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NFSA Stories: Mornington Island

NFSA Stories: Mornington Island Mission Home Movies and BRACS Open Day

Caitlyn finds footage of her island home
 Amanda Diaz

Caitlyn LeRoy, who works at the NFSA, discovers in the collection early footage of her family and place of birth.

WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Caitlyn LeRoy hasn’t been back to the place she calls home for a decade, but discovering footage of her family in the NFSA collection has helped to strengthen her connection to the land and its culture.  

A member of the NFSA Collections Conservation team, Caitlyn spent the first five years of her life on Mornington Island, a remote community in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The island has been occupied by its traditional owners, the Lardil people, for thousands of years.

When Caitlyn searched the collection catalogue for the term ‘Mornington Island’, she was amazed by what she found.

Presbyterian Mission: home movies

The collection includes home movies made between 1944 and 1948 by Reverend James McCarthy, the Superintendent of the Presbyterian Mission on Mornington Island.

Caitlyn’s grandmother had told her many stories about growing up in the Mission dormitories. Eager to learn, but refused an education after Year 4, she would shadow the doctors at the mission to soak up their knowledge.

In this excerpt from the home movies we see the medical dispensary and Flying Doctor Service, school students performing calisthenics, people fishing and swimming and a plane dropping supplies by parachute:

Home movie footage of Mornington Island by Rev. James B McCarthy, c1948. Courtesy: Pat Sichlau. NFSA title: 2360

Caitlyn was stunned to find footage of a polio outbreak her grandmother had mentioned in her stories.

'Every story my grandmother told me was confirmed', she says. 'I’d imagined them as a kid and then to see them visually as an adult was amazing.'

The McCarthy home movies also depicted other aspects of Mission life she knew about from her grandmother’s anecdotes. From the uniforms worn by the children, to the star jumps and exercises they would perform each day, it was a profound experience to see it all captured on screen.

But her grandmother was not the only family member Caitlyn found in the collection.

BRACS Open Day

In 1995, the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) held an installation and opening day at Mornington Island. The federal government scheme gave Indigenous communities the resources to broadcast locally produced radio and TV content.

The footage from the opening day features Caitlyn’s father – who was a radio disc jockey at the time. Caitlyn also recognised her older sister performing a traditional dance, and she’s quite sure she found her four-year-old self in the footage too:

BRACS installation and open day, 1995. Courtesy: Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Media. NFSA title:1051839

Not only was Caitlyn excited to find footage of her family, but she also appreciates that the collection is helping to preserve the culture of the Lardil people.

The collection is the home of footage depicting traditional dances, sacred hunting rituals and even the knowledge of how to make a boomerang.

'I only spent five years on the island, but I miss it every day', Caitlyn says. 'I’ve been feeling disconnected, having to live away from there, wondering how I’ll teach my kids about it one day. It’s great knowing that we have this tool. It brings a peace of mind, knowing my culture will be preserved forever.'

Caitlyn plans to return to Mornington Island to visit her grandparents – and is looking forward to going fishing there again.

'Nothing tastes as good as when you catch it yourself', she says. 'You can taste the ocean'.


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