Big River dreaming

Sam Cullen (right), with wife Janet and son Stephen, speaks about his family’s generous gift of photographs taken in Grafton by John William Lindt between 1871 and 1874. Image: Geoff Helisma

Geoff Helisma

The Big Day of Culture held at the Grafton Regional Gallery last Thursday November 2 will long be remembered as a halcyon day – one that celebrated the history and culture of Clarence Valley’s Aboriginal people.

“It’s the culture that is bringing everyone together, and this [the gallery] is a meeting place where like-minded people are welcomed to be engaged and work together … with the values my family instilled in me: education, respect and integrity,” is how Yaegl Elders chair Elizabeth Smith described the day.

The launch of Photographs are Never Still – a book that evolved from Sam and Janet Cullen’s donation of 37 photographs taken between 1871 and 1874 by John William Lindt in his Grafton studio – was at the centre of the day’s events.

Significantly, this book contains the first written history of the valley’s Original people.
Lindt’s pictures, which he labelled ‘Australian Aboriginals’, were donated to the gallery in December 2004; subsequently a campaign was mounted to identify the people in the photographs.

Mr Cullen told those gathered how, over 13 years ago, his wife Janet was reading the Sydney Morning Herald and said: “‘There is a very important collection of Australian heritage being auctioned in London tonight … do something about it!”

The upshot of this: the Cullens purchased the pictures.
Mr Cullen thanked all who had worked on the project over the past 13 years: “The authors Kate Gahan and Ken Orchard, they’ve done a wonderful job.
“A production like this doesn’t come about by just authors … there’s the research committee, the gallery, Friends of the Grafton Regional Gallery, the Gallery Foundation, Clarence Valley Council [which put $6,000 towards the project] and lots of people who have contributed over the years.
“I think it can certainly go on from here.
“…Without the gallery fostering this collection, nothing would have happened.
“We’ve found ancestors; we’ve found decedents and given some of the people in the photographs respect – they had been forgotten, they are now remembered.”

The significance of the images was highlighted in an episode of the ABC’s Australian Story, screened in February 2013. Titled The Light of Day, 991,000 people watched the episode, which was the product of the show’s crew “following the search for identity for six years”.

At the same time, a publication written by John William Lindt and edited by Grafton gallery’s curator Jude McBean, Dreaming the Past: The Lindt Story, was launched.

Part of the summary on the National Library of Australia’s website sates: “The Aboriginal community of the Clarence Valley and the North Coast, the people of the Bundjalung, Gumbayngirr and Yaegl nations, embraced the gift [Lindt’s photographs] and have been very supportive and involved throughout the story.”

Behind the scenes, more was happening: the gallery held a fundraiser at the Royal Australian Historical Society’s History House in Sydney, with artworks donated by Northern Rivers Aboriginal artists, and a stall was set up at the Koori Knockout at Leichardt Oval – the $700 stall fee was waived and the City of Sydney came to the project’s aid with a $2,000 grant.

Of the book, author Ken Orchard said, “People can use it as a platform to search deeper into other areas of Aboriginal history”.

He said the book, now that it’s in the public domain could “galvanise interest to form a research group” and “bring in external researchers”.

Elizabeth Smith, a member of the research committee since its inception, said “this is where the photographs belong”, as did Sam Cullen.

“Let’s start digging, the photographs will now go to the wider community, to universities … people will start to come and look … at this story of the Clarence River and the traditional owners of this area,” she said.
“[The ancestors’] spirits will guide people back to the Clarence to tell their stories.”

Author of the book’s history section, Kate Gahan, said the book represented “an important step in an ongoing journey, because the record is never complete; we are constantly finding new things … and, still, most of the people in those photographs, we don’t yet know their identities, there’s still so much more to do.

“It’s important because it’s a small part of a much bigger picture … and recognition in terms of Aboriginal history and that this country is made up of multiple nations of Aboriginal people.