Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. Isabel Coe was asked to speak about Bellevue Hill Lookout/Billy Goat Hill, which is location number three on the app. 


This audio interview with Isabel Coe was recorded on 5 October 2018  in Sydney by Nikkei Australia’s Mayu Kanamori and Masako Fukui. This interview was recorded for the Cowra Voices geolocative storytelling app, created in 2019, and launched to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of the Cowra Breakout. For more information, please refer to the Overview in this archive.

Isabel Coe  00:29

So my name is Isabel Coe. I come from –  I was born in Cowra. I’m from the Wiradjuri Nation, from the Upper Bili Galari, the Lachlan River.

Mayu Kanamori  00:44

Can you tell us a little bit about your role in your community or in the – could be the general Cowra community, it could be about the Wiradjuri people.

Isabel Coe  00:59

In Cowra, I’ve worked as the CEO of the Cowra Local Aboriginal Land Council, where we strive towards making a better community for Aboriginal people. Right now, I currently work for Bili Galari Aboriginal Corporation, which is a newly established corporation. Part of that Corporation is developing programs for Aboriginal people in the community to strengthen our community, build partnerships with the local services in the community, and create employment opportunities for Aboriginal people.

Mayu Kanamori  01:42

Can you tell us a little bit about Wiradjuri people? How long, how long the history has been? And about the Country?

Isabel Coe  01:56

Wiradjuri people have existed for over 50,000 years. We are one of the original people of this country. Wiradjuri covers Cowra, through to Dubbo, through to Wagga, Peak Hill.

Mayu Kanamori  02:26

Have you had any involvement whilst you have, you know, you’ve lived in Cowra with Japanese people?

Isabel Coe  02:34

I haven’t had involvements, personally, no.

Mayu Kanamori  02:41

So have you heard of you know, other Aboriginal people, your friends or your family members, involvement with the Japanese people? And if so, what are they?

Isabel Coe  02:53

The stories that I know of from a Indigenous point of view, obviously, a lot of the Aboriginal people that have come from Cowra lived on Erambie Mission. The stories that have been told are from their perspectives of what had happened on the night and what had happened prior to that event that took place. But I think to be able to actually tell their stories of what – from their point of views is to actually talk about the history behind Cowra.

Isabel Coe  03:35

So obviously with Cowra, so we have Erambie Mission, which is two and a half kilometres from the main town, from the local town. It’s located on the western Lachlan Valley, where it’s a mission that’s segregated from the main town. Erambie Mission was established in the 1890s, obviously with missions –  so they were put in place as a means to segregate Aboriginal people from the main society, where Aboriginal people didn’t have control over their own lives. And missions, which are also known as reserves, were managed by mission managers or government officials. So a lot of the stories that come from Cowra, a lot of them come from Erambie Mission. Erambie Mission was managed by the mission managers, where the mission managers had the complete control over Aboriginal people and their lives. They had the control over what education one would be taught. They had the control over the rations of food Aboriginal people would eat, they had their control over who one would marry. And they had their control over who they deemed as half caste for those children of fairer skin to be removed from their families and assimilated.

Isabel Coe  05:21

Obviously, from the arrival of the British colonisation in Australia, Europeans believed that by integrating Aboriginal women with a man of European descent, that those children being born would be of fairer skin. And through the different generations of breeding, they would have children of half caste, quarter caste and quadrant descent, and so on. Many of those children of fairer skin were removed from their families and placed into institutions, where they were trained to take their place amongst the white society, and all traces of their Aboriginality were to be erased. Erambie Mission, where I was born, I have family that have lived there for over five generations. So a lot of my stories come from Erambie Mission. I have aunties and uncles that served in both the World Wars, Aboriginal men and Aboriginal women both served in the war. But when Aboriginal men and women returned from the war, they had to go back to what they were before they went to war, which was going back to the missions.

Isabel Coe  06:42

We had two family members, a McGinnis and a Murray, who was actually guards up at the prisoner of war camp. So their stories when they were guards of the prisoner of war camp, was that whilst they were living in their own concentration camp of the mission, they were serving as guards on another concentration camp. And the stories that they have was that obviously, it was a very tragic event, and they got called in the night after the event. But on the actual night of the event, there was talk amongst the community that whilst there was the Breakout, government officials also believed that there was going to be another breakout from another concentration camp that was hidden out of sight, which was Erambie Mission.

