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Learning two ways

Published 18 Jun 2021 
by Katie Degnian (Ecologist)

In 2016, a desire to keep culture alive and maintain a strong connection to country led the Waanyi Garawa rangers to organise an annual biodiversity survey and culture camp. Five years on, the camps bring together over 100 participants and have a strong focus on the next generation.

The red sun had set beyond the Foelsche River in the Gulf of Carpentaria and the heat of the day had finally dissipated. Smoke and embers rose from the campfire as Elders painted children with white ochre by the old buffalo yard.

Sitting in a large circle around the campfire, Garawa people and families were about to watch the next generation perform traditional dancing.

The badibadi (old ladies) began the rhythm with clapsticks, singing softly and melodically. The children, shy at first, soon joined in, the campfire illuminating their faces and the white trunks of surrounding ghost gums.

 Children learn traditional dance during a Waanyi Garawa  culture camp in 2020. Photo by Carmen Taylor.
Children learn traditional dance during a Waanyi Garawa culture camp in 2020. Photo by Carmen Taylor.

The next day, we rose at 6 am to the pre-dawn sounds of Magpie song, soft chattering, and fire crackling. The Elders had awoken earlier to prepare a big billy of tea on the fire before excited children, Traditional Owners, rangers, ecologists and teachers piled into cars together to check the traps.

The Waanyi Garawa culture camp and biodiversity survey is an annual collaboration between the Waanyi Garawa Rangers, Traditional Owners, the Northern Land Council and Bush Heritage Australia.  The camps were such a success over the past four years that in 2020 the Waanyi Garawa Rangers and Traditional Owners decided to hold two back-to-back.

The first was at Ngumalina, on Wuyaliya country on the Garawa Aboriginal Land Trust, and the second at Wallis Creek in the Ganalanga-Mindibirrina Indigenous Protected Area (IPA).

The camps brought together more than 100 people from the nearby homelands and communities of Borroloola and Doomadgee, just over the Queensland border, as well as further afield: Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and even as far as Townsville.

For students from Borroloola High School Learning on Country and the Robinson River School, the camps offered a great opportunity to learn two-ways - that is, learning both traditional knowledge and western knowledge.

School children walk on country during a Waanyi Garawa  culture and biodiversity camp in 2020. Photo by Carmen Taylor.
School children walk on country during a Waanyi Garawa culture and biodiversity camp in 2020. Photo by Carmen Taylor.

Students worked with rangers and ecologists to conduct wildlife surveys, and Elders taught children language, traditional dancing, singing, painting, and weaving, as well as showing them sacred sites and telling stories.

“It’s very important to take our children out so they can get knowledge from the old people. That’s where I got my knowledge from,” says Waanyi Garawa Ranger Josephine Davey. “My husband was teaching us things, showing us bush tucker, showing us where the springs are and the sacred sites.”

Each day after checking the traps everyone came together to hear Elders and ecologists share traditional and scientific information about the species observed.

The Waanyi Garawa Rangers trialled using a digital data collection tool to record songs and stories, as well as language and knowledge about plants and animals.

“We have been doing animal surveys with Bush Heritage Australia. Our ancestors were monitoring country while doing early burning and hunting animals as a food resource,” says Waanyi Garawa Ranger Donald Shadforth.

“The stuff that we are doing today is similar to what our grandfathers used to do, but with more technology.”

During the wildlife surveys we recorded 97 native species at Ngumalina, and 68 at Wallis Creek. Some of the highlights included the Western Chestnut Mouse (Psuedomys nanus), near threatened in the Northern Territory, and Gulf endemic species such as the Gulf Fat-tailed Gecko (Diplodactylus barraganae), and the striking Gulf Marbled Velvet Gecko (Oedura bella).

Bush Heritage thanks the Garawa Traditional Owners of Ngumalina, the Waanyi Traditional Owners of Wallis Creek, the Waanyi Garawa Rangers and Northern Land Council staff for their hard work. We also acknowledge the support of Terry Mahney, Kate van Wezel, Lucy Muir, Kym Brennan, Stephanie Anderson and the Robinson River school teachers. Thanks also to the NT Government Flora & Fauna Division and MAGNT for providing trapping equipment.