In this grim time for planet earth I grasp for signs of hope, seeds of goodness. I recall the healing that gradually, gradually began after the Khmer Rouge horror ended. Even during this tragic month there have been some sparks of hope.
The people whose spirit was nurtured here were plunged into suffering which has not yet healed. The settlers’ hard-hoofed animals … sheep, cattle and horses … obliterated the grasses and root vegetables, the fruit bearing bushes, and all creatures that lived on these foods. The city of Melbourne developed rapidly. Factories were built on the riverbank and this forsaken place was used for dumping rubbish.
First it was The Riverbank.
Then it was Archie Roach.
Day by day, for two years now, I have walked along the banks of the Yarra, upstream to Dights Falls and beyond.
At first, I simply enjoyed the sparkle of sun on the water, the bird songs, the gum trees. I knew that this was the land of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation, and that the river was called Birr-rung. I sought a new understanding.
There is an area of immense rock slabs from an ancient volcano. For eons of time it was a place of meetings where clans of the Kulin Nation could gather for ceremony, for negotiating and trading. Young men and women would be helped to find partners with the right blood. It was a place of abundant fish, fruits and root vegetables. I like to stand on the bridge close to where Merri flows into Birr-rung. A little upstream on the Merri is the place where, in 1835, Batman claimed to have made a treaty with elders of the Wurundjeri people. He produced a ‘document’, made a gift of mirrors, scissors and other trinkets and acted as if the land had been acquired. The devastation of land and people began in this place.
Now, at the edge of the path by the river, there are wooden stakes with a message attached. LET IT HEAL. Close by are freshly-planted grasses and flowering, fruiting plants.
Healing will be slow, but it has started.
On the south bank of the Birr-rung not far from the city center is a Melbourne institution, an open music bowl with grassy hills behind. It is called the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. A highlight every summer is the series of three free symphony concerts. Each performance is packed with classical music lovers who might not otherwise hear the works of great composers. This year the third and final performance was, extraordinarily, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra accompanying the singing of Archie Roach. The musical instruments that came with Colonisation paid respect to the music of a First Nations man.
Archie is a man who has suffered the pain of his people. As a child he was taken from his parents; he grew without understanding his identity, spirit, culture, land.
As a ‘young fella’ he was, for more than a decade, homeless and addicted to alcohol. This is a familiar story for many of the Stolen Generation. He met Ruby Hunter, a vivacious woman who was also a member of the Stolen Generation. He loved her dearly. He recalls, ‘We were so broken we didn’t think we could be put together again’. Their love was constant. Both were talented singers; their talent was discovered and respected. They reconnected with country and country brought healing.
Archie came to the stage of the Music Bowl in a wheelchair, breathing from a can of oxygen. There was resounding applause from the audience seated in the Bowl and on the grassy hillside. Our best musicians, there on the stage awaiting him, joined in. Archie readied himself, spoke simply to us all and sang a whole fresh suite of songs while the orchestra backed him with music they had created and rehearsed during the week. Archie’s songs are stories. Accompanied by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra his voice resounded with strength. His hour and a half of performance lamented the pain of his people and shared his dream of culture and spirit that could be offered as a gift to all Australians.
We in the audience heard the suffering that Colonisation has wrought; we were led to hope for a fresh start for this country. We wept, cheered and stood in ovation as if truth was uniting us and setting us free. As a gesture of thanks Archie extended his arm and moved his hand across the vast crowd. ‘Yous out there’, he said, ‘You’ve got the Spirit’.
Jason Kelly from the Victorian Treaty Commission said, ‘If we spear you in the leg for a transgression then it is our responsibility to help you with the healing process”.