I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation who are the traditional custodians of the land on which I walk each day.
I pay my respect to all elders, past and present and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be reading.
I want to concede that I am not an indigenous person. I encourage the reader to always pursue knowledge and information on such topics from Aboriginal elders, people and resources created by them.
I dream of a world where indigenous culture breathes and dances at the forefront of our minds: socially, in our school curriculum, in our history and upon our natural lands. This is why I feel it is important to recognise which land you spend your time on and why I want to begin by describing where I am situated. For me it is the Aboriginal soil of the Kulin Nation.
The Kulin Nation is an alliance of 5 indigenous clans including the Djadjawurung, Taunugurong, Wathaurong, Woiworrung and Boonwurrung. If you reside in the city of Melbourne, the earth beneath your feet belongs to the Wurundjeri people and the Woiworrung language group. These lands reach far north of the Great Dividing Range, east out to Mt. Baw Baw, west to the Werribee River and south to Mordialloc Creek, which is a tributary to the Yarra River. The Yarra River or the Birrarung is the people’s life blood. It is a place of ceremony, meeting, food, drink, resources and farming. The name Wurundjeri comes from the word ‘wurun’, meaning Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis), which dot the banks of the Birrarung, and ‘djeri’, the grub, which surrounds or inhabits the tree.
The time of European colonisation and the Stolen Generation lashes a dark and devastating scar on the land and its people. In the 1860s only 124 Wurundjeri descendants remained. This was due to urban development and Aboriginal families being torn apart and forced by government organisations into assimilation with Eurocentric laws and life, in an attempt to abolish their identity completely. The introduction of European diseases was followed by many Aboriginal deaths. This did not only happen to the Wurundjeri but to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people all over Australia. Today, in the words of Wurundjeri Elder, Colin Hunter Jr, “In the 21’st century, the Wurundjeri community is still alive and well. Their continuous connection to country is still strong and unbroken”.
The wounds of westernisation are still open with this haunting past being not so distant in indigenous memory. Australia remains the only country in the world to not have a treaty with its indigenous people. This is but one mandatory factor why indigenous culture and recognition needs to be a part of our consciousness.
Aboriginal Australians have the oldest continuous culture on earth. There is evidence that they have been on this continent for over 100,000 years and are thought to be the first group of people to complete a seafaring journey, across the treacherous Torres Strait Channel. They pioneered humanity with a vastness of knowledge on thriving and surviving; with rich culture, biology and conservation sciences. To put this magnitude into perspective, Europeans have called Australia home for only 231 years of this timeline. Australia pre invasion was made up of 500 to 700 nations with hundreds of languages spoken. Each nation having its own management of social and biological life, ceremonial traditions, laws to live sustainably, with sophisticated and enlightened systems in doing so.
Aboriginal culture, taught through laws and lore, is told in dance, art, music and stories, ways in which are impactful, active, visual and memorable. The Dreamtime holds the codes of existence, spirituality and creation of and from the land. For indigenous peoples connections and obligations to the land is their essence, their own blood. Native animals are allocated to clan members at birth as their totem animals. Totems are the bonds between one and their surrounding geographies and natural cosmos. They do not own their totem but are responsible for its protection, sanctuary and thus passage onto the next generation. There is a meticulous equilibrium on which flora and fauna may be resourced, which to be preserved, and at which times.
Joy Murphy-Wandin, a Wurundjeri elder and great niece to William Barak, the last traditional ngurungaeta or head man of the Wurundjeri – William clan, expresses this organic relation to this biological and cohesive space, the land. She speaks of Bunjil, the creator spirit, who is the moiety or totem animal of the Wurundjeri, he now takes the form of a wedge tailed eagle, Australia’s largest raptor bird. “Aboriginal spirituality is the law…our ancestors have left their mark on this land, so we can just follow on in what they did, their footsteps, their way of life…Bunjil created the land…all living and natural things, and that is why we have the greatest respect for the land, we are born from this land, we belong to the land and we take care of the land, we respect this land. We say to everyone, not just Aboriginal people, that there is a place on this land for everyone, everyone has a place, so it is their responsibility to look after and nurture this place, like our ancestors did for many many thousands of years, for the future generations.” This is a lesson we should all follow.
Australia boasts some of the most captivating green spaces and animals; unique, awe inspiring and endangered, that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Yet we come in second of the top seven countries responsible for over 60% of biodiversity loss on this planet. The flora and fauna we understand today is on its last breath, and with the crisis of climate change, a dramatic change of attitude is understatedly the first on the tiresome list of things to change.
Our race has become disenchanted by and disconnected from nature. This is a severe loss, if one does not take an interest in their surroundings, they won’t want to conserve it, and treating it with respect may get lost amongst the blinkers of our digital age.
I am a wildlife ambassador that endeavours to open the eyes of people to the wonders of the great outdoors every day. When I am in nature, I feel euphoric, and I am awake to every frog echo, the scent of dewy plants and soils, the fluid curvature of that tree hollow in an old gum. The tree hollow I see is a crucial nesting place for many native animals, next to it is the lacy line details made by a scribbly gum moth larvae, possible food for this animal. This tree is an essential cog in our ecosystem, not to mention the provider of clean air that we can’t live without. All things in nature have a power and magic, not in the sense of fairy tales but in a way that a rock may appear as a singular thing, but once you lift it, you discover a complex biome of life: a skink, fungi that decomposes leaf litter, an ant nest that aerates the soil, entities part of food chains and collectively the web of life. This way of looking at the world is dying and so is our surrounding biotic environment and is why I am passionate about joining the indigenous looking glass to view our habitats.
