Sueanne Russell’s family has a history of involvement with World War II. A proud Biripi woman and volunteer, Sue describes the stunning new memorial garden recently established and opened at Marrangbah Cottage in Taree, which was developed to recognise and honour Aboriginal Veterans and offer a place for both healing and reflection …
Where (and what) exactly is Marrangbah Cottage?
Marrangbah Cottage (also known as Biripi Aged & Community Services) is located at 151 Manning River Drive, Taree. Marrangbah Cottage comes under the umbrella of Biripi Aboriginal Medical Service.
How did you become involved with the creation of a memorial garden at Marrangbah?
My four uncles: Donald, Duncan, Jack and James Wallace served in WWII, and I became fascinated by stories told to me by Uncle James of their service in the Army.
However, I needed to respectfully ask my mother, Susan, if she would allow me to acknowledge their service and to encourage her to participate in the ANZAC Day ceremony. This took considerable encouragement by me to get Mum to march in honour of her four brothers − primarily because my four uncles never participated in any ANZAC parades, because when they returned to Biripi in 1945, the ‘Black Bar’ was in place. This meant that some shops refused service to Aboriginal persons, along with some business houses, and certainly pubs and clubs refused entry to all Aboriginals. Even on ANZAC Day, our Aboriginal Veterans were not allowed entry to play Two-up and have a beer with other Veterans.
However, the main reason I wanted to acknowledge my uncles was because of an incident that took place when my Uncle James was returning home after being honourably discharged from his military service. When he arrived in Kempsey, it was night, and as he was walking through the CBD area, he passed by a bank. A Night Watchman from the bank thought he was trying to break in, and he shot Uncle James.
Uncle James was not taken straight to the hospital; he was taken to the Kempsey Police Station. They interviewed the bank employee, who said he was mistaken about the Aboriginal man trying to break into the bank. At this point they finally took Uncle James to the hospital; he survived, but the bank employee was only charged with firing an unlicensed weapon.
Uncle James was prevented from suing the bank or the Night Watchman because of the laws that governed Aboriginal Australia; the Aboriginal Protection Board and the Aboriginal Welfare Board prevented him from taking that course of action.
What’s the concept behind the garden – what message is it intended the garden will convey to the public?
The concept of this Aboriginal specific memorial garden is to acknowledge Aboriginal families and to acknowledge, honour and pay respectful tribute to Aboriginal Veterans. Our hope is to educate and to raise awareness in the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities of our Aboriginal Veterans.
This memorial garden will be a tangible place where community can sit, reflect on times past and to heal … to heal through Yarning. Yarning is a way we educate, learn and connect.
How long has the garden been in the planning stages, and who else has been involved with the project?
This project has taken two years. A committee was formed by Biripi Aged Care Services; this has been very much a joint effort by staff, Elders both in Country and Out of Country and volunteers, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. We held meetings continually over two years − much consideration and thought has gone into this endeavour, and this is reflected so beautifully in the garden.
Describe the garden for us – is it purely ornamental, or does it have a practical purpose, such as growing vegetables, as well?
The garden was designed by Biripi Elder David Russell. A request was put to David to become involved in the memorial garden − the primary reason we hoped to capture David’s interest was because he designed and built the Purfleet Church Garden, which has such a peaceful and calming effect when you enter the church grounds. This was the same effect we hoped to convey in the Marrangbah Cottage Memorial Garden.
The garden has a circular pathway with a bridge uniting the two sides. Around the pathway are plant boxes with three flag poles, upon which we proudly fly the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Australian flags. We have, in two paved circular designs, a plaque which holds the name of the garden, along with the names of the Elders who opened the garden, and on another is a commemorative plaque which holds the names of our Aboriginal Veterans.
On the plant boxes are circular discs; depicted on them are the stories told through art of Aboriginal families. Their tribal and family totems communicate who they are and their family’s origins.
In the garden, volunteers have planted flowers, bush tucker plants and vegetables that can be accessed by community. Our objectives have been to build not only a memorial to acknowledge Aboriginal community in Country and Out of Country along with acknowledging and honouring Aboriginal Veterans, but to build a meeting place where all can gather to socialise, Yarn, reflect and to heal. Our hope is to inspire community, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to share their family history through Yarning. As our Elders know, it’s only through the sharing of our history through Yarning that we can better understand each other, and with that understanding we can break through misconceptions, misunderstandings and ignorance to reach a true and meaningful reconciliation as it applies to this community.
Will the garden be open for the public to visit at any stage, and do people have to contact anyone prior to visitation?
The memorial garden is open to all, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. We ask, however, that everyone be mindful and respectful that this is a respite cottage; if anyone wishes to visit the Marrangbah Cottage garden, please phone Andrew at the Cottage on 6550 0788 to advise of your visit.
Where can people find out more information about the Marrangbah Cottage memorial garden project?
For anyone wishing to know more about the memorial garden, please email Sue Russell on Sueanne.Russell@biripi.org.com or contact Sue on 6550 0788. Any questions pertaining to this memorial garden are welcome.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
This interview was found in issue 70 of Manning Great Lakes Focus