Reflections on a Lifetime in Dja Dja Wurrung Country

Reflections on a Lifetime in Dja Dja Wurrung Country

This is a reworking, updating  and expansion of a paper I originally created for a 2004 ‘Black Gold’ Conference in Castlemaine that included an inspirational corroboree on Leanganook, Mount Alexander. The original paper was dated 23 October 2004 and called ‘The Great Dividing Trail and its associations with Djadjawurrung country’ .

Barry Golding, Federation University Australia,

May 2018

Abstract

I have lived in Djadjawurrung country virtually all my life. I have become increasingly and acutely aware – from a range of experiences, people, sources and interactions over a lifetime of 68 years – of the many ways Aboriginal people have shaped, and continue to reshape, white understandings (an ignorance) of Australia generally, and understandings of the Indigenous and cultural heritage of the Central Highlands of Victoria in particular. Given my lifetime living, working and re-creating in this Dja Dja Wurrung landscape, my paper traces the origins of my own, ongoing personal awakening to Dja Dja Wurrung associations and presence in the local landscape and community with an emphasis on what transpired here after contact in 1836. It starts from the uneasy silences behind the meaning of stone axes and cooking ovens found and experienced in wheat paddocks during my childhood in the Wimmera during the 1950s. My paper identifies some possible ways to continue to heal the ongoing, contested appropriation of Aboriginal land in Australia. It identifies the potential for local and collaborative exploration, understanding and interpretation of the many layers of shared heritage with the Dja Dja Wurrung people and local communities.

Introduction

I firstly acknowledge the traditional owners of the land I have lived in for most of my life, in Donald, Daylesford, Kooroocheang and Kingston, the Dja Dja Wurrung Nation Elders and and peoples, past and present.

My aim in this presentation is to touch on how I have become aware, as a non-Indigenous Australian, of the need for all Australians to have access to better information about history and heritage in all its forms. In particular I acknowledge the pressing need for all Australians to acknowledge, read and constantly reinterpret the many and ongoing Aboriginal connections between this land, our partly shared (but often poorly acknowledged) past and our shared and (sometimes contested) present. This is in addition to the need to provide present day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians with better opportunities to recover and replenish land, people, community and culture.

I will start with a brief explanation as to how my thinking has been shaped by my experiences of being born, living and working in what I now recognise as Dja Dja Wurrung country for most of my life. I will then turn to some aspects of the local contact period that we have most information of through written records – particularly relating to the setting up of the Loddon Aboriginal Protectorate at present day Franklinford prior to the white re-discovery of gold. I will conclude by looking specifically at some Aboriginal connections and narratives that might be enhanced by other people following in the footsteps of many others that have walked this country for millennia and undertaking their own journeys of reconciliation.

Early experiences that shape my narrative

 

Like most Australians, I have fortuitously discovered Aboriginal connections in spite of the difficulties rather than because they were there for all to read. Most of my connections come through narrative – and are therefore best expressed in these words in the same way. I was born into a white community in the 1950s prone to silences about many things. The closest one could safely get to acknowledge the Aboriginal past during my teenage years was to collect and display ‘objects’ in museums. Tom Griffiths neatly teases out the ‘History and Natural History’ world I was born into on his Hunters and Collectors book from 1996.

Like all Australians, I do have a history and a culture, but like most Australians there was a time when I wasn’t sure what it was. I remember in my early 20s being stuck for words, in Germany ironically, while performing with Mulga Bill’s Bicycle Band as part of Australia’s folklore presentation at the World Cup Soccer finals in 1974, when someone first asked me “Tell me about your culture”. Like the majority of Australians, my maternal and paternal families were basically Anglo – but some did get their hands dirty locally within Dja Dja Wurrung country. My great grandfather, William Golding, was a gold miner at the Lord Nelson mine in St Arnaud: the last major goldfields township in northwest of Victoria. The road beyond St Arnaud leaves the rocky, often dry, and mined out hills and passes the Woolpack Hotel past the optimistically named, now ‘ghost town’ of New Bendigo, before dropping onto the apparently endless, flat plains towards the Murray River and beyond into the vast Australian inland. About 40 km north of St Arnaud is a flat little town on the sluggish, rarely flowing and now highly saline Richardson River. This is Donald, my original hometown. It is now wheat and sheep country, but it has not always been so.

