Protecting her heritage



Karen Smith is marking 11 years as the education officer with the Aboriginal Heritage Office (AHO). 

A role in which she has shared her extensive knowledge of Aboriginal history, culture and experience, with thousands of people across the North Shore and the Northern Beaches. 

The AHO is jointly supported by six Sydney councils – including Ku-ring-gai, Lane Cove, North Sydney, and Willoughby.

“The Aboriginal Heritage Office’s main role is to regularly monitor and manage precious Aboriginal sites to ensure their preservation and protection,” explains Karen, who works closely with archaeologists, and museum and heritage staff.

A gifted and engaging public speaker, Karen’s work diary is typically filled with bookings by schools and community groups for her talks and presentations on Aboriginal culture and heritage - and for her guided walking tours enjoyed by thousands of local residents, students and visitors.

“There is always a plethora of cultural queries and requests in my two email boxes, too. It is often hard just keeping up!” Karen laughs.

Karen and her fellow AHO staff work hard to provide the best possible information, resources and learning experiences.

On most days, Karen is found at schools or community events giving presentations, conducting her popular guided bush walks, and attending and addressing council events.

“But the contrast in 2020 was dramatic, with COVID-19 forcing us to review everything and adjust,” she tells North Shore Living.

“The education program was adapted to online presentations, including the production of an educational series for students and the community, titled Yarnuping – Education.

“To our surprise, 2020 became very busy - with online presentations and responding to the many queries from councils, students and the wider community. 

“But I did miss meeting with and having that personal connection with the children and community.”

Karen’s Aboriginal heritage is linked to the Buruberongal clan of the Derrubin (Hawkesbury) area.

“But my mother was born on Freshwater Headland, my father in Manly and we left Manly when I was in first grade,” she reveals.

“My father owned and ran hotels in different country towns and I still treasure the time I spent in the country.”

A growing interest in performing and singing, though, saw Karen join the Margaret Barr Dance Drama Company – and later tour the world with the celebrated all-female a cappella group, Blindman’s Holiday.

“I also performed as a storyteller – creating multi-media shows about my family history and story,” she adds.

Karen and artist Leanne Tobin were joint winners of the 2010 Blacktown Council History Prize with their multimedia show Walking in Country: Yarns, songs and images celebrating the history of the Darug people.

It was Karen’s childhood experiences living in-and-around country pubs which eventually led her back to Manly - to present her show The Yarns from the Wallendbeen Hotel, a highlight of both the 2010 and 2011 Manly Arts Festivals.

Soon after, an opportunity arose for Karen to put her storytelling skills to new use, with the AHO.

Karen says people’s positive responses to the work of the AHO are both “humbling and gratifying”.

“We can see that our education programs make a difference, increasing knowledge of Aboriginal heritage and furthering our aim of protecting precious cultural sites, too,” she smiles.

“There have been so many highlights. Most of all I love meeting and talking to our communities.”

Chris Parsons, Contributor, North Shore Living Magazine

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