HOLLANDS Landing, with a permanent population of 15, was engulfed by a comparative crowd of about 50 people this week, when months of discussions culminated in a block of waterfront land being returned by a white family to an Aboriginal community.
Jean Noble is a 99-year-old former nurse from Heyfield who served as an officer in World War 2.
She lost her husband, a former soldier and officer, in 1971, and this year, at the ripe age of 99, Jean wanted to put her affairs in order.
Something needed to be done with Hollands Landing, a three quarter acre block that had been bought 55 years ago, and left untouched until now.
Instead of selling or passing it on, the land was offered to the Aboriginal community through the Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation.
The idea was suggested to Jean by her son Dick, and she quietly and methodically spoke with her children and grandchildren before proceeding.
The Ramahyuck elders and board considered the proposal, inspected the block and accepted the offer, which culminated in Sunday’s handover. the ceremony, initiated by Ramahyuck, was beset by wind and rain, with short, weak bursts of sun.
But nothing could dampen the shared sense of emotion and happiness that prevailed that morning.
Bonnie O’Shannassy is an Aboriginal health worker in Gippsland.
She met Jean for the first time that day, and they held hands throughout the ceremony.
Jean told Bonnie and Dick that it was a happy day for her, reiterating how important the handover was to her community.
Some words were said, children danced and sang, and a plaque was unveiled.
It reads: “This land has been returned to the Gunaikurnai people by Jean and Dick Noble and their family. The land will be managed and maintained by the Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation”.
There is a plan for the plot, involving cultural activities and a hosting spot for their annual fishing competition.
It’s just a small piece of land, boxed in by historic white men’s boundaries, but, to Dick, that handover feels like a small part of a much bigger picture of progress in Victoria.
Late last year, Greens MP Lidia Thorpe was sworn in as the MP for Northcote, becoming the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the Victorian parliament.
In her first speech in parliament, Lidia talked about her mother and her family, who ‘lived their own lives as refugees in their own country on Gunai land in Gippsland.’
Her election is historic, and as an activist and community leader, Dick has no doubt she brings a crucial voice to parliament that has taken far too long to arrive.
This year’s invasion day rally drew up to 60,000 people into the streets of Melbourne.
Aboriginal activist and history professor Gary Foley said he’d not seen crowds like this since the 1970s.
Several months later, that parliament passed legislation that paves the way for treaty negotiations for Aboriginal Victorians.
It is the first ever piece of treaty legislation in Australia.
These are big moments in history, and they may signify a surge in progress that can be sustained and built on in coming decades.
But genuine and sustainable progress cannot rest solely on the basis of political will and the efforts of progressive pockets that tend to be focused in urban areas.
Relationships within rural communities and prioritisation of reconciliation are critically important.
Bonnie O’Shannassy told attendees about a recent screening of ‘The Warrigal Creek Massacre’ at the Courthouse Theatre in Stratford. The film tells the story of the Highland Brigade, led by Angus McMillian, riding through Gippsland in 1843 with the objective of murdering as many Kurnai children, women and men as they could.
The film screened on two nights to packed audiences, which Bonnie said would have been unthinkable just years ago.
Last week another unthinkable thing happened.
Jean Noble spoke on ABC regional radio about returning her block of land at Hollands Landing to its traditional owners.
When asked why she was doing it, she replied, off the cuff, that it was theirs to begin with.
In other words, the block of land at Hollands Landing always was and always will be Aboriginal land, and its former owners were simply recognising that fact.
It was only a small block of land, and ‘The Warrigal Creek Massacre’ is just a film. But they represent a sense of cohesion and support in that community that didn’t exist decades ago, and which is so crucially important to our shared present and future.