Traffic island breaks era of silence in Indigenous history

17 April 2019

"This was an era where families were moved off traditional county and forced to live on missions. People had to get permission to go off the mission to work

In a first for the ACT, a large traffic island in the Canberra suburb of Griffith has been given heritage status based on its importance for the region's Indigenous history.  

The area, known as the Red Hill Campsite, bordered by Flinders Way, Durville Crescent and Hayes Crescent, has been recognised as a significant site of Indigenous oral history.

The special status recognises how Aboriginal people lived and travelled throughout the region during the early- to mid-20th century.

The push for heritage status follows a long campaign by ANU Archaeology students and academics, and members of the Ngambri-Ngunnawal community led by Elder Matilda House.

Dr Duncan Wright, senior lecturer in Archaeology at ANU, said the heritage listing gives voice to a missing era of contemporary Indigenous history.

"While there is recognition that Ngambri-Ngunnawal are traditional custodians for Canberra, there's silence about their role in the origins of our capital city. The 1900s are an era of silence in this respect.

"We lack stories about people who remained on country, remained connected, even helped build some of Canberra's infrastructure. So, to have the Red Hill campsite heritage listed is just so important.

"This place embodies important memories about Canberra's early days from the perspective of an important elder for the region, Aunty Matilda".

Former ANU archaeology student, Steve Skitmore, led an excavation in 2016, which investigated the number of years the site was used and occupied.

"This was an era of missions. Where families were moved off traditional country and forced to live in places like Erambi mission near Cowra and Hollywood mission in Yass. There was often a white person in charge and people had to get permission to go off the mission to work," Mr Skitmore said.  

"The Red Hill campsite was on the very outskirts of Canberra and people gathered there because it was close to water and families could stay there without being bothered too much."

Aunty Matilda House remembers camping at the site as a little girl when her grandparents came into Canberra from Erambi mission to do domestic work at the nearby Narrabundah homestead.

"I remember sitting in the corner with an Arrowroot biscuit and a glass of milk while my grandmother swept floors and did the housework. My grandfather was a great stockman, but he'd be chopping wood for the homestead. Sometimes I'd go outside and have a sleep in the sulky," Aunty Matilda said. 

"The campsite was here all through the '60s and '70s but then it disappeared and I got really worried. It's great the place has been recognised for the oral history of our family.

"I'm 74 and I've still got the memories, but the next generation needs to know about places like this."   

The traffic island is currently landscaped as a park. Mr Skitmore and Aunty Matilda hope to see a playground and more references to past Indigenous use added in the near future.