Reconciliation Week: sharing the past, and celebrating progress

Gunai-Gunditjmara man Stephen Thorpe wants people to share the past and celebrating the progress the nation has made when it comes to reconciliation. File photo

Liz Bell

GUNAI-Gunditjmara man Stephen Thorpe is the first person to admit he was no angel as a young person.

He spent years consumed by addictions, questioning who he was and his place in the world.

But with the imminent birth of his first child strengthening a desire for a better future for the next generation, he is sharing his story of trauma and healing as part of Reconciliation Week, which runs until June 3.

Mr Thorpe is one of many ‘Deadly and Proud’ storytellers who are reaching out to communities across Victoria to tell shared histories during the week, and stories that explore how Australia as a nation can contribute to achieve reconciliation.

Some of the stories of historical trauma and ongoing injustices since colonisation are confronting, difficult to hear, and uncomfortable, while others are heart-warming, inspiring and full of hope.

Now seven years free from addiction after a 15-year cycle of abusing substances to block out years of trauma and fear, Mr Thorpe, 34, said the turning point for him was the realisation family was the key to his strength and his survival.

“When I finally came to that realisation, that I have a great partner and am soon to be a dad myself, and I have an amazing extended family and lots of memories of good times with them in the early years, I wanted to end the cycle and be part of a better future,” he said.

“I want to see the next generation lift up out of this trauma, not carry it on.”

By putting the truth “out there” Mr Thorpe said the nation would be able to better understand the past and can come together to heal.

One of the most significant historical events that set a course of destruction and displacement for Gippsland’s First Peoples and Mr Thorpe’s direct ancestors was the Warrigal Creek massacre in 1843, which resulted in more than 100 Gunai people shot by a gang of white settlers, believed to be led by Gippsland explorer and pastoralist Angus McMillan.

Mr Thorpe, now a project facilitator and mentor at social enterprise restaurant Charcoal Lane in Fitzroy, still feels the cultural pain of that horrific event, just as he feels the pain of the shameful slaughter of around 70 Gunai people at Tambo Crossing, also in the 1840s.

“My great, great, great grandfather William Thorpe was at that place when dozens of his fellow Gunai people were killed, and part of my reconciliation mission is to talk about that real events that shaped the country, and to improve understanding and acceptance,” he said.

“These things happened and there were consequences, but what is really surprising is that it’s not something that many people know about.”

But Mr Thorpe believes Reconciliation Week is not just about talking about the past, it is about sharing stories and celebrating the progress the nation has made.

“We are definitely maturing as a nation and there is a lot of recognition of that need for understanding and the need to move forward together, it’s very inspiring,” he said.

“Educational programs such as Bush Kinder that are embedded in school curriculums and encourage children to create connections with the land learn skills though bush craft and Aboriginal stories are inspiring young people, just as efforts by corporations and sporting bodies such as the AFL are helping to create inclusive and supportive environments.”

Unfortunately a lot of events scheduled during Reconciliation Week have been cancelled or postponed because of lockdown, and while the week was to provide a platform for non-Aboriginal people to interact with First Peoples, Mr Thorpe said the messages were timeless.

“There are so many ways we can work toward reconciliation, every day should be about building those relationships and bringing communities together,” he said.

Mr Thorpe will also be part of the Smith Street Dreaming Festival in Fitzroy on July 20.