National Reconciliation Week is a time to acknowledge the painful history of Australia’s Indigenous peoples and a time to promote unity and understanding. It is a time for conversations – a time to continue conversations we’ve been having, such as The Voice, and a time to start new conversations.

One meaningful conversation we should have is about the name of Hepburn Shire.

Hepburn Shire is named after John Hepburn whose arrival in the region in 1836 marked the beginning of a tragic chapter in the history of the Dja Dja Wurrung. With 10 armed men, 3000 sheep and a 10 pound squatter’s licence, Hepburn laid claim to 30,000 acres of prime grassland including Mount Kooroocheang, sacred to the Dajarra people. He denied the Indigenous people their rights to hunt, perform ceremonies and inhabit their ancestral territory resulting in the suffering and displacement of people who had been custodians of the land for tens of thousands of years. Hepburn proudly claimed he never learned one word of “their lingo.”

Hepburn’s motivations seem to have been largely selfish. There were other wealthy local pastoralists who funded the building of churches and schools and who contributed to the arts, science and politics. Hepburn used his accumulating wealth to purchase more land. It is difficult to name any legacy he left for others in the community. A memorial on the summit of Mt Kooroocheang, a statue in Smeaton and the very name of our Shire itself seem out of proportion for someone who contributed so little. The injustices and violence perpetrated by Hepburn cannot be reconciled with his stature as a founding European settler of this region. Continuing to memorialise John Hepburn perpetuates a painful reminder of the past, undermining our efforts towards reconciliation.

Symbols have immense power to shape our collective consciousness but the name of our Shire has little meaning to its residents. Hepburn Shire was created in 1995 by the Kennett government when the Shire of Daylesford and Glenlyon, the Shire of Creswick and parts of the Shires of Kyneton, Talbot and Clunes were merged. There was little community consultation about the amalgamation and even less about the name.

We recently had a conversation in our Shire about the name of a local creek (which was probably given its previous denigrating name by the same John Hepburn). For similar reasons and by similar processes, the former Moreland City Council recently changed its name to Merri-bek.

National Reconciliation Week presents us with a timely opportunity to initiate change and demonstrate our commitment to reconciliation. As with our conversation about Larni Barramal Yaluk, discussion of a name change for the Shire would necessarily involve our local community including the Dja Dja Wurrung. The discussion would facilitate a sense of ownership of the Shire and shared responsibility for reconciliation.

National Reconciliation Week serves as an opportunity for all Australians to reflect on our shared history and work towards building a just and equitable future. It calls us to acknowledge the impact of colonisation, address the systemic inequalities faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and create a society that values and respects their unique culture and contributions.

A conversation about a name change would send a powerful message about our commitment to acknowledging the past, promoting healing and fostering a more inclusive society.

The Editorial Committee of The Wombat Post