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(AUSTRALIA) When colonists arrived to set up the city of Melbourne, Bunurong people who had lived on the land for tens of thousands of years had their world upended and its now after 185yrs its being put right #AceHistoryDesk report

#AceHistoryReport – June.27: It’d be the equivalent today of a giant spaceship pulling up over the city,” Bunurong man Dan Turnbull said: And I know, that’s outrageous. But it was outrageous, what happened at the time.”

AUSTRLIA: Melbourne’s birth destroyed Bunurong and Wurundjeri boundaries. 185 years on, they’ve been redrawn after the formal founding of Melbourne, the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people have reasserted their status as traditional owners over the heart of what is now a sprawling city home to more than five million people

Across the state, including in Far East Gippsland and the north-east, there are pockets of land where traditional owners are still working towards formal recognition.Wurundjeri cultural burning revived at Coranderrk….When Wurundjeri people were last freely conducting cultural burns in the 1850s, historical records show Gold Rush settlers interpreted it as a threat. This week, the ancient land management tool has been further restored.

NOTE: This story contains images and names of people who have died.

A black and white painting shows men unloading crates from a ship on the banks of the Birrarung (Yarra River).
The settlement of Melbourne began in 1835, within months of John Pascoe Fawkner’s ship The Enterprise arriving on August 29.(Supplied: State Library of Victoria)

Over just a few decades, Bunurong and Wurundjeri people were pushed off their land to make way for Melbourne: Languages, cultural practices and access to important sites were banned: In some instances, there were contemporary accounts that Aboriginal women effectively terminated pregnancies, such was their despair at the world their children would grow up in.

A detailed drawing shows a group of Aboriginal people overlooking the beginnings of the city of Melbourne being built.
A drawing by surveyor, architect and artist Robert Russell from 1840 illustrates how the Melbourne settlement swiftly displaced Aboriginal people.(State Library of Victoria: Robert Russell)

“You probably struggled to find anything that could have had a greater impact, apart from maybe a natural disaster at a huge level,” Mr Turnbull said.

Princes Bridge near Flinders St Station in Melbourne's CBD with hardly any traffic on it.
In the space of 185 years, the Birrarung has become badly polluted, as the city of Melbourne has been built around it.(ABC News: Ron Ekkel)

After four years of close discussions, the two groups were not able to reach agreement on where a boundary line should be drawn across the city’s centre.

So the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council stepped in with a proposed border to mark Wurundjeri country to the north and Bunurong country to the south — and this week, both groups agreed on that proposal.

The new line means both traditional owner groups, who already held responsibility over large tracts of land, will have their recognised land expanded.

It’s the process of years of work piecing back together knowledge that, before colonisation, had been shared between generations of Bunurong and Wurundjeri people for tens of thousands of years.

The new boundary line runs from west to east across the city, placing the CBD, Richmond and Hawthorn in Wurundjeri territory, and Albert Park, St Kilda and Caulfield on Bunurong land.

A map of metropolitan Melbourne is split into a yellow northern half (Wurundjeri) and pink southern half (Bunurong).
The boundary (purple line) will take effect from July 1, with Wurundjeri country (yellow) to the north, and Bunurong (pink) to the south.(Supplied: Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council)

Mount Cottrell, which is the site of a 1836 massacre in which at least 10 Aboriginal people were killed, will be jointly managed by the two groups above the 160-metre point.

The decision clarifies who councils, businesses and communities in the most densely populated parts of the city should recognise as traditional owners from July 1.

Mr Turnbull, who is the CEO of the Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, said his people were “deeply excited” by the outcome, which required concessions from both traditional owner groups.

“I’m only speaking for our group, but I think both groups would agree that in order to reach this outcome, that we’ve all had to be quite flexible,” he said.

Dan Turnbull stands in front of bushland, dressed in a black Bunurong Land Council shirt.
Bunurong man Dan Turnbull says the boundary agreement is the product of long-running and respectful discussion.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)

But Mr Turnbull said his community was at peace with that and believed the result was “a better future state for everyone”.

The Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation, which has also agreed to the boundaries, declined to comment.

Reviving ancient boundaries is a complex exercise

Trying to resolve the question of where the boundary should be drawn was a task fraught with complexity.

For one thing, the borders as they were practiced before colonisation were not legalistic, explicit lines, but commonly understood landscapes and markers including plains and rivers.

Many of those have been concreted over and waterways diverted to build Melbourne, meaning the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, which developed the agreed-upon proposal, had to consider other markers.

That includes man-made elements such as roads, with Bank Street to become part of the boundary running through South Melbourne.

In outlining the boundary, the council acknowledged how the forces of colonisation had warped and bent the boundaries.