Isabel Coe  07:42

So on the night of the Breakout, Erambie Mission and the Aboriginal people on that Mission, were forced to be locked into their houses, not knowing what was actually going on outside of the community.

Isabel Coe  07:58

Yeah, so Aboriginal people were locked into their houses of the night of the Breakout, not knowing what was going on. Obviously, with the Mission, of the layout of the Mission, there is only one way in, and one way out. So there was no actually leaving the Mission without actually passing government officials. After the Breakout, there was talks amongst the community, which they caught around the community because everyone knew everyone on the Mission. Yeah, there was – well, the talks were that Erambie Mission, because they were in a concentration camp against their own will, where it contained men, women and children, that they were going to –  well, there was rumours that they were – Erambie Mission was going to be moved to the prisoner of war camp once the prisoner of war camp closed down.

Isabel Coe  09:07

Mum Shirl, who actually wrote a book on her experience, she gives the story that once again, like how they were locked into the Erambie Mission. Some of the rumours that circulated around Erambie was that Erambie Mission itself was going to be moved to the Japanese prisoner of war camp when the prisoners returned home. There was a petition as to whether or not that will take place from the outside community. But because the Japanese prisoner of war camp was too close to town, they thought just to keep the Aboriginal peoples segregated the two and a half kilometres from the main town.

Isabel Coe  09:56

Talking about Billy Goat Hill. To – whilst the Aboriginal people – well Aboriginal people didn’t know, a lot that was going on outside of the Mission, obviously being segregated. But Billy Goat Hill is actually, to Aboriginal people, a very sacred site. So we had connections to that site that is now of a tourist location. Where we had –  it was a site that overlooked the country, and it allowed Aboriginal people to see if there was anyone coming to our part of our Country.

Isabel Coe  10:38

So we always went to Billy Goat Hill, the way you see Billy Goat Hill now, it actually wasn’t what it looked like back when I was little. So when I was little, there were all fences up going through Billy Goat Hill, and it was actually filled with kangaroos and emus. And even now, when you do walk through Billy Goat Hill, it has a very spiritual – it’s a spiritual site, where we do have a men’s site. A lot of the sacred sites that belong to the people of Wiradjuri. Obviously, Widradjuri people existed for over 50,000 years. So our connection to Country is very strong and remain strong. But behind the history of our people is something that continues to be hidden, which also includes a lot of our sites.

Mayu Kanamori  11:40

You said that it was a men’s site and I don’t know if you’re allowed to talk about it. But can you let us know what you can tell us, tell us about, and if you can’t, that’s okay as well.

Isabel Coe  11:55

The only thing that I could talk about because obviously, as a woman, so we don’t actually talk about men’s business, is that it was a very sacred site.

Mayu Kanamori  12:07

While we’re on sacred sites, you know, we’ve got all these places on the map. Are there others?

Isabel Coe  12:16

Yes, so all of Cowra is a sacred site. And Aboriginal people, we have connections all through Wiradjuri. Obviously, Erambie Mission wasn’t the only place that Aboriginal people had to be forced to segregate to. Aboriginal people set up camps just outside Erambie. They set up camps around near the showgrounds. They set up camps down near the Lachlan River, under the bridge. There was also another –  where the Cowra Golf Links is called now, it was actually called Bag Town, which was part of Erambie Mission. And Billy Goat Hill, obviously, it also would have been a place where a lot of Aboriginal men and women had camped around that area as well as part of protecting Country.

Isabel Coe  13:18

The – think the – what’s it called? sakura??

Mayu Kanamori  13:23

Sakura Avenue.

Isabel Coe  13:23

Yeah, so that Sakura Avenue, we had a lot of very old scar trees. And the way you see it now, obviously, isn’t what it looked like. So we had scar trees all along cherry blossom avenue, where Aboriginal people actually stood in numbers against the removal of a lot of our scar trees. It was in the – I don’t know the dates, I can definitely find out. Yeah.

