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Friday essay: caring for country and telling its stories

Part of Mandy Martin’s painting Cool Burn (2016): in her painting workshops at Djinkarr, Indigenous rangers brought the threats to their land to life on canvas.

Friday essay: caring for country and telling its stories

This piece is republished with permission from Millennials Strike Back, the 56th edition of Griffith Review.

Small fires streak the savanna beneath me, as the land is worked and cleaned. The gentle smoke on the horizon is sign of a healthy country. In the distance, disappearing into a soft haze, lies the rugged stone country of the Arnhem Land Plateau. The plane wobbles over the mouth of the Liverpool River, where saltwater meets fresh, and descends towards a thin ribbon of grey on a cleared patch of thick, earthy red: the international airport.

On one side of the airstrip, a few dozen houses cluster around a football oval; on the other, a neat grid delineates the newest suburb, called simply “New Sub”. Maningrida, as our destination is known, takes its name from the Kunibídji phrase Mane djang karirra: “the place where the Dreaming changed shape”.

The town’s simple layout belies the immense cultural diversity of its inhabitants. On any given day, a visitor might hear the rippling sounds of Ndjébbana, Eastern Kunwinjku, Kune, Rembarrnga, Dangbon/Dalabon, Nakkára, Gurrgoni, Djinang, Wurlaki, Ganalpingu, Gupapuyngu, Kunbarlang, Gunnartpa, Burarra and English. In per capita terms, it is perhaps the most multilingual community in the world.

Indigenous ranger Ivan Namarnyilk picks up our small team of artists, scientists and historians from the airport and drives us out to Djinkarr, where we will be staying for the next week. Djinkarr is a small outstation powered by a run-up generator with beautiful fresh water pumped from the ground. It is one of dozens of such settlements scattered across western Arnhem Land: small clusters of houses inhabited by one or more family groups, often remote from the main settlements and usually poorly connected by unsealed bush tracks.

Maisie Mirinwarmnga and Vera Cameron weaving in Maningrida as part of The Arnhembrand Project. Mandy Martin

It is the kind of outstation that is out of favour with the current government, the kind that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott targeted with his “lifestyle choices” rhetoric and that former minister Amanda Vanstone dismissed as a “cultural museum”. With the current government focus on “regional hubs” (the centralisation of services in towns), the long-term future of these outstations seems tenuous. Yet there are overwhelming benefits to having people living on country. People sustain country, and country in turn sustains people.

Anthropologist and economist Jon Altman, who has worked in the region since the late 1970s, argues that supporting local Indigenous communities in their efforts to stay on country should be regarded as a form of development and conservation: “Developing these communities in accord with market logic is replete with contradictions.”

Instead, he advocates a local “hybrid-economy” where customary activities – such as hunting, burning and painting – interact vigorously with state and market regimes. The experiences of community-based Indigenous ranger groups, which employ thousands of young men and women across Australia, demonstrate the immense benefits of this model. Through these programs, a new generation of Indigenous land managers are using cultural and historical experience, as well as new technology and Western expertise, to care for their country. It is no coincidence, Altman argues, that the most ecologically intact parts of the continent are Aboriginal owned and managed.

During the next week our team will be working from Djinkarr with dozens of Bininj, as the people of western Arnhem Land are known, to tell “healthy country” stories through paint and performance, science and oral history. Many of the artists involved, like Ivan, are also rangers who manage the Djelk Indigenous Protected Area to the south of Maningrida. I am helping to record the stories that are being captured in the art, as well as reflections from the rangers about their role in caring for country.

Messing with the spirits

The Djelk Indigenous Protected Area is a vast estate, extending across monsoon rainforests, tropical savannas, grasslands, wetlands, sea country and stone country – and it encompasses the territories of 102 clans. It has been carefully cultivated and transformed by people for over 50,000 years. But since the arrival of Europeans, this management system has broken down and the land is rapidly degrading.

Buffaloes, pigs, feral cats and cane toads have trampled, chewed, rubbed and wallowed their way across a delicate ecosystem, destroying habitats, spreading weeds, muddying springs, transforming the vegetation and exacerbating the eroding impact of wildfire. The effect on native species has been devastating. Their decline and extinction have deprived the Bininj of bush tucker as well as delivering a more existential loss: the displacement of totemic beings from their ancestral homes. “Such loss,” argues conservation biologist John Woinarski, “stains our society; it demonstrates that we are not living sustainably; it degrades our legacy.” As Ivan reflected in 2015: “Country is in the heart … Bininj, today, it’s like we’re suffering.”

