As the crowd gathered at the Memorial Hall, traditional dancers acknowledged all Elders present, with particular respect to Aunty Lizzy Connors – the most senior of our Gomeroi Elders of the area; and Aunty Sue Blacklock who welcomed us to the site.
Those in attendance were reminded that this was not a performance, it was ceremony: the dances were an opportunity to learn about and reflect upon the history of this Country.
Growing up in Perth, it never occurred to me that I lived in such close proximity to institutions created from the suffering of our mob: things like roads and parks named after figures responsible for our oppression. Later, I also realised I often drove past a site of a major massacre of Nyoongar people in the Pinjarra area which was not memorialised to the same extent.
Myall Creek, and its memorial event, does not permit such ignorance.
Towards the end of 1837, groups of European stockman and station hands set off on a bloody rampage throughout the Gomeroi nation: a 'disperal' supported by Mounted Police sent from Sydney. During this period hundreds of Aboriginal people were slain as the party hunted down and killed any mob they could find.
As a result of this killing spree, many Wirrayayraay people were invited by a station hand to take refuge at Myall Creek station. This is where they remained for weeks, developing a strong relationship with the station hands there.
Then, in June of 1838, a group of white stockmen galloped into Myall Creek Station and brutally slaughtered around 28 unarmed women, children and elderly men. At the time, their Wirrayaraay men were away on a neighbouring property.
The stockmen’s attack was neither spontaneous nor an isolated one; and in the immediate aftermath not all perpetrators were brought to justice. It was only after a second trial that seven of the twelve men involved in the massacre were found guilty and executed for their crimes – a first in the colony’s history. The killing party was led by a squatter who was never brought to trial.
In 2000, around the anniversary of the massacre, a memorial was created and erected at the top of the slopes on which the Myall Creek massacre occurred by the descendants of both the victims and the perpetrators of this massacre: an edifice to reconciliation at the dawn of a new millennium to raise awareness and acknowledge the shared and troubled history of black and white Australia. As the focal point, a large memorial stone sits in its centre, accompanied by a plaque which reads:
“In memory of the Wirrayaraay people who were murdered on the slopes of this ridge in an unprovoked but premeditated act in the late afternoon of 10 June, 1838”
Now, each year on June 10 a ceremony and memorial walk is held in memory of the Wirrayaraay who were brutally murdered on those slopes.
Sturt Desert Peas – the unofficial symbol of the Frontier Wars – could be seen from a distance as I arrived at the memorial walk that morning. In the same way the poppy symbolises soldiers lost in western wars, the Sturt Desert Pea, with its powerful red colour and black centre, represents our patriots who suffered and died while defending and protecting Country and mob.
Before commencing our walk, we were invited to smear our foreheads with ochre and ash and to pass through eucalyptus smoke to cleanse and protect us. This also provided a moment of reflection on the ongoing impacts of massacres like Myall Creek on our people. Then the walk was led in a serpentine fashion up the slopes, pausing before a succession of commemorative plaques for school students from both local and visiting schools to recount the events that occurred on June 10, 1838.
At the top of the Memorial Walk, a bullroarer was sounded to give warning to the spirits that we were gathered so that we all may come together in this ceremony.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous Strategy and Services at the University of Sydney, Professor Lisa Jackson-Pulver, then reminded the gathering that the memorial, and all others like it, was imperative if Australia was truly expected to begin a journey of healing together.
In an act of reconciliation and in the spirit of taking ownership, the descendants of those who carried out the act of genocide then offered their apologies, both to the wider Gomeroi community, and directly to the descendants of the Wirrayaraay massacred. Beaulah Adams, a descendant of John Henry Fleming, offered an apology on behalf of their family:
“We apologise to those murdered and to their descendants… we are sincerely sorry”.
Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous school students from across Queensland, Victoria and NSW were in attendance at the event, and during the ceremony were asked to gather and address the crowd. A young non-Indigenous student stepped forward as a representative of all those non-Indigenous students present, taking a pledge to the wider community, and stated:
“We know violence and pain has continued over 200 years. The land was taken without negotiation or payment; laws and cultures and languages were destroyed; families were broken and many children were taken from their families… We realise that racism and prejudice still exists today”.
The Myall Creek Memorial and annual commemorative walk should be a benchmark for memorials of other massacre sites across the country. Without acknowledgement and ownership of the past we can never build a better future together.
My hope is that local councils can assist in the education of wider Australian society by investing in more substantial memorials dedicated to the 250+ known massacre sites across Australia. Although we have a long way to go, I couldn’t help but think that maybe this is what the first steps of real reconciliation may look like.
– I would like to acknowledge the Wirrayaraay men and women who lost their lives in the Myall Creek massacre, and acknowledge their descendants who live on to ensure that this bloodshed forms a formidable part of our national identity. I acknowledge all our old people who were lost while defending their People and their Country, allowing us to carry on their work today.
- Anton Schirripa is Ngoorabul and a secondary teacher with a passion for Aboriginal education. He lives in Boorloo (Perth) where he works as a Student Coordinator and Embedding Cultural Knowledges in Schools Coordinator at Clontarf Aboriginal College.