Why choose this way of perceptive looking? Because it has been tested ecologically beneficial for tens of thousands of years by the indigenous people. I was recently listening to a podcast that harnessed the deepness of indigenous histories and knowledge, where Jacinta Koolmatrie, an Adnyamathanha and Ngarrindjeri woman working in archaeology and indigenous heritage, tells of encounters passed down to her from her Nanna. Jacinta’s story collides with that of Australian Megafauna. Two generations passed she hears the story of the “Yamatie” and how to evade its monstrous 2 meters tall and 3 metres wide stature by climbing a tree. The “Yamatie’s” existence is culturally and scientifically aligned to be that of a diprotodon, the largest marsupial to have ever lived, weighing over 3 tonnes. This gigantic koala/wombat creature, frenzies scientists with its boldness, yet it has belonged to life and truths in Jacinta’s story for millennia. This mega marsupial was considered extinct 47,000 years ago, and is not just a myth. In this tremendous ticking of time, indigenous people illustrate a delicate balance on how to survive with a well constructed culture and do it sustainably; farming and permanent settlements were established without vegetation clearing and human impact. They move with the seasons, benefiting from land rejuvenation and the natural courses ecosystems would take. One old permanent settlement with the remains of farming terraces lies nearby Little River Victoria. This settlement on Wathaurong Country could hold the stones laid by the world’s first astronomical scientists. An 11,000 year old Aboriginal stone arrangement, known as Wurdi Youang, is said to be a planetary and celestial observation site. The formation of rocks, similar to Stonehenge, parallel to sections of the sky, mountain scape and horizon at different times of the year and day. As well as a ceremonial place this was an architecture in which to study the stars and experience the unabridged marvel of what we can fully perceive, rather than blindly floating by it.
Another site I want to celebrate is Budj Bim, as it has recently become Australia’s first World Heritage site solely named for its Aboriginal cultural importance. Budj Bim National park in Victoria hosts the world’s oldest aquaculture system created by the Gunditjmara people about 6600 years ago. The fish trap complexes were engineered to harvest and grow shortfin eels. The canals are made out of strategically situated basalt boulders, sourced from the once volcanic area, to manipulate water flows, dependant on flooding and the influx of eels from the sea at certain times of the year. These structures, sometimes 450 meters long, have been maintained by the Gunditjmara people from creation to date. Surrounding the eel farms are housing remnants and smoking trees where eels were smoked and traded. This organic infrastructure all functioned without land clearing and minimal disturbance to natural cycles and animal numbers. Indigenous people were not always nomadic hunter gatherers, they just don’t take too much from the land or leave a negative imprint on it. Land clearing for modern day farming is disastrous for our wildlife, healthy ecosystems and therefore ourselves. A collaboration with our country’s original and true keepers could provide techniques where everyone benefits and prospers.
How to implement this framework of wildlife and cultural equality? I can’t pretend to know all the answers, I also think Aboriginal culture is not ours to study in the sense of taking its artefacts away into laboratories and museums. I feel however, a good place to start would be to read books and articles by Aboriginal authors or have a chat to an indigenous person. Visit culturally significant sites, visit a gallery or place with Aboriginal art or book a tour with an indigenous guide. Seek out indigenous performers and speakers for your events. Support indigenous people to take up authority in looking after our land through ranger programs. Acknowledge country and talk about it.
I want to urge teachers to be inclusive of Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal learning did not feature in my primary school upbringing, luckily we get a second chance at supplementing this with our current young people, as they are the future decision makers of our planets fate. Present Australian history without a white slant, so children can make informed decisions on our social and environmental landscape. I empathise that we can’t speak on behalf of indigenous people, yet we can position ourselves in a mental environment that equates to physical inclusiveness. Teacher resources are plentiful, you merely have to do a quick Google search to find multiple lesson plans. A new educational series called ‘Our Land Our Stories’ has recently been released as a facility to aid primary teachers in immersing First Nation’s culture and history within the Australian curriculum. This can be purchased online, however there are alternative resources which are free. Some that took me only a minute to search up are: ‘Connecting with The Aboriginal History of Yarra – A Teachers’ Resource’, ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth – 2019 Classroom Resource’ and ‘NSDC – National Sorry Day Committee Inc. Learning about the Stolen Generations: The NSDC School Resource’. I also found www.deadlystory.com to be a helpful hub of information.
Reconciliation starts with truthful acknowledgment of indigenous culture. It is strengthened by a respectful embrace of this culture in everyday happenings. Aboriginal peoples have been teachers of living shoulder to shoulder with the landscape since the beginning of time, I believe ultimately we will become more present and responsible by listening to these teachers.
I often fantasise about what our bush looked like before we got here, I don’t think it will ever be fully restored, but it can be conserved with the collaboration of traditional indigenous knowledge and adopting the esteem in which they hold the environment in.
Some informative sites: