Ngarrindjeri reclaim missionary George Taplin's house for a mission of their own

At Raukkan, a 160-year-old stone hut has a central place in history - and another role to play yet.

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In a low stone hut, two doors down from the church made famous on the $50 note, Clyde Rigney senior gazes at a photo of the white missionary who changed the course of his people’s history.

George Taplin returns an impenetrable stare from the sepia print.

We are in Ngarrindjeri country, near the shore of Lake Alexandrina, in the building where Taplin once lived on the Point McLeay mission.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography describes the man as a compassionate Christian sent by the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association to convert and to teach.

Yet it also acknowledges his efforts to subvert the Ngarrindjeri society which had first been interrupted by Europeans only a few dozen years earlier.

Which was he, then: the destroying coloniser or the well-meaning social worker?

“There’s lots of different views,” Mr Rigney said of the man in the photograph.

“One question I ask myself is: What if he didn’t come?

“What happens then?”

Without Taplin, he suggested, the Ngarrindjeri might have been subject to the whims of someone whose intentions were not as kind.

“To me, George wasn’t perfect, just like every other man on the planet,” he said.

“Leadership comes and goes, leadership changes.

“Hopefully we can make some change while we’re in these positions of responsibility.”

Cultural paths come together at an ancient crossroads

As chair of the Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal Corporation and a former manager of the Raukkan community, Mr Rigney is heavily invested in the restoration of the house where Taplin’s photo hangs.

He knows the stories of the past and has high hopes for the future.

“Raukkan traditionally meant an ancient meeting place,” he said.

“Just over the back of the hill was where the lakinyeris (clans) would meet – they’d come down the river from Yaralde country, up the Coorong from Tangani country, through the (Murray) mouth from Ramindjeri country,” he said.

“That was where they’d discuss governance – they called it the tendi.

“They were very organised.”

The missionary’s house was built by 1860, using stone quarried across the road.

In the years since Taplin's death in 1879 it has been used for all sorts of purposes, including a carpenter’s shop owned by Mr Rigney’s grandfather.

Most recently it was a museum and gallery, though at present it is empty aside from the handful of photos hung on one wall.

Workers have been refurbishing the building, installing lights and air conditioning with funding from the federal Drought Communities Program and restoring the stonework thanks to Heritage SA.

Di Gordon has been involved in the project through Country Arts SA.

“It was getting to the point where the building was actually falling down,” she said.

“Peter (Russell, a stonemason) had to pull out some of the cement in the walls, and he’ll start the second stage of work this week, sealing and lime-washing the walls."

Experts in every discipline had been involved in planning what she said it would become: “a state-of-the-art regional museum”.

House will become a place of discovery

When the project is finished, the museum and gallery will be a drawcard for tourists following the Murray-Coorong Trail and a repository of Ngarrindjeri culture.

But it will also offer the answer to a question posed by dozens of people who come to Raukkan every year: who am I?

A nearby farmhouse had been turned into a 12-bed retreat for members of the Stolen Generation searching for pieces of the past they had been torn away from as children, Mr Rigney said.

“People want to put things together,” he said.

“When you can’t do that it can make you feel like you’re not complete.

“That’s why buildings like this are important: they tell stories we don’t really understand.

“This story belongs to all of us ... it informs us that we belong to something much bigger than ourselves.”

Nobody could change their true identities, Mr Rigney said, but they could change their attitude towards others by taking on new information.

By the time the Taplin house’s walls were once again filled with art, photos and family histories, he said, it would become a place where anyone could have an experience that might shift his or her perspective.

“When we look back, it gives us an understanding of the way things are today,” Mr Rigney said.

“Things are difficult not just because; they were shaped that way.

“What we’re trying to do in this space, maybe it will help us shape what our future will look like.”

Photos of Clyde Rigney senior and Jordan Sumner: Peri Strathearn. Historical photos: State Library of South Australia (PRG 1258/2/1955 and PRG 1258/2/1956).