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Custodians in Training

By Cally Jetta

I came across a short film clip the other day featuring some of the prominent community members of the Bunbury region in the South West and the great work they’re doing to revive Noongar language and culture and integrate this learning into our young people’s lives.

It was one Elder’s comments about learning to care for country however that really got me thinking. It was a topic I hadn’t dedicated enough thought to until quite recently. It makes absolute sense that learning about country and how to care for it should be an essential focus and priority for our youth.

The other week when addressing an Aboriginal student assembly, I asked the group to remember and respect their traditional and rightful role as custodians. I posed the following scenarios and questions:

“Raise your hand high if you are proud to be Aboriginal and have respect for your ancestors and your traditional culture. (All students raise a hand in response).

Noongar culture is about knowing and living in harmony with the environment. That is what allowed Noongar people to continue living in a sustainable way for tens of thousands of years. Knowledge of country and dutifully caring for it was vital for survival. Aboriginal people have fought and died for country; endured years of legal turmoil to reclaim it and watched the sacred, native and rare be robbed from it. Our culture promotes importance of country and this has been the basis of land rights cases and protests against development.

So, just consider for a moment what thoughts may run through the minds of non-Aboriginal and also some Aboriginal people, as they drive past our school and see our Aboriginal students, for example, throwing litter onto the ground, snapping tree branches for the sake of it or throwing rocks at birds. Are they behaviours that convey our people as the custodians and conservationists we are known as? What does it say to others about the importance of country and culture to today’s Aboriginal youth? How do you think our ancestors might feel seeing young people behave like this?

A few hands go up right away, more join over the next minute. I listen to their responses;

“They will think we don’t care about land anymore and that it’s OK to keep taking it or destroying it.”

“They would think we are disrespectful to our own culture and people.”

“They will think we have lost our Aboriginal culture and we don’t care about it anymore.”

“They will think land rights and all that is a joke and not take it seriously.”

“Our ancestors would be so disappointed and let down.”

“Our ancestors would probably think we are selfish for not continuing what they did for so long.”

“I think our ancestors would be heartbroken to see the land now and how we aren’t in harmony with it like then.”

I thank them all for their great answers and continue …

Our country, as our people once walked it, has changed rapidly since British arrival but that does not mean you are no longer custodians, that you should dismiss and disrespect the thousands of years of attentive care and the many sacrifices made by our ancestors to sustain an environment for future generations. Our generations included. It is still our responsibility. Below the buildings and roads are the remnants of ancient campfires, corroboree grounds and traditional burials sites. Dreaming and ancestral spirits still inhabit the earth, air and water surrounding us. Between the introduced weeds and animals, native species still exist, hidden and forgotten like the many ways they were once used. Used to eat, heal, make, provide and link culture and spirituality to land through story. They require your care now more than ever. We need to focus on what is left, fight for the protection of it and teach the significance of it.

I really hope that you can all just be a bit more mindful and respectful when it comes to the environment. Even if you do not have much interest in learning about and conserving it, at least make the self-commitment that you won’t further harm or disrespect it.”

Post assembly thoughts:

We cannot expect our children to just automatically inherit knowledge and responsibility of country on the basis of being Aboriginal alone. Our community elders and leaders need to encourage our young people to view and respect themselves as custodians and pass on the knowledge and skills of country needed for them to understand the significance of their role and take pride in doing it.

Learning about country – its plants, trees, animals, sacred sites and sustainable practices – needs to be embedded right alongside learning about culture and language as the three entities are intrinsically linked and inseparable.

We need to think ahead and create job opportunities that support environmental conservation and cultural preservation. That allow our people the opportunity to stay on country and earn a living without detriment and disconnect.

Bottom line is: We can’t expect our young people to respect and care for country unless they are taught the value and benefit in doing so; and, given the knowledge and skills to follow through.

As a parent I am determined to raise my sons as custodians by teaching them all I can about country and encouraging them to look after it with understanding, respect and pride.


4 comments

  1. king1394

    We all need help from our local Aboriginal elders to learn more about the country we live in. Then perhaps all of us can contribute to respecting the land that nurtures us.

    One of the tragedies of education in Australia is that so very little is taught about the land and natural processes, and the beautiful and amazing living things that inhabit our localities, and the average teacher has no training at all in Australian botany and biology. Very few Australian children or adults can name local plant species beyond a generic term such as: gum tree, waratah, wattle, and we are all challenged to recognise the names and ecological value of most of the living things that contribute to a healthy environment. This ignorance produces the next generation of decision-makers who cannot see why a stand of bush or some insignificant creature needs protection. I recently told a Shire Councillor that a particular stand of ‘wattles’ would have value as Nitrogen-fixers – ‘Well, who knew?’ she said sarcastically.

  2. Jamboree

    Agree with King. Heard today about the appalling disaster that is the Murray Darling Water Plan. Had heard yesterday about how we live in a feudal society based on UK common law, so that settler populations here own only the surface of the land they have title to. So fracking and mining etc cannot be stopped for long. That some nations, ie , the original caretakers of this land, had been given land ownership by governments (who represented those who had taken over the ancestral lands.) That Mabo and after renditions did uniquely include title of what was beneath the ground, but that rushed, recent changes to the law (which is not about justice) mean that even those with land rights can no longer stop the destruction of their land. If any of this is wrong could a credible authority eg a human rights expert please disabuse me.

    Perhaps First Peoples could further encourage the careless among their children to join Clean Up Australia Days? In our village some of us walk around with sacks for litter ,or dig up invasive weeds.

  3. Anne

    True Cally, it‘s taken centuries to get to this point where most enterprises put profit before community or the environment. And true, the next generation should be “taught the values of respect and care” for country. First Nation peoples (in all countries) seem to have an advantage in that they have stronger links to Nature. That seems thanks to a remnant generational wisdom not totally destroyed by capitalism. Capitalism and its domineering attitude towards Nature has ruined much of planet since the 16th century. We are running out of time surely. Our 21st century capitalistic wisdom tradition, minus real wisdom, is not going to cut it.
    I like this quote from Alanis Obomsawin, who at the age of 70 described capitalism and its major flaw thus: “Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”
    The 1%ers and their PR dept (msm) will never get this, it doesn’t fit the narrative.

  4. johno

    Thanks Cally. There is a great disconnect from nature on the macro ( Pruitt ) to the micro ( driving when we could walk ). I get such deep peace from nature, the bush, wild places without some fucking development. Look at the ocean. We take, take take from it and give back rubbish, sewerage and chemical laden runoff. It has been our landfill site for eons. Will there be a reckoning for our abuse of nature ? Climate change probably.

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