The Eora Journey, a multidisciplinary art and interpretation project to recognise the ongoing history of Sydney’s Aboriginal people, was endorsed for implementation at this week’s Council meeting. Below is the speech that I gave on the issue:
This is one of the most important cultural items to come to Council and is a highly significant project for all Australians.
In particular it is an important recognition for the first Australians and their hidden history that spans tens of thousands of years.
Recorded European history is a mere 8,000 years old while the Aboriginal occupation of “Warrane”, as Sydney Cove was known to the local people, and the surrounding area is somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 years old.
Burnam Burnam described the Sydney area as the largest outdoor art gallery in the world with 10,000 works of art on rock faces across the region. Few of these site are known to current Sydneysiders as many have been lost or fenced off or hidden from common sight.
Under our feet are countless sacred sites, burial sites, ceremonial sites, campsites, tool making places and middens – the tangible history of the Cadigal people of the Eora nation lost under the built environment of European settlement.
The Eora Journey is a wonderful opportunity for the City of Sydney to honour this lost history and to honour the original Peoples of “Warrane”.
I believe a project such as this, which is long overdue and strongly supported by the residents of the city via their input to Sustainable Sydney 2030, must be overseen, devised and executed by Aboriginal artists, curators and historians.
I would like to acknowledge the wonderful work of curator Hetti Perkins and designer Julie Cracknell in reviewing international practice in contemporary interpretative artworks and the directions they have identified for the Eora Journey.
A range of projects have been suggested, all of which I strongly support, particularly the long overdue recognition of the Coloured Diggers project.
I have been following the struggle that Pastor Ray Minnecon, the Coloured Diggers and Babana men’s group have been through over the past few years in trying to bring this dream to fruition and believe it is a project whose time has come.
One of the main impetuses for the Coloured Digger is the tragic stories told by the Kincella men and in particular the story told by Uncle Cec Bowen whose father went off to serve in the World War II only to return and find his children had vanished into government care. Uncle Cec’s story highlights the great military service of Aboriginal Australians and the injustice they returned to.
Where the Coloured Digger sculpture goes will be up to the Eora Journey Steering Committee and the City’s Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Advisory Panel to decide but I know that the original preferred position was at First Fleet Park, which was sadly not supported by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, and acknowledge that the sculpture needs to go in a meaningful place.
Hyde Park south would be an ideal location. To quote Associate Professor Grace Karskens, from the School of History and Philosophy at UNSW, the southern end of Hyde Park has enormous significance for Aboriginal people and the history of Sydney as part of “The great Aboriginal contest ground.” The site:
“was used for contests where Aboriginal law was enacted and which attracted Aboriginal people from as far away as the Hunter Valley, the Illawarra and west of the Blue Mountains. Non-Aboriginal people also thronged to watch the contests and the results were sometimes reported in the Sydney Gazzette.
Governor Macquarie did try to ban the contests in the colony’s towns through his order of 1816, just after the Appin massacre. However, since the last contest for which we have a detailed report occurred in 1824, it is clear that Aboriginal people continued to hold contests despite the order.”
Whether the sculpture does end up in south Hyde Park or elsewhere it must be a place of respect and great sensitivity. It must not be hidden away in the botanical gardens, it must be prominent and appropriate.
Another idea which I believe very strongly resonates with that lost history that I described earlier is the harbour lights idea which remembers the wonderful Eora women who went out at night in their bark canoes to fish with small fires lighting the harbour night. This is an important memory of the Eora that resounds through the years.
Finally I would like to talk about interpretation and historical sources.
One of the first lessons we learnt as history majors at Sydney University was to always question your sources and to analyse the positions of the historians.
We must always understand that history is written by human beings who often reflect the current worldview of the age or who have their own influences and agendas.
We have the “big man in history’ theories, bourgeois historians, class analysis and especially relevent in early australian history the romantics.
Bernard Smith in his important book on Australian art “taste, place and tradition” points out the power of romanticism in the letters, histories and art of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
As we move into the later twentieth century we are very aware of the highly contested nature of whitefellas interpretations of Aboriginal history and must be very careful and knowledgeable about the nature of the historical sources we use.
This is why it is so important that Aboriginal people and particularly our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander panel have input into how these ideas for the Eora Journey are interpreted and executed.
I congratulate council on this wonderful initiative and look forward to an exciting outcome which acknowledges and highlights the role and importance of aboriginal culture and history in Sydney– past, present and future.