Fortieth anniversary of returning to her land (and water)
Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.
Truganini is probably the best known Tasmanian Aboriginal woman of colonial times, who witnessed turbulent demise of her Nation. She pleaded with authorities not to use her body for scientific purpose and requested that her ashes be scattered in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, but her wishes were denied. When she died, in 1876, her remains were exhumed and displayed in the Hobart Museum. Protracted attempts to reclaim her remains for reburial went hand in hand with the Aboriginal Tasmanians’ (Palawa) struggle for recognition. Truganin’s second burial, reported here, was enormous achievement for the Tasmanian Indigenous Nation.
“On the 30th April, 1976 a service was held at the Cornelian Bay Crematorium of Truganini. It was a closed service, the only people in attendance inside the chapel were the Premier, Mr Doug Lowe, Dr Allen Wallace, Roy Nichols, the State Secretary of the Aboriginal Information Service, and other members of the Aboriginal community.” This is how Aunty Ida West begins her recollection of this important event in Aboriginal Palawa community in Tasmania.
“The coffin was carried by Mr Roy Nichols and Mr Lowe to the furnace - placed in and Mr Nichols and Mr Lowe waited until cremation had taken place. Under police guard the ashes were taken for safe keeping till the morning of the 1st of May 1976.”
Ms Gaylene Nichols, 14 at the time, remembers this event: “I was at home with the wooden pine urn used, that had her ashes in it. There was a lot of media around and it was a big thing then.” It was Ms Nichols who pointed me to Aunty Ida’s recollection, which continues below.
“The ashes were contained in a Huon Pine casket which was placed in the Egeria’s cabin and carried to a point south-east of the pilot station in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. Mr Lowe formally handed the ashes to Mr Nichols and the following words were said, ‘Truganini, may you now rest in peace’. On the Egeria were Mr Lowe, Roy Nichols, Members of the Aboriginal community and a police guard. A flotilla of craft accompanied us down the river … It was a solemn affair - giving the important person a decent and dignified burial.”
“Truganini’s ashes were scattered on a lovely sunny morning … a porpoise was swimming around us when the ashes went down. Truganini had asked for this to be done, but it took a hundred years to come about. My daughter Lennah and another lady were with the casket of Truganini before the cremation. Rosalind Langford made a speech at the cremation and it was very good.”
“On the 9th of May people from the Aboriginal community and myself all went up to open a park which was dedicated to Truganini. Mr Stephen Walker, a sculptor, made the commemorative plaque for the area which he set into a large stone and it looks lovely. Guest speakers were Mr Doug Lowe, Roy Nichols and Mr Bingham. We had some little children sitting on top of some rocks watching what was going on. My grand-nieces and nephews were sitting there too with a few white children. They had their arms around each other. We were all standing around while they gave their speeches, a big black dog was standing with us too.”
The speech Roy Nichols gave at the dedication of Truganini Park was thoughtful, positive and gracefully phrased:
As the person chosen by the Aboriginal people to represent them at this dedication, I have conflicting thoughts and emotions; a deep sadness, some hope for the future. The sadness comes from the past, the past that is Truganini: the destruction of a way of life, the tearing down of a set of values, the physical wiping out of a culture, Truganini typifies that destruction, in life and in death, and yet, out of all that, has come some cause for hope.
We the remnants of the Aboriginal people, the descendants of the race, now face and look forward to the future with some cause, a reason for hope.
The dedication of this land today is not and cannot be the end, but marks a point: the end of one era, the beginning of another, because the real meaning of today’s dedication must be its ongoing commitment not just from the government but also from the people. A commitment to ensure that the descendants of a race are allowed to escape from their oppression and live full lives within this society, whilst retaining their identity as descendants of the Aboriginal race. And I hope that this parkland itself will be regarded as an illustration of this ongoing commitment, a positive reminder to us all, that we cannot just bury the past as we have buried Truganini.
And in another way this ongoing commitment is expressed in the work of Stephen Walker for he did not just produce a sculpture, a piece of design but regarded the wishes of the people as being an essential ingredient in his art form. He did not seek to go away by himself and create something which was just technically good, but as a true artist he took from us our hopes, our sadness, our dreams and our wishes and put them in his own form. He did not presume to know what our thoughts were. He asked us.
And yet what Stephen Walker has been able to do would not have been possible without the sense of responsibility and ongoing commitment of Doug Lowe, both as a minister of the Government and as a person who has shown a personal interest in the affairs of our people.
Why do I see cause for hope? Today is one of those causes. The gains that we have made at present are small, but they show the way. They show the way we are rediscovering our identity. They show the way because society at large is beginning to be aware of our identity and I can only hope today will enable our search and our awareness to develop, so that the past that is Truganini, can merge into the future. That is our rightful heritage.
Was Mr Nichols justified in his hope? Yes, as much as in his restraint. In December the same year the Northern Territory Land Rights Act was enacted; in 1992 in the famed Mabo Decision the High Court rejected the doctrine of terra nullius, in favour of the common law doctrine of Aboriginal title. It was followed by the Native Title Act of 1993. Now in 2016 we are inching towards the recognition of Aboriginal Australians in the Constitution. However, in many areas of life, such as health, education, employment, incarceration and general standard and life opportunities, the gap between Aboriginal Australians and the general population is still alarmingly large.
But Trugunini’s ‘second’ funeral (1976) and the lives of people involved, including Aunty Ida West OA, Mr Roy Nichols, his daughter Gaylene Nichols, and Rosalind Langford are a testimony that a positive change in the Indigenous status in Australian society, if often painfully slow, is on the way. And for identity sake it is essential to remember Aboriginal history, as Roy Nichols put it “that we cannot just bury the past as we have buried Truganini.”
Big thank you to Ms Gaylene Nichols for generously providing information, transcript of her father’s oration and collaborating on this story.
Aunty Ida, along with other Aboriginal activists, achieved the handover of the title deeds to Wybalenna on Flinders Island to the Aboriginal community on 18 April 1999. Wybalenna was a supervised settlement where, in 1834, nearly two hundred Aboriginal Tasmanians from the mainland, men, women and children were forcibly imprisoned. The vague plan was to ‘civilise and christianise’ prisoners. The name Wybalenna means ‘black man’s houses’. People were not allowed to practice their old ways of life and food gathering for themselves. But the provisioning of food, ordinary care and medical services were woefully inadequate. As a result, and homesick for their lost country, many people died of respiratory disease, poor food and despair. In October 1847 the forty seven survivors of this group were transferred to Oyster Cove, near Hobart. Truganini was one of the survivors.
Ida West, Pride Against Prejudice, Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies,1984