Cries from the past inspire Deborah Cheetham’s requiem for the lost

Deborah Cheetham's voice is resolute, but it's clear that the incident haunts her still. It happened six years ago. She was staying at the Lake Condah Camp, next to the old Lake Condah Mission Station, about an hour's drive from Port Fairy, or four hours from Melbourne. As she stood on the camp's verandah and looked out to a line of trees down near the creek bed, she felt something that unsettles her to this day.

"It was like those trees were shouting at me," she says. "It wasn't a joyful shout. It was an excruciating feeling standing there, and I was really disturbed by it, really rattled by it, so much so that I couldn't even spend more than one night there."

Deborah Cheetham at Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission: ‘I couldn’t spend more than one night here.’Credit:Justin McManus

She speaks with control, never wavering, as if to contain the strange enormity of what she felt.
"I didn't know specifically what it meant but I knew that there was something in that bushland that was not at rest," she says.

That troubling incident would eventually lead her to compose Australia's first Indigenous requiem, being premiered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra next month, dedicated to those who died defending their traditional lands in what she insists on calling "Resistance Wars".

Cheetham rejects the term "Frontier Wars" – "They weren't our frontiers, they were our land," she says.

We're driving through the rich volcanic plains of south-west Victoria, on our way to Port Fairy, to visit Gunditjmara country where a bloody, 23-year war of resistance, known as the Eumerella War, was waged.

The Gunditjmara population, estimated in the thousands, was decimated as local clans fought invaders to their lands, which stretch from present-day Portland along the coast to Port Fairy and Warrnambool and inland to Camperdown.

The Gunditjmara battled long and hard, helped by their intimate knowledge of country, but were defeated ultimately by the superior weapons of the whites. It's telling that not even Cheetham had known about the Eumeralla War before her visit to Lake Condah in 2013.

"I guess this is why I have more patience for the process [of people learning about Indigenous history] than you might think," she says.

Her ancestors are not from these parts. She's a Yorta Yorta woman; her people's country is near the junction of the present-day Goulburn and Murray Rivers in north-eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales. But as a child of the stolen generation, who was falsely told that she had been abandoned by her Aboriginal mother, a story that inspired her autobiographical play White Baptist Abba Fan, she has a deep sense of the stories that lie hidden; stories conveniently ignored.

A soprano, composer, teacher, and artistic director of the Short Black Opera Company, she sees it as her role to ensure these stories are told. She has a record of speaking uncomfortable truths, of taking unpopular stances. Invited to sing the national anthem at the 2015 AFL Grand Final, she declined as she could not bring herself to say the words "for we are young and free".

Her views have not endeared her to conservative commentators. One labelled her "divisive". But she won't be silenced.

"It's so important that the Resistance Wars are known and talked about," Cheetham says. She points to the commonly held belief that the bombing of Darwin was the worst attack perpetrated on Australian soil.

"That's what I was hearing when I was at school," says Cheetham, who turns 55 this year. "You would have heard it too – 'there's never been a war fought on Australia. The only thing that happened was the bombing of Darwin and there was a little submarine that made its way into Sydney harbour, but that was it'. And, no, actually, that wasn't it. We can't perpetuate this completely inaccurate view of our history. It doesn't serve anybody. We can't be an informed nation of mature thinkers if we are still basing our rhetoric on absolute and utter falsehood."

Cheetham had been visiting the Lake Condah Camp as the then head of the Victorian College of the Arts' Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development. She was launching a course in Ancient and Contemporary Indigenous Arts and Gunditjmara elder, Uncle Ken Saunders, gave the keynote address. In a quiet moment, Cheetham told Uncle Ken about the distressing presence she had felt down near the creek.

"He just sort of smiled and said, 'ah, yes'," Cheetham recalls. "He said, 'yeah, it's a really windy place'."

She didn't press any further, didn't think it appropriate. A year later, Cheetham took her opera, Pecan Summer, to Adelaide. It tells the story of the Yorta Yorta people who, in 1939, walked off the Cummeragunja mission in protest against their living conditions. Her grandparents were among them. Uncle Ken, who had missed the opera's on-country premiere in Mooroopna, Victoria, in 2010, organised a bus and took a dozen Gunditjmara elders to see the Adelaide performance.

"It was fantastic," Cheetham says. "At the reception after opening night Uncle Ken said 'I want you to write our Eumerella War story. I'd like you to write this as an opera'."

At his prompting, Cheetham began to research the Eumerella War, speaking with Gunditjmara elders and reading contemporary accounts found in diaries, letters and newspaper articles – anything she could lay her hands on.

"All the evidence is there; you just have to find it. Letters home, 'oh yes, we killed 20 blacks this week on our property'," she says, with a quiet fury.

Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe's books, Convincing Ground, which describes the Gunditjmara's "last-ditch battles for their country", and the award-winning Dark Emu, in which he challenges the conventional depiction of Indigenous people as nomadic hunter-gatherers, were other important references. But the more Cheetham read, the more she realised that an opera would not do.

"I was convinced it needed to be a war requiem," she says.

A mass for the dead, traditionally sung in Latin and most commonly associated with the Catholic Church, may seem an unusual choice. But it was well considered. Cheetham envisaged a requiem sung entirely in the ancient dialects of the Gunditjmara, by Indigenous and non-Indigenous choirs, to commemorate those who fell on both sides. And so, Eumerella, a war requiem for peace, was born.

