Momentous Awabakal Memorial Planned for Newcastle

It was announced that the Australian Museum is repatriating its collection of First Nation remains, including some from the Awabakal area. Phoebe Metcalfe investigates the plans of their final resting place.

Images of the skulls provided to the Awabakal LALC, courtesy of the Australian Museum.

As part of its First Nation repatriation effort, the Australian Museum is returning the remains of seven Awabakal ancestral skulls back to their land, Muloobinba (the Newcastle area). The Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council (Awabakal LALC) is in the process of finalizing plans for a final resting place for the remains.

The proposed memorial will be placed next to the historical Convict Lumber Yard site, in Enterprise Park, Newcastle. CEO of the Awabakal LALC, Robert Russell, says the site was chosen to unite both Indigenous and Colonial histories.

“My idea was to make it a message of reconciliation where we have Aboriginal and European archaeology side by side in the same park,” he says.

“It will be a place where on Sorry Day or other significant days in the Aboriginal calendar people can go and lay a wreath, spend some time there, and we don’t have a place like that in Newcastle.”

The project gained $98, 200 funding from the Newcastle Port Community Fund last year.

Digital Rendering of Awabakal Memorial, courtesy of Awabakal LALC

The original interment date of this milestone memorial was proposed to coincide with the anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s 2008

apology to the Indigenous Australian community, on 13 February 2021. However, due to negotiations with The Heritage Council of NSW, the construction of the memorial site has been delayed. As the lumber yard is also the home to European archaeology, the construction must disturb as little of the land as possible.

“Ultimately, it will be a massive thing for the community because it will be an opportunity to establish a permanent Aboriginal place in the CBD,” says Mr. Russell.

Womori man and Chair of Indigenous History of the Wollotuka Institute, Professor John Maynard, also feels the memorial presents an opportunity for Aboriginal culture and history to be recognized and celebrated in Newcastle, and that it is a crucial element of the country’s future.

“The country’s greatest, richest, treasure is 65 thousand years of Aboriginal cultural connection to this continent so celebrating that and embracing that is the way for this country to go.”

Professor Maynard says the Australian Museum’s efforts to return these artifacts to the community should be recognised.

“We’ve seen a great change in some institutions, particularly over the last 10 to 15 years, and the Australian Museum, I applaud.”

The Aboriginal Heritage Cultural Advisory Committee has advised the Awabakal LALC that the best course of action for the memorial planning is to accommodate the Awabakal community’s decision of the memorial location.

“The place we’ve selected is where there was originally an Aboriginal camp on the banks of the river when the first Europeans arrived, therefore it is a prime location; they didn’t just put camps anywhere they’d picked them for their amenities and facilities,” says Mr. Russell.

According to Mr. Russell’s findings, the ancestral remains were taken from a pauper cemetery by Major Bolton in 1837. The cemetery was located on the corner of Scott St and Newcomen St, in what is now the CBD of Newcastle.

“Major Bolton was tasked with building the new fruit and veggie markets in Newcastle. To do that he had to destroy that part of the cemetery…at the time, the only human remains that anthropologists and scientists were interested in were the skulls.

“He sent [the skulls] on to The University of Sydney, and from there they’ve ended up at the Australian Museum.”

Just two weeks ago, Mr. Russell was informed by The Heritage Council of NSW that they have discovered another skull in Chennai, India. There is speculation that it could be the eighth one from this specific collection.

Last year the Federal Office for the Arts advised the Awabakal LALC that The State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony, Germany, has formally agreed to return a set of Aboriginal ancestral remains, robbed from a Newcastle grave in 1902.

Germany has already returned 45 Indigenous ancestors to multiple Aboriginal communities across Australia; 35 to the Gunaikurnai people in Victoria, six to the Menang people in Western Australia, and one to the Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia. Ancestors repatriated between German and Australian Governments is now totalled at 150.

“This happened in the past,” says Professor Maynard.

“Let’s try and learn from that, and heal from that and then move forward to, hopefully, a more just and equitable future for everybody.”

Featured Image by Phoebe Metcalfe, Yak Staff Writer.

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