All of that country between where I now live in Kingston on the rolling, well-watered, high altitude, volcanic plains, and the flat and dry plains around Donald form part of the traditional country of Dja Dja Wurrung Aboriginal nation. The Donald Bush Nursing Hospital where I was born is on a billabong of the Richardson River, which forms the boundary between the adjacent Jardwadjali country, one of around 25 distinct Aboriginal nations in Victoria and several hundred in Australia at the time of contact. Dja Dja Wurrung country stretched east west from near Bendigo to Avoca, from the Great Dividing Range to near Pyramid Hill.

 

My paternal grandmother was a Pearse whose family had fled rural poverty and religious oppression in England and made a new start – first on the goldfields in Ballarat and later as ‘selectors’ in the Aboriginal lands appropriated in the Wimmera between the 1840s and 1860s. My family was therefore implicated in part of the original and convenient exterminating act that invoked terra nullius. They were certainly involved in sheep grazing of former Aboriginal grasslands as well as clearing the country of the Buloke (Casuarina) and Black Box (Eucalyptus largiflorens) woodlands for broad scale wheat cropping – at the same time as John Hepburn was helping build the back part of the former Creswick Shire Hall I now live in – as Chair of the previous Creswick and District Roads Board in 1859. Indeed the Board members were Hepburn’s pallbearers in the funeral procession through nearby Smeaton when he died in 1860. All of this happened just over 20 years after John Hepburn came overland from Moruya in New South Wales to ‘take up country’ in April 1838 near present day Kooroocheang with his family and several thousand sheep. Again, ironically, Hepburn built his house alongside several large Aboriginal ovens in a land (an Australian Felix and Eden of Major Thomas Mitchell in 1836) that had been declared legally empty and was regarded as theirs for the taking.

I have started with this brief but wide ranging reflection on family to illustrate the point that many white Australians, including myself, have lived all of our lives in landscapes and environments shaped by thousands of years of Aboriginal history but greatly changed by relatively recent dispossession. We generally have few narrative ‘hooks’ that date back to the time or nature of contact on the frontier. Though my ancestors lived relatively recently on the frontier, and my own house was built only 22 years after first local contact, understandings and interpretations of these environments and what happened here are neither easy to find in accessible or accurate histories, nor easy to accept or embrace. And yet non-Aboriginal people such as myself born in the 1950s were only two life spans away from the times and events of Aboriginal contact. Ivy Sampson, daughter of Thomas Dunolly, a Dja Dja Wurrung man taken as a child from the Mount Franklin Aboriginal Station to Coranderrk near current day Healesville in 1864, died less than 20 years ago in 1987.

The tragedy is that many Australians, black and white, often take much of a lifetime to make sense of the poorly documented but shared connections with this relatively recent Aboriginal history. My awakenings began early from the ground up and were at first fragmentary. As a young child I was fascinated by the many Aboriginal stone axes and grindstones made from Mt William greenstone and Grampians quartzite respectively – turned up by ploughing, and typically stored on farm tank stands in the Donald area. There were a few photos in the local museum of ‘King Johnny’ with a brass plate and patronising captions. But for me as a teenager in Donald in the 1960, my only first hand contact with Aboriginal Australia was one Aboriginal railway worker originally from remote Warburton in Western Australia and one Aboriginal family in St Arnaud. Only 100 years after the original dispossession, Donald in the Wimmera, was, like many towns in the area, an almost totally white, Anglo community, in a landscape comprehensively shaped, named and cultured by whites.

 

The first inkling for me of the scale of prior Aboriginal settlement came from my efforts as a teenager to map the distribution of Aboriginal ovens across the countryside – so obvious in red soil paddocks with their fertile, black soil and fragments of baked clay. While many farmers had known of their existence for decades, no one had bothered to map them. By the time I was sixteen I had mapped 160 ovens across the Donald Shire in a distinct pattern that hugged the Richardson River valley and the former shorelines of Lake Buloke. Though the pattern was there and the stone artefacts were everywhere, very few people acknowledged that people or culture had been here, let alone survived. In part it was because the later narratives of pastoralism (and in the Central Highlands area, gold) tend to become hegemonic rather than recent historical veneers.

