Walking the Birrarung: an AJDS Aboriginal Cultural Walk with Dean Stewart

By Keren T Rubinstein
Dean Stewart’s guided short walk across Enterprise Park, a bit of the Yarra River – or Birrarung, as it was named originally – and a small patch of bustling Southbank, was all it took to change my perspective on Melbourne’s CBD. Dean has been speaking to groups of all ages and backgrounds about his Aboriginal identity and the Indigenous history of Victoria, and he took us across the 150 metres or so of ground, in over two hours. He explained the circumstances which led to the mis-naming of the river, and the devastating consequences of its levelling. There was once a waterfall here, he said, as skaters were doing their tricks nearby. This natural step in the water flow allowed for generations of sustainable and rich communities to thrive here, enjoying freshwater for drinking and saltwater for fishing, in what had been a crucial meeting place for the Indigenous tribes that had lived here, seemingly forever.
That is, until the ‘cultural tsunami’ hit – that is what he called it, as he indicated the mast of the Polly Woodside, barely visible among the towering skyscrapers and infrastructure. But back in the first days of the Gold Rush, that horizon would have been filled with countless masts, as far as the eye could see. As they watched the ships approach, locals would have known, in that moment, that things would never be the same again.
We saw the single patch of rock that still remained of the original river bank; we imagined the countless bare feet that would have stepped on it, the diverse and complete lives that were destroyed to give way to everything that stands here today. That patch of original rock, by the way, sits right beneath a bridge and is surrounded by litter and random graffiti, unmarked in the way one might expect.
We walked on the grass strip at the edge of the Southbank promenade, one behind the other, following our guide, in one line that snaked across to the far side. It felt at first like an odd performance, with onlookers possibly wondering what we were on about. But quickly it seemed quite sensible, and comforting, to be part of our small group. Why did we walk like this? Dean asked. So as not to scare away all the animals, possibly hiding in the scrub. That is how people here once knew to conduct themselves in respect to their surroundings. To make minimal impact; to live in harmony with one another.
The colonization of Australia is happening right now, he concluded, as we stood by the only cluster of indigenous flora at Southbank, by the foyer of the Shell building, or some such. This is a private garden, only for the employees, as a security guard once explained to Dean upon escorting him back to the main thoroughfare. And yet, everything around us, even though very little of it could be said to be indigenous, is all derived from our earth. Even the fabric of the Shell building, and the plastic sunglasses I was wearing. Reconciliation, he said, is also about making peace with that reality, and respecting the ground on which we walk, collectively, as one.

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