Photos by Geoff Ellis
MARY Mutsaers opens the door to her home with so much energy it threatens to come off its hinges. Those of you who know her won’t be surprised.
Mary is in the midst of packing as she and her husband John are heading to warmer climes in the afternoon. Always a feat to organise, doubly so when you have organised a very successful opening to the NAIDOC Week (National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee) at the Community Hub in Inverloch just 36 hours ago. Despite this, we are welcomed in and sink into comfy chairs surrounded by John’s paintings and sculptures.
I admit that I still had tears in my eyes after listening to the speeches of the Friday night. When we attend openings, the speaker will often acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, Forgive me, but so often I’m left wanting. It reminds me of the way in which, when we were volunteering in Kenya, speakers would list the most “important” dignitaries and at a certain point would say, “All protocols observed”. As though it was a tired procedure that must be said but had no meaning.
Let me assure you there was plenty of meaning in the NAIDOC Week opening. First Sonia Hume Weston spoke lovingly of her land and welcomed us. It wasn’t an “us” and “them”, it was an inclusive welcome – as you and I would welcome guests into our home. Because, for the Bunurong/Boonwurrung people, their land is their home.
Other speakers followed, none more eloquent than Safina Stewart. Safina is a well-known artist who creates beautiful and widely appealing work. Of course she talked about her relationship with the land. She told us of her Indigenous heritage – from Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait and Wuthathi country in far north Queensland. She also spoke about her non-Indigenous heritage of Scotland. She went further and spoke of the time she spent in Papua New Guinea, where she connected with the people there. And then of her time in Auckland where she married a local man. Like so many of us, she is a person of many parts.
The theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week is, “Because of her, we can”, and Safina went on to talk about what that meant to her. She talked of the past, of the struggles of her grandmother, as that is the foundation for today; she spoke of the present, of people like herself, who have the opportunity to grow; and where we are today, welcomed to the land; and then to the future that she sees in her children, particularly her daughters as they embrace all of their history.
Florence Hydon, co-chair of the Bass Coast/South Gippsland Reconciliation Group, focused on the recent change of name of our federal electorate, McMillan. I had no idea McMillan was responsible for massacres that killed so many Gippsland Aborigines for no other reason than they were in the way. In 1846, a young Englishman named Henry Meyrick, who was visiting Gippsland, wrote in a letter home to his relatives:
“The blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with … I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, in the strongest language, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging … For myself, if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shoot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog, but no consideration on earth would induce me to ride into a camp and fire on them indiscriminately, as is the custom whenever the smoke is seen. They [the Aborigines] will very shortly be extinct. It is impossible to say how many have been shot, but I am convinced that not less than 450 have been murdered altogether.”
Later estimates are that many more suffered. Is it any wonder their descendants were unhappy about the name of the electorate?
Now the electorate name has changed to Monash. Not an indigenous name, of course – but at least a step in the right direction.
For me, that one evening connected me more than ever with this land. An immigrant myself, I often give thanks to my parents for making the brave decision to emigrate and bring their children up in this wonderful part of the world. As a child, as Dad got postings around Australia with the RAAF, I was not readily welcomed into the many schools we attended. In fact, I was sometimes bullied for being different and speaking with an English accent.
But on that cold night in Inverloch in July I felt the Bunurong/Boonwurrung people didn’t care how I spoke, dressed or where I came from – all they wanted was that I shared their appreciation of the land on which we stood and the people who had stood there before. Is it any wonder I had tears in my eyes?
The 2018 NAIDOC Week Indigenous Art Exhibition includes work by Melissa McDevitt Weston, Casey Sweetman Weston, Safina Stewart, Lisa Kennedy, Patrice Mahoney and Leroy Russell. It can be viewed at the Inverloch Community Hub seven days a week until July 27