"What I'm trying to move us towards in Australia is understanding," Cheetham says of the work. "The very best way to do that is through music, and to have non-Indigenous people sing this work is the best way I can think of to help Australia not only know the history, but understand it. Music conveys truth better than any other means, because it taps into something much deeper, beyond analysis, and so if I'm going to ask a non-Indigenous choir to sing this work, 75 minutes in length, all in Gunditjmara, then it's helpful to use a structure that people already understand. The major choirs in Australia, any choir in Australia, pretty much, would have had the experience of singing one of the requiems from the Western canon."

In composing Eumerella, Cheetham was particularly influenced by Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which was written in response to the First World War and combines the Latin text with the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Cheetham's requiem, written with the help of Gunditjmara language custodian Vicki Couzens and linguist Kris Eira, alters the Latin text to reflect the Gunditjmara's plight. The fifth movement, for example, which in Latin reads Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem – Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant them rest – is flipped.

"It was the Gunditjmara who were sacrificed to make way for the lambs," Cheetham says.

And so, the words become, in Gunditjmara, ngalam meen-ngeeye nhoomapee yoondapoora-na-yoota tyookooyong-ee, moongay wata moorroop-tyeen tamboora toota – Our ancestors, who were sacrificed for the lambs, may their spirits find rest.

Deborah Cheetham near trees where she heard the voices of Gunditjmara killed in the Eumerella War. Credit:Justin McManus

Later that afternoon after arriving at Port Fairy, we head to The Crags, a rugged, windswept spot on the coast, a 10-minute drive west. We've come to see the volcanic island of Deen Maar, which lies 19 kilometres offshore. It's a stunning sight, a long plateau, rising like another Uluru, from the sea.

Deborah Cheetham on the coast near Port Fairy, opposite the island of Deen Maar.Credit:Justin McManus

"It's so powerful," Cheetham says, as we stand looking out to sea, buffeted by wind. Waves crash against the jagged cliffs of The Crags. She composed the music for Eumerella while staying at a beachside villa nearby, inspired by the vision of Deen Maar. In Gunditjmara culture the dead are buried with their heads pointing towards Deen Maar, so that their spirits can journey across the sea to the island where they remain until they are reincarnated. The people killed during the Eumerella War were never afforded such a burial.

The following morning we're on the road to Tyrendarra, an ancient landscape created by the eruption of Budj Bim (Mount Eccles) 30,000 years ago, and now an Indigenous Protected Area. The sun streams through thickets of trees. As we drive, Cheetham plays me the live recording of the inaugural presentation of Eumerella, a chamber version performed at Port Fairy last October for Gunditjmara elders.

The first movement begins and I hear Cheetham's strong, sombre voice. The voices of the Dunghala Children's Choir join hers in a soaring elegy. Founded by Cheetham in 2009, the choir features children from the Gunditjmara, Wadawurrung and Yorta Yorta communities.

"It's like sunlight through cloud," Cheetham says of their exquisite young sounds.

We continue to listen and, unexpectedly, I find myself overwhelmed by emotion. There's an aching beauty to the music. I hold back tears, without success. I mumble a clumsy apology, something along the lines of, "they were not my ancestors, it's not really for me to feel this way".

"It's particularly for you," Cheetham responds gently. "That's why I wrote it."

Deborah Cheetham with Gunditjmara elder Eileen Alberts at the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected area, otherwise known as the Budj Bim fish traps.Credit:Justin McManus

At Tyrendarra, Gunditjmara rangers Leigh Boyer and elder Eileen Alberts lead us over clear-running streams to the remnants of stone huts and sophisticated systems of fish and eel traps forged through the lava flow. During the resistance wars the Gunditjmara were forced further and further up the lava flow, Alberts tells us.

"The invaders came in and pushed our houses down, to gain access to our land, using guns," she says.

You had to stop practising your traditional law and culture. You couldn't dance. You couldn't sing. You couldn't speak in your native tongue.

We walk to a clearing that holds a memorial that commemorates the Indigenous people's fight for survival. A series of carved poles formed from tree trunks circle the clearing, representing every state and territory of Australia. It's a solemn place, all the more potent for its unpretentious scale.

Our last stop is the Lake Condah Mission, near Heywood, a 20-minute drive away. Boyer and Alberts accompany us. We survey the scene: the ruins of the old church, the manager's quarters, the sloping village green with its wooden dormitory, and tiny, crumbling, stone buildings that once housed extended families. Eileen Alberts speaks of her ambivalence towards the site. The mission was established in 1867 as a refuge for the 77 Gunditjmara who survived the Eumerella War.

"How many Gunditjmara people would be around today if it wasn't for this place?" she says. "Probably not that many." Her paternal grandmother was born and raised here. "So, in one sense it was a safe place," Alberts says. "You talk to some of the elders and they talk about the happy times here, swimming down at the swimming hole, the harvest festivals in the church here, community and being together. And then you talk to some other people and they talk about it as if it was a concentration camp … It was very, very, tightly controlled. You had to stop practising your traditional law and culture. You couldn't dance. You couldn't sing. You couldn't speak in your native tongue. Wrong language. If you did and you were heard by the mission manager, you were punished by having your youngest child taken away first."

Cheetham says little, but her expression says it all. She walks towards the creek and that ominous line of trees. I let her be for a while, and then I join her.

"It's as real today as the very first time I came here," she says, gaze fixed to the distance. "I think that it's true to say that only when we have completed that journey from not knowing to knowing and from knowing to understanding, can those souls that call out to me, can there be … I don't know, a peace declared.

"There's more to do, though. I wonder if I'll ever come here and the voices will be silent. And I'm not someone who hears voices. Only here do I actually hear them, like a shout. And it's as clear as it ever was."

Eumerella is at Hamer Hall on June 15.

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