Inside Franklin’s art deco Palais Theatre south of Hobart, sprigs of fresh wattle blossom get tucked behind ears, teenagers wear rose pink ballgowns making breezes as they walk, muttonbird canapés served in little bamboo rowboats are laid at each table setting, and young boys wearing trouser braces and new boots play hide ‘n seek in the buffet queue around dad’s legs.
The CEO of the Southeast Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (SETAC) is wearing a black velvet evening gown with silver sequin cuffs, accessorised with a traditional Aboriginal shell necklace of toothies and maireneer shells, and the Huon Valley Council Commissioner is ballroom-dancing in a red silk taffeta gown.
The Dress Code on the invitation read: “Something that makes you feel beautiful.”
The NAIDOC Ball held every year since 1972, has long been staged in Tasmania by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (TAC). This year, on the same night, there was a second ball, held by SETAC for the first time in its 26-year history.
The Huon and Channel areas have particular pride in two strong Aboriginal women with a significant, yet painful, presence in the Tasmanian story – Fanny Cochrane Smith and Truganini. On July 13, 2018, they were brought to life through a celebration in contemporary song and dance.
The Melukerdee Aboriginal community, whose Country includes Fanny Cochrane Smith’s former home and church in Nicholls Rivulet and Truganini’s home and resting place on Bruny Island, invited friends and family for an evening of cultural activities, presentations and awards, MC’d by singer-songwriter Dewayne Everettsmith.
“It couldn’t have happened without this year’s NAIDOC theme,” SETAC’s CEO Tracey Dillon told the gathering. “’Because of her, we can’ has been the best theme ever. Tonight you’ll get the full understanding of that.”
Above the stage a large painting of female elders by Aboriginal artist Leonie Honeychurch gave the national theme strong visual presence. And the scene was set with a moving Welcome to Country song performed by the Melukerdee Aboriginal community, written by Toni Murray. Girls and women of all ages danced as swans and sang a greeting from Country in melodic Melukerdee language.
“As a Melukerdee woman, Toni wants to revive her language, and reclaim her culture and her Country,” says Ms Dillon, a Badtjala woman from Fraser Island who has lived in Tasmania for 15 years, and married Rodney Dillon on Bruny Island.
While the TAC promotes the palawa kani language, Bradley Strong from SETAC explains it is not one his people use. “We have different language, different stories, different tools,” he says. “Behind the celebration there is something important to focus on. We want to open up and be inclusive – invite people from outside our Aboriginal community for cultural exchange.”
It has taken more than a quarter of a century to reach this point in the evolution of contemporary Southeast Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Cultural differences between Tasmania’s seven Aboriginal groups are increasingly being expressed through the Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance (TRACA), officially recognised last year by the Tasmanian government in a signed Statement of Intent. Tasmanian Aboriginal communities are now on a path to reviving between 8 and 13 languages around Tasmania.
Rodney Dillon, TRACA’s co-chair and national NAIDOC Person of the Year in 2005, told the NAIDOC Ball in Franklin that SETAC was first established with the publication of ‘We Were Not Here’ in 1992. The book by author Robyn Friend contained oral historical accounts of Aboriginal families in the Huon region.
“The aim of that project, and starting SETAC, was to talk about where we came from and to celebrate really strong families,” says Mr Dillon. “Because people weren’t recognised we weren’t allowed to practise our own culture. It’s a shame. Not only that our ancestors in the ground weren’t there, and we had to fight for repatriation of their remains, but that we couldn’t catch our fish, we couldn’t catch our muttonbird, or be having our swan eggs…
“For years I felt we were really struggling because we were Aboriginal on the one hand but, on the other, we didn’t have any rights. Now, we’re not where we want to be, but we’re on the right track. We’re singing songs as a family, as a group, just as they would have done for thousands of generations.”
For many present at SETAC’s NAIDOC Ball, cultural connections with the past were honored, shared and spoken in public for the first time. Voices were female, gentle, some emotional, as many of Fanny Cochrane Smith’s descendants were able to sing Country to life in language, just as Fanny would have done through her performances of Aboriginal songs and dances. (In 1899 and 1903 Fanny recorded songs on wax cylinders. Now held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, they are the only recordings ever made of Tasmanian Aboriginal song and speech.)