Wider experiences and horizons leading to an interest in the Franklinford story

 

In between leaving Donald and moving to the Daylesford area in the 1970s I had other transformative experiences in my travels elsewhere in Australia – that forever changed my childhood impression that Australia’s Aboriginal connections and diverse communities were only history. As a touring musician with Mulga Bill’s Bicycle Band, in the 1970s in the hundreds of towns and cities we did concerts in across Australia I was constantly confronted: by the reality and diversity of contemporary Aboriginal Australia. Naively in retrospect, I was surprised to encounter large Walpiri speaking communities in Yuendumu 300 km north west of Alice Springs on the edge of the Tanami Desert, barely 20 years since pastoral contact. There were ‘fringe dwellers’ living in poverty in many inland Australian and outback towns in all Australian states and the Northern Territory, Torres Strait Islanders on Thursday Island, Aboriginal communities on Cape York and on the Queensland railways, Aboriginal stockmen in western Queensland as well as in parts of all Australian capital cities. Closer to home, Yorta Yorta people who had walked off Cummeragunja Reserve in 1939 were living in humpies on the Murray River near Echuca in Victoria just an hour’s drive from Donald.

I was stunned by a disproportionate number of Kooris then denied from the national census, work and education – but over-represented in the prison population. The deeper one dug and the more one travelled, the more Indigenous connections were visible – in the people, the communities, the names of places, and the vegetation. But most of all at that time I was confronted by the hard truth that the ‘traditional’ Australian ‘folk’ music our band played was at best only traditional in a very narrow and incredibly superficial sense, and at worst a blatant contemporary lie.

In my early days post-band in Daylesford in the 1970s I started searching for links that I knew from experience elsewhere, would likely be found everywhere – if I knew where to look and looked hard enough. I found the physical connections in many places. On the old geology maps of the Ballan and Werona areas geologists had found, recorded and marked several native ovens. When I went to these sites I found stone scatters including axe head fragments. When teaching at (now) Daylesford Secondary College I was alerted by students to what turned out to be over 20 Aboriginal ovens on private property in the Smeaton, Campbelltown, Kooroocheang and Werona areas. In the Daylesford museum I came across huge collections of photos and artefacts as well and busts of named Aboriginal people. Through them I became aware of the great research and thinking done by Edgar Morrison from the 1960s[1] in teasing out the history of the Loddon Aboriginal Protectorate from the original records. Morrison left monuments and other commemorative clues in the landscape that I now realise were there to guide later others in their attempts to make some sense of a history that was otherwise either denied, or apparently lacking sense.

I also realise now -from re-reading his work, that Morrison was in some small sense politicised by his experiences and faith in the late 1960s, as the then Methodist church sided with the Wik people – in unsuccessfully resisting one of the last of many ‘successful’ major grabs for Aboriginal land by mining companies. I recall with shame playing what we then called ‘traditional Australian music’ in the company town of Weipa in the early 1970s to a company-assembled, white-only audience of miners and their families for the Queensland Arts Council. The company had deliberately rigged up a hessian screen to, as they said, to keep ‘the darkies out’. As we started playing, the hessian dropped and countless young black faces encircled the paying audience through the wire mesh fence. At this point what little was left of my south eastern Australian, ‘hunters and collectors’ view of Australian Aboriginal history as stone artefacts – that I had been brought up with, was getting pretty shaky indeed.

In my reading of Edgar Morrison, he was also making links between what had occurred on the frontier in his own community of Franklinford in the name of Empire, God and progress just over 100 years before, and what was occurring in the same year, 1968 to another Aboriginal nation on a northern frontier to the Wik people – this time with serious concerns from parts of the church about justice and equity. It was, in part, these efforts to recognise Aboriginal land that led within a decade to limited recognition, in some States and Territories, including the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (1976) –and later in both the High Court Mabo (1992) and Wik (1996) decisions.

