An often-overlooked part of Australian history is how the Ngarigo and Djiringanj people forged a strong connection with brumbies after they were introduced to the Snowy Mountains.
Due to the traditional owners’ talents when it came to controlling horses, it is also thought their feats as stockmen helped inspire the rider immortalised in Banjo Paterson’s poem the Man From Snowy River.
Ngarigo and Djiringanj elders Ellen Mundy and David Dixon said their ancestors would catch the wild horses in Currawong and Wollindibby – the area around Mount Crackenback – then break them in before driving them down to Tathra Wharf, where they would be shipped to Sydney.
From the mid to late 1800s these stockmen included Jack Hoskins and Bobby “Old” Mundy, who would stop at Blackfellows Lake at Kalaru for two weeks before taking them to the wharf.
Many horses went on to become used in Australia’s military campaigns such as the Boer War around 1900.
Ms Mundy said the Ngarigo and Djiringanj developed such an affinity for the animals they became “horse whisperers”.
“Even though horses were an introduced species, they still learnt how to communicate with them,” she said.
There’s a lot of things people don’t know about the history of this country.Ellen Mundy
Knowing the safest routes, her ancestors would take the animals along traditional pathways that rolled gradually down from the high Snowys to the coast, past Bombala, Candelo and Bega, where they knew to find food and water.
“They were really great stockmen because they knew the land inside out,” Ms Mundy said.
“They knew the shortcuts, they knew the best ways to come down to Tathra.
“They would have brought the horses down into places where they would have had a good run without breaking their legs.”
Part of two worlds
It was not an easy life as her ancestors would not have been paid the same amount as their European counterparts - if they were paid at all - but they would have benefited from the work in other ways, as Mr Dixon said there was the thought that as the Ngarigo were stockmen they should be left alone.
“Maybe without the connection with horses it would have been harder for our people to survive,” he said.
Ms Mundy said being left alone gave them security and being part of the system and helping the economy gave them safety.
“There would have been white people with empathy and compassion who saw the talents of the Ngarigo at the work who would have given them an opportunity,” Mr Dixon said.
“But at the same time they would have been told to assimilate, as they were still seen as savages.
“The relationship would have come about through necessity, it was an economic relationship that was unbalanced.”
Ms Mundy said while her ancestors worked for the European colonists they were still traditional men.
“They lived in two worlds, the white man’s world, but they were still practicing their traditions,” she said.
Impact on Australian literature
The identity of the man in Banjo Paterson’s famous poem has been hotly debated over the years and a number of individual colonists have been named as possible inspirations.
Three decades ago the official historian for Victoria Bernard Barrett proposed the character might have been based on a young Indigenous Australian man named Toby.
"As a black-tracker, Toby was able to find trails of brumbies whenever they got out of sight," Dr Barrett told The Canberra Times in 1988.
However Ms Mundy and Mr Dixon believe the poem’s title character should not be looked at as being based on a singular man, instead as based on the Snowy Mountains’ stockmen in general - both European and traditional owners.
“The best stockmen up there would have been our people,” Mr Dixon said.
“But Banjo Paterson would not have been able to make a hero out of our people in his day.”
New ideas needed for brumby management
Mr Dixon and Ms Mundy said the traditional owners and the farmers around the Snowy Mountains shared history with the brumbies.
They said there should be another option rather than either than culling the brumbies, due to the damage they cause to the environment in Kosciuszko National Park, or just leaving them in the mountains.
“We were the first conservationists and environmentalists in the world, not just the country,” Mr Dixon said.
“Catching and droving the horses also protected the land and environment.
“If people come together a solution can be put in place where the brumbies don’t have to be culled or left there.”
Ms Mundy added it was part of her people’s law and customs not to kill an animal unless for food.
“A ceremony would have been held even for that to understand the taking of a life,” Mr Dixon said.
As for hero of the Djiringanj Jack Hoskins, he eventually had land gazetted to him and his family near Kalaru as a reserve in 1893 at what was known as Cohens Lake, but was renamed Blackfellows.
Along with the large sign of a tribal warrior that once stood at the main road through Kalaru to point the way to the reserve, to many people the connection between brumbies and traditional owners has been lost or forgotten to time.
“There’s a lot of things people don’t know about the history of this country,” Ms Mundy said.