Inside the ballroom, pinned onto noticeboards, were messages from girls from the Huon and Channel schools married with names and photographs of elders past and present. It was a powerful space for Aboriginal girls and women to shine a light on their strengths.
Among many varied cultural performances, Bronwyn Dillon read a poem she had written for Fanny Cochrane Smith, evoking her ancestor’s presence in the smell of bush flowers, in the firelight, in the salt water:
“I know when you are there
I feel your presence, I feel your warmth
It’s almost as though our hearts are beating at the same time”
Tracey Dillon called for a minute’s silence “for Ma Dillon and all those women who went before us”. She also acknowledged other Aboriginal people finally receiving recognition for their contributions, including Aboriginal educator and northeast elder Aunty Patsy Cameron and Karly Warner, a lawyer with the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service who flew in from Adelaide for the ball.
Due to illness, a message recorded by Aunty Shirley, SETAC Aboriginal Elder of the Year, was played to the gathering. She encouraged elders to “teach our language and culture, to respect all people, and above all believe in ourselves, be proud of who you are and follow your dreams”.
The Palais Theatre lights were dimmed when Tracey Dillon introduced one of the many highlights of the night, inspired by a recent community cultural tour. Over two days, Rodney Dillon had led SETAC staff on visits to important cultural sites where their people had lived for tens of thousands of years – from the Picton River in the Wilderness World Heritage Area to Black Lagoon on Bruny Island – with the aim of rebuilding culture and strengthening community wellbeing.
“We know that Truganini was with us then,” Ms Dillon told the gathering. “We walked her lands, we walked near her lake, near her home, we sat where she probably ate, where she fished and swam. Tonight we have something special for you to remember that day, because our women want to reclaim their culture.”
Debbie Cowen presented “Black Lagoon”, a moving, spiritual tribute to one particular place that stood out for her on that visit to Bruny Island in June.
“When I arrived at this place the hairs on my arm stood up,” Ms Cowen told the gathering. “A sea eagle flew over. I imagined he was watching us. We sang our song in our language at the lagoon, and on the path home – over and over again. It was the most emotional cultural journey I think I’ve travelled.”
For Mr Dillon, it is everything to take young people on cultural journeys, see the empowerment it gives them, to observe and sit with the looks on their faces. “We didn’t have that before,” he said, “and now we’ve got that.”
Aunty Patsy Cameron made the ten-hour return drive from her grandfather Mannalargenna’s country at Tebrakunna. “It was really important to be present at the inaugural SETAC ball,” she said. “It was a balance of cultural activity, role models and champions in community – all proud women speaking their language, and such a beautiful expression of culture”.
Speaking before the presentations, Huon Valley Council Commissioner Adriana Taylor told Tracey Dillon, “her black sister”, that she had been inspired by Aunty Ida West, a great advocate for reconciliation.
“Ida West asked us to walk together,” said Ms Taylor. “It isn’t about them and us, it isn’t about black and white. We can’t forget the past – we do have to fix those things – but we have to walk together to do that and Ida West believed that very strongly. Because of her I learnt how to live with you and how to appreciate Aboriginal culture. So, because of her, I can.”
On being awarded SETAC’s NAIDOC 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award, Rodney Dillon gave way to the next generation.
“To be a strong organisation, it’s got to be run by the young people today,” he told the gathering. “It’s no longer for our old people to be running. I’m happy to take people to places, on trips to our strong sites. When we go to these sites, it’s like our people have just left.
“I’m not going to achieve all the things in my lifetime that I want to do but I feel pretty safe that some of these young people who are here tonight will achieve them in their lifetime. That makes me feel we’ve left it in good hands.”
Presentations were also made to Tess Strong for Community Achievement and Bradley Thompson who received the Youth Award. SETAC’s Commitment and Dedication Award (from the staff) went to Rodney and Tracey Dillon.
In the year themed “Because of her, we can”, SETAC’s NAIDOC Aboriginal female award for 2018 was presented to chair of the cultural committee, Toni Murray.
“I stand here a very proud Aboriginal woman,” she told the gathering who applauded wildly as she fought back tears.
For more information contact SETAC, or visit The Living History Museum of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage & Gardens of the South East Nation in Nicholls Rivulet.
First published in the fortnightly national indigenous newspaper Koori Mail.