running parallel. Twenty seven homes, the majority dating from a 1970s housing project, are arranged in suburban fashion about the deeply potholed streets, while the old wooden manager's house, standing a little removed, has also recently been reclaimed as a residence. A distinction in residents' minds between the 'top' and 'bottom' of the mission seems to hold little relation to the current street layout,
continuing, it seems, to locate its bearings in the old wooden schoolhouse - one time office and ongoing multifunction meeting place - atop the hill. Two other communal buildings may be found on the mission, the new medical centre, hosting a weekly baby's clinic and periodic sessions by a local doctor, and a cavernous shed, the defunct remainder of some past development project. A funded gardening scheme, involving a professional horticulturalist and employing one resident part-time, had helped to establish, and for a time maintain, vegetable gardens in a handful of yards, as well as planting trees around the mission which now lend their shade, fruit, beauty and added privacy to at least some of the Jerrinja homes.
In contrast to the withdrawal of white social life behind closed doors, the streets, gardens and verandahs of 'the mission' are (though decreasingly so) social and public spaces where people sit, gather, gossip and play. Few houses are fully fenced and a good many fences lie in varying states of disrepair, making for easy passage. On an ideological level, Jerrinja residents maintain that there is a freedom on the mission, where anyone can go into anyone else's home, but there are increasing complaints that, in that sense, 'it's not like it used to be'.
Beyond the bounds of the mission, Jerrinja residents continue to claim the river frontage2 and bushy reserve adjoining it, as a place primarily of their own. This Aboriginal appropriation of 'public' space is strongly resented and contested by other
2 The shore portion of the reserve was revoked for public use sometime after WW2.
local residents and by Council, who complain about noise, fires, rubbish and broken bottles. The community maintains a cemetery on the adjoining reserve, which after a long ban against its use, was reopened at the unauthorised initiative of the community.
Before any other sources of distinction are considered, an examination of the
demographics of Jerrinja will serve clearly to demarcate it as a community apart . By any number of indicators Jerrinja represents an impoverished sector of the Australian society, sharing, in exaggerated form, the general demographic profile and statistical indicators of disadvantage of the indigenous populace nationwide.
One measure, which clearly distinguishes Jerrinja from the general neighbourhood in which it is ensconced, is the density of household occupation. According to 2001 census figures for the ‘Indigenous Location’ of Culburra-Orient Point, a statistical
unit constituted in the main by the residents of Jerrinja3 4, the mean household size
amongst the indigenous population was 4.2 compared to 2.4 among the non-
indigenous population. Based on my own figures, the average density of occupation on the mission itself, in 1995, was six persons per household. This placed it
significantly higher than the 1996 census based average of 3.3 persons for indigenous households across New South Wales - 3.7 nationally - and well over double that of the comparable non-indigenous household density of 2.7. On the ground, the actual spread of residents across the predominantly three bedroom homes of Jerrinja varied between single occupiers and a household of nineteen, sometimes twenty, which spilled out from an overcrowded house into backyard shacks and caravan. There were four houses with ten occupants or more at that time.
3 For the most part figures used will be those relevant to the period in which my fieldwork was conducted.
4 That the Jerrinja population comprised the bulk of the indigenous population in the Orient Point - Culburra location at the time of my fieldwork is indicated by comparison of the ABS figure of 200 indigenous persons in the 'location; at the 1996 census, 148 persons in the 'collection district', which more carefully isolates Jerrinja geographically (but for which detailed statistical data is not obtainable), and my own 1995 estimates for the Jerrinja population of just over 170. Anecdotal evidence would similarly suggest that there were not many indigenous households beyond the mission in the area at the time. Moreover, at least one, and possibly two of these households was comprised at the time of ex- Jerrinja residents.
Household composition at Jerrinja is generally complex, few households representing standard nuclear family units5. At least half the households had three generations present and during the time of my fieldwork, there were only five houses out of twenty eight that did not contain children under fifteen years of age. In 1995, on my own estimates, approximately 40% of the Jerrinja population were aged 15 years or under, with 15% under five. The figures concurred with 1996 ABS data for the indigenous population of the Orient Point - Culburra 'indigenous location', where 39% are recorded as 15 years or under and 14.5% in the 0-4 age bracket. By comparison, in the 1996 census only 21.1% of the overall NSW population was aged 15 years or under.
The age profile of the population at Jerrinja reflects the national indigenous demographic profile, contrasting strongly with the non-indigenous national demographic and even more markedly with the local demographic profile. In the 2001 census, the median age for indigenous persons in the Culburra-Orient Point district was 18, while the non-indigenous median for the same area was 46. Figures 1 and 2, graphing the age distributions by sex of indigenous and total NSW populations, bring the contrasts between the age structures of the indigenous and broader
Australian populace into sharp relief. Both demonstrate strong congruence with national demographic profiles of the same type. The trend is reflected in pronounced form at Jerrinja, figure 3 representing the age profile for the 'indigenous location' of Orient Point - Culburra in 1996.
In explaining the relative youth of the Jerrinja population one factor to take into account is a high rate of birth. The average annual growth rate for the indigenous population in NSW over the five year period 1991 to 1996 was 2.5%, two and a half times that of the comparable non-indigenous population. Across their childbearing years, indigenous women, generally are likely to have more children than their non- indigenous counterparts, and at Jerrinja this is markedly so. ABS statistics based on the 1996 census show that whilst in the overall NSW population only 5% of females
5 The issue of household composition will be revisited in a later section.
Source; Experimental E stim ates o f the Aboriginal a n d Tones Strait Islander Population, 30 June 1 9 9 1