The Sydney Aboriginal Story: linking people and places

Artwork by Kerri-Ann Youngberry (detail)

Artwork by Kerri-Ann Youngberry (detail)

Paul Irish, an emerging historian and winner of the 2015 Arts NSW History Fellowship says one little story can really give an insight into how someone lived and the affiliations they had in an area.

He undertook a 14-month study into the lives of 10 influential Sydney Aboriginal people and examined how they dealt with the challenges of colonial life and the growth of Sydney from the early 1800s through to the 1930s.

14 months later, Paul and researchers Kirsty Beller and Kerri-Ann Youngberry from the La Perouse Aboriginal community in Sydney are ready to show Sydneysiders what they’ve discovered.

The findings will be presented in a free exhibition running in conjunction with National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC ) week between 4th and 8th July 2016.

Visitors to the exhibition can also book a free walking guided tour, which visits places of past and present significance to the Sydney Aboriginal community.

“The purpose of our project and exhibition is to show how Aboriginal people were still living in the areas they had family and ancestral connections to, one hundred years or more after the arrival of the first fleet in Sydney. By the 1850s, most Europeans assumed that the Aboriginal people who were living in Sydney were from somewhere else, but actually they were connected to the coast,” said Paul.

“One of the stories that was uncovered during the research is of Thomas Tamara, a leader of the Sydney group of Aboriginal people in the 1840s, who had links to Sydney and the Illawarra. In 1846, he was fishing around the Botany Bay heads with about 20 others from his group and they disappeared. People who knew Thomas in Sydney became worried and sent out messengers to ask if anyone had seen him. Eventually, the message that came back was he’d been fishing his way down the coast to the Illawarra, probably visiting his extended family,” he said.

“I like this story for two reasons. Firstly, people like Thomas Tamara were familiar with the areas they were connected to – he was as at home around Sydney Harbour as he was in Wollongong. Secondly, those connections were completely lost on the Europeans in Sydney who assumed that he got lost or drowned,” Paul said.

The mark of Thomas Tamara ‘A Native Chief’ in 1837. He was a well-known figure at the time and was among 100 prominent Sydneysiders who signed a pledge of allegiance to Queen Victoria on her coronation in 1837. (State Library of NSW DLADD270).

The mark of Thomas Tamara ‘A Native Chief’ in 1837. He was a well-known figure at the time and was among 100 prominent Sydneysiders who signed a pledge of allegiance to Queen Victoria on her coronation in 1837. (State Library of NSW DLADD270).

Paul hopes that that people seeing the exhibition will appreciate the stories of real people. “We’ve tried to present the Aboriginal people’s lives through stories, documents and images to show how individual people had these ongoing connections to different parts of Sydney. We tend to talk about Aboriginal people as a group and often forget that communities are made up of individual people each with their own story,” said Paul.

Paul worked closely with Kirsty Beller and Kerri-Ann Youngberry from the La Perouse Aboriginal community throughout the year. “I carried out archival research in libraries, and worked with Kirsty and Kerri-Ann, who are descendants of some of the individuals we were profiling. It was fantastic to facilitate someone learning how to research their own ancestors and see them actually discover new things,” said Paul.

Paul said Kirsty and Kerri-Ann took great pride and satisfaction in finding out new information about their ancestors and presenting it to their wider community and families. “We’ve also had a steering committee within the La Perouse Aboriginal community that’s been instrumental in giving out advice and comments, helping me pull the information together and how to present it in the exhibition. They’ve also contributed some excellent insights and photos of the people we’ve profiled as part of our research,” said Paul.

“This project has helped raised my profile as a historian, and generated some more opportunities for work thanks to the Arts NSW Fellowship. I’m about to start a new project looking at Aboriginal history along the Cooks River. Personally, the project has also been a good reminder for me not to overlook the importance of the continuing significance of history and heritage to Aboriginal people,” said Paul.

“This story is an important part of Sydney’s history and it’s poorly understood at the moment. There’s many opportunities for education, tourism, and more collaborative research with the Aboriginal community because there’s information held with the people just as much in the archives and libraries,” said Paul.

“I hope everyone who attends the exhibition sees a perspective they didn’t have before, learns more about Sydney and appreciates the real stories of the city, and that it still has meaning for Aboriginal people and links all of us to to a bigger story,” said Paul.

The exhibition is open 10am to 5pm from Monday 4 July through to Friday 8 July at History House, 133 Macquarie Street, Sydney. There are limited places also available on walking tours at 10am and 1pm each day of the exhibition. To book visit www.rahs.org.au/events.

 

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Published: 29 June 2016