Sacred music launch highlights Aboriginal spirit of country and inspires hope

1-IMG_4705I missed the opening event of the Sydney Sacred Music Festival, but by chance discovered unexpected beauty and symbolism. Owing to wet weather, The Gathering Ceremony at Marrong, featuring internationally acclaimed Aboriginal musician William Barton, was transferred from Marrong or Prospect Hill, to Pemulwuy Community Centre. I missed the message and arrived instead at the foot of the hill in Daruga Ave, Pemulwuy, at 2pm, last Friday, September 2. With no one in sight, the concert was clearly happening elsewhere. From the road, the view was of carefully landscaped bushland, polished steel and timber stairways, and signage including Burra – the Darug word for food – found in the bush around.

The hill is a central feature of the Cumberland Plains and the region of western Sydney. The sight was a revelation. The last time I had been on the hill was probably more than 20 years ago. The hillside was deeply scarred after years of mining for building and roadmaking materials, and battered old pine trees still formed a windbreak of sorts along the ridge line. At Worlds Collide, the Festival concert on the following night, others confirmed their only consciousness of public discussion about the hill was a pre-Bicentenary proposal in the 1980s for a giant flagpole on the hill – a symbol of white Australian triumphalism. In the 30 years since that time, a quiet revolution had been taking place with many participants, particularly members of then Holroyd Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee and local resident Jacqui Douglas, a descendant of the Malyankapa language group of western NSW.

1-IMG_4709Jacqui’s research of early documents had led her to question why the third colonial settlement of Portland Place, established at the base of Prospect Hill in 1791 appeared to have been abandoned in favour of Toongabbie, now officially recognised as the third white settlement in Australia. Holroyd Council commissioned historian Michael Flynn to undertake a formal study of Portland Place and the indigenous history of Holroyd. Three months after the establishment of the penal colony at Sydney Cove in 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip set out with a party including Captain Llieutenant Watkin Tench to search for arable land for growing crops. On the fifth day, they arrived at what was soon known as Prospect Hill because of its fine vistas and dominant position in the landscape. Settlement followed but quickly met with Aboriginal resistance. Attacks and counter attacks were occurring elsewhere in the colony. In a chapter called War on the Cumberland Plain, in her award winning book The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, associate professor Grace Karskens details the complexities of relationships that were emerging between Aboriginal groups and white settlers throughout this period. There was no simple racial divide, but a network of sympathies and conflicts between and among Aboriginal and white groups across the plains. Outstanding among the Aboriginal resistance fighters was Bidgigal man, Penmulwuy from the Botany Bay area whose defiant exploits took him to many locations around Sydney. In 1802, despite previous remarkable escapes, Pemulwuy was killed.

1-IMG_4708Grace Karskens writes that in 1805, Governor King reintroduced the strategy that had successfully eliminated Pemulwuy. “A few days later, Aboriginal people of Prospect, Parramatta and the Cowpastures asked (the Reverend) Samuel Marsden to attend a conference ‘with a view to opening the way to reconciliation’. A complex dance of diplomacy and negotiation followed, brokered by Aboriginal women with the assistance of  Prospect settler, Jonathon (also called John) Kennedy, When Marsden arrived at the appointed place, the women told him that the men were in conference and would be calling on him when they were ready. And they did: . . .” Skirmishes in the area died down, though they continued elsewhere, particularly where white settlements had destroyed access to indigenous food sources.

The peace talks were held on May 3, 1805. On Monday, May 4, 2015, the 210th anniversary of the talks, Marrong Reserve was officially launched by the Mayor of Holroyd, Greg Cummings and Darug Elder, Aunty Sandra Lee. The commemorative plaque acknowledged the contribution of resources for the establishment of the reserve from Lend Lease and Boral Resources (NSW) Pty Limited. A Holroyd Council media release stated that “Marrong Reserve provides recreational, cultural and visual amenity to the residents of Pemulwuy and surrounding areas, and is named after the Aboriginal word for Prospect Hill because it follows the ridgeline. . . . The Reserve will be dedicated to Council by land owner, Boral Resources (NSW) Pty Limited and developer, Lend Lease after a maintenance period. The northern section of Marrong Reserve has been completed as Stage 1 with the expectation that Lend Lease will develop the southern portion as Stage 2.”

1-IMG_4704As I walked through the misty rain on Marrong, I heard and saw currawongs, kookaburras, crested pigeons and little finches. The surrounding scrub looked like a metaphor for the symbolic nature of the hill itself. Introduced plants like lantana threatened to overwhelm native shrubs, but other native grasses and trees flourished and hardenbergias were resplendent in purple spring flowers. Clearly there is a lot more planned for the reclamation and maintenance of Marrong/Prospect as a focal point for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal intercultural understanding and respect. Martha Jabour, cultural officer for the new Cumberland Council, which has absorbed much of the former Holroyd and Auburn Councils, writes that “the treatment of Marrong is very much about the work of our ATSI committee. Recent forums and programs have been effective in bringing  additional Aboriginal partners to the process.”

With so much progress in little more than 20 years, it’s encouraging to think that the hotly contested North Parramatta Heritage Precinct might yet emerge as another example of honest Australian story telling, self knowledge, education and cultural tourism. Advocates are heartened by the outstanding 10 year record of achievement of Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne as a model for their future. Click here to see the video highlighted by North Parramatta Resident Action Group president Suzette Meade.

1-img_1706I arrived at the Pemulwuy Community Centre, just as William Barton and his mother Aunty Delmae Barton finished their performance for The Gathering Ceremony. Their audience was clearly uplifted by the experience. Thanks to Martha Jabour for her photo. By good fortune, the artists were present at the following night’s Worlds Collide concert and improvised with musicians in the first piece to the delight of the crowd. Sydney Sacred Music Festival program continues Sydney wide until September 18.

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