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Issue #1598      June 19, 2013

Writing the wrongs of Wadjemup’s past

For the first time, visitors to Rottnest Island (known to Noongar people as Wadjemup), off Perth, will be able to pick up a guide book to its Aboriginal history. The Aboriginal History Guide covers pre-settlement, cultural information and protocols but, most significantly, a brief and honest account of the island’s era as a prison for thousands of Aboriginal men from all over Western Australia.

Weavers Cheryl Thomas and her daughter Anne Oxenham, 10, travelled to the Island for the RAP launch and were overjoyed to see their baskets featured in an exhibition celebrating Reconciliation Week. (Photo: Michelle White)

Whadjuk Elder Richard Walley was among a small group of Noongar representatives, officials and island workers who attended the launch of the guide and a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) for the Rottnest Island Authority (RIA).

He said the guide was a good start and would help holidaymakers and tourists understand why the island was so important to Aboriginal people. “People who want to know what happened here will pick up the guide and read it, but there will always be those who do not want to confront what happened,” Dr Walley said.

“The European era of Wadjemup is only a small part of the history of this island. Our connection to this land goes back tens of thousands of years. It always has and always will be a spiritually important place for the Whadjuk people of Perth. While we must never forget the tragedy that happened here during its time as a prison, we should not let that be the only memory that defines this place.”

In 1838, white people established a prison on Rottnest Island.

For nearly 100 years, more than 4,000 Aboriginal men and boys from all over WA were sent to Rottnest for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. Official records show boys as young as eight were amongst them. Conditions were harsh, cells were overcrowded and disease led to many deaths.

Many Aboriginal prisoners were never to return to their homelands.

In the heart of the Rottnest Island’s accommodation and shopping precinct there is a simple, cleared area, marked with a sign. It’s a burial site for more than 370 men in unmarked graves.

These days the former prison and hanging yard is now a holiday lodge and, up until the 1980s, the burial site was part of a camping ground. Although the camping ground has now been removed, the site remains contentious. It’s why the future of the burial ground is one of the key commitments in the Rottnest Island Authority’s new RAP.

The authority has pledged to work closely with the Aboriginal community to develop an appropriate memorial for the site, with an undertaking to have some sort of resolution by 2015.

Paramount

Dr Walley said paying tribute to ancestors buried on the island was paramount. “Rottnest Island is a rare place in that although it’s Whadjuk land, it is connected to all of our people across the state,” he said.

“It’s widely acknowledged that every Aboriginal family in WA would have some ancestral connection to the burial ground and prison.”

The understated burial ground and the fact the old prison is still used by holidaymakers prompted a scathing article by acclaimed investigative journalist John Pilger in the British press.

He accused the RIA of covering up its bleak black history. His perception of the Island will also feature in his new documentary, Utopia, to be released at the end of the year.

The authority’s CEO, Paolo Amaranti, said he was not concerned about the negative publicity. “It’s not about what anyone writes,” he said. “We’re not trying to hide what happened. Our efforts towards reconciliation go back to 2004. We are committed to doing the right thing and working with community to ensure the Noongar history of the island is fair.”

Mr Amaranti admitted there was still a lot of work to do, but said he believed the new RAP had many positive initiatives, including a grants program to make the pricey holiday island more accessible to Noongar people. Groups will be able to apply for financial assistance to travel to and stay on the island for cultural events or camps.

Partnership

The RIA has also formed a partnership with Clontarf Football Academy and will work towards employment opportunities for students. More recently, it instigated traditional workshops to give Noongar cultural practice a higher profile on the island.

A series of free basket-weaving courses attracted more than 60 Aboriginal women, and the handcrafted pieces created during those workshops are now displayed in the historic Salt Store building.

Whadjuk Elder Janet Hayden praised the basket-weaving exhibition as a positive, high-profile promotion of culture. Like many of the women who took part in the weaving classes, Mrs Hayden is only a recent visitor to the island. The 78-year-old great grandmother made her first trip across the 17 kilometre stretch of water to Rottnest just six years ago. Now she enjoys regular visits to Wadjemup and encourages other Noongars to also reclaim their ancestral connection to it.

Dr Walley has been visiting Rottnest since the 1960s, a time, he said, when Noongar people were made to feel unwelcome. He says he can feel a real difference these days. In officially launching the RAP and guide, Dr Walley said reconciliation was not just about making good statements on paper; it was the follow-up that counted.

Dr Walley and Mr Amaranti said they hoped future generations would recognise and respect the sad European legacy of the island but also celebrate Wadjemup’s spiritual Significance and rich cultural history dating back more than 30,000 years.

Koori Mail  

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