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.