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Yoorrook Justice Commission examines historical massacres, land rights in latest hearings

Dechlan Brennan -

The Yoorrook Justice Commission - the first formal truth-telling process into historical and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples - has met near the cradle of European occupation In Victoria to begin three weeks of public hearings into the land, sky, and waters.

The hearings, to take place on Country and well as in Collingwood, will tell the story of colonisation in Victoria, including panels of experts looking at the early colonisations, segregation and assimilation practices and policies that were placed on the Indigenous population of the state.

Witnesses will include historians, Elders, and politicians – including the Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan.

On Monday, ceremonial hearings took place at the World Heritage listed Tae Rak Aquaculture Centre, near Portland, in south-western Victoria, on the land of Gunditjmara Miring Country, where Edward Henty established the first permanent European settlement in Victoria in 1834.

"Today's ceremonial hearing marks the start of three weeks of public hearings into the land, sky and waters," Kerrupmara Gunditjmara Traditional Owner and Yoorrook Commissioner, Travis Lovett, said on Monday.

"During this time, Yoorrook will hear more evidence about how the theft of land, water and resources has impacted, and continues to impact, First Peoples today."

Commissioner Travis Lovett speaking on Monday

(Image: Handout/Yoorrook Justice Commission)

Mr Lovett said the hearings were "a turning point for justice in this country".

"Justice in this country has traditionally been delivered in courtrooms in the cities," he said.

"In a language that was once foreign to my people. And by Judges who came here long after us and ignored our lore.

"We will hear evidence on First Peoples' country. Using First Peoples' language. Using First Peoples' law and lore."

Gunditjmara Elders showed the commissioners the Kurtonitj Indigenous Protected Area, which includes eel traps and a smoking tree, before taking them to the Convincing Ground massacre site just outside Portland – the first recorded massacre in Victoria, and then colonial memorials at Ploughed Fields in Portland.

Mr Lovett said of the massacre: "The European whalers used their guns to fend off the Kilcarer Gundidj people from accessing their own resources."

"Despite brave resistance during the Eumeralla Wars, the Gunditjmara population was decimated in what was a highly unequal contest."

The latest round of hearings come after the commission last year heard about racial injustices against First Peoples' from Victoria.

The testimony saw the Victorian police commissioner apologise for the force's past and present actions that inflicted trauma on Indigenous people, and then Premier Daniel Andrews describe the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Victoria's child protection and criminal justice systems as a "great shame".

Aunty Donna Wright, a Kerrupmara from the Gunditjmara nation, told the story of her family on Monday - including her mother - who was stolen from the mission where she grew up with her family.

"She didn't get to grow up in a loving home; she was taken," Aunty Donna said.

"My grandfather never recovered from his children being taken. And it's one of the most. horrific acts, apart from all of the massacres that occurred on our land. These were sustained attacks on our country.

"But they are testament to the amazing strength of the Gunditjmara people."

Aunty Donna Wright (Image: Handout/Yoorrook Justice Commission)

A reserved seat holder for the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation in the First Peoples' Assembly, Aunty Donna said the people in the community have kept her people safe.

"What our people have been through since invasion will be told through the stories to the Yoorrook Justice Commission," she said.

Standing on Gunditjmara Miring Country, Mr Lovett said all Victorians can learn the full story of Indigenous people and the impacts felt by colonisation.

"It tells us the story of how land was illegally taken and how some land has been returned through the sheer determination and resistance of the Gunditjmara people," Mr Lovett said.

He said Commissioners have heard evidence how people taken from their families were punished for speaking their own language by having their rations cut, and how returning Indigenous soldiers from the Second World War were excluded from the soldier settlement scheme.

Mr Lovett implored Victorians to "walk with us: To listen, to learn and share our history."

"Just as these hearings will go to the heart of injustice, they will also showcase the diversity, strength and resistance of First Peoples in the State of Victoria," he said.

"But this time it is on our country and on our terms as First Peoples."

Yoorrook's public hearings will take place from March 26 to 28 and April 15 to 29

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