For those who don’t know, and apologies for those that do, the story of how the Loddon Aboriginal Protectorate came to be set up at Franklinford in 1841 is worth briefly recounting, particularly given its relevance to the gold rush period that followed almost immediately after the Protectorate’s demise by 1849. The Aboriginal Protectorate System[2] was set up as a result of a British Parliament Select Committee Inquiry into the Condition of Aboriginal Peoples during 1837. Lord Glenelg, then Secretary of State was one of the chief initiators of schemes to protect the inhabitants of British colonies. He ordered that the Protectorate be confined to the Port Phillip District, then, like this part of present day Victoria, a part of the former colony New South Wales.

The underlying basis of the Protectorate lay in the refusal of the British Government to recognise prior ownership of Australia by Aboriginal people. In effect Aboriginal people were regarded as being under British sovereignty from the outset, though with almost no legal or constitutional rights. The Protectorate system was a gratuitous offer of ‘protection to which they derive the highest possible claim from the sovereignty which has been assumed over their Ancient Possessions’ [Glenelg to Bourke, 1837]. The idea was hatched at a time of increased hostility and conflict between invading European settlers and the Aboriginal landowners. Its instigation was widely and sometimes savagely criticised by the popular press and the many overlanders turned squatters on the rich, Aboriginal managed, volcanic grasslands in the then Port Phillip colony.

Four Assistant Protectors were appointed in Britain in December 1837 including Edward Parker, previously a Wesleyan minister and teacher. None had any prior experience of Aboriginal people and all were recruited directly from the United Kingdom. The Chief Protector, George Augustus Robinson most recently from the floundering Flinders Island Aboriginal Station, was appointed Chief Protector. He had played a pivotal role in the previous decade in ‘successfully’ coercing and forcibly removing Indigenous Tasmanians to Flinders Island.

The stated aim of the Protectors in the Port Phillip colony was to:

watch over the rights and interest of the natives and endeavour to gain their respect and confidence … protect them from any encroachments on their property and from acts of cruelty, oppression and injustice.

The Assistant Protectors’ specific brief was to attach themselves to the tribes of the District (in Parker’s case, the area about Mount Macedon ‘and the country to the northward’) until they could be persuaded to settle in one location. Once ‘settled’ they were to be taught European agricultural, technological, social and religious practices. It was assumed that the Assistant Protectors would learn Aboriginal language and customs but achieve their aims by moral and religious (Christian) instruction.

All Assistant Protectors arrived in Sydney in August 1838 and arrived in Melbourne in January 1839. Parker left Melbourne in August 1839 but proceeded only as far as Jackson’s Creek near Sunbury where he built a hut for his young family. Parker briefly occupied a site at Neereman (on the Loddon River downstream of Baringhup and upstream of O’Brien’s Crossing) from November 1840 to June 1841. Parker had firmly noted in 1840 that …

I deem it my duty respectfully but firmly to assert the right of Aborigines to the soil and its indigenous productions, until suitable compensation be made for occupation by reserving and cultivating a sufficient portion for their maintenance.

Each Assistant Protector was, at least in theory, to create an inner reserve of one square mile for cultivation purposes, as well as a station and an outer reserve of five miles in radius for ‘the hunting ground of the natives’, with no nearby squatter’s stations and as far as possible from the major lines of communication. In June 1840 Parker was asked to set up a proposed reserve on the Loddon River ‘near a hill called by the natives Tarrengower’. Though the site was already occupied and the reserve was disputed by the squatters Dutton and Darlot, by February 1840 twelve permanent Aboriginal dwellings had been built at Neereman. For a range of reasons, including Neereman’s perceived unsuitability for agriculture, a new site for the North West Protectorate Station was decided on at ‘an old sheep station of Mr Mollison’s called Jim Crow Hill[3]. Located at Larnebarramul (‘House of the Emu’), at the time of the Station’s establishment, the land was owned by the Gunangara gunditj clan of the Dja Dja Wurrrung Aboriginal Nation, though occupied by Mollison, one of the invading squatters. The boundary of the inner square mile reserve around the Protectorate Station was nevertheless proclaimed by Governor Gipps in 1840.

