Yorta Yorta Elder, Elizabeth Morgan, dedicated herself to improving the lives of her people. Known as Aunty Liz or Yarmauk to her grandchildren, Elizabeth was born in 1927 at Cummeragunja Aboriginal Station, along the Murray River in New South Wales. She was the second child of Michael Stafford Morgan and Maud Miriam Morgan (nee Ross). As a young girl, she loved camping in summer next to the Moira Lakes with Granny Lizzy Atkinson and siblings Rebecca, Merle, Michael, Dennis, Desmond and Lester.
When Elizabeth was just 11 years old her mother sadly passed away, not long after she was removed from her family home. Elizabeth was sent to live at the station hospital, where she worked as a domestic, bound by the threat that if she did not comply she would be sent to the Cootamundra Girls’ Home. In 1939 Elizabeth witnessed the ‘Cummeragunja walk off’, a significant and historic protest by her people against cruel and restrictive practices at the mission. The experiences of her early life had a far-reaching effect, shaping her passion and determination to fight for Aboriginal peoples' rights.
At age 14, Elizabeth was still living under the restrictive conditions of the Aboriginal Protection Act which required her to leave the reserve and work as a domestic. She went to work with her Aunty Bertha Firebrace (nee Morgan) at a Station near Moulamein and from there joined her sister Merle in Swan Hill. The sisters moved to Melbourne with their cousin Melva Johnson (nee Day) where they found work while living at the Salvation Army hostel in Spring Street. It was at this time, in the mid 1940s and early 1950s, they were inspired and influenced by Aboriginal leaders such as Uncle William Cooper, Aunty Marg Tucker, Uncle Doug and Aunty Gladys Nicholls.
In 1954 Elizabeth held her first child, Ross Morgan. As a single mother it was difficult but she had the help and support of her sister Merle and her extended family. In 1956 Elizabeth met her partner and they had three children Monica, Bernard and Denis. They then moved to Moama in New
South Wales to be close to Elizabeth’s family and country. Unfortunately the marriage was not a happy one and, after living under the shadow of domestic violence for many years, Elizabeth took her children back to Melbourne to start a new life.
Working for better conditions for Aboriginal people
In 1971 Elizabeth started work with the Aborigines Advancement League (AAL), taking the role of Matron of the Lady Gladys Nicholls Hostel. It was during this time she became involved in the Aboriginal cause joining the National Council of Aboriginal and Islander Women and supporting the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the fight for land rights and better conditions for Aboriginal people in Australia. In 1972 Elizabeth co-founded the Yorta Yorta Tribal Council with others, such as Margaret Wirrpanda (nee Briggs), placing a claim over their traditional lands.
In 1972 Elizabeth supported her sister Merle in her work to establish the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service in Fitzroy and became the inaugural chairperson. In the same year the sisters worked with other Aboriginal people to establish the Aboriginal Health Service.
By 1973 Elizabeth was elected chairperson of the AAL, then from 1975 to 1983, was its salaried director. While at the AAL, Elizabeth and Stewart Murray co-founded the Victorian Aboriginal Land Council. In the early 1980s Elizabeth oversaw the AAL building appeal which resulted in relocation from Westgarth to their new premises in Thornbury.
Co-founding the Aboriginal Housing Cooperative
In other initiatives, Elizabeth and Eric (Joe) McGuinness co-founded the Aboriginal Housing Cooperative in 1974, with Elizabeth as chairperson and Eric a director. In later years she was a member of the Steering Committee of the Victorian Aboriginal Housing Board. In 1975 after establishing the first Aboriginal women’s refuge in Australia, Elizabeth travelled with her sister Merle and Joyce Johnson, to Canberra to lobby for funding for their refuge. In 1982 Elizabeth Hoffmann House (named in her honour) became incorporated. Today it has new premises with wrap around support programs and is known as Elizabeth Morgan House Aboriginal Women’s Services Cooperative Ltd.
Improving the welfare of Aboriginal women and children
Elizabeth continued her work to improve the welfare of Aboriginal women and children. In 1977, in support of founder Molly Dyer, she became the inaugural chairperson of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA). She also worked with the National Council of Aboriginal and Islander Women and the Women's Council at Echuca and from the late 1970s until 1985 was a commissioner with the Aboriginal Development Commission.
Elizabeth did not restrict herself to administrative roles: from 1972 to 1975 she was both an actor and board member of the Nindethana Theatre Company, working alongside Joyce Johnson, Eleanor Harding, Harry Williams and Jack Charles. Elizabeth appeared in plays such as The Cherry Pickers and Brumby Innes.
In 1983 Elizabeth returned to her beloved Cummeragunja and became a founding member of the Cummeragunja Housing and Development Corporation and, in 1984, the Yorta Yorta Local Aboriginal Land Council. Elizabeth was the first elected representative to the NSW State Land Council (from 1984-86). She helped established the Yorta Yorta Murray Goulburn Rivers Clans Group (1993-98) becoming the inaugural chairperson and, in 1998, became an Elder of the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation.
While the Yorta Yorta Native Title claim was unsuccessful, Elizabeth was a proud signatory to the historic Co-Management Agreement between the Victorian State Government and the Yorta Yorta Nation in May 2004.
Today the Yorta Yorta people are continuing negotiations for self-determination and justice over their traditional lands, water and culture. Elizabeth was one of the 250 women included in the Victorian Women’s Honour Roll in 2001 and in 2006 received the inaugural NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award. Yarmauk has left a powerful legacy for her children, grandchildren and great grand-children, and her proud extended family. In 2009 she passed into the dreamtime at home at Cummeragunja with her beloved sister Merle by her side.
Reviewed 26 September 2019