Yesterday, we took a tour of the Sydney Opera House and in the evening we went to a Children’s Film Festival in one of the theatres of the Opera House. In this post, I’m just going to think through a very brief moment that occurred just before the film festival began and that concerns historical imagination and our willingness/ability to acknowledge the past.
First, a bit of history of the aboriginal people of Sydney.
Aboriginal people of Sydney are called the Eora people, and the Gadigal clan of the Eora nation are considered the keepers of the aboriginal culture of Sydney. The Gadigal are just one of 29 different aboriginal groups of Sydney. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in 1788, there were about 1500 Eora living in the Sydney area, and they had been there for thousands of years.
Small pox was introduced shortly after European/English arrived and that, along with natural resource depletion, resulted in the deaths of about 70 percent of the Eora. The Eora people still maintain a claim on the land here in Sydney, and they participate in the political and cultural life of the City. It’s understood that some of modern Sydney’s major avenues—George Street and Oxford Street, for instance–were common travel routes for Sydney’s aboriginal clans. The aboriginal people referred to Bennelong Point, the site of the Sydney Opera House, as Dubbagulle.
I wasn’t thinking much about the history of aboriginal Sydney prior to the beginning of the film festival. About 200 people—more kids that adults– gathered to watch the films. The house lights went down, and a young man approached the stage. He wore jeans and a plain white t-shirt and he looked a bit disheveled. In his appearance, he stood apart from all of the other staff at the Opera House, who were smartly dressed and put together. He took the microphone and introduced himself as a descendent of the Gadigal people, and he politely asked us to close our eyes and go on an imaginative journey with him. He asked us to imagine the spot that we were currently occupying, the world-famous Sydney Opera House, 350 years ago. He put in our minds a vision of a coastal people fishing, searching for herbs and plants, living peacefully with the land and practicing a form a spirituality that imbibed inanimate objects with life. In short, the young man asked us to remember and to acknowledge the land, the past and the people who occupied this space for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. When he was finished, he asked us to open our eyes, thanked us for our attention and quietly walked off the stage.
This was a small, but poignant, moment in our time in Australia. I couldn’t help but marvel as the systems and practices that had been put in place to simply allow this sort of thing to happen. Imagine, if you can, a Saturday evening at the Metropolitan Opera. New York’s finest are gathered in all their regalia, waiting for the beginning of, Mozarts’ Cosi Fan Tutte. The lights go down, the hall goes quiet and . . . out walks a member of the Lenape tribe to ask audience to acknowledge the ancient history of place.
It’s almost unthinkable.
Prior to this, I spent the afternoon walking around the grounds of the Sydney Opera House. I walked up the large sweep of steps that lead to the theatres and then I came back down and walked around the pathway that takes you around the entire circumference of the structure. I looked out over the Sydney Harbor, admired the Sydney Harbor Bridge and marveled at the imposing architecture of Sydney’s Central Business District. I didn’t think for a moment about what came before, who lived on this land, who fished its coastal areas and hunted in the coastal forests. So, I’m grateful to the young man from the Gadigal clan for sparking my historical memory.