Water means everything
I am a Traditional Owner of the Terry Hie Hie lands of the Gomeroi nation, near Moree in north central New South Wales, on Tycannah Creek that is connected to the Gwydir River.
Water means everything to me. Water is about life for us. Water is central to how we interact with our cultural landscapes.
My grandfather, my father, my grandmother, and my mother have been my cultural teachers, as well as my dad’s sister – my Aunty Anna. The tree that my grandfather was born under still stands at Terry Hie Hie. My formative years, my classroom before going to school was the forests, the rivers and creeks, the cultural landscape.
My cultural connections, and my cultural responsibilities were instilled into me by my grandparents, and my father. The sense of place, and the sense of belonging, to me, is profound. It gives me my status in my family, and my clan, and my nation.
The river and water are central to our cultural way of life, our cultural lore. The rivers provided, long before my arrival on earth.
I can remember my grandfather teaching me that he was never allowed to go into the waterways or creeks—our arteries and veins as we called them— with any animal fat or body paint on him, for fear of upsetting the ecological cycle. We were taught lessons around water quality, about being sustainable fisher people. It was instilled in me at an early age, to only take enough for the meal.
For as long as I can remember, we lived near a river. And the river sustained us. It provided for us.
From a very young age, the rivers were everything to me. Me and a few other mates and a couple of cousins would go out to my most favourite place on the river, the Gum Flat Reserve. We would be dropped off there with our canoes, and we’d camp. On Sunday we’d make our way back to town by paddling the river. We’d fish as we went for Murray cod, yellow-belly, Macquarie perch, and the eel-tailed catfish.
Nowadays, native fish populations are down to less than 10 per cent since colonisation. And that is another reason why protecting the source— the resource—is so important to me.
Unfortunately, a lot of our cultural river sites have been impacted by large floods which have scoured the banks out. Agriculture has also taken away a lot of our signposts, our trees, our markers: now sacred and scarred.
Sustainable water is ‘cultural water’
Aboriginal Australia recognises the need to take action to explore frameworks and methodologies that can be used to determine a volume of water that addresses the cultural needs of water dependant assets throughout Australia.
Since time immemorial the rivers, billabongs, the artesian basin, and groundwater has provided Aboriginal peoples with cultural, spiritual, physical, and economic nourishment.
Over millennia, Aboriginal peoples across Australia have sustainably managed their lands, waters, and natural resources for the health of their Countries and their peoples. They always understood the importance of water and its centrality to life. They cherish water.
Aboriginal Australians’ traditional ecological knowledge, like their stories, are passed down from generation to generation and continue up until this day. This means they live in a symbiotic relationship with the land and water. They use water, they live from water, they nurture water. They sustained water and continue to do so, where they can.
The dispossession of Aboriginal people, and then mismanagement of their lands and waters, means Aboriginal peoples have witnessed, with pain, the detrimental effects on the environment. This includes degradation of our waterways as Aboriginal culture, knowledge and understanding has been disregarded.
Only in recent decades has there been a move towards legal and moral recognition of ownership of the lands and waters occupied by the many peoples prior to colonisation of Australia. For example, the inclusion of Aboriginal Peoples’ values and perspectives in water management across the Murray-Darling Basin occurs through statutory mechanisms, tailored engagement processes, and mainstream community engagement activities.
Water is an essential element of Aboriginal peoples’ holistic view of Country and should not be considered or managed separately to land, people or knowledge.
The legal separation of land and water runs counter to the Aboriginal concept of Country and precluded the use of Native Title to protect cultural values associated with water or generate benefits from managing water.
Governments need to recognise the importance of ‘cultural flows’
‘Cultural flows’ has been a concept increasingly used by Aboriginal peoples in Australia over the last 22 years. It has meant Aboriginal peoples can engage on their own terms with governments’ systems of water planning and management.
The importance of recognising cultural flows in water planning and water resource management is essential. Historically, governments have failed to recognise the importance of environmental requirements, such as continued river flows, for river health. This has resulted in failures to adequately limit or regulate water-use.
Today, modern techniques of ‘integrated water resource management’ are increasingly supported by governments, scientists, and water users as they recognise the need to balance different water uses and provide an environmental minimum for sustainability.
Cultural flows must be incorporated into water management systems and responses to the degradation of our water resources. The inclusion of cultural flows in existing water planning frameworks, as a separate allocation for Aboriginal purposes, is one option for achieving this.
Cultural flows mean different things to different Aboriginal peoples. For some, it is about the importance of rivers experiencing periodic flooding, which flushes out poisons and sickness, reduces salinity, and restores river health. Others focus on the importance of making sure certain foods, medicines and resources are available for cultural business. For many, rivers are places for teaching, storytelling, art, and ceremony.
Specific sites on rivers are important for creation and cultural hero storytelling. For example, a series of natural springs may represent portal holes for the Rainbow Serpent to move between the surface and underground. If these springs dry up as too much water is extracted, the story is lost. Our culture is lost.
