Heal Country calls for stronger measures to recognise, protect, and maintain all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage.
For NAIDOC Week 2021, Southern Cross University Indigenous Events Coordinating Committee (SCUIECC) coordinated a NAIDOC panel discussion webinar to celebrate Country. Elders and community members came together for the NAIDOC-themed ‘Heal Country, heal our nation’ webinar in July to share in-depth stories of culture and connection to Country; what Country means to them and Aboriginal communities; and how to look after and heal Country. The discussion is now available as a podcast.
Southern Cross University’s Rod Williams from the University’s Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples facilitated the recorded webinar with panellists including Uncle Des Williams, Aunty Robyne Bancroft, Bruce Pascoe, Michael Jarrett, and Leweena Williams.
Panellist Uncle Des Williams, a Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung man, delivered the Welcome to Country for all the panellists and webinar participants on behalf of both nations.
Rod Williams, the panel facilitator, is a Bundjalung man (NSW) who has pursued a private sector career internationally across industrial relations, finance, mining, small business; not-for-profit and university sectors.
He established the 100 per cent-Aboriginal-owned Gongan Consultancy Pty Ltd in 1993, a specialist consultancy firm that developed the Gongan Cross Cultural Community and Business Framework, and is a Member of the Australian Institute Company Directors (AIDC), bringing a wealth of knowledge to the classroom as a Lecturer at Gnibi College at Southern Cross University.
“We as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People are very passionate about our country and our connections, so we’ve done here at Gnibi is put together a panel of people who have a lot of knowledge about their areas, and who make this a very interesting subject – there are a lot of facets spoken about here,” he said, kicking off the panel discussion.
This panel discusses topics including preserving and revitalising Indigenous language, foods, community ownership of Indigenous commercial opportunities, land rights, historical truth-telling, and pressure on first-nations people in dealing with many contemporary issues. Other specific issues addressed include dealing with the 2020 Destruction of Juukan Gorge – a major Indigenous site, land degradation, combating modern pollution, permissions and financial return for development, school-based Indigenous education, re-learning food restrictions, totemism, ceremonies, and training young Indigenous people in cultural identity and protecting sites – including sacred trees that withstand bushfire events yet are often devastatingly cut down soon after.
The event wrapped up with each panellist giving examples of helpful daily practices all Australians could implement including: ‘re-evaluate the ways in which you value Aboriginal people and the culture, heritage and systems we are trying to protect’; ‘learn something about the place you are a part of, and the people who lived on that place before you – learn something small everyday about the Indigenous people from your area’; ‘have a closer look at the land and develop a closer relationship with the land, and acknowledge the history of the country’; ‘to understand that Goori concept of ‘ownership’ is very different to European concept – our understanding is about language and it isn’t inferior’.
A selection of quotes from the panellists
Uncle Des Williams, long-time Chairperson of the Tweed Byron Local Aboriginal Land Council and former ATSIC Commissioner for two terms, has been involved in many cultural, heritage, planning and strong social initiatives and projects, winning many state and national awards, and continues to be a representative for Aboriginal Health and community issues.
Uncle Des is also a member of Southern Cross University Gnibi Elders Council, and during the panel shared about Aboriginal legal services as well as land councils in NSW – and how through continual work and lobbying the land councils have built rapport with shire councils throughout NSW, as well as National Parks and Wildlife Services – a positive step that he hopes can be emulated in other states.
“Once we break through that barrier it opens up the country to sites work, and discovery of new (Indigenous heritage) sites, allowing for sites to be protected in a better way,” he said.
Leweena Williams is a proud Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung woman, and is the CEO of the Tweed Byron Local Aboriginal Land Council, and working on the land rights act, with cultural responsibility given to her from her parents, grandparents and Elders from both nations.
“Using the vehicle of the land rights act we get to do things like protecting critically endangered species, flora and fauna, and negotiating and brokering with local and state government and affecting change in legislation, creating models that other communities can use if they choose to,” she said.
