Published 6 February 20237 February 2023 · ecology / Aboriginal Australia Winaga-li Gunimaa Gali: listen, hear, think, understand from our sacred Mother Earth and our Water Winaga-li Gunimaa Gali Collective UNDER ONE SKY Artwork by Gunidjarr Anna Duncan who shares that it depicts the night sky—lore, map, songlines –Dreamtime stories, belonging, family, relationship, connection, place, home, Country and Gali We are water—water is life. WITH RESPECT Maal Gunagala Maal-one, Gunagala-sky. We would like to acknowledge the significance of walaaybaa-home/Country/place. To pay respects to those who have walked before us and continue to do so. To recognise the continuing connection with Gunimaa- Sacred Mother Earth, Gali—Water. Understanding the sacredness, significance and secretness of spirituality. The importance of connection, belonging, place, kinship, dhiyaan-family. Winaga-li Gunimaa Gali. In Gomeroi/Kamilaroi language, Winaga-li means listening/hear/think/understand, Gunimaa is sacred/Mother Earth and Gali, water. During a hot, exceedingly dry month in early 2019 Uncle Phil, Gunidjarr Anna, Jason and Brad—four Gomeroi/Kamilaroi custodians came together on Gunimaa at Moree in the north-west of the Murray-Darling Basin with human geographers Emily, Fiona, Jess and Sandie from Macquarie University, Ross, an ecologist from the University of Canberra, Jane from Commonwealth Environmental Water Office and David from NSW Department of Planning and Environment, Annabelle from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and university students Harriet and Nicole. We gathered with a desire to connect with each other and use these connections to enable Gomeroi/Kamilaroi access to and care of Gomeroi/Kamilaroi Gunimaa and Gali. The severe drought conditions that had begun in 2017 were evident in the dry rivers and the parched, brown Gunimaa interspersed with precious remnants of Gali in wetlands and waterholes taking refuge amongst the cleared cotton fields and broadacre crops including wheat, canola and sorghum. Three years later, in April and then September 2022, those who could gathered again on Gomeroi/Kamilaroi Country. Human Geographer Kate and writer and historian Cameron, PhD student Jack and Masters students Mahtab and Brooke also joined us. Gunimaa had completely transformed with two years of rains, again running the rivers, soaking the black soil floodplains and providing inflows so expanding the wetlands and waterholes. Gali’s presence now shaped Gunimaa and our movements, actions and responses in a different way. To winaga-li, Gomeroi/Kamilaroi people must be able to access Gunimaa. They must be able to connect and re-connect. Over 160 years of colonisation has privileged intensive agriculture, grazing and heavily extractive water management regimes, enabled by imposed property regimes and governance systems. These processes have attempted to dispossess, exclude and dis-connect Gomeroi/Kamilaroi people from Country. Gunimaa and Gali still experience the violent repercussions of these processes, including current climate changes which are exacerbating impacts, as droughts become longer, floods and heat extremes become more intense, and climatic zones shift, impacting on species’ viability and biodiversity. To winaga-li, to respond, to care, to heal people and place, access is key. Gomeroi/Kamilaroi people want to, and need to, take the lead. Despite—or because of—decades of government (mal)administration and (mis)management, Gomeroi/Kamilaroi people need to be able to access Gunimaa and Gali, they need to be back on Gunimaa—Elders and youth, men and women—re-connecting and re-telling our/their stories, continuing culture on Country. Gunimaa and Gali are wounded and sick. Gomeroi/Kamilaroi people see and live with changing landscapes and understand the impacts of colonising processes, including climate change and extractive water management. It is time for western land managers and planners to acknowledge the damage their (sometimes well intentioned) work has done and step back, and respect and support, the leadership of Gomeroi/Kamilaroi people. We are trying to model this in our collaborative coming together, and in this short reflective essay we share some glimpses into the importance of nurturing healing connectivities—connections between people and connections with place, through access to, and presence with, Gunimaa and Gali. We do this through the lens of Gunimaa and Gali, and paying attention to how Gali’s absences and presences actively shape our human abilities to winaga-li. Gomeroi elders Gunidjarr Anna and Gunidjarr Tibby nurtured our sharing by gifting us with handmade books shaped around Gunidjarr Anna’s beautiful art and Gunidjarr Tibby’s creativity. Winaga-li: (Re)connecting I love it when the birds talk, you gotta listen to them Jason, Gomeroi/Kamilaroi custodian and Commonwealth Environmental Water Officer Gomeroi/Kamilaroi custodian and water advocate Uncle Phil reminds us that our (re)connections are part of a much larger web of life-bringing connectivities: Where the tool site is and the ochre pits, that comes down off the very foothills. So it’s the vein that connects to the artery, and it comes all the way down … Our rivers are our arteries. That’s the thing about cultural science. It’s