The full history of the Mount Franklin Protectorate could and should fill several books. Suffice to say in his brief paper, the history of the original Aboriginal Protectorate and later Aboriginal Station at Franklinford spans 23 years between 1841 and 1864. Parker’s census of 1841 listed 282 Aboriginal people. This number was far from ‘pre-contact’ as a consequence of well documented conflict with Europeans – including deliberate killing, post-contact European diseases and particularly evidence of one or more major smallpox epidemics which originated and were spread from the vicinity of Sydney soon after the arrival of the First Fleet: (see Noel, Butlin, Our original aggression). There were two Aboriginal institutional interventions in the now Franklinford area, both with strong Christian missionary underpinnings: the first, the Loddon Aboriginal Protectorate at Franklinford (1841-1849), and a later one, the Mount Franklin Station from 1853 to 1864 at the base of Mt Franklin. These institutional policies and practices were administered by three government organisations: the Aboriginal Protectorate (1839-49); the Office of the Guardian of Aborigines (1850-59) and the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines (1860-1870).

By 1843 the Protectorate system was in disarray: hampered by colonial bureaucracy, a legal system that gave Indigenous people minimal rights and hostility from both squatters and Aborigines. It was, in part, Parker’s favourable reports on the Loddon River Protectorate Station in 1843 and also in 1845 which saved the Protectorate system, at least until a NSW Parliamentary Select Committee recommended its abolishment in late 1849. By 1854 the Aboriginal Protectorate had been dissolved and all that remained were an enclosed paddock which continued to be used as an Aboriginal School, but was closed by the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines in 1864. The Township of Franklinford was subdivided on the same site as the Protectorate in 1858-59. The remaining Aboriginal children were forcibly moved in 1864 to Coranderrk near present day Healesville. Most of the voluminous records from these events are still preserved in State and National archives.

On a visit to the Commonwealth archives in suburban Brighton with Koori students in 1989 I was particularly taken by the incredible irony in an original copy of handwriting exercise – penned by an Aboriginal woman, Ellen, at Franklinford on March 3,1864, just before the closure of the Aboriginal School at Franklinford. The lines she repeated down the pages were ‘Duties demand attention and method’, ‘Valour can do little without prudence’ and the acutely ironic words, ‘Compare past woes with present felicity’. On January 28 of the same year Edward Parker ‘most earnestly deprecate[d]’ the Central Aboriginal Board ‘any attempt to remove the young people now attached to the Aboriginal school’. Parker stressed that such removal could only be effected by coercive means’. In a separate document the Guardian of Aborigines, William Thomas separately argued against ‘the breaking up of the Franklinford Station altogether after 25 years’, noting that ‘… there is scarce a year but 2 or 3 afflicted blacks are brought here to die from the surrounding country – we may justly say in the interim, other refuge have they none.’

Making Indigenous connections to the contemporary local landscape

Knowing what had happened in the Daylesford area, including to the Dja Dja Wurrung nation in a contemporary Australian nation that was intent of having a party to ‘celebrate’ 1988, the Bicentenary of the arrival of the first permanent white settlement at Sydney Cove seemed to me like a huge contradiction. That year at our adopted home, as a form of public protest the Creswick Shire Hall in Kingston, we got a sign writer to write ‘Australia was settled, mapped and cultured before 1788: Don’t celebrate’ on a sign facing the street.

In 1988 I left a secure secondary teaching position in Daylesford to take up a contract at the School of Mines and Industries in Ballarat (SMB), helping to set up the first TAFE Aboriginal programs in Ballarat with guidance from the recently established Ballarat and District Aboriginal Cooperative then in nearby Eyre Street. I was an experienced teacher and a recently Accredited Amateur Archaeologist with Victorian Archaeological Survey (VAS). I had a good knowledge of Aboriginal sites and stone artefacts, but still had a lot to learn about Aboriginal nations, people and culture. The SMB experience taught me much and brought me to another realisation: that around 300 Aboriginal people, many with Stolen Generations backgrounds, then lived in Ballarat and District. The late Alec Jacomos worked carefully and sensitively with many of our students with institutions involved in previous the Ballarat Children’s Homes, Many knew little or nothing about their parents, families, culture or land and were seeking to identify their lost or fragmentary Aboriginal connections. Molly Dyer from Horsham taught in our Aboriginal Welfare Study programs and one day brought her mother Marg Tucker, featured in the Lousy little sixpence documentary from 1983 about the Stolen Generations, to the SMB TAFE auditorium. Several Ballarat Aboriginal people had multiple connections to several Stolen Generations. Some others had links – some clear and others less clear – to families from the ‘Mission and Central Station’ era that followed around 20 years after the demise of the Protectorates. Some Victorian Aboriginal people could trace their roots back to the late 1800s at Lake Condah and Framlingham, Ebenezer and Cummeragunja. Some also were Dja Dja Wurrung descendants via Coranderrk. One day in the mid-1990s I recall looked in the Bendigo phonebook and found a ‘T. Dunolly’ – which clearly indicated to me how close it all was to home. And then there were the oral histories.

