Last week for NAIDOC week, I had the privilege to go to North Queensland and Walk on Country with the traditional owners of the land, the NYAWAYGI people.
Their land is north of Townsville around Ingham and east to Palm Island.
The trip was organized by the Gap Uniting Church, and their Aboriginal Minister Richard Cassady, a NYAWAYGI man, John Ruhle, another minister in the church and a strong team of supporters.
41 of us made the journey north, some by car, some by plane, to be on a Cattle Station, Mungalla, a property purchased by the Nyawaygi people with the help of the Indigenous Land Council in 2001.
The property of 2000 acres is still run as a Cattle Station, but at the same time, they carry on with their traditional customs and ceremonies which they now share with the public at large.
The property had been a sanctuary for Aboriginal people under the first White purchasers of the land in 1875, James Cassady (1837-1902) and family. James objected strongly to the brutal and wanton slaying of aboriginal people and gave sanctuary to any aboriginal person and family who sought refuge.
So, some of the Nyawaygi people were able to stay close to country, despite being dispossessed of their land. To now be back on country and to be the owners and custodians once more has been a dream come true.
Since taking their land back, much time has been spent in restoring the waterways and wet lands, ridding the country of weeds and grasses which have choked and killed the waterways and the native fauna and flora. In those parts which have been restored, the wildlife and birdlife have returned with the brolgas, geese, wallabies and the occasional crocodile.
There is so much to reflect on and share with you I don’t know where to start. Maybe I can share a few stories which capture the flavour of the experience is all I can hope for today. I will start with Richard Cassady the Aboriginal Uniting Church Minister and member of the NYAWAYGI people.
The Gospel speaks of Jesus, the prophet, who suffered because of his stance. Richard is also a prophet like so many Aboriginal people who act as spokespeople for their communities.
I first met Richard last year at the West End Uniting Church for a TAIZE evening with some of the brothers from the TAIZE community in France. I happened to sit next to him and at the end of our time I turned to him and introduced myself. Somehow we got to talking about the Walking on Country experience that he was running and I asked if I could be considered for the next trip. I was accepted to be one of the 40 to go among the 90 or so people who had put their names down.
Richard was the main driver of the programme and literally was the BUS DRIVER driving to most of our destinations on the Station and beyond. And even though the bus ran out of fuel at one stage and was stranded on the side of the road, it was not long and we had the bus back into gear and on the road after a few minor adjustments under the bus. Such were his many skills.
Two images stay with me of Richard the day he took us into THE GARDENS, the Aboriginal Reserve where under the “Aboriginal and Islanders Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act” of 1897, Aboriginal people were forcibly removed from their land and placed in reserves, often places white people considered as “Rubbish Land”, land unable to be used. This act brought the complete exclusion of Aboriginal people from towns and cities, controls on their employment, restrictions in their every movement and aspect of their lives. As we moved back onto the reserve, all that remains are the mango and coconut trees rustling in the breeze, whispering secrets for attentive ears.
Richard moved ahead of us with his 19 year old daughter, Rahni, who was returning for the first time since being a small child Richard shared with me later that his heart was pounding as he walked silently with his daughter, knowing what he was about to share with us, but particularly mindful of his daughter, who was on the journey of rediscovering her identity as a NYAWAYGI person. We moved silently and respectfully to a place where Richard pointed to where his grandparent’s corrugated iron humpy stood, and where his great uncle’s two storey humpy shadowed his grandparents humble abode.
He remembered vividly where everything was – the church, the dam, everyone’s shacks- painting an image of what this reserve once looked like. But now all that remained was broken glass of stories forgotten, with
Broken promises and
Broken plates where meals were shared and food enjoyed.
Broken trees whispering secrets of betrayal and dispossession.
We stood and listened our hearts were deeply moved.
After he spoke we walked in respectful silence around the reserve and returned to the bus, many visibly deeply affected by this profound experience.
The second image was on State of Origin night. I was offered a daunting dilemma to be one of a select few to go with Richard fishing on the full moon and full tide or stay and watch the State of Origin on the Big Screen beamed up on the side of the house in the open air, under the stars, around an open fire. I chose the first option and consoled myself that I could take the radio and listen to the game while we fished. The excitement in Richard’s face was palpable as we prepared the gear and got ready and he could not help himself as we drove out of the Station to yell back at the pro-maroon mob, with laughter in his voice, GO THE BLUES, which causes an immediate reaction.
As we drove through his country to one of his favourite fishing spots, the Lucinda Jetty, he recalled past stories of fishing and catching bait in the various creeks and sandy outlets we passed. When we finally arrived at the appointed spot, the temperature had dropped considerably and the wind had picked up making me question decision to leave the warmth of the open fire place and the pending game on the Big Screen. This questioning only continued as the wind increased, and the fish were silent, obviously aware of the importance of the night, the Blues versus the Maroons.
My questioning was quelled by the beauty of the Moonlight streaming across the Hinchinbrook Passage from the large mysterious island towering over the small jetty on which we sat- so wondrously beautiful. After 5 hours of trying every place and technique in my small fishing repertoire and watching in wonder at Richard’s vast repertoire, none of us had caught anything except a slight cold, so we decided to return home. On the way home, we crossed a small creek of which Richard’s eyes lit up; he had spotted something that we all had missed.
All that crossed my mind was crocodiles and it never left as Richard jumped out and rushed to get a net from the back of the ute. I reluctantly got out of the warm double cabin, eyes wide and alert looking for other eyes red and menacing. Soon Richard was knee deep with net in hand and skillfully threw into the deep water. As I watched Richard and ever other thing that might move in the night, he pulled into shore a net full of small fish. He looked disappointed but I was only delighted that we could return saying that we had caught many fish to those enquiring minds in the morning – no need to say what size.
Richard was hoping for prawns to use as bait for further fishing expeditions in the following days but was resigned to keeping the small fish for bait.
This small experience of success had sparked something in him and he was keen to kick into the rest of the night fishing in this crocodile infested creek. When his enthusiasm was met by the reluctant grunts and frozen fears of the rest of us, he resigned himself on returning to the warmth of home. As we left I scanned the banks looking for other eyes who may be disappointed at our early departure. To me this area was dark and menacing; to Richard it was home-he knew every creek, every water inlet and outlet, mangrove and swamp. He was not frightened only delighted to be home on his country.
And that delight in his eyes kept me warm as we journeyed home on this very cold night for NYAWAYGI country.