Conversations on Country at Aurukun

September 29th, 2019

By Dana Bradford

The Archer River at Aurukun with two boats moored

The Archer River at Aurukun.

The Archer river spans wide under the prow of our tinny as we carve white furrows in the once still water. A crocodile slides into the shallows, breathing bubbles before surfacing ominously, eyes upon us, ready to meet us on his terms. No threat to each other, we continue our windblown passage to Blue Lagoon, whistling kites in the air.
Here the children of the Returning Generation meet with Elders and Rangers to learn the traditional lore of their land. Mother Archer and the Old Ladies take the girls to gather roots to boil the dyes for making baskets and grass skirts. The rangers take the boys to gather paper bark for humpys, saplings for spears and milk wood for carving. A termite ridden tree is felled for the native bee hive it holds. Thick fresh honey oozes from the comb. Later we will have it with hot damper the children learn to cook and the wax will be used to hold the spear barbs in place.
Two pairs of hands squeezing honey from native bee hives in to pots

Squeezing honey from a native bee hive.

During the camp the boys work beside the rangers, erecting the supports for the humpy, and laying the paperbark on in sheets. They harden their saplings across a fire, and straighten any bends in the wood. You can tell one of the lads comes from a long line of spear makers, as he tilts his head to run a critical eye along the length of his spear shaft. Tomorrow they will use the bark of a root, pounded together with the beeswax, to make a resin to secure the metal barbs before painting their spears with traditional markings. The spear makers have embraced technology, using drills and grinders, so I tell them that soon girls will want to make spears and ask when they will teach them. “Never,” they reply. “Spear making is only for men. Women make baskets.” And they do, beautiful baskets. And there is as much foraging and gathering for the women’s activities as the men’s. Roots for dyes, pandanus and palm fibres. While spears are made with minimal verbal interaction, the weaving tent is full of chatter, stories and laughter.

A man sitting on the earth holding a spear he has made

Ranger Vernon teaches the boys how to make spears. (Photo used with permission.)

It is not only traditional knowledge that is shared. These children will walk in two worlds; their culturally rich ancestral lands and those of a technology enabled future. So we teach them about environmental sensors and use virtual reality headsets to take them across their Country through a drones’ eye view.
A barramundi fish lies across a pile of wooden logs

Fresh caught barra to be cooked in a firepit

At night around the campfire, full from a feast of fresh caught barramundi and magpie geese, we listen to stories told in Wik of early mission days, and watch movies of when Aurukun was mapped for Native Title.

The people of Aurukun are kind, accepting, progressive. They understand that the world is changing, and the importance of keeping their traditions strong. They feel the best way for them to preserve their culture is for others to know of it, to learn from it, to respect it. So they have invited us again next year, to work with them in developing digital resources that speak of the beauty of their lands and the practices that are so meaningful for them.
Hands hold the root of an an orchid

The red root of an orchid provides a dye for basket making

And I’d really like to make a spear.

Dana Bradford was invited to Aurukun through an existing relationship between the Community and CSIRO Land and Water. The project was funded by CSIRO Health & Biosecurity Indigenous Seed Funding

A creek bed with water in and trees against a blue sky

Stoney Creek, on Mother Archer’s land, has strong cultural significance.

and aimed at working with the Community to enhance health and wellbeing. The Returning Generation camp is organised by the local group Aak Puul Ngantam (APN) and run by local Indigenous Rangers and Wik Elders. In the local language, Wik Mungkan, Aak Puul Ngantam translates as ‘Our father’s father’s country’ and the Returning Generation Camp is called Tha’ Pemp Wuut Mangkantam.