‘I know who my ancestors were’: a generation of unresolved territorial and tribal feuds

All Fred Dowling has to prove who he is are stories and an old photograph.

The photograph is of a woman he says is his grandmother. Her hair is dark, her eyes deep-set. She is wearing a Victorian-era lace collar and holding a puppy. Her mouth carries no hint of a smile.

“She told me all the stories about her past…She was definitely Aboriginal”: Fred Dowling with a photo of his grandmother “Annie Lewis”.Credit:Justin McManus

She appears to be Aboriginal. Dowling says her name was Annie Lewis.

“Annie used to take me on her knee and tell me all these stories,’’ he tells The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald from his Jerilderie home. “She told me all the stories about her past. Nobody can take that away from me. She was definitely Aboriginal.”

A genealogical history of Fred Dowling contained in a complaint to Victoria’s peak Indigenous body, the First People’s Assembly, confirms that Dowling’s grandmother was indeed named Annie Lewis. It also shows that Annie Lewis was the daughter of English immigrants who sailed from Southampton and arrived in Port Adelaide in 1854.

Descendants pay respect to esteemed ancestor Mary Jane Milawa (c. 1828- 1888).Credit:Justin McManus

If Fred Dowling’s family tree, researched through birth and death records, voting records, marriage certificates and newspaper reports, is correct, then Annie Lewis was not Aboriginal and neither is he.

Why does it matter whether an 82-year-old man, in ill health and nearing the end of his life, is Aboriginal? In the case of Dowling, there is more riding on his ancestry than cultural identity.

As a senior elder of the Bangerang people, Dowling is leading the push for his mob to be recognised as the traditional owners and custodians of a large swathe of northern Victoria stretching along the Murray River from Echuca to Albury, south to Mount Buller and north into the NSW Riverina.

A photo Dowling says is of his grandmother, Annie.Credit:Justin McManus

The Bangerang campaign is in part underpinned by Dowling’s claim to be a descendant of Mary Jane Milewa (sometimes spelled Milawa), an Aboriginal woman of historical significance who lived in Wangaratta at the time of white settlement. By claiming Mary Jane Milewa as an apical ancestor on behalf of the Bangerang, Dowling strengthens his people’s claim to be recognised as the traditional owners of Wangaratta.

The ancestral links which connect today’s Indigenous population to traditional culture, language groups and country are the map by which Victoria will be divided into a series of treaties with its First Nations people. Nowhere is this process more fractious than across the state’s bitterly divided north-east, where the failed Yorta Yorta native title claim has left a generation of unresolved territorial and tribal feuds.

The case against Fred Dowling, contained in a 115-page dossier, is detailed and deeply political.

He is accused of falsely claiming to be Aboriginal, of fabricating his links to the Bangerang and stealing the identity of Mary Jane Milewa, a woman who died in Wangaratta in the late 19th century. His accusers, Dhudhuroa Waywurru Aboriginal Corporation chair Garry Murray and representatives from the Waywurru, Dhudhuroa and Ngurai Illum Wurrung groups, are in conflict with Bangerang over claims to ancestors and country.

The case is also personal.

Megan Carter first came across Fred Dowling when she was researching her own family history and Aboriginal heritage. She is a descendant of Big Queen Mary, a sister of Mary Jane Milewa who was married to the chieftain of the Waywurru people, King Brangy. The Waywurru say Wangaratta falls within their traditional lands.

Megan Carter, a descendant of Mary Jane Wilewa.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Dowling says Mary Jane Milewa was the sister of his maternal great-grandmother, a woman he calls Luana. This history is set in stone in Wangaratta, where Dowling and his family paid for a plaque and headstone commemorating Milewa as a descendant of the Bangerang. Carter has examined Dowling’s connection to Mary Jane Milewa and believes it is fake. She says Fred Dowling has stolen her ancestor.

