– from little things big things grow
Twenty five years ago on May 9 1998 Wurundjeri Elders, leaders, children, and members of Wurundjeri and other indigenous clans met with Nillumbik community leaders at a Gayip in Wingrove Park, Eltham, near a big gum tree on the banks of Diamond Creek. (Gayip is an Aboriginal word for a ceremonial meeting of different Aboriginal clans.) Hundreds of Nillumbik residents witnessed Nillumbik Shire Council’s Mayor Robert Marshall deliver to the Wurundjeri people on behalf of the Nillumbik community a formal Statement of Apology and Commitment to Aboriginal Reconciliation.
The statement formally recognized the distinctive place of Australia’s First Nations people in the Australian identity – and “their right to share in all levels of decision-making on matters affecting them and their communities.” The principles enshrined were signed by the councillors and CEO of the Council and the Council’s Common Seal applied on April 28, 1998. After reading the document aloud, Mayor Marshall handed it to Wurundjeri Elder (the late) Uncle Bill Nicholson (Senior).
Uncle Bill reminded a now hushed community they were witnessing history.
“That statement of commitment I believe is dynamic, and it should set a precedent, in this state and hopefully the rest of the country. I close by thanking everyone who attended today to be a witness to what could be a piece of history being created in the State of Victoria … instigated by the councillors – these five people here – and of course the Nillumbik Shire Council. “I’m mighty proud to be standing here representing my people – telling you people – we didn’t crawl out of the ocean or come from the sky. We were here first.”
The haunting sound of a didgeridoo could just be heard as the Eltham High School Symphonic Band delivered a Reconciliation invitation to everyone to respect their shared land. Smoke wafted across the parklands. Mums with prams and excited kids sat around campfires in bark huts. Eltham Bookshop owner Meera Govil in her signature sari might just be seen strolling home across the park. It was a landmark event and quite a party. (See video: https://nrg.org.au/about/)
Fast forward 25 years to the Eltham Community and Reception Centre, Nillumbik, on a recent Sunday, May 28 2023, only a crow’s flight from that big gum tree on the river bank. Here, Nillumbik community leaders again met with Wurundjeri leaders and more than 300 First Nations and other Nillumbik residents to commemorate that first historic event – and celebrate its continuing significance to Reconciliation in Nillumbik. State and Federal representatives joined with the Nillumbik Reconciliation Group, the Nillumbik Shire Council, Wurundjeri and other First Nations peoples and a diverse representation of Nillumbik community groups, in an equally historic NRG 25th Anniversary party.
Local indigenous student Lyla delivered the Acknowledgement of Country with her sister Ollie and mother Corrie standing behind her, bringing a particularly poignant note to the ceremony with recollections of their recent visit to their mother’s homelands in the Western Australian Pilbara, where they first met their Aboriginal grandmother. (Hard to forget that similarly moving NRG 2022 Sorry Day ceremony in Alastair Knox Park in the era of Covid, with Corrie reading Ali Cobby Eckermann’s poem First Time I Met my Grandmother.)
Welcomed to country by Wurundjeri Elder Ian Hunter, Nillumbik reiterated the coming together of voices of many generations, united by the music and logic and justice of Reconciliation. Councillor Ben Ramcharan, Mayor of Nillumbik, acknowledged the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung people as the traditional owners of the country on which Nillumbik is located, offered respect for the enduring strength of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung, and acknowledged that sovereignty of their lands has never been ceded.
“The theme for National Reconciliation Week 2023 ‘Be a Voice for Generations’, encourages all Australians to be a voice for Reconciliation in tangible ways in our everyday lives,” he reminded us.
The Federal member for Jaga Jaga, Kate Thwaites, MP, and the State member for Eltham and Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Vicki Ward, each addressed us, and Ian Hunter sang and talked to us of indigenous language and history, accompanying himself on clapsticks. (The bark Coolamon he presented to the Mayor of Nillumbik in 1998, cut from a Wingrove Park tree and now in the NRG Art collection, was again on display.) Addressing a packed hall of Reconciliation advocates, partners and supporters, NRG Past President Jan Aitken brought the two events together, encapsulating 25 years of Reconciliation history.
Quietly listening in the front rows were the prime movers of that initial event, Elizabeth Kooroonya Savage and John Browning, and former Nillumbik Councillors Margaret Jennings and John Graves. Founding President of the NRG, local historian, prolific author and legendary activist, the late Mick Woiwod (1929-2020), was surely also there in spirit. (Who among NRG’s members and supporters did not sense Mick’s presence?) Elizabeth Kooroonya Savage, John Browning and Mick Woiwod were founding members of the community-based working group that initiated the recommendations to Council on which the 1998 Commitment and Apology were based. Margaret Jennings and John Graves moved and seconded the recommendations.
