OPINION | Shared respect is the only way ahead

DIFFERENT SPOTS, SAME THOUGHTS: The billabong next to the Warrumbungle Mountains...and some snaps from Sundays Appin memorial service: Uncle Ivan and his grand-daughter, Lesiley, and Aboriginal dancer Jade Chislett.
DIFFERENT SPOTS, SAME THOUGHTS: The billabong next to the Warrumbungle Mountains...and some snaps from Sundays Appin memorial service: Uncle Ivan and his grand-daughter, Lesiley, and Aboriginal dancer Jade Chislett.

Just like Banjo Paterson's swagman in Waltzing Matilda, I found myself camped by a billabong last week.

I was about 500km north-west of here in the Warrumbungle Mountains close to Campbelltowns bush sister city, Coonamble searching out my family's roots.

Im writing book on my pioneer great-great-grandmother, Rachel Kennedy, and although her slab timber homestead has long since vanished, I was able to sit alongside the little wetland she loved so much.

The daughter of an Irish migrant, she had grown up in the wild mountain range itself, a master brumby hunter in her teens, but when she married a young stockman, Robert McGill, in 1865 they settled on this pretty spot. My great-grandfather (who became a shearer), and my grandfather, were both born and raised on this farm.

I cant help but feel a deep and heartfelt bond with this piece of soil.

So I can only imagine the link to country felt by other Aussies whose story actually goes back 40,000 years.

(And, as Anzac Day approaches, I note an even deeper layer of love of country is often felt by Aboriginal veterans, such as my brother-in-law Neal McGarrity.)

Thinking about that connection to country was one of the highlights of my trip to the Warrumbungles, because I met with a local Aboriginal elder, Aunty Maureen Salter. Her forebear, Mary Jane Cain, and my forebear grandmother, Rachel, were lifelong friends. Reconciliation before reconciliation.

They were born on opposite sides of the same waterhole in the 1840s and on a frontier of dispossession, bloodshed and racism this white girl and this black girl lived together as "sisters" for years, forging an eight-decade bond of affection.

They learned from each other. For example, Rachel taught Mary Jane to sew, so she was able to convert even rough sugar bags into pretty dresses. Mary Jane in turn taught Rachel traditional bush medicine skills which later helped her as a nurse and midwife who was known for her homemade balms, poultices and cures.

Whether they were whispering about boys, working around the station together, or just laying on the ground with their arms outstretched to take in the brilliance of the night sky, Rachel and Mary Jane shared a bond that I find inspiring. A lesson for the future from the past.

The vital ingredient is a simple one: respect.

That's why I roll my eyes at whingers who bang on about "PC" or "tokenism" simply because there is a acknowledgement of country before an event. How does it hurt anyone? It doesn't.

Just be kind to each other.

I joined the big crowd on Sunday for this years Appin Massacre Memorial service and was, once again, bowled over by the warm welcome, the multicultural faces, the Wiritjiribin dancers (always great), and the dignity and inclusion of the words.

Congrats to Sister Kerry of the Winga Myamly Reconciliation Group, and all the other organisers.

A very touching moment was when Lesiley Donovan for the first time read the English translation of the Dharawal welcome, and was presented with the beautiful cloak of feathers and hugged by her proud grandfather, Uncle Ivan Wellington.

And the central message of that welcome was simple: Didjarigura guwanyiomiya or, "We thank you for remembering our ancestors".

Gratitude is so important in a month when we also remember, on April 25, other Australians who lost their lives defending their land.

The Appin Massacre is not an Aboriginal story, it is a Macarthur story. A shared respect is the only way ahead.

The main ingredient is respect.