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Dharug massacre memorial site teaches young Aboriginal students about colonial history

Rachael Knowles -

On the edge of Richmond Hill looking over Dharug Country, stands a memorial to remember the Aboriginal men and women who suffered and fell from colonial violence.

Recognising the 1795 massacre commonly referred to as the Battle of Richmond Hill, the memorial is under the custodianship of Dharug people in partnership with St John of God Hospital.

The memorial was established in 2002 through community consultation, with a significant effort from many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. The project was coordinated by local reconciliation group Projects for Reconciliation and was funded by Reconciliation NSW.

Dharug man, Chris Tobin was involved in the creation and notes that his role was inspired by a quote from Australian journalist John Pilger recognising that in each country town stands a memorial to those Australians who travelled to protect their homelands, but none to those who fought against foreign invasion.

"I'm one of the people that are active in Dharug history, because the people before us were the generation that was told to keep quiet. My sisters and I some of the educated mouthy ones I guess," laughed Mr Tobin.

"We have a massacre site on our Country, it was time to memorialise that."

Richmond Hill is a featured area in many colonial records.

"Four hundred settlers are moved in in 1794. Yam beds around the river are removed and corn was planted," he said.

"When the corn was ripening a report when back to Parramatta that stated that there were sightings of Aboriginal people intending to take the corn. Sixty Red Coats were deployed under the instruction to hang any Aboriginal person they killed to drive away others."

"Not long after, the Red Coats find a camp at night and shoot it up. We don't know how many died. They took five prisoners to Parramatta, one of the women taken was carrying a baby who had been shot through her body. The baby died in hospital and the prisoners were released three days later."

The memorial remembering this event and colonial violence across the region sits on the land of the St John of God Hospital in Richmond and maintained by the hospital gardeners.

"The memorial was a grassroots thing, we approached the brothers of St John of God, who immediately wanted to support us and that is really powerful," Mr Tobin said.

"We have a space we can take First Nations peoples from other nations and share our history with them. For myself and other Aboriginal people, just knowing it is there has made this place much more liveable. I'm hoping it does that for other people too."

"There isn't much written about this history and I believe people still want to forget it. When my son was in school, his teacher told him there was no resistance to colonisation, which I couldn't believe. But there are passionate teachers who see very clearly that this needs to be talked about."

Mr Tobin is an ex-student and staff member of Nepean Creative and Performing Arts High School in Emu Plains, NSW and through this has made a connection with current Deputy Principal Matthew Knowles.

"I appreciate Matthew, he's bringing Koori kids from the school that I used to go to, a local school, up here to learn about this," Mr Tobin said.

Mr Knowles has established an elective Aboriginal studies class into the Year 7 curriculum and facilitates regular visits to the memorial.

"We are lucky to have a very significant and active community of Aboriginal students in the school who identify as strong within their culture. We thought it would be good would to speak with those students and tell them about the memorial, offer them the opportunity to come up first and work on the site and work with Chris," Mr Knowles said.

"Two to three of those students ... would accompany a group of students up every term and tell the story of the site, and the story of the people to those kids. The idea is that those stories, about the site and about the history come from the mouths of Aboriginal people."

Both men are active in teaching the history of their local area.

"It's about the true history of this area, stopping the myth that settlement was easy and calm and peaceful," Mr Knowles said.

"Aboriginal people were fighting for survival in their own lands, so it's important that the young people who live here understand they're walking in the footprints of people who have been there for thousands and thousands of years. People who were not dispossessed willingly, who did fight for their Country, who did stand up valiantly for the Australian value of a fair go â€" I think that is important."

"The stories from this part of the world are something all Australians can be proud of and can draw strength from. This is what we are, we are people who stand up for what is right."

There is hope that through active engagement with history, the memorial and the stories can live on.

"I want it to have its own momentum, this space needs respect and for the legacy of peace to keep going," Mr Tobin said.

"It is not about bashing the English, its more uplifting the profile of the people who stood up to the invasion, it's about caring for our Country and remembering. You can't change the past, you can shape the future by acknowledging it."

By Rachael Knowles

*Editor's note: this article has been amended to accurately reflect the parties involved in the memorial's creation.

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