Recalling the community organization that grew out of that working group, the subsequently independent Nillumbik Reconciliation Group, Jan Aitken reaffirmed its founding principles. “The NRG has continued to work with the shire for 25 years to fulfill the commitment given that day to the Wurundjeri,” she told us. “We agreed that our role was to bring an Aboriginal presence to Nillumbik, to honour the First Peoples of our land, to support reconciliation in our community, to recognize the truth of Aboriginal history and the harmful practices it encompasses, to develop a respectful relationship with the first Nations whose sovereignty remains intact, whose care of the land gives us the bushlands and environmental responsibility.”
Wurundjeri artist, archaeologist, songwriter and singer Mandy Nicholson and her mesmerising troupe of Djirri Djirri* Wurundjeri women dancers appeared on stage on cue, singing, clapping and dancing Wurundjeri Creation stories, one indigenous tiny tot proudly reiterating every step – bringing indigenous women’s culture meaningfully alive for us on stage. And in the learning, we recognized the continuity of history. Mandy, Jan Aitken told us, is the daughter of Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Bill Nicholson Senior, who in May 1998 received from Mayor Robert Marshall the Council’s statement of Commitment and Apology. [*Djirri Djirri means Willie Wagtail in Woiwurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri people, celebrating the cheeky little Australian bush bird known for its fluttering dance.]
NRG President Jan Mackenzie summarized the accelerating flowering of Reconciliation over the past 25 years. “Now all levels of Government have committed to Reconciliation,” she said. “We have the Federal Referendum. The Victorian State Treaty process. The local Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) process. Community sporting clubs holding indigenous rounds and commissioning indigenous guernseys. Smoking ceremonies. Cultural days. Songs in language in kindergartens. Teachers and educators embracing reconciliation and passing on the message. From little things big things grow.”
Eltham-based musical director Nerida Kirov and her Nillumbik choir The Chocolate Lilies emerged in a field of glorious purple and black to deliver Christine Anu’s song *Kulba Yadayah, in the language of the Torres Strait; and then to channel their choral version of **From Little Things Big Things Grow – Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s rendition of the Vincent Lingiari story. (*Kulba Yadayah is a song about the passing of knowledge from generation to generation. **This song relates to the symbolic handover of red soil by Gough Whitlam to Aboriginal stockman Vincent Lingiari in 1975 marking the return of Wave Hill station from the Commonwealth of Australia to the Gurindji people in the Northern Territory, a turning point in the Aboriginal land rights movement.)
Well, you could feel the goose bumps.
Singer-songwriter, guitarist, didgeridoo player, activist, educator and World Vision spokesperson, Yorta Yorta musician Scott Darlow, raised the rafters still higher with spine-tingling guitar and didgeridoo, delivering the passionate messages of Goanna’s 1982 hit song Solid Rock, and the title song from his own 2023 album Deadly Heart, about a nation “continuing to journey together and listen to each other.”
We looked, we listened, we hurt, we remembered.
We took to heart Nillumbik Council’s 2023 Youth Mayor and Catholic Ladies College graduate, 18-year-old Swinburne student Kirra Imbriano, as she reminded us that young advocates for Reconciliation are burning to pick up the baton – that her main goal on the Youth Council is to ensure Reconciliation is ongoing and in the hands of youth. Kirra commended standing with First Nations people, protesting, and speaking and fighting for what is right.
Our celebrations shifted to a separate performance space: to hear a spell-binding, eerie performance of Old Trees Old Wisdom by the Eltham High School Symphonic Band, a Reconciliation piece commissioned by the School and written by composer-educator Dr Jodie Blackshaw. Dr Blackshaw was unable to attend, but Musical Director and Conductor Rick Keenan relayed to us via audio recording the conceptual background. Dr Blackshaw said that when she approached writing the piece, she wanted the students to really conceptualise the importance of First Nations’ knowledge – “of what they offer us, and what they teach us.” Influenced by author Peter Wohlebon’s The Hidden Life of Trees, and the intertwined communication systems of old growth forests over millennia, she meditated on the similar strategies of indigenous culture, of the passing and developing of knowledge through each generation. She shared her perspective with the students, seeking their reflections on the meaning of Reconciliation.
“The result was so unexpected and incredibly powerful. I knew that once again my collaboration with Eltham High School students would be something special…
“When you hear something jarring, that sounds angry and disjointed and doesn’t seem to fit, that is Impatience,“ the composer explained. “That is perhaps the impatient voice that we have had about saying sorry, or about Reconciliation, and maybe we haven’t spoken to our First Nations people enough about what it is that they need and how we can regain their trust after having lost so much.”
“As Kate McRae’s poem says, it is time to be still, to wait with our hearts and minds open. And be patient. And allow this Reconciliation journey to first start with each individual Australian.”
Jan Mackenzie reminded us again of the Reconciliation Week theme: “Be a Voice for Generations. At Uluru six years ago an invitation was extended to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future. We must be a Voice for Generations, so there will be no gaps, when all outcomes are equal. So Australia can grow as a nation.”
-Adrienne Jones, NRG.