ADDRESS BY JAN AITKEN TO THE ROTARY OF ELTHAM
NAIDOC WEEK, July 2016
I am very pleased to be here and thank you for inviting me to speak about Reconciliation in Nillumbik in honour of NAIDOC. This is a week when Aboriginal history, culture and achievements are celebrated.
Before we go further we must pause and make our acknowledgement.
We acknowledge the Wurundjeri as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay our respect to their elders, past and present.
When Aboriginal people visit the land of another Aboriginal nation they always acknowledge the traditional owners of that land. The owners of the land give a Welcome to Country, a Tanderum in Woiwurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri. Now when you are at an event and a Wurundjeri member gives a Welcome to Country or a Smoking Ceremony you can recognise that this is the act of a living culture. Adapted for today’s conditions but having an ancient heritage. We make an Acknowledgement which reminds us that we are on Aboriginal land, that the traditional owners of this land are present and with us. We are not in Terra Nullius.
Their generous and gracious welcoming leads us to Acknowledge them.
You will be familiar with this now widely used Acknowledgement. It has been criticised as being a parroted statement with no meaning. So it is important that we say it sincerely and know about whom we are speaking. It is made at all Nillumbik Council meetings and Council events and was part of an agreement made by the Council in 1998. The Council delegated an advisory committee to arrange a ceremony promoting reconciliation. A formal document of Acknowledgement, Apology and Commitment was presented by the Council to Wurundjeri elders at a Gayip (Woiwurrung word for an inter-clan gathering) in May, 1998 in Wingrove Park. It was out of this that the Nillumbik Reconciliation Group emerged, first as an advisory committee for the Shire and later as an independent community group. In 2008 the Shire consulted with Wurundjeri people and with NRG and other interested parties to write a Reconciliation Charter which was passed by council. This requires all Shire departments to consider Aboriginal heritage in all projects undertaken. It requires the shire to continue making their Acknowledgement at all Shire meetings and events. And to support Reconciliation activities in the Shire. The Aboriginal Flag is flown alongside the Australian flag.
What does NRG aim to do?
to promote reconciliation with Wurundjeri people,
to celebrate Wurundjeri heritage in the Shire of Nillumbik,
to know of resources which schools and community groups can use when they want to include Wurundjeri knowledge and reconciliation in their activities,
to work with RecVic and ANTaR and other Reconciliation groups which are concerned with justice for Indigenous people in Victoria and Australia which is leading towards Constitutional Recognition,
to support, through partnerships, reconciliation activities and events which other community groups arrange.
We are most fortunate to have as our patron, one of the founders of NRG, Mick Woiwod, local historian and a resource for Wurundjeri history whom the Wurundjeri people themselves value and use. Wurundjeri people have lost much of the Woiwurrung language and a great deal of their history and cultural knowledge through settlement of their lands and dispossession. But there is a very purposeful education of Elders and their youth by the Wurundjeri and people like Mick are an important source of information. Mick has published numbers of books which are significant resources about Wurundjeri culture and life pre settlement. Mick researches the discoveries of the people who had first contact with the Aboriginal people and their land. His published data bases are a superb record of these documents. The NRG also has a CD called the Wurundjeri Resource Kit which is in much demand from schools and people who live on Wurundjeri land. ($20 ) Mandy Nicholson, a Wurundjeri woman, is researching Woiwurrung language, building up vocabulary, working out grammar. She uses it when her dance group performs and tries to remember to use certain greetings and commands at home too so that the sounds become familiar. We are planning a language workshop with her for September.
The Wurundjeri Tribe Council is a contact point for members of the Wurundjeri community. It is the public presence for this clan of the Kulin nation dealing with government as needed. It provides a resource to those wanting Wurundjeri welcome ceremony, dancing and didg playing as well as being a contact point for permission for Wurundjeri place names, memorials etc.
Where are the Wurundjeri today?
The last census revealed that there are approximately 120 people living in Nillumbik who identify as of Aboriginal descent. Due to the history of dispossession few of these would be Wurundjeri people. They come from a wide range of Aboriginal nations.
During the years 1862-1923 there was an Aboriginal Reserve near Healesville called Coranderrk. During the 19th Century this 4000 acres on Badger Creek was a vibrant and successful community of Aboriginal people from Victoria who ran a profitable hops farm and provided meat and vegetables and fruit for self sufficiency. William Barak a Wurundjeri man was the last significant leader of these people often referred to as the Yarra Yarra tribe since they were from many areas of Victoria. However into 20th century the growth of agriculture in the Healesville area meant that the Aboriginal Reserve land was sought by settlers. In spite of William Barak’s urgent and heroic work to save this land for his people the reserve was closed in 1923 and the Aboriginal people were sent to Lake Tyers. Today there is a significant population of Wurundjeri people in Healesville, many of whom are descendants of William Barak and other residents from Coranderrk. A four acre property and the manager’s house remain in Wurundjeri hands with the Wandin family who some genertions ago lived on Coranderrk. Joy Murphy Wandin and her sister Doreen have taken a leading role in Wurundjeri dealings with government and shires.