“The crux of the dispute is Freddie Dowling was married to an Aboriginal woman and he decided that he would claim to be Aboriginal,’’ she says. “He found Mary Jane Milewa, seemingly the last woman of her tribe, and adopted her as his own under fraudulent pretences.

“Mary Jane Milewa is a coveted ancestor to have. Yorta Yorta failed with that native title claim, Bangarang want a second crack and she’s the key to Wangaratta and those territories. With this advent of 'woke' culture, where people want to support Indigenous people and Indigenous communities and know about what country they are living on, he has been able to tap into that at Wangaratta."

It is a dispute that has nothing to do with skin colour. Dowling is fair-skinned, as are Carter and some of his other accusers. Professor Wendy Brabham, an Aboriginal educator who traces her heritage to the Wamba Wamba, Wergaia, Nyeri Nyeri and Dhudhoroa, says the problem is the lack of rigour attached to researching the genealogies that make up the clans or family groups of traditional owners.

“You can’t play around with the politics of identity and confirmation of identity. It is not fair to our ancestors or future generations. It is up to Freddie Dowling now to prove it,” Brabham says.

This is where it becomes difficult. Dowling’s parents and ancestors are dead. So too are the elders who vouched for him as a Bangerang man when, in the shadow of the contentious Yorta Yorta claim, he emerged as an influential and popular cultural figure and storyteller in the campaign for Bangerang recognition.

Dowling says he has never profited from his Aboriginal heritage and The Age has seen no evidence he has. He moved to Wangaratta in the 1970s with his then wife, an Aboriginal woman. His five sons are unquestionably Aboriginal through their mother. His cultural influence can be found in Wangaratta’s schools, where Dowling was for many years a regular guest speaker, and in his self-published books about Bangerang history and stories. He is a director of the Bangerang Aboriginal Corporation. Support for him runs deep within Wangaratta’s civic institutions and historical societies.

“I know what I know,’’ he says. “I know who my ancestors were."

On the day The Age visits Fred Dowling, friends and family come to support him. Ian Davidson, the vice-president of Wangaratta Land Care and Sustainability Inc, says he can’t think of anyone who has done more than Uncle Freddie to promote Indigenous culture and understanding in the Wangaratta district.

The 1853 marriage certificate of Edmund Lewis and Rosannah Large.

Davidson despairs that the push towards reconciliation is fracturing along ancestral lines.

“This sort of stuff is so destructive and hurtful,’’ he says. “Instead of being an inclusive process where all of us can be part of supporting what goes on, it is about picking winners. At the end of the day he is a leader, certainly in a Wangaratta sense. To me, this is really a witch hunt; it’s an effort to discredit him and the standing of Bangerang.’’

Rodney Dowling, one of Fred’s sons, is angry that his father’s cultural heritage – and by extension his own – is being challenged. Darren Atkinson, a Bangerang man who serves with Dowling on the board of the Bangerang Aboriginal Corporation, says Fred Dowling has been at the forefront of his people’s struggle to be recognised on country which, under an agreement with the Victorian government struck after the failed native title claim, has already been allocated to the Yorta Yorta.

“It would be a shame to see him go out after all the years of fighting hard,’’ Atkinson says. “It’d be a shame to have it happen to a beautiful old man who has got a lot of dear knowledge and a lot of dear stories of connection.”

The relationship between the Bangerang and the Yorta Yorta typifies the First Nations tensions that plague northern Victoria. Bangerang, also written as Pangerang and more recently as Bpangerang, is a term synonymous with Yorta Yorta when referring to traditional country, culture and language. It is, principally, a 28-year fight over a name.

The feud between those who identify with Yorta Yorta and those who prefer the term Bangerang began when the architects of the native title claim opted to call it the Yorta Yorta claim without reference to the Bangerang.

The Yorta Yorta claim, one of the first to be lodged after the Mabo decision, was rejected by Federal Court Justice Howard Olney in 1998. Since then, the Yorta Yorta have been formally recognised by the Victorian government as the traditional owners of 50,000 hectares of Crown land which the Bangerang claim as their own. The Yorta Yorta have also been accepted by the government as a Registered Aboriginal Party, a status which gives them control over issues relating to cultural heritage on their traditional lands. The Bangerang have twice had RAP applications rejected.

