Good Fortune Comes in Threes

There’s a reason Simpson Yam has a soft reminiscent smile on his face today. He’s part of a team of Olkola men who have just finished building algngga (wet season humpy) right in the middle of town for everyone to see. Simpson has fond memories of his father building algngga, a unique wet season humpy specific to the Olkola people 60 odd years ago. This is the last known time the shelter was built!

Without a doubt Simpson is lucky to be alive. This quietly spoken Olkola man was born 65 years ago in a violent storm at Koolatah Station on the Mitchell River Plains, north east of Kowanyama in Australia’s north.

At birth Simpson was small and weak and by every account was going to die but for the practical bush brilliance of three very resourceful Kokomnjen sisters from the saltwater country to the East. These three sisters were also the three wives of Simpson’s father Frank Yam Senior (pictured) and together they raised 15 children.

In 1911 Frank Yam Snr and his family escaped intense frontier pressures around the Coleman River. The Emu Lagoon massacre in 1898 forced families away from their country.  Some came in from the bush seeking refuge at Koolatah Station. These few decades were known as the ‘killing time’ when traditional people in North Queensland were living in fear for their lives as Government backed pastoralists took brutal possession of their country.

Simpson was the last born of Frank’s 15 children and grew up on Koolatah Station and was cared for by his three Mum’s and older siblings. It was a good life for a child and Simpson learned his language and culture and how to ride and work cattle at a young age.

Frank Yam Senior with his wives and some of their children - Koolatah Station QLD
Simpson Yam (second from left) Koolatah Station QLD 1955

Simpson’s special story and these old photos belong to the people of Kowanyama and are kept in a temporary keeping place along with many thousands of artefacts, photos and similar stories from the old days. Kowanyama’s collection is one of our nation’s most significant cultural collections meticulously collected over 50 years by local elders. And yet it remains uncatalogued and in limbo housed in unsuitable and unsafe storage.

Although successive Governments have ignored the elders repeated requests for assistance more recently the Queensland government have been showing interest. But Simpson is not waiting. And the elders are not waiting. They are living and breathing and practicing their culture each and every day in the hope that one day soon their fortitude, built from thousands of generations of lived experience around the Mitchell River will finally see the ‘big algngga’ standing tall and proud on the banks of the Magnificent in Kowanyama.

For decades the Kowanyama community has been asking for a state of the art Culture and ResearchCentre to house their priceless collection and to keep their culture alive and strong but time is fastrunning out. Elders are passing away and with them their stories and encyclopaedic knowledge.
Artists impression of proposed new building. The proposed Centre would employ over 20 locals and engage in nationally significant research and cultural transmission programs. Without a doubt it would also become the heart and soul of this proud community and be recognised nationally and globally as a beacon of cultural innovation and research.

The traditional shelter will be on permanent display in the middle of Kowanyama for local mob to learn about. The men have also built a scale model which will form part of an exciting video installation to be launched at the opening of the new Umi Arts building in Cairns in April. You can visit the special video installation in Cairns at Umi Arts on the 11th April 2019. Contact Lisa at Umi Arts. This is a Umi Arts Project funded by the Department of Communications and Arts and produced by BushTV.

Cultural transmission, language retention and retrieval is one of Australia’s greatest urgencies. Thanks to Umi Arts for recognising the significance of this project and The Department of Communications and the Arts for funding it.

You can follow the Kowanyama Project on Facebook.

Images are copyright to Kowanyama Cultural Collection

Story and Video by Tom Hearn

2 Comments
  • Dennis Young

    March 21, 2019at6:43 pm Reply

    What a great story ..shame on our Government for not recognising these most important historical and highly cultural ways to be preserved for time immortal from a time that goes back so far we cannot comprehend…
    I am one of few privileged people to have grown up in the far north and having had 3 indigenous nannies over a period of time that loved me and brought me up with a very different view on life as we normally view it ..
    I was SORRY long before the word was ever mentioned from a politicians lips. We must never let cultures, languages and old ways disappear to be forever gone ….we shouldn’t work the land ..the land works for us.

  • Christina Moodie

    March 22, 2019at5:40 pm Reply

    I really hope you get your special place built asap. It would be such a shame to lose all that you have. It is all part of history and we as whites have so much to learn from all of you. One thing I would like to know is how did you all survive cyclones prior to white invasion

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