“We’ve been seed banking and we have a junior ranger group, made up of Goori and non-Goori kids, who are all learning together about language, stories, song and dance, painting and art. And giving a wider education to the general public about who we are as Goori people in the Tweed and about our cultural responsibility, to help groups such as local government in their planning and decision-making, which in the long run helps protect our cultural assets.
“Cultural Heritage in the Tweed and Byron Shire Councils now has been forever changed because of the work our community has done in this space over more than 30 years – after demanding a seat at the table we now have a fruitful relationship. We had some powerful Elders leading the way, who left a legacy for us and made a path for us to succeed.”
Michael (Micklo) Jarrett is a well-known local Gumbaynggirr figure and chairperson of the Muurrbay Language Centre, often providing ‘Welcome To Country’ ceremonies at regional events, as well as leading Indigenous language classes, camps and cultural story-telling.
“I’m a Gumbaynggirr man from Nambucca Heads, and I grew up on Bellwood Reserve with a lot of my relatives,” he said.
“There were Aboriginal Elders who spoke fluent Gumbaynggirr. I chose to go back and learn my language again back in 1997 at Muurrbay Language Centre. That’s where my journey started beginning of the knowledge that comes with language about protecting country.
“We job now is to train people to go and teach this language and culture in schools – as well as the stories and the songs – and I’m spearheading two protests in the Nambucca State Forest where they are logging our land and koalas are being endangered, so we are fighting for a national koala park.”
Aunty Robyne (Babani) Bancroft is a Goori woman of Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr descent and a member of Southern Cross University Gnibi Elders Council. She grew up in Lionsville, and became a nurse in Brisbane before leaving to live in Papua New Guinea, where she raised her children in Port Moresby before returning back to Australia.
She studied Archaeology and Anthropology and has used her knowledge, family knowledge and Aboriginal community knowledge to teach children and others about Aboriginal heritage, and worked as a Cultural Heritage Officer for many years with State Forests.
She is passionate about truth-telling – so younger generations can know the truthful Indigenous stories and histories, as well as the trials and tribulations, of their parents and ancestors.
“They aren’t all good stories, but they need to be told – the massacres, the murders. Once that’s known we can move on, but not while people and educators are denying these things happened. People today aren’t responsible for it, but they need to be aware of it,” said Aunty Robyne, who spends time providing documentation on the massacres that happened in the middle Clarence River area since colonisation.
“I worked on the map of Aboriginal Australia for a number of years in Canberra with David Gorten (?) who published this Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia of which I did research on – to get information out into the schools.”
Bruce Pascoe is a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian Man and author and winner of numerous literary awards. He was most recently honoured as the 2021 Australian Humanist of the Year Award in recognition of his outstanding achievements in literature, culture, environmental issues and agriculture, through a First Nations lens. He is a board member of First Languages Australia and Twofold Aboriginal Corporation and was Secretary for Bidwell-Maap Aboriginal Nation.
He lives on the southern edge of Yuin country on the Watagra (?) River on a farm where he and his community grow all the known Aboriginal foods from the local area.
“The reason we do this is because, often when non-Aboriginal people get enthusiastic about anything to do with our culture, often we lose it – I’ve seen it with language, dance, all cultural items including food, where it gets treated like a commodity. So, we wanted to grow the food and re-learn what the old people had done with the food. We wanted to do it culturally and bring that spirit back to the food. This farm is making sure we’re in there so when Aboriginal foods become commercial it directly benefits Aboriginal people and employment. We have to maintain our right to language and food, and not have it taken away from us. I’m proud to be working with this mob, healing country.”
The word NAIDOC stands for the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee.
Southern Cross University also celebrated NAIDOC Week through a Discovery Wall at both Lismore and Gold Coast Campus Libraries, showcasing NAIDOC’s history with a collage of posters and themes over the years celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ achievements, culture, histories and stories. Coffs Harbour campus also showcased a Library Display with a collection of winning NAIDOC posters and themes along with a selection of books/resources from well-known Indigenous authors. Many of Bruce Pascoe's books are available via the University Library.
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