It was during the failed Yorta Yorta claim that serious doubts about Fred Dowling’s connections to the Bangerang and Mary Jane Milewa were first raised.

In 1996, Dowling provided a statement to Wayne Atkinson, a Yorta Yorta elder, for the purposes of the native title claim. Dowling claimed he grew up in Wangaratta with his mother and learned about country from his father’s mother, Annie Milewa (Lewis). He further claimed that his great-grandmother was Luana, a word meaning "water lily", and that Luana was the sister of Mary Jane Milewa. Dowling told Atkinson that Annie Milewa was buried at the Cummeragunja mission and that his father Francis showed him how to hunt and taught him Pangerang language.

Dowling’s purported ancestry was reviewed by Helen Harris, a professional genealogist and historian called as an expert witness by the Victorian government during the Yorta Yorta claim. She told the Federal Court: “I have been unable to find any documentary proof of the existence of anyone named Luana. I believe that whether Luana existed or not is irrelevant at this stage, because the claimant Fred Dowling has shown no possible connection to either her or Mary Jane Milewa.”

Dowling tells The Age that Luana’s English name was Rose Anna. He says Luana grew up at Wahgunyah, on the banks of the Murray, and travelled as a young woman by paddle steamer to Adelaide. It was there she met and married an Englishman, Edmund Lewis, Dowling says. Annie Lewis was their daughter.

The public records included in the complaint against Dowling before the First People’s Assembly suggest a very different family history.

The marriage certificate of Edmund Lewis and Rosannah Large shows they were wed in Greenwich District in the English county of Kent in 1853. The South Australian Government Gazette records that the following year, Edmund and "Rosamond" Lewis arrived in Port Adelaide aboard the sailing ship Pestonjee Bomanjee to start a new life in the colonies.

A South Australian birth certificate transcript shows that Annie Lewis, the daughter of Edmund Lewis and "Rose Anna" Large, was born in Adelaide in 1861. Public records show she first married in Adelaide, moved to Melbourne and then broke up with her husband, a white man named Thomas Overton Haywood. At the time, they were living in a house in Collingwood, three doors up from a local musician named James Dowling. James Dowling moved in with Annie Lewis. They had a son named Francis; Fred Dowling's father.

The public records do not indicate Annie Lewis and James Dowling ever lived in Wangaratta or on the traditional lands of the Bangerang, including the Warby Ranges. They lived in Abbotsford until James died. After Annie remarried a second time, she remained in inner-city Melbourne, at a Collingwood address. Annie Lewis is buried in Cheltenham, not Cummeragunja, as Dowling previously claimed. “I don’t know why I said that,’’ Dowling tells The Age. “I must have got mixed up between Cummeragunja and Cheltenham.”

When all this is put to Fred Dowling, he is more confused than angry. He accepts the records show his great-grandparents were white but insists his grandmother was Aboriginal. He can’t see how Luana, his link to Mary Jane Milewa, now fits into his family tree, but insists that she must. “Those two that came on the boat, I accept that. But somehow she came into it. I don’t know how. Maybe somebody jumped the fence.’’

These are difficult questions to put to an old man. Supporters of Uncle Freddie, many of whom contacted The Age prior to publication, are furious he is being asked to defend his ancestry.

But for Gary Murray at the Dhudhuroa Waywurru Aboriginal Corporation, there is a bigger issue at stake. He argues that if Victoria’s treaty process is to lead to reconciliation, the genealogies of the First Nations must be carefully researched and mapped so that territorial disputes can be identified and resolved.

“If you don’t respect the dead, you disrespect the living,’’ he says. “Fred Dowling has disrespected Mary Jane Milewa by stealing her identity and creating a sister for her. It is culturally disrespectful and repugnant.’’

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