New funding for a living educational tribute to Darug ancestors, food and medicine

A Darug woman with glasses and a shoulder-length bob stands, smiling in the foreground on a sloping lawn, with a red shoulder bag strapped on diagonally across a shirt printed with Indigenous design. In the background are the Hawkesbury Regional Museum's northwestern exterior wall, a row of lillipilli trees and three friends also inspecting the site.
Darug woman Melissa Stubbings (foreground) inspects the site on the grounds of Hawkesbury Regional Museum, with Sally-Ann Eather, Peter Eather and Jillian Munday (background L-R). Also present were interested locals, and Director of the Hawkesbury Regional Museum, Kath Von Witt.

A new joint project between Create NSW, WSU, Hawkesbury City Council and Western Sydney Arts and Cultural Projects has brought together a collective of locals to build a food and medicine garden on the grounds of Hawkesbury Regional Museum.

The project aims to use the grounds of the museum as an outdoor educational space for the Museum’s public programs. It is an extension of the current “Food Bowl Farming” exhibition, highlighting the Darug people's history of food production and medicine.

The working group met yesterday to share exciting ideas and brainstorm the possibilities for the garden’s cultural and educational potential. The two-year construction will be funded by a recently-announced $75,000 grant from Create NSW, and will display artworks from local Indigenous artists as well as endemic plant species. Discussions involved the possibility of a dedicated space for a regular yarning circle, specially-commissioned sculpture, and botanical signage “in language” as well as Latin and common names.

At the table for the discussion is Darug woman and manager of Merana Aboriginal Community Association for the Hawkesbury Inc. Melissa Stubbings. Melissa is the great-great granddaughter of Maria Lock, whose famous name and story is immortalised in the naming of a hospital wing at Hawkesbury District Health Service.

Melissa’s passion for food and medicinal plants is powerfully informed by generations of ancestral knowledge, and says that her 4x great grandfather, Yellomundee*, was responsible for using his knowledge of plants and infection to stop an outbreak of smallpox in the region.

“When he met with Governor Phillip on the banks of the river, it was in the writings of Watkin Tench that they could see the signs of smallpox on him and his father, Gomeberee. He managed to save his mob. He had a knowledge of plants that was so good that it could contain the spread of a disease that was only just introduced.”

Hawkesbury local Sally-Ann Eather is a sustainable agriculture and food security student from WSU, who have partnered with the group to achieve the shared vision for the space. Sally-Ann says she hopes to foster community engagement and partnerships via the new garden, as well as promote tourism in the region.

Also present in the working group were Sally’s partner Peter Eather (Eather Group), entrepreneurs Matt and Joanne Atkins, and Hawkesbury Regional Museum and Gallery Director, Kath Von Witt.

With committees of well-meaning whitefellas increasingly forming across Australia to amplify Indigenous voices, a project like this is an opportunity to listen and learn. Kath acknowledges that the Museum's collection - primarily items belonging to the Hawkesbury Historical Society - has faced criticism in the past for its absence of Darug narrative and artefacts. She continued, however, by outlining ethical issues with Western research method. Previously, European historians' methods of collecting, removing and displaying human remains, objects, recordings and images has been done without regard for the distress it may cause the subjects of their studies.

Kath said, "Museums collect objects, but we also collect histories. There's no end to the Darug story, so let's do that. There's been a focus on colonial history, and we've loved to dress up and pretend to be from the 1820s, and so on. But we're trying to shift that, and we've slowly introduced things like the Food Bowl Farming exhibition and information about Scheyville. Let's open it up, and let's make it really meaningful to everyone."

The group agrees that a living and interactive space dedicated to the many local Darug clans is an ethically sound and more holistic tribute to their ancestry and ongoing cultural contribution.

Eight adults and a preschool-aged girl stand in a group on the lawn of the Museum's rear entrance, looking into a garden bed below a macadamia tree. Kath points to the ground below the tree, talking to the group.
Museum Director Kath Von Witt guides the group on a tour of the grounds, describing the possibilities and challenges for the proposed site.

Melissa (pictured above in a Merana shirt) is keen to see locals participate in experiential learning about healthy alternatives to the fast-food diet, and has been incorporating the "traditional" diet of her ancestors to remedy her health issues. She has enjoyed dramatic benefits and weight loss as a result since 2018, and hopes to share these benefits with the wider community.

She said, "We have lost so much, but we have the capacity to bring it back when we work together. We have the technology now to tell us what plants can do, but we have to save that. Some Western Australian plants are now 'owned' by Americans. Governments have allowed them to be sold off. These are traditional plants that save lives. We need to recognise that within our own country, we have the means to fight off a lot of diseases. If we can eat more of a traditional diet, we can eradicate things like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and all those things that are killing my people at such a fast rate. Until recently, with my own health journey, I was on a fast-track to die early, and that's not going to happen anymore. I hope that I can inspire more of my mob not to have that same outcome. The knowledge is there, and we need to embrace it, use it, and not be afraid of it."

As more non-Indigenous Australians become aware of the need to hold space for Indigenous history and their contemporary voices via projects such as this, many of us want to know how to best approach their projects with the right attitude. Melissa says it's important to find out who the Elders and organisations are in the community, and that this should be reasonably easy to do by talking to the local council.

She added, "You have to also remember that while I'm here representing, I'm not the only voice. You can't put everything on the back of one person. You have to talk to a few different people, and just be open to inviting, listening, and not having preconceived ideas about what it should be. You've got to listen, first. I always say to my kids that they have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listening is more important than talking.... although, I am a talker myself! [laughs] I believe our ancestors set us on the right path, if we’re open to listening. I think it will come, if they’re happy with what we’re doing.”

The two-year project is set to be completed in autumn of 2020.

*Did you know: Yarramundi, the area of the Hawkesbury so familiar to local residents, is named after Melissa's 5x great grandfather, whose name you can see above is spelled correctly as "Yellomundee".

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