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Appreciating identity

Serafina Silaitoga In Canberra, Australia
Saturday, May 17, 2014

SILENCE filled the room.

Tears swelled in the eyes of journalists who sat in the room of a house that has stood the trials of almost two centuries since being built in the 1800s. It was first occupied by an Aboriginal family.

As sisters, Brooke Collins and Jacqui Wandin shared some stories their grandparents and great-grandparents faced in the early days in the Land Down Under, in the tribal area of Wurundjeri, the pain and hurt of knowing what their ancestors experienced with the early foreigners could be heard in their voices.

Their eyes were filled with tears and they confessed how such stories have made them angry and frustrated — the fact that they get to share stories of silent pain borne by their ancestors including being pushed off their land as indigenous people of Australia.

The Wurundjeri clan owned a huge area of land in Coranderrk, Yarra Valley- about 50 kilometres from Melbourne city.

In this countryside area, ancestors of the Wandin family were forced to change their name from Wandoon and have not given up in telling the world about the history of the Aboroginal people — the indigenous of Australia.

"It makes me angry every time I talk about it because my ancestors were not respected or given their right to stay on their land but I am not giving up in telling the world about the sad days my ancestors lived and their strengths to endure such treatment," Jacqui Wandin said.

"My mum's family is European but my dad is Aboriginal and I am proud of my heritage and my culture.

"This house we are sitting in was built in 1884 by my great-grandparents and it was taken away from them together with the land because the government at that time gave it away to other early settlers who had come in from Europe."

As she shared her story, I thought about an art displayed at the Melbourne Gallery which spoke about how a group of Aboriginal women and children were pushed off a cliff to their death.

They were blamed by a group of European sailors for stealing things from the ship. It was later revealed that some European men had stolen from the ship.

These women and children were innocent but sentenced to death — without any chance of explaining their side of the story.

I learnt to greatly appreciate the fact that my indigenous identity as iTaukei of my island nation, Fiji, was never forcefully abandoned.

Ms Wandin said talking about the kind of life her ancestors lived through had not been an easy task.

The house they occupy was given back to them, but through an auction about two decades ago.

The building spoke of its age but the bricks told another story, one of the strength and determination of early occupants to face the trials of the early rulers.

Ms Wandin recently started a new program with her younger sister Brooke, aimed at promoting the culture and history of the Australian indigenous community.

"It was not an easy start because the history of the indigenous community or the 'stolen generation', has been a quiet business," Ms Wandin said.

"So we decided to organise a Coranderrk festival to promote the culture and history of the Aboriginal people and over the past two years, we have attracted a huge crowd."

Her younger sister Brooke said the original family name Wandoon means spirit in the water and in those days, the indigenous community mostly lived by rivers and lakes because these were dwelling places of their gods.

"Yarra, where we live today used to be Yarra Yarra meaning always flowing and that applied to the river in the area," she said.

"So one of the stories shared to us by my dad is that when the Europeans arrived, a white fellow asked our ancestors some questions but because my ancestors did not know how to speak in English as they had their own language, our ancestors responded saying 'Yarra Yarra'.

"Today, this area we live in is also known as Yarra and we are so proud of our ancestors and our heritage as Aboriginal people."

William Barak

He is a well known native — known for his fighting spirit in never giving up to air his grievances about the way his people were treated by Australian rulers of the early days.

At the cemetery of the indigenous community in Yarra, his gravestone states: "William Barak, last chief of the Yarra Yarra Tribe of Aborigines, died at Coranderrk on August 15, 1903 at the age of 85."

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Mr Barrack was born in 1824 and was called King William who was one of the first witnesses to early European intruders.

In the late 1870s when management of Aboriginal affairs came under vigorous public criticism, Mr Barak emerged as a respected spokesman. Until his death he was the acknowledged leader at Coranderrk and a liaison between officialdom and the native population.

He is also known for his comments to the government of those days saying: "Give us this ground and let us manage here ourselves and no one over us. We will show the country we can work it and make it pay and I know it will".

The biography stated that his white champions did not share this faith and the scheme was never fostered, although Coranderrk was retained.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop

Meeting Ms Bishop was a blessing. As we chatted about Fiji and the upcoming election, she shared how she just loves Fiji.

I responded: "Thank you ma'am. I am blessed to be given a chance to meet you this morning. I have heard a lot about you and your determination spirit."

"Oh thank you. Hang on, is it all good or bad? she asked.

We both laughed as I assured her that it was all positive.

The meeting with Ms Bishop was encouraging because since taking up office six months ago, she has set strategies to economically empower women in the Pacific.

We were also taken to the press gallery which sits in the Parliament House. All media organisations in Australia — newspaper, radio, television and online services all have an office at this gallery.

To think about how these media companies are given a space in parliament and yet given the freedom to criticise their government brought tears to my eyes as I thought of other journalists who struggle around the world to "smell freedom".