a narrative. When I was sitting out at the height of the drought, sitting out at Gum Flat, and a scientist said to me, you know The Great Artesian Basin keeps the Gwydir alive, and I said, here’s another way of saying it: Yanama, our sacred Mother Earth, feeding Gali water up from the Artesian Basin to keep our artery flowing, to keep our blood line. Same science—it is an actuality. For the non-Gomeroi/Kamilaroi members of the group it was a privilege to be invited onto Gunimaa and to be able to witness and support access and connection for Gomeroi/Kamilaroi people. Sandie remembers this fabulous encounter with a flock of cockatoos when we exited the vehicles at a river crossing in 2019. It was Uncle Phil’s absolute delight at seeing these fellows soar above us and then swoop down to check us out for quite some time that stays with her—the ‘cockies’ were cawing away with each other and coming ever closer and closer with great curiosity. To her, this photo conveys the heart of Gunimaa and Gomeroi/Kamilaroi people’s deep relationships as part of Gunimaa. Ross absolutely loves this photo of Brad yarning on country. Brad introduces his Country from the perspective of a Western scientist born off Country and coming back to the places that ground him in his cultural history. The picture represents the joy and enthusiasm for place and the modern manifestation of the tradition of storytelling. The stark yellow light of fluorescent tubes brings the ancient stories into a sharp, modern contrast. Mahtab reflects: During this trip I was completely mesmerised by the beauty of nature and the power of its anger. I so appreciate the knowledge I have gained about the history and culture of Gomeroi/Kamilaroi Country and more importantly, I value the opportunity given by this project to get to know amazing people and be part of a wonderful family. Access—being on-Country You can’t teach in a classroom. I’m grateful to be on Gomeroi/Kamilaroi Country, see Country first hand and see how it speaks to you Jason Emily has a strong memory of taking this photo while Sandie was driving to the Gwydir Wetlands and we were entering the wider wetland conservation area. Fences and gates mark out and delineate, border and separate this area and to get into the wetlands you have to be able to open the padlock with a key which only a few government employees have. The area is ‘protected’ by security camera access and do and don’t signs. This area is now designated as a NSW state conservation area and parts of it are listed as an internationally important wetland under the Ramsar Convention. However, not long ago this area was inhabited by cattle and sheep, and you can see the infrastructure of an old pastoral property in the background. Brooke also focuses on access and the privilege she feels having this experience. Gunimaa and violent, colonising impacts Ross evocatively captures the on-going impacts of colonising processes through this image and the term ‘Death by a thousand sucks?’ A pervasive sound throughout the system is the sound of pumps extracting water for agriculture. They are a sound of progress and prosperity for many, representing farming and economic livelihoods. They are the sound of degradation and environmental harm to others, associated with environmental costs. A relatively humble piece of machinery represents a complex set of social and ecological issues. Gali and Gunimaa is profoundly affected by multiple land users taking water, taking up to 50% of the flow of the river! A take that is within their government-sanctioned entitlements. The humming sound of these pumps have become all-pervasive whether Gali is in abundance or as in this photograph, Gali is extremely low. Jess took this (slightly blurry) photo of Gomeroi/ Kamilaroi Country just after the plane took off to Sydney in February 2019. It shows meandering tree-lined water ways juxtaposed with sharp lines of irrigated agricultural fields, stretching to the horizon. The fields are in varying shades of brown and green, indicative of different crops, stages of growth and harvest cycles. Irrigation production overall is increasing in the region and this is written on Country; it was striking to see how much cotton grew on Country as we spent time travelling between Moree and various wetlands. Putting cotton into perspective for the whole basin, and in terms of how water is used at the catchment scale, cotton irrigators have been allocated about 35 per cent of all the water extracted for irrigation in the MDB. These decisions and practices have been transforming Gomeroi/Kamilaroi Country for decades but the scale of these agricultural systems are most starkly apparent from the sky. Cameron was struck by how haunted the day had been, the yellow box trees at the Myall Creek Memorial Stone are 200 years old and would have been there, they are holding the memories. The carved and the scar marked trees were stolen, cut, burned, locked away in museums, some of the remaining Collymungle carved trees are locked up in their cage, in some ways so close to their Country, in some ways so removed. The ongoing theft and exclusion, the continuing justification of why it is okay, continues. But he also sees the little bits of renewal, restoring Country, eking out amidst extraction and