My ‘scratching around in the landscape’ as I call it, took in several new local sites in the Kooroocheang, Franklinford and Campbelltown areas. I fondly recall wagging school teaching one sunny afternoon in 1987 with the late Rex Morgan – wading in our underpants – to closely explore the Larnebarramul (nest of the emu) lagoon at Franklinford. David Rhodes’ invaluable study of the archaeological history of the Protectorate was aptly dedicated to Rex. I found that combining public tours with narrative and documents from the 1980s to the present made aspects of the Aboriginal history literally leap out of the local landscape in ways that many people had not heard or experienced.

In one sense the Great Dividing Trail (GDT) and Association that I championed and became President of for many years came out of those experiences of reading the country in the early 1990s. It also came out of parallel and debilitating experiences from fifteen frustrating years of losing countless environmental battles about forest values other than for cellulose, but in retrospect winning a lesser number of wars with governments over the same issues. It was timely for me to work with communities to help create something positive to hand on. And in just 25 years we the GDTA, have achieved much. The GDT concept also came out of my reading of the national Environmentally Sustainable Development (ESD) debates, that around that time suggested a potential for sustainable tourism and a small number of other profitable enterprises predicated on the overlap between what is economically and environmentally sustainable.

So how might local government and non-government organisations improve the still woeful knowledge of what happened in ‘settled’ Australia and improve contemporary understandings and narratives of land, culture and community? As part of the valuable RAP (Reconciliation Action Plan) process currently in train in many organisations, I argue that it is essential to to expose Australians to the ongoing and contested appropriation of Aboriginal land in Australia, by telling what happened here, and importantly telling it wherever possible with and by Aboriginal traditional owners, on country and on site. There are many opportunities for local and collaborative exploration, understanding, narrative and interpretation of the many layers of shared heritage in the Hepburn and other Shires, with the Dja Dja Wurrung people and local communities.

As one illustration only, there the Murnong (Microseris scapigera) also known as the Yam Daisy’ that still grows in places in the bush and on some protected roadsides. [4] Much of the information in this account comes from one of the great early research works of ethnobotanist, Beth Gott, now in her 90s. A preferred traditional food of Aborigines in central and western Victoria, the Murnong is the Wurundjeri/ Wathaurung name. Once recorded in its millions in the carefully fired and managed Aboriginal grasslands and open woodlands in all States including Tasmania and Western Australia and tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, it is now impossible to find on grazed land. For those not familiar with the Murnong, it is a perennial herb, springing up from a swollen tuber resembling in shape a small round radish or tapering carrot. The Murnong lies dormant in high summer, but in autumn a rosette of upright, smooth leaves develops and the tuber begins to shrivel to produce flowers, on long stalks, first characteristically bent downwards.

By mid-summer, all that is left is the dried flower stalks and the buried tuber. The old tuber was bitter and less edible in early winter, though the food source was so valuable it could in effect be used year round. Gathered by Aboriginal women using a digging stick: in some areas 8kg (enough to feed a family for a day) could be collected in an hour. They were washed and usually cooked by heating stones in the fire and covering them with grass with earth over the top. When roasted they are sweet, very delicious and nutritious. Indeed, 100 gm of murnong contains 264kj of nutritional energy (compared with 285 kj for a Jerusalem Artichoke and 335 kj for a potato). Oven mounds were called mirrn’yong mounds, which seems to indicate that murnong was the most cooked food in them.

