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Small step to a distant past

Lance Richardson pulls on his walking shoes to visit sites that uncover and celebrate the city's indigenous history reports The Sydney Morning Herald 18 February 2012.

In Mexico City, outside the Metropolitan Cathedral on the edge of the Zocalo, an observant visitor might notice glass panels alternating with stone in the footpath. Mexico City, in its haphazard fashion, is built over ruins of an older civilisation.

In 1978, workers from an electrical company discovered that parts of these ruins were still there. To look through the glass panels is to look into the past, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan preserved beneath the feverish clutter of a modern metropolis.

Sydney was also built over the ruins left by an older people, though it's unlikely that maintenance workers will find religious structures buried beneath Circular Quay. The nature of indigenous culture means that what has been buried is largely ephemeral, an oral legacy. Delia Falconer laments this loss in her recent biography of Sydney: "The language and stories of the Eora that made sense of the place are largely gone, and were ignored from the colony's beginnings."

During the research phase for the city's long-term corporate plan (Sustainable Sydney 2030), the City of Sydney discovered that many residents felt a similar sense of loss. "Thousands of people told us they wanted to know more about Sydney's Aboriginal past," the city historian, Lisa Murray, says.

The city's response - a long-term project called the Eora Journey - aims to promote Aboriginal culture. One of the project's first substantial efforts is a free handbook called Barani/Barrabugu (Yesterday/Tomorrow), released in July. In the absence of glass panels, it is a comprehensive guide to nearly 60 Aboriginal sites that many residents might not even realise are scattered around the suburbs.

"Gadigal culture has survived," Murray says. "Aboriginal people are an important part of Sydney's history and they've been here all the time. They have lived in Sydney, worked in Sydney. They've protested and partied. This booklet tells some of these stories."

Led by Aboriginal curator Steve Miller, with input from the city council and the city's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory panel, it took a team of researchers more than 18 months to finish Barani/Barrabugu. Armed with a copy of the handbook and a good pair of walking shoes, it takes me barely a day to realise what an impressive achievement it is.

The handbook is divided into seven thematic sections, ranging from "early contact" and "civil rights" to "sport and leisure" and "visual arts". Each section is colour-coded, and each entry features a number that can be located on one of four neighbourhood maps. Accessible sites are distinguished from those that can no longer be visited. Major institutions featuring Aboriginal heritage and history are listed in a separate section, encouraging further engagement for those who want to delve deeper.

The nature of this arrangement means Sydney's story can be approached from myriad angles. Wanting to know about early settlement, for example, I find myself in the manicured greenery of The Domain, reading about Bowen Bungaree and his family camp in Woolloomooloo. "They were regularly seen at the wharves at nearby Circular Quay, selling fish and oyster catches, and demonstrating how to throw boomerangs." Wanting to know about arts, I find myself walking down Cope Street, once home to "the voice of the Aboriginal community in Sydney", Radio Redfern.

Of course, real life is rarely divided into tidy thematic sections like suburbs; nor would reading one section give an accurate overview of all that needs to be said on an issue such as education. The indigenous portrait of Sydney is complex and intertwined: Barani/Barrabugu recognises this by offering four "journeys" that thread through particular areas and demonstrate how all themes co-exist. The shortest of these, centred on Glebe, begins by explaining how the small duck pond in Victoria Park was once Blackwattle Creek, an area inhabited by Aboriginal people before the arrival of the Europeans.

The trail then meanders down Glebe Point Road, marked today for its gentrification and bookish cafes, before swinging past a once-vibrant Aboriginal dance theatre and an active community-based education co-operative run by and for Aboriginal people. It finishes outside a mansion, Bidura, which once housed Aboriginal children forcibly separated from their families - the stolen generations. Women liberationists stormed the building in 1973. I have seen these sights hundreds of times. Have I ever really understood them?

With Barani/Barrabugu one is able to walk, fleetingly, through the richness, heartache and resilience of Sydney's first people.

The guidebook also reveals some of the city's best-kept secrets. After leaving Victoria Park I'm directed to detour through the University of Sydney before entering Glebe. Down an alleyway, up several flights of stairs past laboratories, I arrive in a dimly lit attic where the Macleay Museum is heralded by the sun-bleached skull of a giant elephant. This wonderful museum is filled with oversized cuttlefish, trays of butterflies, even a skeleton of the thylacine. It also features a significant collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material culture. Stone-tool artefacts from Penrith Lakes sit alongside grindstones and pigments from the Blue Mountains.

Under the leadership of curator Jude Philp, the museum is working with Aboriginal advisory bodies to digitise the collection. There is a sign next to the artefacts requesting interpretations and advice from knowledgeable visitors.

This process of conversation motivates Barani/Barrabugu and the city's larger Eora Journey project. The handbook is only the beginning, Murray says. "We have another 200 sites that were identified as part of the initial cultural mapping. We need to do more research on those. And I'm sure the community will have other sites, other histories to tell."

Buried beneath the footpath or tucked away in an attic, Sydney's Aboriginal culture remains lamentably out of sight. Thanks to Aboriginal activists, the City of Sydney and its collaborators, it's now a little less out of mind.


Touring there

The Barani/Barrabugu handbook is available free to residents at City of Sydney library branches and community centres. Aboriginal centres such as the Gadigal Information Service also have copies.

For visitors, copies are available at Sydney Visitor Centres at The Rocks and Darling Harbour, as well as the tourist kiosks at Circular Quay and Town Hall. Alternatively, a digital version is available for download from