Strengthening the lines of communication between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Warrnambool has been valuable in the path to reconciliation, Peek Whurrong Elder Uncle Robbie Lowe says.
When Uncle Robbie visited Warrnambool as a boy, there were parts of town that were off limits to him as an Aboriginal.
'lf we crossed certain streets in town we got told, "Get back on your side of the street",' he says.
Uncle Robbie grew up at the Framlingham Aboriginal Station, about 20 km from Warrnambool, hearing stories of atrocities committed before his time. But whilst the elders passed the stories down, they said they weren't to be shared with non-lndigenous people.
Stories passed down through generations
'The elders’ idea was that no-one would understand the stories or believe them because they were not written down. It was all word of mouth and then passed down through generation after generation,’ Uncle Robbie says.
So Uncle Robbie knew never to talk to non-Aboriginal people about the trauma inflicted on his community, including how the Central Board for the Protection of Aboriginals regulated all aspects of Aboriginal people's lives, from where they could live to who they could marry.
'There was times when we came to visit my grandfather and my mother had to get a permit to visit him on the mission station and we had to sleep under a bridge waiting until the time the permission came into force. That's what our life was like.'
Breaking the silence
Twelve years ago, Uncle Robbie’s son, Robbie Junior, told him that there was conflict between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids in a class at a school where he worked. It was then Uncle Robbie knew it was time to break the silence and tell his stories.
'First, we spoke to the teachers to see if they were agreeable to us telling those stories. Then when we told the stories, yeah, we had two teachers who started to break down and cry because they never heard those stories before.
'When we finished it all, we had those teachers come over and apologise to me, and ever since then we've been going into schools and telling the stories of our culture and our lives as lndigenous people.'
Robbie says it was hard to relive the trauma by talking about it, but the impact has been huge. He says the name calling and friction has ended as lndigenous and non-lndigenous kids learn about the history together.
‘ln the last seven years we've started taking the kids on a bus trip to all the sites where things happened. Like burial sites, like food source sites, camp sites, places where our ancestors lived and camped and survived, so they can see first-hand exactly what the story's about.’
Robbie says the stories have made lndigenous kids ‘feel proud of who they are’ and non-lndigenous people respect them more.
‘We can go into schools and we talk to non-lndigenous kids, and they'll come up and give you a hug and when we leave, they'll do the same thing,’ he says.
‘With local organisations and schools and even some of the government organisations we seen some changes.’
For example, there is now a small memorial stone recognising the service of Indigenous soldiers that sits near the main war memorial in Warrnambool and a special ceremony is held on the first of November each year.
‘We're also now a part of ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day; we go up there and we raise our flags and we've been having a young lndigenous girl and boy speak at ANZAC Day and we also do a smoking ceremony at the dawn service.’
Victorian Senior of the Year
ln 2018, Uncle Robbie was presented with a Victorian Senior of the Year Award in the COTA Senior Achiever Award category.
Now 72, he says ‘every year has been the end date’ of his community work, but that it is hard to stop when the need is so great.
‘l don't think some of the organisations we work with will let us stop just yet. I keep getting called back.
‘Last year we did about 120 programs and by May we were already up to about 35 this year.’
‘We've come a long way since that first day 12 years ago.’