Aboriginal burning practices during the dry season did not harm the tubers. The deliberate burning kept the volcanic grasslands open for herbivores, cleared dead vegetation, leaving open ground, fertilised by ash, suitable for new growth. Introduction of sheep: 700,000 in Victoria by 1840, led directly to the loss of this major Djadjawurrung food resource, since the plains and open forests where it preferentially grew were also areas where murnong was most abundant. As an interesting aside, John Hepburn already had Murnong cultivated in his garden when Aboriginal Protectors Robinson and Parker stayed with him at Smeaton Hill in February 1841. The loss of the Murnong in the Aboriginal grasslands with the introduction of sheep led directly to a need for many Aboriginal people to accept the dole of flour and sugar from Europeans. The cessation of Aboriginal digging and burning limited the Murnong spread. By 1860 the Yam Daisy was sufficiently scarce for younger Aborigines around Melbourne to be uncertain of its identity.

But that is not the end of the narrative. Enter the Long-billed Corella (Cacatua tenuirostris), described by the Robinson as Chief Protector of Aborigines in an area between present day Smeaton and Campbelltown on 18 February 1840 in such numbers as resembling a large white cloud in their tens of thousands. In the same diary entry – to set the scene – Robinson observed a familiar geological scene but a less familiar, present day botanical and ecological covering. ‘These hills are thinly grassed and very stony … occasional fragments of quartz strewed on the ground on the E verge of the plain … timber as usual sheoak [Casuarina], Cherry [Exocarpus], honeysuckle [Callistemon] and wattle [Acacia]’. The next italicised e diary entry is particularly telling. ‘Some places where the natives have been … saw places where they had roasted and eaten the [Freshwater] mussel … There is one thing certain. This Eden is not occupied.’ (italics added).

Studies of the Long-billed Corella in 1986[5] confirmed that ‘… a precipitous decline in both range and numbers …. occurred at the time of European colonisation.’ (p.7). By the 1950s the Long-billed Corella was in such low numbers it was considered endangered. After much research it was found that ‘the food item on which the corella originally thrived was the same underground vegetable extensively utilised by the aborigines (sic) of south-eastern Australia’ (p.8). Importantly,

its disappearance from the plains and rivers was one of the factors contributing to the rapid demise of aboriginal populations in south eastern Australia. This abundant plant disappeared within one or two growing seasons after sheep and cattle began grazing where it grew. Once the yam disappeared from an area, we believe [that] the corella populations very quickly declined through starvation and in many places the corellas were exterminated because of this.                                                     ( Best, Sinclair & Alexander, p.8)

This one complex but insightful story attempts to illustrate how one plant and its complex ecological associations with a bird continue to be disrupted over hundreds of years later. Stories like this might be able to be used to alert people as to the way our natural environment, like our human community, retains and presents evidence of present and past changes – if only we are sensitised to read and understand them. Similar complex stories lie in many other parts of our material and cultural artefacts with Aboriginal connections, including through native plants and animals, in named features in the Australian landscape, in historical documents, in paintings, poetry and literature. But most of all, the stories, along with the lies and silences I was born into in the 1950s, remain embedded mostly in people’s life experiences. Contributing actively and positively to everyone’s Indigenous and environmental narrative is (and should be) a critically important task as part of Indigenous Australian reconciliation.

In so many senses the history of this great land lies in a reading and understanding of the present. It resides in using and valuing the place names and their meanings. Some well known features have worn several other names in 150 years that each tells their own story. There mas be as many as three Dja Dja Wurrung names, including Larnebarramul (nest of the emu), Willamebarramul, ‘place of the emu’ or Lalgambook. ‘Jim Crow’ as John Hepburn called the same mountain sounds superficially quaint but is historically racist, and was called Mt Franklin following Sir John Franklin’s fleeting colonial visit. It is ironic that the best-known Australian spring water in 2018 comes from the same mountain that has no spring or natural water source within the Mount Franklin Reserve other than off the roof of the public toilet,

 

I also contend that our ways of better understanding the local and regional nations. languages, peoples and environments, such as through a renewed interest in Indigenous foods and plants, as well as through improved land management through Catchment Management Authorities, Aboriginal organisations, Landcare and Bushcare help us not only better understand what knowledge was lost, but enhance what there is to protect and regain. Not surprisingly, the longer we live in one place or district and the more sensitised we get to reading and managing the land, the more indigenous (with a small ‘i’) we become. It is interesting that over recent decades the configuration and size of many amalgamated and restructured local government areas across Victoria has begun to resemble some pre-contact Aboriginal national boundaries, divided as now by natural catchment and river boundaries.

