The fabric of the Riverina is culturally diverse, from the Wiradjuri traditions passed down through generations for thousands of years to the customs of our newest arrivals.
The name 'Wagga' is derived from the local Wiradjuri Aboriginal language and means 'crow'. To create the plural, the Wiradjuri people repeat the word meaning Wagga Wagga, which translates to 'the place of many crows'.
Wiradjuri elder Aunty Isabel Reid was kidnapped when she was seven years old and taken away from her family.
In 1938, she was taken from her family to the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls' Training Home, where she became a member of the Stolen Generations.
“It was very lonely,” she said.
“We left our childhood behind and when we came back, we were younger women.
“You can’t get back the lives that you have lost.”
Aunty Isabel said she didn’t know until she returned how important her culture was.
“I was so hurt,” she said. “I didn’t think things would ever get better for me. It stayed with me for a very long time.”
Aunty Isabel said when she arrived in Wagga, it was a quiet town.
Everyone has a story to tell and we should all be listening.Aunty Isabel Reid
“Myself, Hewitt Whyman and the Honeysetts were the first to move into the city,” she said.
“Mrs Honeysett ran the program to help Aboriginal people to settle into Wagga.”
For a while, Aunty Isabel said she felt like Wagga had not recognised or understood the history and culture of the Wiradjuri people.
“For a while, I really didn’t think so, but now I think Wagga has embraced the Aboriginal culture,” she said.
“The council, The Daily Advertiser and I think people are now interested in our culture.”
As a 34-year-old, Aunty Isabel was given the right to vote in 1967 thanks to a campaign that resulted in a landmark referendum.
Aunty Isabel said the Mabo decision was another turning point for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' rights because it acknowledged their unique connection with the land.
Aunty Isabel said one of the big milestones for Wagga only happened recently, with the unveiling of the reconciliation monument in The Civic Precinct.
“We live in this town and it’s a beautiful town and I wanted something for when the tourists came through,” she said.
“They hear about the Stolen Generation, but there was nothing there for them to see, but now there is and I was seven when I was taken, it’s been a long journey, but we got there in the end.
“We were little children, it’s important to move on, heal the wounds and look to a better future.”
Aunty Isabel has one clear message for the next 150 years.
“Everyone has a story to tell and we should all be listening,” she said.
“Even the refugees who are coming into our city have stories to share.”
Wagga is now home to community members from 112 different countries of origin, who speak 107 languages and practice 62 faiths.
Bernadette Kelly, a lifelong member and the driving force behind setting up the Multicultural Council, said Wagga had come far.
In 1948, archived copies of The Daily Advertiser reveal immigrants were an integral part of the community.
“The climax of last night's celebrations in Wagga was reached when Miss Thena Karofilis, the Cafes candidate, was crowned 'Miss Wagga 1948’.” – January 1, 1949.
Ms Kelly said the inaugural meeting of, what was then the Ethnic Communities Council of Wagga, was held on March 30, 1988.
“The organisation grew,” she said. “The number of refugees coming to Wagga grew and so did the staff.
“In the last 10 years, the numbers increased tremendously and more of the people are coming from a background of torture and trauma, so are in need of resources.”
The early years involved a lot of lobbying for funding and services for the refugees, Ms Kelly said.
Deirdre Moulden spent 12 years working on the humanitarian projects – two years as a volunteer co-ordinator and 10 years as manager of the program.
“Twelve years ago, there were very few African people, no Burmese people and now there are so many,” she said.
“You would never have seen the diversity that you do now, we have a rich tapestry of cultures.”
Ms Moulden said people in the community are very welcoming now.
“At first people questioned where they came from,” she said. “Once new arrivals get their confidence they can contribute to the community.”
In 2012, Wagga was declared an official Refugee Welcome Zone by the Refugee Council of Australia.
Belinda Crain, CEO of the Multicultural Council, said the organisation had come a long way.
“I was born in Wagga and the actual fabric of the society of the city looks very different to 30 years ago,” she said.
“We have many other cultures here now, but when I was going to school there was no one that looked any different to me.”
During a speech in March, 2018, Constance Okot, from South Sudan, said her family was one of the first to arrive in Wagga.
“My husband and six children and I came to Australia and Wagga in 2005,” she said.
“We now call Wagga our home, this is because of how the Multicultural Council supports us. For me, Wagga is the heart of Australia for refugees. The Multicultural Council is our shield as they protect us and make us feel safe.”
Check out more stories looking back through 150 years of The Daily Advertiser.
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