Isabel Coe  13:40

70s 60s 80s – or earlier?

Isabel Coe  14:03

There was actually two. So there was the one for Billy Goat Hill. And then there was the one for along the cherry blossom drive.

Mayu Kanamori  14:15

Insofar as this app is going on the Council website, I don’t know how this will to go, but I want to know, personally I want to know if those cherry blossoms, the Japanese Cowra, the Japanese reconciliation symbol, was made with the Aboriginal sacred scar trees – were removed to make way for that reconciliation.

Isabel Coe  14:43

Yeah, I mean, obviously because I worked for the Cowra Local Aboriginal Land Council and my family has lived in that community for over five generations, we do have like photos of what it looked like prior to the demolition of our sacred sites. So obviously with Aboriginal people being segregated onto Erambie Mission, Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to leave the Mission. And to be able to leave the Mission, you had to apply for a Certificate of Exemption, which Aboriginal people were applying well into the 1950s. To apply for a certificate, it meant that Aboriginal people could one, leave the reserve, and go down the streets as everyone else. But obviously, there was a catch. And that catch was that they had to leave behind their families, their communities, their culture.

Isabel Coe  15:51

My great grandmother, who we call Ninny Wedge, had to apply for a Certificate of Exemption in 1956. She had a medical need that she needed treatment from the hospital. So for her to get the treatment that she needed, she had to apply for the Certificate just to receive the help from the hospital. Yeah, the last mission manager to leave Erambie Mission wasn’t until 1965. And Aboriginal people actually didn’t receive their freedom to be able to leave these missions and reserves until the 1967 referendum. So a lot of the stories come from, in Cowra, Erambie.

Mayu Kanamori  16:52

What about this rumour of the, urban myths about the POW escapees being protected by Aboriginal people? Have you heard of this? And it’s true or is it a rumour or –

Isabel Coe  17:12

So the rumours that – I don’t know of any personally, but some of the rumours that I’ve heard of from the community was that the Japanese prisoners of war, whether they were protected by Aboriginal people, I don’t know. But I do know that there was a book that was written by Anita Heiss, who worked with my grandmother, on some of the stories of Aboriginal people protecting those Japanese prisoners of war.

Mayu Kanamori  17:45

This app is all about peace. And I’m wondering if there are any Wiradjuri stories that you are able to share with us that surrounds messages of peace.

Isabel Coe  18:09

I think – obviously, what had happened at the prisoner of war camp towards those Japanese prisoners of war was a very tragic event. And as a Aboriginal woman, whose family have come from very similar experiences, I do give gratitude for those ones that lost their lives and to their loved ones.

Isabel Coe  18:49

Well, there was the – I think there was – I think more along the lines for those that lost their lives, the Japanese prisoners of war, of what they had to go through, and how they went about trying to escape. I think it’s a – very touchy subject, only because of my own people being in that very same boat, and still being in that boat, where they are prisoners in their own Country.

Mayu Kanamori  19:28

While we’re talking about Country, the big rocks, boulders that are around  – well there’s this –  around – everywhere around Cowra, but especially around that area of the Japanese Gardens. And in fact, the architect, landscape architect of those Japanese Gardens saw those two huge rocks there. And I think he thought that one was like a receiving rock and the other one was a Godly rock. Anyway, I just wanted to know the relationship between the Wiradjuri people and those rocks.

Isabel Coe  20:21

Well, with all our sacred sites, so being – Wiradjuri people being very spiritual, and what we believe is when spirits pass on, they actually turn into the formations of rocks. And certain rocks can define certain areas, whether or not it’s a men’s area, whether it’s a woman’s area, whether it’s a birthing site, and a lot of our rocks and our scar trees, they go hand in hand.

Isabel Coe  21:07

We do still have rocks in Billy Goat Hill that actually resemble our people and animals. With the rocks at Billy Goat Hill, we don’t see a rock just as being a rock. Obviously, when our spirit passes on, we go into the Dreamtime, which is what a lot of people would call it. And they would go into the rocks. And those rocks would symbolise the people or certain animals. There are a few rocks going right up to the top, where it actually looks like a man overseeing the Country. And then there’s another rock just as you’re going up the stairwell, where it looks like a – it could be a eagle, it could be a goanna, where it’s like the eyes are watching, who comes and who goes. A lot of our stories that we do have, all through Billy Goat Hill, and along the cherry blossom driveway and even right behind where the Japanese prisoner of war camp is located, some of our sites are actually fenced off, where we ourselves can’t actually get access to it.