A black and white photograph shows a crowd of people watching on Prince Alfred lay the foundation stone at Melbourne Town Hall.
Barely 30 years after colonisation had begun, Prince Alfred was laying the foundation stone at the Melbourne Town Hall in 1867.(State Library of Victoria: Charles Hewitt)

“Today, as modern people living an ancient Culture, we are comfortable enough in ourselves to draw a line on a map,” the council said.

“We are strong enough in the old ways to know, in our hearts, that the line it is as accurate as we can make it today.

“To identify a road or a new waterway as a boundary is our answer to a problem not of our creation.”

The written records of colonisers also played a key role in understanding where the boundaries lay before colonisation.

In particular, the diaries and recollections that quoted two prominent Aboriginal leaders during the early years of colonisation — Bunurong elder Derrimut, and Wurundjeri elder William Barak.

A painting of Derrimut, who is wearing a ring on each hand and a possum-skin cloak.
Derrimut was a key Bunurong elder during the early years of colonisation.(State Library of NSW: Benjamin Duterrau)

The council found Wurundjeri land was largely defined by the Birrarung (Yarra River), including country surrounding waterways which flowed into the freshwater Birrarung.

Council took the “crucial indicator” for Bunurong land to be if the water on it flowed into saltwaters.

Council chair Rodney Carter, a Dja Dja Wurrung and Yorta Yorta man, said every decision to recognise traditional owners was really significant.

“But I think what’s really present in all our minds, is such a populous place, our capital city in the state of Victoria … it’s fantastic that we can now hand that over to the traditional owners to sort of lead what should happen to the protection of cultural heritage,” he said.

Mr Carter said it was important to acknowledge the line required in today’s Australia to manage land affairs did not reflect the historical boundaries, which were “more blurred because they’re the places that bring us together, make us stronger”.

“The boundaries are the places that define us, in our strength towards each other and our relationship,” he said.

An open plain rises into a gentle hill, with some houses build along the slope.
Cultural responsibility to care for Mount Cottrell, a traumatic site of massacres, will be shared between Wurundjeri and Bunurong.(Wikimedia: Mattinbgn)

“And that’s not always clearly understood and even applied today, because we need these boundaries, really as borders.

“And they weren’t that in a past sense.

“So going forward, I think another brilliant thing is how groups actually collaborate at these points of strength, these boundaries, where they come together.

“And I feel really positive about that, because it’s an important value for us to instill in future generations on their governance.”

Caring for country responsibilities will grow

For the Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, the new boundary means its responsibilities will increase after July 1, when they will take on formal responsibility for protecting cultural heritage over the vast tract of land.

“There are now 22 local government authorities that will be seeking to engage with Bunurong people for decision making within their boundaries,” he said.

The corporation is often contacted by schools, too, who are keen to ensure they are sharing culturally appropriate lessons with their students on Bunurong land.

Dan Turnbull works on a computer inside an office with maps of traditional owner boundaries on the wall behind him.
Mr Turnbull says the corporation is looking to expand so it can meet its obligations across the new area.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)

From July, the group will also need to be across more significant construction sites, where they have a duty to ensure that harm to any Aboriginal heritage discovered while digging is minimised.

“What we’re finding now in the city, which is the first built place in, in what is now known to be Melbourne, is often when they’re knocking down a building and they’re doing excavation into the new car parks that they’re proposing to put under the ground, they’re finding new heritage, that is still very much intact,” Mr Turnbull said.

“There will be probably 50 per cent of the city, that when you go down under that subsurface, you still find the historical stuff on top, marbles, buttons, even the rooms of the buildings, doorways, fireplaces, their rubbish pits are still there.

“And then you dig underneath that, and then all our stuff’s still there.”

Some traditional owners yet to be formally recognised

While the complete boundaries over Victoria’s capital city are now settled, the struggle for other traditional owners continues.

There are just 11 formally recognised traditional owner groups, who cover around 75 per cent of the state’s land.

As the state’s treaty process marches on, Victoria is coming closer to a point in time where individual nations may seek to negotiate agreements with the state government.

The First Peoples’ Assembly, which is laying the groundwork for treaties, is concerned about a lack of progress on the recognition of those groups, despite multi-million-dollar investments from the Andrews government in recent years.

At a meeting this month, the Assembly called on the government to urgently fast track those applications, so those groups could gain Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP) status, which confers legal rights to speak for country.

The Victorian government has said it is reviewing its program aimed at supporting Aboriginal nation-building and recognition, to see how it could more closely support traditional owners.

Back on Bunurong land in Frankston, Mr Turnbull hopes news of the boundary will awaken more curiosity in Melburnians to seek out the full story of their city’s history, directly from the books of settlers like John Fawkner.

 “Because it’s a beautiful story, and it’s also a very sad story, as well,” he said.

“With more rollercoasters than any Hollywood blockbuster that’s out at the moment — the stories of warriors and leaders and things that have been lost, things that have been found.

“We’re still here and we’ll always be here.”

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