This is an Acknowledgement of Country that was delivered by Meg Leathart (the previous WNPEEC Principal) at a conference at Observatory Hill. It is specific to that place and provides an example of how we might do ‘Acknowledegments’ or ‘Welcomes’ better.
According to Wikipedia it was the Greeks via one of their legends who first gave us the aphorism of “we stand on the shoulders of giants”.
Today, I would like to acknowledge the shoulders of those giants on which we all in this room stand.
Recently Peter, my husband, and I, in our attempts to right all the worlds wrongs, have discussed how disappointed and sometimes offended we are with the standard of acknowledgement of country/welcome to country as it exists in New South Wales. It is as though to say the words we have been ordered to say is enough to placate these gigantic spirits that walked this land before us. We agree that ‘acknowledgement of country’ is a terrific step forward but we both felt we most often miss a great opportunity and that maybe acknowledgement/welcome to country has rather quickly fallen into the tokenistic basket.
Perhaps we can meet these giants half way by learning something of them and passing this on to our audiences when acknowledging country or welcoming people to country. This would at least be an honest attempt to rectify this huge gap in our education about our place. It would also rekindle the practice of passing on story.
A second benefit of taking time to acknowledge country well, relates to our career paths presently taking us in the direction of “educators for sustainability”. As these people were masters in sustainability, surely by learning a bit about them, we can’t help but be better informed or closer and truer to our lifes’ works.
I have three stories to pass on to you.
The people who lived in this place before Captain Cook was a twinkle in his parents eyes were called eora and those that sat right here were known as cadigal. Eora is a common word used across many language groups around the harbour for ‘people’ like the term koori is for many coastal language groups or mari for Wiradjuri and Gamilaraay or as wimpatja is for Baakantji.
The place just to the east of here was known by eora as Warran. This place was one of only a few to be a source of permanent flowing fresh water. Flannery in his book “The Birth of Sydney” comments on the lack of mention of eora inhabiting this cove compared to the mentions made of the high level of activity at say Wooloomooloo. He informs us that when mortar was required by the whitefella for building none was available in Sydney Cove and it was transported in from other coves which he concludes meant that there were no middens of sufficient size to serve as this resource. Flannery suggests this lack of use and the place’s attributes are similar to records of sacred sites in other parts of Australia. The lesson? I take a stab at “revere the sources of fresh water that the earth supplies”.
The water that laps at the edge of Warran once was the home of giant stingrays. Legend has it that they were as broad across as a church pew and had no fear of humans. Unfortunately the rays were easy prey for a hungry crew of a ship called Endeavour. Harpooned, the animals were so heavy they had to be gutted at sea level and block and tackles used to haul them aboard. Without guts the largest is said to have weighed 200 kilograms.
These animals had prodigious barbs to match their hefty size and Cook noted the absence of these potential tools in the local peoples economy. It is as if they were too dangerous to have around. Flannery found that locals believed it was death to eat one. He writes “An implicit policy of mutual deterrence may have outlawed the exploitation of these extraordinary marine creatures.” This all changed with the settlement of the new comers and these giants were eliminated pretty quickly from the waters that lapped Warran.
The lesson? – take your pick – its either a precautionary tale – insert uranium for stingray. Or maybe its about relationship (in the true sense of the word) with non-human species. Ask ourselves what do we risk when we place the concept of resource on these living things we share this planet with?
If the first fleeters had learnt to speak Eora we would be out of a job. So lets learn some and move on.
I’d like you to think that this third and final short story can be used by you whenever you find yourself on that sacred spot of where the fresh water meets the salt just to the east of here. When you go to catch a ferry to the zoo or are there late at night waiting for a cab after seeing a jazz diva sing in the concert hall or before a visit to the art gallery or a walk through the botanic gardens. You can just say these few words inside your head to tell the old people you acknowledge their giant contribution to the wealth we are rewarded with today.
Warran jain ora. These words describe where you are when you’re at Warran. Can you spend a second committing those words to your memory?