We are all familiar with the idea that land has a special meaning for Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal beliefs and culture connect them to the land of their tribe. They spring from the land, a physical and spiritual emerging from it so that they have a oneness with it. It is different from our love of the land, strong and spiritual as it is. Uncle Bill Nicholson says I love being out in this country. I do anything to get here and feel totally renewed in myself as Wurundjeri man.
Urban Aboriginal people have a painful issue of not having access to their lands. I was made very aware of this at a meeting which Jenny Macklin held for Nova Peris soon after Nova joined the NT Parliament. At question time a young Aboriginal mother stood and with considerable passion and anger told Nova that it was all right for her. She could go to the lands of which she was a traditional owner whenever she wanted to. But not for this woman. Every morning she said, she told her young son to go outside and put his foot on the ground because that is your land. It was a very uncomfortable moment. I am one of those who have descended from the occupiers who took this land and settled it. I know I have a legal title to my patch. But this woman was speaking of some quality of ownership which was far more than a title. Her passion was a window into Aboriginal pain and dilemma, if I could bear to listen and take it in.
NRG has some events which happen every year along with different projects which are
the inspiration for a specific year.
Flag Raisings: On Australia Day as the first act of the Citizenship ceremony we organise a flag raising. To this we invite an Indigenous didg player and an Aboriginal speaker. When the British flag was raised at Port Jackson, Captain Phillip knew the Aboriginal inhabitants were there but did not consider them as sovereign people. So in the spirit of Reconciliation today, they are part of this ceremony and new citizens have an opportunity to hear an Aboriginal person speak. That is something which many of us have not experienced. There are a good many opportunities in Melbourne but you need to look for them. It is something we are currently organising for Eltham.
We also organise with the Shire a flag Raising at the Shire Offices during Reconciliation Week which starts on 26 May each year. At this flag raising we invite schools to participate by sending student representatives. Some of those schools make statements about the importance of Reconciliation: coming together, knowing the true history, legislative change, saying sorry for taking the children from their families, recognising they were here a long time before we were (mosaic with 3000 black pebbles for the generations of Black people and 10 white pebbles for us), the difficulty of the date of Australia Day. Very thoughtful statements. Generated by the teachers of units dedicated to teaching Indigenous history and Reconciliation today. They bring reconciliation posters which are displayed by arrangement with Eltham Library. One of these posters is on view for you to see.
Following on from discussion with Eltham High School Captains about Reconciliation Week an Aboriginal theme for a whole school assembly of 1400 students was organised by the school captains with Brooke Wandin, Wurundjeri woman speaking and Mandy Nicholson and her Djirri Djirri Dancers performing. NRG helped with funding for this event and were invited to attend.
The GAWA Trail is a flat 350 metre trail through riparian bush near the Watsons Creek on the Etham Yarra Glen road. Easy to find as it is about a kilometre along the road from the Watsons Creek Café and Antique Store. If you haven’t walked it yet I commend it to you. Along this trail we have placed information plaques. Judy Nicholson, a Wurundjeri artist designed the frame for the information which tells about the uses to which Wurundjeri people put the plants and animals found on this reserve. We worked with Wurundjeri Elder Bill Nicholson, Mick Woiwod, Environmental staff from the Shire. We researched the information and found photos for these plaques. It was a project which took about 2 years to complete. Maintenance is done by the NRG members with assistance as needed by the Shire environmental works. We take school groups around the trail and encourage people to visit it and learn from the plaques in a self guided tour. Brochures.
We have a small area of grassland near the Kangaroo Ground Tower which we have been regenerating into indigenous grassland for the last 5 years. We weed out the pasture grasses and plants up with Indigenous grasses and forbs remembering that this area was famous grassland which fed many kangaroos, important food source for Wurundjeri people pre settlement.
NRG also has a website and a large mailing list for e-mail information about events with Indigenous themes. You can request to be on this and if you feel inspired to become a paid up member for $10 we are very pleased as it assists our authenticity as an Incorporated organisation. Membership forms available.
There are Reconciliation activities by other community groups in Nillumbik:
Child Care Centres have been introducing Aboriginal plantings, art works and stories .
A group of residents from Christmas Hills has organised an Aboriginal Writers Festival for April next year to be held in the refurbished hall there.
Oxfam partnered with NRG and invited Shane Charles to speak about Aboriginal issues in Victoria in April.
Amnesty International at Eltham has had discussion about indigenous issues and works promoting human rights for Aboriginal people living under the legislation of the Intervention.
NRG has been invited to meet with the Nillumbik Heritage Group so that indigenous history and culture can be included in historical deliberations.
Montsalvat with NRG partnership has taken on the Past Matters Festival of Aboriginal Writing and Culture originally held for 0ver 10 years by Meera Govil at Eltham Bookshop with whom NRG still partners for Indigenous authors.
