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Ask a Local – Melissa Wiya

Melissa Wiya is the Aboriginal Development Officer at Wingecarribee Shire Council. She is a proud Arakwal Bundjalung woman of Byron Bay on her mother’s side, and her father is from Papua New Guinea. As the Southern Highlands prepares to celebrate NAIDOC week, Melissa talks to ESH about family, country and culture.

Where did you grow up in the Highlands? I moved to Moss Vale at the age of four with my mother and brother, and have remained here.

Tell us about your childhood, and connection to country and culture? My mother was removed at six weeks old and brought up by a lovely Christian family. We as a family didn’t know anything about our culture, and it wasn’t a conversation I felt confident to have with my mother. Growing up in the Southern Highlands, Aboriginal culture was never taught or even spoken about. It wasn’t until I moved to Sydney in my early twenties that I met other Aboriginal people and they would ask, ‘Where you from, Sis?’ This is what sparked my questioning. ‘Where am I from? Who am I?’ Then I started to ask my mother questions about what she knew of her family. After 50 years my mother and I found her family, and reunited 10 years ago. We are lucky!

Through hard work with government, Aboriginal groups and agencies, you’ve developed some wonderful programs to help us understand our indigenous community’s heritage, tradition and history. Tell us about that. From Community and Culture Responsive Training, Food Security, Elders Driving, Song and Dance, Connecting to Country, NAIDOC celebrations, Reconciliation Week, Go 4 Fun, Clinton’s Walk for Justice; all of these programs have been delivered in and around the Southern Highlands. Also, recently some schools have participated in Song and Dance, Language, Bush Tucker and Medicine Garden programs, NAIDOC ceremonies and locality signage. The Wingecarribee Reconciliation Group has also been instrumental in advocating for Aboriginal rights and recognition with events like Reconciliation Week, the Mirror Flashing and Flag Raising at Gibbergunyah Reserve, and Sorry.

What’s new in this space? Recently the State government announced the new national park at Tugalong Station. Gundungurra Elder Aunty Sharyn Halls is excited about the area as there are significant Aboriginal cultural sites in the area relating to the Gundungurra Dreaming story Gurangatch and Mirragan.

How is the Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Mittagong assisting people? The Springs Reserve building became a permanent Aboriginal Cultural Centre in July 2012. It was established for the Aboriginal community and groups to access and conduct programs, training, community events and employment opportunities or as a meeting place. Local Gundungurra community elder Aunty Val Mulcahy is available to meet, answer questions and provide cultural advice over a cuppa and cake on Monday and Tuesday, and schools and businesses have visited for language programs. On Thursdays, in partnership with Red Cross and Oz Harvest, we now run the Dhungung (Food) Share program, which delivers excess food from Woolworths and Harris Farm to the centre for distribution. This day is also for services and organisations to provide outreach in a nonthreatening and welcoming environment. Southern Highlands Homelessness Services, Centrelink, TAFE, NDIS, the Highlands Community Aboriginal Family Worker, New Horizons and Ability Links attend on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis.

Aboriginal Elder Aunty Wendy Lotter seems to do a great job with her Platypus Dreamin tours locally. Cultural tourism is always a topic of interest to the wider community and visitors to the Southern Highlands. We would love more established groups or individuals to conduct cultural tours in the area.

What are the sacred places in the Highlands? Jubilee Rock (Ngununggula), the first Aboriginal sacred site in the Wingecarribee, was gazetted under the Aboriginal Place Program on 20 February 2015. Gundungurra Lookout at Gibbergunyah Reserve (‘nin garang thurree currobung’ or the Place Between the Rocks) is where the mirror flash from Gundungurra Lookout at Gibbergunyah to the Blue Mountains is held. This is to commemorate that this land is and forever will be the spiritual home of the traditional owners, the Gundungurra and D’harawal peoples. There are many sacred sites around the Wingecarribee, though Aboriginal people are resistant to showing them all as they would like those places to be protected and not damaged. For those places to be a tourist destination much more work and funding needs to be done to protect Aboriginal heritage.

What NAIDOC events can people get involved with? The annual flag raising ceremony and art exhibition opening will launch NAIDOC week at the Wingecarribee Shire Council Civic Centre on July 8. The exhibition is of the recent Poetry in First Languages project. Other events will include an On Country Experience day where Aboriginal elders and leaders will share stories, cultural knowledge and understanding about bush medicines, and hold a smoking ceremony. And there is the NAIDOC Family Fun Day.

Do you hope Australia’s indigenous, colonial and post colonial history will soon be taught in schools? Definitely. I think we are slowly moving towards that, but there is still a long way to go. After working with a lot of local schools in the past four years, I definitely see change. Schools are embracing Aboriginal culture and history, and are implementing various programs.

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