Opinion | From the Cummings mob to your mob, thank you

The speech Helen Cummings gave at a ceremony  to mark the 40-year anniversary of her late mother’s, Former Lord Mayor Joy Cummings, landmark decision to fly the Aboriginal flag from City Hall:

MOVING: Helen Cummings pays tribute to the Awabakal and Worimi people and her mother, Joy Cummings, at the ceremony in Civic Park. Picture: Max Mason Hubers

MOVING: Helen Cummings pays tribute to the Awabakal and Worimi people and her mother, Joy Cummings, at the ceremony in Civic Park. Picture: Max Mason Hubers

“Today it is an honour to be here with you the Awabakal and Worimi people to pay my respect and admiration to you on this. Your land. To you and to your ancestors past and present my gratitude for being here today. You hunted, fished, farmed and cared for this land for so long.

It is a measure of how significant this anniversary is in Newcastle that practically all of the Cummings mob is here today.

There are many important milestones in mum’s term as Lord Mayor, but none quite as emotional and meaningful as the week your flag flew proudly over Newcastle city hall. And yes no other city hall in Australia had ever made this important gesture.

Mum and Dad for as long as I can remember, had a sincere and deep respect for the Aboriginal people. When we were growing up the 50s and 60s, words like ‘indigenous’ or ‘first people’ had not entered the vocabulary. This respect was passed on to us four children and we of course have passed this on to our children and now their children. Indeed it is our moral duty as parents to, as the 70s song by Grahame Nash says ‘Teach Your Children Well’. 

We assumed everyone felt the same. We knew that you were here long before our ancestors came from another country to these shores. Our past is another country.

We grew up in industrial Mayfield with many northern European immigrants which gave us a rich tapestry of the world. I do however clearly remember a large Aboriginal family moving into our street. Their home was big. They were noisy and always seemed to be celebrating. Their door was always open and welcoming to the many family and visitors. Very much like ours really. We had a lot in common. This Aboriginal mob and the Cummings mob in Nelson Street and mum rejoiced in this similarity.

She ensured that we, her children, understood the teachings of Martin Luther King, heard the beautiful voice of Paul Robeson, and held reverence for the Aboriginal people of Australia.

The 1970s were a time of hope and promise for indigenous Australians. The image we all remember is of Gough Whitlam pouring soil into the hands of Mr Lingiari. But in Newcastle we have memories of our own iconic moment. And so in consultation with the Awabakal and Worimi people, Newcastle’s and Australia’s first woman Lord Mayor decided to fly your beautiful flag over the city hall. The Aboriginal flag had been flown in other places in Newcastle but not in a big public building such as the city hall. Mum contacted Bishop Holland at the Newcastle Cathedral and asked if he would fly the Aboriginal flag over the cathedral at the same time, and he was delighted to do so.

I remember everyone noticing it and talking about it. It still brings a lump to my throat. I confess that your flag is more lovely and holds much more meaning to me personally than the Australian flag. In fact, I believe it is one of the world’s finest expression of a nation’s people.

Now, also around this same time, Mum decided to hold a civic reception for the Aboriginal people of Newcastle. The Awabakal community was in its early development back in 1977. I was honoured to attend your 40th anniversary a couple of weeks ago as a guest of Sharon Claydon. It was a wonderful night of memories, pictures, camaraderie, cool music and dancing. Pride shone from your faces, young and old. It dawned on me, sadly again, that my past is another country.

So, word got around about the civic reception and the Worimi people from around Lake Macquarie may have also attended. Mum had no idea how many would turn up, but they all came. Mum loved relating the story of how wonderful it was to see the city hall filled with excited Aboriginal children, thrilled to take over city hall as if it was theirs. And it was, she said. The cakes were laid on and possibly never appreciated as much as they were that day. Mum always instinctively knew the right thing to do.

And so we had a lot of hope of things to come from this decade. And there has been much progress. 30,000 Aboriginal university graduates in 2014. But I am sorry that we have not done better. You are still dying far too young. Forty years on, there is still more to be done.

I chose Aboriginal studies for my degree and what I learned rocked me to my core. I wish that every Australian knew what I learned from these studies. The true story of dispossession and violence.

There are still many challenges ahead, and as the Uluru statement makes clear, it is time Australia stopped telling and started listening, because that is what you have asked. Seems so simple and yet so hard. We must listen hard and learn because you have so much to teach us.

I am sorry we have not achieved more, but, from my mob to your mob, thank you with all my heart for who you are, and for caring for this land for over 60,000 years.

Thank you for giving us a sense of place here in Newcastle.”