And tonight we have Eltham Rotary listening and thinking about Reconciliation and what it means for us here in Nillumbik.
The Shire has always been generous in its funding provision for our projects. But now, Reconciliation in Nillumbik is very much a shared responsibility with the Shire. The Nillumbik Shire Council Charter (2008) has gradually come into action. Over the last three years Environmental Works under leadership of Brad Tadday have been making great moves in working with Wurundjeri Elders Uncle Dave Wandin and Uncle Bill Nicholson in restoring the Panton Hill Reserves using the Narrap Team. Led by Uncle Dave this team of Wurundjeri men work on environmental projects. Wurundjeri country extends over the Yarra River Valley so for these men, many of whom live in Healesville area working on their traditional land gives strength and meaning . And for significant times such as Reconciliation Week the Shire has arranged events at which Wurundjeri dancers and Elders can smoke us and give Welcome to Country.
Did you know that Eltham is the site of an ancient eel trap on the Yarra? That the old property of Morrisons on Laughing Waters Road is now maintained as a Wurundjeri precinct. Three trees have been carved with designs of cultural significance by three families of Wurundjeri descent: Wandin, Terrick and Hunter. To attend events at which the Wurundjeri themselves celebrate their land gives a very special life to the land of Nillumbik. A gift to us from Wurundjeri who continue to include all residents of Nillumbik and neighbouring shires in their celebrations of Country and their own culture and survival.
There has been a war of words and many fears of territoriality as Aboriginal sovereignty has become more vocal. As Aboriginal people have became more vocal and activist Reconciliation hovers between the relative safety of recognition and preservation of heritage and the more difficult calls for Constitutional recognition and for a treaty or perhaps treaties in acknowledgement that there were a couple of hundred Aboriginal nations in Australia all with their own pain and needs for a recognising relationship with the occupiers of their land..
Reconciliation is thinking its way through a minefield of confusing notions. The myth of Terra Nullius has been discharged and we are now faced with what to do . How can we acknowledge that Aboriginal people are the first Nations, the original owners of this land without acknowledging the truth of the foundations of our nation. Thinking of the implications of this truth is painful and challenging. What do we do if we own that we are occupiers and dispossessors? We cannot undo history just as we cannot undo our own histories much as we might like to at times. How do we meet the original inhabitants as sovereign people?
In Victoria this year something new is happening in Reconciliation. A first in Australia. We have all heard that there is a proposal to change references to racist laws and to include recognition of Aboriginal people as the first nations in the constitution. The difficulty of having a successful referendum and the problematic wording of a referendum question have bogged the project in promises with no conclusive action to date. However many Aboriginal leaders do not feel that these altered constitutional articles will really make much difference to their status and place in the Australian nation. It is something that white people are offering them so it is more about us than really meeting Aboriginal nations as sovereign peoples with a voice of their own. Some months ago 800 Aboriginal leaders from all tribes and groups in the state met in regional four centres to discuss what they wanted: They were all clear. They did not want constitutional change. They wanted a treaty. They then met for two days with government in Melbourne and there a tentative agreement was reached on a process which could lead to a treaty between Victoria and the Aboriginal Nations from our state. They have appointed a steering committee and will meet again with the government in 6 months time with proposals for discussion and negotiation. In the past suggestions of a treaty have been reacted to with horror, fear, and retreat because it all seemed too difficult and impossible and threatening. Now the Victorian Government is listening and meeting with these leaders and the Aboriginal thinkers for the time are thinking and speaking and the possibility of a treaty which names, recognises and speaks the truth is being negotiated and worked on. The Aboriginal nations are having to work together to formulate the terms of a treaty which will honour them and establish the parameters for working relationships between all parties to it. It may be one treaty, it may be 39 treaties, one for each of the 39 Victorian Aboriginal nations. But it is being worked on. This is the new face of Reconciliation. What is different is that Aboriginal people here have taken the initiative to work with the government on this. It is not a handout of funds or a government inspired project of help. It is an Aboriginal initiative. They are being taken seriously and are having to meet the challenge of a developing something which all clans and tribes agree on. ? Impossible? May be, may be not. It is being pursued and has gone further than imagined even at this stage.
This IS Reconciliation in our state in 2016. I think it has reached this possibility because of the work of reconciliation which each shire in Victoria has practiced through the activities of the reconciliation groups of which NRG is one. Groundwork is on- going; relationships with Wurundjeri people are established and there is a working together with respectful recognition. And of course, one of the most significant aspects of the Reconciliation movement is work in schools. Hearing our youth speak of their convictions and openness to meeting Aboriginal people with moral and ethical intentions of justice, recognition and compassion is heart warming and salutary and holds the hope for the future for Australia.
The next thing is for us to be hearing from Aboriginal people themselves. NRG is working to make this possible in this Shire over the next year.