In some cases we can only imagine what was lost including in the open (now potato) country towards the top of the Great Dividing Range. This area’s deep and well-watered volcanic soils – until the start of the gold rushes in the 1850s around Dean and Mollongghip – supported some of the grandest stands of trees in Victoria. By the end of the same century they were virtually gone: for building, fuel and pit props for the mines and associated industries

To give some idea of the nature of such missing forests, and particularly the irony associated with their loss, the small patch of tall timber on basaltic substrate topping Wombat Hill above Daylesford was cleared for the present day Botanical Gardens – on the 60 acre ‘police paddock’ reserved for that purpose in 1860. The Daylesford Council minutes on 21 May 1863 record that the initial beginnings of the present day botanical gardens in Wombat Hill were observed: when two young oaks’ were planted ‘… to commemorate the Wedding of King Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, to Princess Alexandria. A bonfire consisting [of] 20 of the largest trees that grew on the hill amounting to 1000 tons of wood was lit.’ Prior to the clearing of the hill, huge gum trees reputedly up to 20ft [6m] in diameter grew on the hill and wombat burrows were numerous amongst their roots. Today the trees regarded of national heritage significance on the hill include Californian redwoods and Bhutanese pine trees.

Conclusions

My main conclusion is that local heritage has many layers, and that understanding the first Aboriginal layer is essential to understanding the many other heritage layers. Pastoralism, timber and gold in the footprint of the current Hepburn Shire have impacted hugely on Dja Dja Wurrung people and environment. What we classify and value today as heritage will continue to change as community knowledge about what happened here in the contact period changes. Large and significant collections of Aboriginal artefacts at SMB in Ballarat were discarded during the 1950s when local authorities lost interest in them. It is only recently that the many layers of mining, forestry, built and natural heritage in our region have come to be mapped, valued, restored and interpreted. It heartening that in 2018 there is finally an appetite for swapping stories about Dja Dja Wurrung associations and people, both past and present, that have for too long ignored or denied.

There are thousands of pre-contact Aboriginal sites across the region – most of which are found on the more fertile plains and volcanic remnants outside of the forested areas where, as now, living off the land was most productive. Based on the demographic evidence outlined in Noel Butlin’s book, Our original aggression, the volcanic grasslands in the north of the Hepburn Shire supported one of the highest pre-contact Aboriginal population densities in inland Australia, at least until several waves of smallpox (that preceded Mitchell’s contact in 1789 and 1830) apparently reduced them to the relatively low densities observed at the time of pastoralist invasion.

Whilst it in important for our past to be interpreted, the desire publicise heritage in all its forms needs to tempered by the need also to respect the rights and privacy of the traditional owners as well as the current title and land-holders. There are many instances in Australia where exposing sites to tourism – without proper consultation and safeguards – has resulted in loss and damage to the very thing people came to see and experience. It is important that we respect other people’s special places as we expect others to respect ours. It is important always to recall that most non-Indigenous Australians came here as refugees of one sort or another. We owe it to the first Australians – in 2018 and beyond – to work collaboratively to put right whatever we can – and particularly to create new, more inclusive and more sustainable communities and cultures. Working together with communities on a Reconciliation Action Plan is but one way.

[1] These include Early days in the Loddon Valley (1996) and Frontier life in the Loddon Protectorate (1967).

[2] Summarised from Rhodes, D (1995) An historical and archaeological investigation of the Loddon Aboriginal Protectorate Station and Mount Franklin Aboriginal Reserve, Occasional Report No. 6, Aboriginal Affairs, Victoria.

[3]Lalgambook to the Djadjawurrung, later named Mount Franklin after the visit to the area of the former Governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin and Lady Franklin in December 1843.

[4] Gott, B, 1983, Murnong- Microseris scapigera: a study of a staple food of Victorian Aborigines, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 1983-2, pp.2-18.

[5] Best, L, Sinclair, R and Alexander, P (Eds.) (1986) Proceedings of public meeting to discuss ‘Long-billed corella management and crop damage’, Narracoorte, SA.

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