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The Olkola way

Published 21 Jan 2021 
by Eliza Herbert

Olkola Elder Mike Ross is a Bush Hero whose visionary leadership has had a profound impact on Olkola country and people.

Olkola Elder Mike Ross is known as the ‘Barefoot Chairman’.

You’ll most likely find him walking Olkola Country, hands sweeping across the tops of the tall grass at Killarney Station, weaving between termite mounds and grass trees as he quietly listens, watches, and understands what Country is telling him.

Olkola elder Mike Ross. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

With piercing eyes, an Akubra on his head and no shoes, he will be providing calm, wise leadership to those around him. 

At least that’s how Bush Heritage ecologist Allana Brown pictures him, when she reflects on what he has been able to achieve for Olkola people.

“I still remember the moment I met Mike,” she says. “We were sitting around the campfire and he was talking about Alwal, the endangered Golden- shouldered Parrot that the Elders had entrusted to him and the Olkola ranger team to look after.

‘Alwal never forgot where he was created,’ he said, ‘that's why he lives in the mounds, close to the earth.’”

This was in 2015, in the early days of Olkola’s partnership with Bush Heritage, when Allana was beginning to work on the Bringing Alwal Home project.

“That night he spoke about his journey and how, 30 years ago, the Elders sat him down and said, ‘Mike, you’re the one we want to get country back for us. That’s your job now.’

“And that’s exactly what he has done.”

Mike Ross is Chairman of the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, which is the largest private landholder in Cape York, Queensland. In December 2014, after years of patient negotiation and strategy, he led the Olkola people through the largest land hand-back in Queensland’s history, which saw them reclaim their rights to over 630,000 hectares of their land.

This milestone enabled them to implement strong self-governance and to look after country ‘the Olkola way’, directed by traditional lore, knowledge and practices. Under Mike’s stewardship, the  Olkola Aboriginal Corporation now protects more than 869,922 hectares, providing significant opportunities for Olkola people.

“Over the last few years I’ve noticed a huge difference, especially in the way people talk about Olkola; now people talk about Olkola as a community and everyone is a lot more positive,” says Jo Pender, a young Olkola person.

“With people being displaced and having to work on pastoral stations and not having ownership of country they were not able to be proud of who they are. Having land back and managing it themselves – this has connected us to Country.

“Elders are talking so much more now about culture – getting our land back has been instrumental in this. People are becoming more and more proud of being an Olkola person. Being proud of who you are as a person is directly related to being connected to country.”

Mike Ross by the campfire. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

Straddling the Great Dividing Range, Olkola country encompasses the headwaters of five major river systems, expansive savanna woodlands, grasslands, mound springs and wetlands in the unique bioregion of the Cape York Peninsula.

This land is intertwined with Olkola spirit and identity, and so too is the totemic Alwal.

After the hand-back, Olkola reignited  efforts to protect Alwal by establishing a new national threatened species recovery team - the first Aboriginal-led recovery team in Australia, chaired by Elder Mike Ross.

“With Mike at the helm, we've now had a full population census of the parrot,” says Allana.

“We've got much better knowledge and understanding of the key threats and Olkola people are implementing right-way fire and tackling feral cats.

We are also starting to learn more about nest predation and how the Dingo fits into the picture. It's just one example of what Mike and Olkola people have been able to achieve when doing things the Olkola way.”

And while Mike’s legacy is everywhere on Olkola country, one of the best legacies is what he has created for the young people. As Olkola Alwal Project Manager Ashaley Ross, one of Mike’ sons, puts it: “I feel a sense of freedom, and I belong here. It’s really good looking after country, having Olkola feet back on the ground, I feel happy with what we're doing.”