Other specific sites are important for gaining resources such bush foods, medicines, tools, artefacts, and toys. Men and women have their own sites for their own special business. These need to be protected.
We also have special sites for teaching. If there is no water, there is no sharing of knowledge.
Governments, Federal, State and Territories, must genuinely partner with Aboriginal people and communities across Australia, to develop and deliver economic development measures, to mitigate the socio-economic impacts of water sharing plans and management on the Aboriginal peoples and communities of NSW.
We need to protect our cultural water.
Working with government to protect and restore freshwater and coast environments
My mother was a stolen child. My foray and my journey to where I am, I owe to my mother. She instilled an insatiable appetite for me to, not beat the table or beat my chest, but go into the system: “Learn the systems of government. And influence from the inside instead of standing on the periphery and ranting and raving”.
I set up the first ever Aboriginal Water Trust of Australia, for the New South Wales Government. I’ve managed strategic policy and planning units. I was the first Indigenous Fishery Strategy Manager in New South Wales.
I approached that job from my position as a muddy waters man and it set me off on a pathway to end up where I am. Freshwater fish and freshwater are paramount to me. But the job also gave me the opportunity to learn about the marine environment and the saltwater mob. Some wonderful Elders on the coast took the time to educate me so that I could be the best in my job.
Influencing positive changes for water outside government
I held some very, very senior positions in government. But then I became too comfortable. And, to me, that wasn’t reflective of who I am. I had increasing feelings and emotions that, “I’m not making a difference anymore.”
It wasn’t hard to then make the decision to leave government to work with the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council where I established the Strategic Policy and Planning Unit from the ground up. I learnt a lot about myself in that role.
Working with an NGO gave me the opportunity to understand that you can influence from outside government, because you get the opportunity to say what you want. The position I had was influential in representing the rights and interests of Aboriginal people in New South Wales.
While working at the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, I was appointed as the inaugural Chair of the former National Water Commission’s First People’s Water Engagement Council. And that is where I dove into water big time, into the water debates, into national policy.
I have been involved in Aboriginal Water Rights in NSW for around 27 years, going back to when there was 30 Catchment Management Boards to 13 Catchment Management Authorities to 11 Local Land Services.
My transition to Macquarie University provided me with an opportunity to work with staff and students to assist in building their cultural capacity and confidence. This area of Cultural Training is another passion that I have been working on and delivering for over 30 years. In 1999, my work was recognised when I was awarded the inaugural NSW Premiers Award as the NSW Aboriginal Employment and Training Coordinator of the Year.
In 2017, I became the first Indigenous Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Basin Community Committee. This meant I got to interact with the upper echelons of federal government. I learnt that while treating people with respect, I had to give messages and recommendations in a forthright manner rather than in a conciliatory way. My key message was: “We as an Aboriginal society need to embrace the opportunity for collaboration to work together to realise our potential as a society”. My consistent catchphrase is “Being Better Together”.
In 2020, I became the first Indigenous board member of the New South Wales Natural Resource Access Regulator. But with all these appointments, I was suffering with what I call ‘imposter syndrome’: “Am I the right person, am I up to it?”.
But I knew I had to embrace these opportunities if I wanted to continue to influence change.
One of the big changes I have helped to bring about with the Natural Resource Access Regulator was for them to include the priority to protect our cultural heritage and integrate our cultural values into water compliance. As an NRAR Board Member, I am also the Patron of their Aboriginal Staff Network.
Journey of learning leads to Alluvium Consulting
My journey and my learning have been challenging for me. Alluvium now gives me the opportunity to continue to make a difference with and for Indigenous people and communities. For the first time in my life, I’m in a place where I can completely focus on natural resource management, water, and cultural heritage. I am working with likeminded people that care.
My role with alluvium, as the senior Aboriginal Consultant affords me the opportunity to create a greater understanding of Aboriginal peoples’ connection to land and waters which is fundamental to the cultural values of Aboriginal Australians.
I owe a great deal to the persistence of Lisa Walpole, my Regional Manager, mentor and friend, who created the opportunity to bring me to Alluvium and to all the staff who have been absolutely magnificent with me, I say a huge murrabuu (thank you) for all embracing me as an Alluvium family member.
At Alluvium, we are building our cultural capacity. We’re building our cultural confidence. And I know I’m central to that. It’s about each of us being brave, being courageous to ask people to teach us more about their culture. Because I can only teach you mine.
Sharing the importance of cultural science
I call traditional ecological knowledge cultural science. It is a science. I want to stress that cultural science and western science can coexist, in fact there are many of us that believe they co-exist. I believe in creating that understanding through two-way knowledge exchange.
We need to integrate cultural science and values into policy, into strategy, and into legislative instruments. To do this, we need to increase the opportunities for national voices to be heard from around the country, from the Torres Strait to the Kimberley. Each part of the country is uniquely different.
I have a message for people to never, never devalue what you know and your passion to make a difference. And like me, I hope you understand that learning is a life’s journey.