Townsend Bluff, Australia Day, 2022, a hot morning. In the shade of a casuarina tree on the brow of the hill, overlooking a glittering Andersons Bay, two women are making peace.
Debbie Williams and Sonia Weston have never met before but they both carry the weight of their family history with them.
Sonia is a cultural officer for the Bunurong Land Council. She grew up in Inverloch in the days when no one talked about Aboriginal dispossession.
Sue couldn’t be here today so Debbie reads the words she has sent. Words of apology and contrition. She didn’t know then that what she was doing was wrong. Debbie is explaining and apologising to Sonia.
And she is handing the objects over to Sonia. Each one is wrapped in a small hessian bag and they are on a beautiful coolamon that Debbie’s mother Lis Williams collected in her travels.
Sonia puts her arms around the older woman to comfort her. She reassures her: white people wouldn’t have known that back then that these tools should remain where they were found. Most still wouldn’t know, or care. We are all on a journey.
There are tears all around, from the two women and from a small crowd assembled to watch this small ceremony which is helping to undo some of the wrongs of the past.
Sonia thanks Debbie and Sue for returning these items. The artefacts will be returned to where they were found. Fortunately Sue has labelled them with their location. “That makes it easy for us,” Sonia says. Their exact location will be kept secret but she hopes there will be plaques to show the significance of certain sites along the Bass Coast. The family will be invited to be present at the repatriation.
She says evidence of thousands of years of Aboriginal civilisation is all around us in Bass Coast if we care to look and listen. On the beaches and in the woodlands, and just under the soil where we build our houses.
This is just a selection of the items being repatriated. Back at the car park there is a box of axes and grinding stones that were collected by Lis Williams.
For many years they were displayed in the South Gippsland Conservation Society museum. Until late last year when Sonia’s 15-year-old daughter Jasmine visited the museum as part of a dinosaur dig and saw them. She told her mother what she’d seen. Sonia got straight on the phone to Mr Dinosaur, Mike Cleeland.
The Greek people have been battling the British Museum for more than two centuries for the return of the Elgin marble statues, which they class as “stolen property”. Things happen differently in Inverloch. It’s all about personal connections. Mike Cleeland rang John Cuttriss, stalwart of the Conservation Society, who rang Sonia. They already knew each other. And so it was settled. The artefacts would be returned into Bunurong safekeeping.
They decided on January 26, Australia Day or Invasion Day, depending on your point of view. A day of celebration and a day of sorrow.
For Sonia it was the perfect day for an act of reconciliation. “My mother is one of the Stolen Generation,” she said. “This is a day of sorrow for us. We tend to stay home and keep to ourselves. Something like this helps to create new and happier memories.”