James Page and the Nepabunna Mission

James or Jim Page gave everything to the Adnyamathanha people. You could say, he even gave his life, as you can see from this report by Nicola Gage on the ABC’s World Today, first broadcast on Friday, December 2, 2011 12:42:10 – please, note they incorrectly call him “John”.

The community developed in to what was, apparently, a very happy place. And, remarkably, it was a very generous place. For, when the indigenous people heard about the suffering of British people following the war, they decided to raise money, and send it to the starving English.

Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 - 1954), Saturday 15 December 1945, page 4

Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), Saturday 15 December 1945, page 4

But that’s just the start of the surprises.

EMILY BOURKE: The memories of Aboriginal people from the days of the missions are often stained with stories of loss and grief. But for one community in the north of South Australia, its history is somewhat more optimistic.

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Nepabunna Mission and the community is working hard to document its history and pass on traditional values to future generations.

The ABC’s Port Augusta reporter, Nicola Gage, travelled to the community to get this story.

NICOLA GAGE: Before John Page rode his bicycle along a winding dirt road from Copley to Nepabunna, many children of the Adnyamathanha people had never seen a white person.

ELSIE COULTHARD: He come with a push bike and these kids seen him coming and then they went and run and went and seen the elders, grandfathers and said there’s somebody coming that looks like a ghost.

NICOLA GAGE: John Page was the first missionary to work with the Adnyamathanha people at Nepabunna, nestled between the northern Flinders and Gammon Ranges in South Australia.

Unusually, the Adnyamathanha people were happy for a missionary to live with them, and teach their children in a school environment. He allowed them to continue practising their traditional culture while learning Western values.

Elder Elsie Coulthard says he was a positive influence on the community.

ELSIE COULTHARD: I was sad to see them go, me, because the mission was really looked after those days. We had people here and all the things that they did for us so my time with the missionaries were great.

NICOLA GAGE: Ronald Coulthard is now 80, and the oldest surviving Adnyamathanha person born at the mission.

RONALD COULTHARD: That’s how they brought me up. On emu grass for a mattress, and all the rabbit skin, fox skin, maybe shorn sheepskin that’s been sewed up together for a rug.

NICOLA GAGE: Locals believe the merging of cultures was frowned on by other missionaries, and John Page was being investigated for letting the Aboriginal people maintain too many traditional ceremonies. He committed suicide a few years later, his body is buried under the sandy red ochre of the small town’s foothills.

But Aboriginal elder Mark McKenzie says his memory, goodwill, and descriptions of missionary life in the 1930s still lives on.

MARK MCKENZIE: We used to ride donkeys and go out hunting for rabbits and hit them with a stick or something like that and cook them in the ashes or grill them and have a feed and come home and go out and set traps. We had a job to do since we were child.

NICOLA GAGE: These are just some of the stories being passed on to the younger generations of the Adnyamathanha people. This month is the mission’s 80th anniversary since John Page rode that bike. To celebrate the community’s survival, Aboriginal leader Vince Coulthard created his people’s first flag.

VINCE COULTHARD: That symbolises the life of Aboriginal Adnyamathanha people. The men with the miradidgee (phonetic), the woman with the otingee (phonetic). The grouping with the symbolic sun of this coming together of people, the blue being inaari (phonetic) the sky and the brown being the earth, mother earth.

NICOLA GAGE: It’s been raised in celebration by former residents who travelled far and wide to be there. Ronald Coulthard was one of them.

RONALD COULTHARD: This land means a lot to me yeah because I learnt a lot from old people before they died. My grandfather, my great-grandfather because this is my cultural country, spiritual country.

NICOLA GAGE: Traditional smoking ceremonies and boomerang carvings are still being taught today. Elder Gladys Wilton says Dreamtime stories and cooking techniques are also being passed down the generations.

GLADYS WILTON: A lot of our grandchildren that might be moving away but still we tell them about bush tuckers and things, we show it to them and a lot of the little great-grandsons likes bush tucker.

NICOLA GAGE: With such a vibrant history, the focus is now on ensuring culture and traditions are never lost.

EMILY BOURKE: Nicola Gage reporting.



2 Responses to “James Page and the Nepabunna Mission”

  1. lindafarrow October 9, 2017 at 3:57 pm #

    I have just discovered this in 2017. Jim Page was my Great Uncle and for what I hear about him, I am so proud.
    It was only this year after my Mum (formally Page) died aged 91 that I discovered his story from my cousin in
    Queensland Australia (Janice Isles). Janice and I have been liaising about our Uncle since May of this year when
    I discovered her through a DNA match. I am an artist and intend to make a piece of work about him (film).
    Thank you.
    Linda Farrow

  2. MB October 9, 2017 at 10:44 pm #

    Linda! This is fantastic news. I hope that you share something of your film work here.

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