Mayu Kanamori  22:43

Can we talk about the cemetery? Are Aboriginal people buried in that Cowra general cemetery?

Isabel Coe  22:55

There are some, yes, that are buried in the cemetery. Obviously, with the history behind Aboriginal people and how Aboriginal people were forced to live on missions, a lot of the burials of Aboriginal men, women, and children are actually placed on the mission. A lot of those burials have been dismantled, and been – where you have other – where you have redevelopment of other things.

Mayu Kanamori  23:30

So, you know, the Australian War Cemetery? Are there any Aboriginal soldiers there?

Isabel Coe  23:37


Mayu Kanamori  23:37

Can you tell us about it –

Isabel Coe  23:38

Well, we have in my famil – we had a quite a few Aboriginal men and women who served in the war. If you go to the Cowra RSL, there are a few of our family members listed on the wall. Not a lot, unfortunately, like I said. When they came back from war, they weren’t treated like the same as everyone else in their own country. So a lot of them didn’t get the recognition that they deserved and remained the quiet achievers. Obviously, when they did go to war, a lot of the Aboriginal men and women fighting for their country, a lot of their own children were being removed from the missions and placed into institutions. But yes, we do have a few Aboriginal men and women who are buried at the Australian War Cemetery. There was a story that I did read of a first –  the first – one of the first Japanese prisoners of war that was captured. I think he was captured over in the NT, but don’t quote me on that I could be wrong. Who was actually captured by a Indigenous man. And he was one of the ones who was brought here to Cowra.

Mayu Kanamori  25:14

This is the – Minami, who was captured on Melville Island, Northern Territory.

Mayu Kanamori  25:29

Do you have any questions? My last question is about – then you might want, you might have other things you might want to say. But my question – this is something that I think is –

Masako Fukui 25:46

You could talk –

Mayu Kanamori 25:47

I can talk. In so far as the Wiradjuri people are Custodians of our country and of Country out in Cowra, there are 524 Japanese, now buried on your Country. And through decomposition, etc. is becoming part of the landscape. And I just wondered if you  – are they welcomed?

Isabel Coe  26:32

As Wiradjuri being one of the oldest cultures in Australia, where we have existed for over 50,000 years, we lived a very peaceful and war-free environment. And as part of our culture, we did exchange with other cultures. So for those Japanese prisoners of war that are buried on Wiradjuri Country, we welcome them as part of our Country,

Mayu Kanamori  27:06

Now you’re a leader in your community. Can you –  is there anything else you want to tell us about peace, peace and reconciliation, peace and reconciliation between Japan, Australia, Japan, Cowra? Japanese people, and Wiradjuri people –  three way?

Isabel Coe  27:25

To be able to lead towards reconciliation for the people of Wiradjuri that come from Cowra, between Australia and Japan, for Aboriginal people is allowing our history to actually be recognised. To be able to create a future that’s based on equality for all. And that includes Aboriginal people.

Mayu Kanamori  28:13

I’m finished with my questions, anything else?

Masako Fukui  28:17

Can I just get in and go right back to the beginning. Would you like to say your name again and just introduce yourself?

Isabel Coe  28:24

My name is Isabel Coe. I was born in Cowra, come from Erambie Mission. Cowra being of the Wiradjuri nation. My role in community, I work towards creating a better space for Aboriginal people and our community.

Mayu Kanamori  28:51

Thank you.

Masako Fukui  28:52

Thank you.



The Cowra Voices Audio Archive Project 2023

Cowra Council is the copyright holder of all the audio works in the Cowra Voices Audio Archive. If you would like to reuse or copy any of the materials in this Archive, please contact Cowra Council. Australian copyright law is set out in the Copyright Act 1968 (Commonwealth).

error: Content is protected !!