Yesterday I attended the Myall Creek Massacre Memorial ceremony in northern inland New South Wales, Australia. The place is lovely and peaceful but has a grim history.
It is 180 years since 28 Gamilaraay men, women and children were killed there on 10 June by white stockmen. Seven of the stockmen were later hanged – the first time any white settlers had been brought to justice for the massacres of Aboriginals which continued into the 1920s.
While I waited for the ceremony to start I chatted to some elders who had driven over from Walgett, four hours or so away. We read the memorial sign, which includes a summary in Gamilaraay language. They shared some stories of parents and grandparents who were afraid to speak Gamilaraay to them, for fear that the children would be taken away. So now they can only read the language and try to bring some of it back into the lives of the children in their own families.
Then the dancers started assembling. Students from a local school told me they are not taught any Gamilaraay language, but they have an Italian teacher and love learning Italian.
What made the day so special was the gathering of descendants of both the victims and the perpetrators, as well as other Gamilaraay people and Australians of all backgrounds. The students and other dancers performed before we passed through a cleansing smoke ceremony.
Children from schools around eastern Australia read us aspects of the massacre story as we walked up to the main memorial, where everyone joined in a pledge of reconciliation.
It was inspiring to see aspects of Gamilaraay language taking such a central part in the ceremony, in the music, dancing and speeches. And a beautiful sign of revival – the youngest dancer is named Mirri-Yanan, ‘shooting star’.
In the evening as I scrubbed the ochre and ash off my face, I wondered about my great-grandmother’s family, not so far away in a Queensland sheep station when she was born 30 years later. When they sat around the table of their home did they ever talk about the victims of this massacre, or any others? I will probably never know, but here 180 years later we remember those 28. It was the theme of the day – we remember them, ngiyani winangay ganunga.