What is a mission song?
A Mission Song is one that was performed or composed on an Aboriginal mission, settlement or reserve during the Missions Era, which lasted fromAustralia’s Federation in 1901 until the success of the Australia Referendum on Aboriginal rights in 1967.
During the Missions Era, many government policies were imposed on Aboriginal peoples under the broad parametres of the White Australia policy and Assimilation policies. These policies resulted in the forced removal of Aboriginal people from our traditional lands, restrictions against practicing our traditional cultures and languages, and the forced removal of children from our families. Their aim was to end our traditional social structures and connections to country. As a result, our cultural knowledge and practices were vilified, and Aboriginal people suffered institutionalised oppression and disadvantage.
Yet, today, the Missions Era also holds important memories about the lifestyles of Aboriginal families and communities during that time. They are filled will stories of struggle and hope, and reflect the strength and resilience of Aboriginal people, where innovation, courage and faith kept families alive.
When Aboriginal people were forbidden to our practice culture or sing our traditional songs, a Mission Song was a song they were usually permitted to sing. This term, Mission Song, is a new one, and it describes the old music of the Missions Era. Mission Songs include church hymns, as well as the composed songs about daily life, such as living on government rations. They include song of farewell as families were divided, or working away from home on stock routes or pearl luggers.
It was often missionaries who introduced Western instruments to Aboriginal people, although Western music could be heard in many places such as the wireless and jukeboxes, and church was one of the only places where Aboriginal people were encouraged to sing. Many Aboriginal people took advantage of this by learning to play music and adapting it to their own purposes. They would sing their own tunes, which often told stories of their lives, or cover popular songs that echoed their experiences. This is the reason why country music, and its “they’re all hurtin’” songs, are so popular and relatable among Aboriginal families.
Finally, the word Mission, from “on the ’mish”, is used here as it’s used in Aboriginal English, which is a recognised dialect in Australia. Its translation means, from a time or lifestyle during the mission days or “on the ’mish”. It can often be used in a derogatory way, but this is generally not in association with Christianity or the Church.
Examples of this word as used today are:
“Mission manager” — a non-Aboriginal person who thinks they know best and asserts their authority in Aboriginal affairs
“Mission mentality” — an Aboriginal person who complains and expects government to fix all their problems
“Mission shame” — when someone confronts you in public in a rough and embarrassing way, usually swearing and humiliating you loudly
“Mission breed” — describing someone who is rough and might want to fight you in the street
“The ’mish” — the mission as a home or Aboriginal community, which can also be applied to a state-run settlement or reserve where missionaries were also often present
The term Mission may now be used in a more positive way, as younger generations have developed a greater nostalgia for their ancestors’ upbringing and lifestyles “on the ’mish”.
A good example of a Mission Song is the children’s tune, “Down In the Kitchen”. This tune was sung by children who had been removed from their families to dormitories on Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement, and made fun of the government rations they had to eat. The lyrics were written by Alma Geia who was sent to Palm Island at age 8 around 1929 and was adapted from the American folk tune “Down In The Valley”. As was commonly done in folk music, eg. Twinkle Twinkle same tune as ABC song.