Uncle Herb Wharton: poet, author and ambassador for Indigenous rights

BY Connie Savage

For Uncle Herb Wharton, the Woodford Folk Festival is the perfect opportunity to call for more respect and recognition for the contribution of Indigenous people all around Australia.

Celebrating his 84th birthday at his 33rd consecutive folk festival, Uncle Herb sits in front of the gathered crowd, with people leaning forward in anticipation, prepared to hang on to every word.

Born in 1936 in Kooma country, Uncle Herb grew up in Cunnamulla, Queensland, living in a “black fellas camp” on the outskirts of the then whites-only town.

“I wanna’ go back to the earth I came from when I die. I want to be buried in that old campsite,” Uncle Herb said.

“That block of land is still Aboriginal land. I became a trustee of it 60 years ago.

“It doesn’t belong to one tribe, it belongs to any Indigenous person that wants to camp there. And they’ll never have to pay rent.”

He said he was “poked with a stick” to go to school to learn English, but at night around the fire he learned Aboriginal history.

“This was more important to me,” he said.

“Our history goes back 60 or 80 thousand years, where they try to impose this history of 200 years of settlement.

“It’s garbage about Australians exploring the untamed. There wasn’t a part of it that was untamed. There wasn’t a place in Australia you could walk and not find a foot pad. We knew where our tribal boundaries were.

“Aboriginals were probably the most civilised people in the world, but we just weren’t commercialised. Our history was written in the ground.”

He recalled the first time a preacher visited the settlement.

“He was talking about heaven and a staircase and I thought ‘silly old bugger’,” Uncle Herb said.

“I ran back to my Mum and told her he’s a silly old bastard. He reckons he’s gonna’ build a staircase to the sky! He can’t do it Mum, it’s gonna’ fall down.”

He grew to become a drover, taking month-long trips from Cunnamulla to Bourke moving around 500 cattle at a time.

“I’ve seen more of outback Queensland than the explorers,” Uncle Herb said.

After reading the works of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, he claimed they had never been drovers themselves.

“They just watched the cattle and sheep go past. So, I wrote a poem about droving,” Uncle Herb said.

His first poems were written on scraps of paper.

“I’ve still got my first scribbles I’ve ever done,” he said.

“There was no such thing as biro pens or computers, so I had to get pencils and paper. I’d just go up to the TAB betting shop. Eventually they’d go talk about me and their pencils disappearing.”

Uncle Herb now has a computer to write with. It’s one of the only things he can’t ask the elders about, but the younger generation always helps him.

He concluded with some sage advice.

“There’s only one race of people in the world and that’s the human race. There’s no different races, just tribal differences,” he said.

“We’re not gonna’ be here for another thousand years if we don’t look after the earth.

“I don’t think civilisation’s going to last the way we misuse our resources.

“Only take what you need.”

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