exclusion. How do you not get overwhelmed he asked Jane? ‘Bit by bit’ says Jane, ‘A little bit by a little bit, and we keep working together to rebuild’. Jack focuses on the strength of mob over the centuries, fighting for water access, the strength of farmers through drought. He sees the universities and government organizations as so much stronger working together. How much it is better doing it this way, more powerful. Gali—More than water Something Jane told David (from her Dad, Trevor Humphries (1935—2014), as he would say ‘lucky enough to be one of the sons of the Watercourse’) was: Just when you think you have water figured out, it does something different and this is what David has seen in the 7 years he’s been working out here. It really rings true. For Emily, Gunimaa is Gali and Gali is more than water. In this photo, Jason is standing by a red river gum talking about connections to Country and how important Gali is for healing and well-being. Showing us the mark on the tree he explained that this was made by previous generations of Gomeroi/Kamilaroi custodians, likely as they made a watercraft from the thick outer bark. Making canoes from this and nearby river red gum trees would have been common practice but this hadn’t happened for a long time, partly due to access to the areas but also as the water levels in the wetlands had changed so radically, now deeply influenced by releases from upstream dams and the needs of agriculture. At the time we visited in 2017 these river red gums were far from the water’s edge in wetlands area. Yet, at one time they would have been much closer. Indeed, in order to survive these trees need periods of both flooding and drying. Cultural connections and the lives of the trees are intertwined with the water as well. Lives and intergenerational knowledges are intertwined with the water. Jason is happy seeing this photo used as in his words ‘trees are libraries’ and it is a testament to one of the tools that Gomeroi/Kamilaroi people use. These rivers of words reflect the group’s responses to being back together, connecting with Gunimaa and going with Gali’s flow in September 2022. Gali and Gunimaa shaped all of our interactions and connections particularly in our last on-Country experience in September. We listened as best we could as Gali and Gunimaa guided us to go with the flow. As the rising waters changed our plans daily, then hourly, we adapted and learnt more than we ever could have expected Kate Gomeroi/Kamilaroi leadership and hope Gomeroi/Kamilaroi leadership is key to winaga-li. Under this leadership, the support of collaborators and government, who need to take responsibility for the damage, can now be directed towards the health and healing of Gunimaa and Gali. My word is ‘gratitude’, says Jane—so wonderful to be part of being with amazing people out on beautiful Country and to have hope, grateful for the opportunities we have Jason emphasises how important it is that our collective continues to articulate and advocate access issues. We need to think carefully about how Country enables us to learn. We have to learn how to take back those teaching tools—how does Country teach us, and what are the tools that we want to make from this process? Fiona describes how this tree embraces us with the curve, reflecting the impact of water flows and floods. As trees bend over and shoot up new branches, they are constantly responding and adapting to change and new things, striving to flourish with a will to keep going. Uncle Phil emphases how it wouldn’t work without any one of us. We look after each other, we share our journey. Cultural water and environmental water, they coexist, they have the same values, the same outcomes. They coexist and they shouldn’t operate in isolation to one another. At every post we should be encouraging bringing it together, bringing our knowledge together, telling stories a different way, learning new ways of presenting science on a platform that is inclusive. We’re making it happen. And we move towards the end here with a gorgeous droplet of Gali and our September reflections embracing: Smile, Hope, Amazement, Gratitude, Special, Restore, Trust, Access, Bond, Sharing, Haunted, Strength, ‘Bobby-Dazzler of a day’, Gratitude. Through our work together Gunidjarr Anna reminds us that we unite within the circle of life. To listen. To understand. WITH RESPECT A movement to keep walking-a continuum of existence. Gunimaa. Mother Earth has her own mechanism for change! It comes on the voice of mayrraa-the voice of the wind. She takes care of us. Gunimaa-Mother Earth artwork by Gunidjarr Anna Duncan who shares: Circle of life—sky, tree, leaves, wind. This project has been assisted by the NSW Government through its Environmental Trust. Winaga-li Gunimaa Gali Collective The Winaga-li Gunimaa Gali Collective comprises Uncle Phil Duncan, Gunidjarr Anna Duncan, Gunidjarr Tibby Duncan, Jason Wilson, Brad Moggridge, Jane Humphries, David Preston, Jack Livingstone, Brooke Linnegar, Mahtab Saeedimanesh, Emily O’Gorman, Fiona Miller, Kate Lloyd, Jessica McLean, Ross Thompson, Cameron Muir and Sandie Suchet-Pearson. More by Winaga-li Gunimaa Gali Collective › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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