Most people feel familiar with the Hawkesbury, one of Sydney’s most recognisable rivers, but how much do they really know?
The Hawkesbury River, known as Dyarubbin to local Aboriginal people, was one of the earliest places invaded and colonised when settlers started forcefully taking land along the river from 1794.
Resultantly this colonial heritage is celebrated in widespread narratives of the river, overshadowing and sometimes omitting Darug people, perspectives, history and culture, when Darug people have lived on the river for millennia and still live on the river today.
The Dyarubbin exhibition at the State Library of NSW is an invitation to traverse the river with four Darug women: Jasmine Seymour, Rhiannon Wright, Leanne Watson and Erin Wilkins and to listen to their stories. They have identified seven special and significant sites along the river ranging from cultural, spiritual and colonial sites to those with little-known stories.
The exhibition builds on knowledge and research established by the four Darug women and Professor Grace Karskens in their collaborative project ‘The Real Secret River, Dyarubbin’, which won the State Library of NSW Coral Thomas Fellowship in 2018-19.
One of the project’s aims is to map and return Aboriginal place names found in a list compiled by Reverend John McGarvie, a Presbyterian minister, in 1829 titled ‘Native Names of Places on the Hawkesbury’, to their river locations.
Some of the place names in the list, like ‘Bulyayorang’ (Bulyayurang) which refers to the land over which the town of Windsor was built, had ceased to be used as Aboriginal languages were forcibly and systematically diminished over time.
The McGarvie list is on display in the exhibition, showcasing important place names like ‘Dorumbolooa’ (Durumbuluwa) which means ‘zone of the rainbow’ or ‘path of the rainbow,’ which tells part of the story of Gurangatty, the Great Eel creation ancestor spirit for Darug people.
Jasmine, Rhiannon, Leanne and Erin take exhibition visitors to one of the resting sites of Gurangatty in one of the deepest parts of Dyarubbin. They say that the water swirling on the water’s surface is symbolic of the Great Eel, which is connected to water, whirlpools and flood power and that the rock engravings of Gurangatty found on the biggest bends of the river tell the story of the Great Eel as visitors pass through Darug Country. Sadly, some of those engravings are situated on what is now privately owned property, and some are said to have been destroyed.
The inability of Darug people to access sites along the river dates to the time of invasion, when settlers took prime agricultural land along the river, blocking Darug people from accessing their most vital resource.
Darug people, men and women, defended not only their land and livelihoods fiercely, but their culture and spirituality which were – and still are today – intrinsically connected to the river.
The Dyarubbin exhibition highlights the importance of truth-telling about the history of the Hawkesbury River region and the need for Darug stories, resilience and culture to be recognised, shared and celebrated.
The beautiful Dyarubbin exhibition will be on at the State Library of NSW until 13 March 2022. Visit the State Library website for more information: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/dyarubbin
Read Grace Karskens’ entries on the Dyarubbin project on the Dictionary of Sydney. We are grateful for the support from Grace and Rob Thomas which allowed these entries to be published:
Explore the interactive map based on the Dyarubbin team’s work that has been published by NSW Spatial Services here:
Marika Duczynski is a Gamilaraay and Mandandanji descendent with family ties to Moree in north-west NSW. She is a Project Officer in the Indigenous Engagement branch at the State Library of NSW working to amplify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and perspectives within libraries and collections. Marika leads the development and delivery of Indigenous Engagement’s projects across a variety of different priority areas. Recently she curated her first exhibition, Dyarubbin.
 Grace Karskens, People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2020, p 129