Mandy Martin’s Cool Burn’ (2016), ochre, pigment and oil on linen, 75 x 75 cm in full. Author provided

In the painting workshops that artists Mandy Martin and David Leece are facilitating at Djinkarr, this frustration comes to life in magnificent fluorescent colours on canvas. A sick echidna burrows into a termite nest surrounded by invasive plants and orange cane toads; the stomach contents of a feral cat are painted in x-ray style; electric-green mission grass grows up against white mimih figures on a rock wall. “That mission grass,” Ivan tells me, “it’s messing with the mimih spirits. It’s hiding them.”

The art is a powerful way of telling stories about the changes that are happening on their country, and which the rangers are working to control. It is also a means of raising awareness at a time when government support for Indigenous land management programs remains flimsy and ephemeral. The contrast of traditional ochres and fluorescent pigments seeks to capture the rupture that feral animals, invasive weeds and wildfire represent.

Ivan, who was taught to paint at the age of 12 by his father Timmy Namarnyilk and his “big” father, the rock-art master Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, shows me another painting that captures the essence of the project.

Ivan Namarnyilk paints a fluorescent feral pig rubbing against ochre rock art. Hugo Sharp

It is of a fluorescent feral pig rubbing up against the ochre art of a rock wall. “This troublemaker,” he tells me, pointing at the feral pig,

he’s destroying all of our painting, this rock art here. Damaging stories. So maybe we’re going to tell stories of this one troublemaker, damaging our land.

‘We know our sea country’

Despite many attempts, Arnhem Land was never conquered, nor systematically settled by white colonists. The failures of successive large-scale and ill-devised schemes for development have, ironically, allowed northern Australia to retain vast areas of relatively unmodified landscapes. In 1933, journalist Ernestine Hill described Arnhem Land as being

the only corner of Australia that has persistently baffled, and even frightened, the white pioneer… For one hundred years Arnhem Land, by the sheer ferocity of its natives, has defied colonisation.

Anthropologists Rhys Jones and Betty Meehan believe the key to the resilience of the Bininj is their long history of contact with other cultures. For centuries, Macassan voyagers from Indonesia visited the shores of Arnhem Land in search of trepang, building houses and growing rice along the coastline, trading with local communities and even taking Bininj with them back to foreign ports. Macassan words entered the local dialects and still remain: “Balanda” (whitefella) is believed to have a Macassan root.

This long history of interaction ended in 1907 when the government refused to grant fishing licences to non-Australian operators. Only a few industries were exempt from this aspect of the White Australia Policy, and in the early 20th century Japanese pearlers began to frequent Bininj sea country, building wooden huts across the landscape.

Since 2007, the Djelk Rangers have joined with the Australian Customs Service (now the Australian Border Force) to monitor illegal fishing activities off the coast: the modern manifestation of a long history of cultural contact. This innovative arrangement involves fee-for-service payments, which are an integral part of the meagre funding the Djelk Rangers receive from the federal government.

Ivan Namarnyilk on sea patrol. Hugo Sharp

“We know all their hiding spots and where they need to come for fresh water because we have been trading with fishermen from Makassar for many centuries,” write rangers Victor Rostron, Wesley Campion and Ivan Namarnyilk. “This gives us a bit of an edge… We know our sea country.”

Rejecting assimilation

Maningrida was never meant to be a town, let alone the fourth-largest town in the Northern Territory. The idea for a “trading post” on the Liverpool River came from Syd Kyle-Little, a patrol officer of the Native Affairs Branch in Darwin.

In June 1949, he settled on a place known as “Muningreda”, paid locals with tobacco to build a paperbark storehouse and roved around the country spreading word of the new commercial centre. Hundreds of people came to drop off trade goods, seek medical assistance or work for supplies. But the settlement was short-lived. Soon after a devastating outbreak of disease in late 1949, in which many locals died, Maningrida was abandoned.

It was not until 1957 that the Welfare Department resolved to set up a government settlement in Maningrida. By 1969, more than 1000 Bininj lived in Maningrida along with 150 Balanda. But disease and alcoholism were rife. In town, Bininj lived in cramped housing camps, spiritually divorced from their homelands. Even those who remained on their country struggled with the new controls imposed on their traditional practices – especially burning – by Balanda law. Ingrid Drysdale, the wife of the first manager and first white woman to live at Maningrida, lamented that the traditional owners were “at the end of their ‘dreaming’”.

But around 1970, an unexpected phenomenon spread through the NT. In an explicit rejection of attempts at assimilation, Aboriginal people left the cramped housing in Maningrida and began moving back onto country.

Ranger Greg Wilson painting a feral cat at Djinkarr. Hugo Sharp

Betty Meehan, who had set up the first school in Maningrida in 1958 and whose first husband, Les Hiatt, had studied social life during the initial contact period, was shocked by the rapid development of what became known as the outstation movement. When she returned to Maningrida in 1972 as an anthropologist in her own right, she was surprised to find that many of the Gidjingali people she had worked with in the town had returned to their homelands.

They were hunting and foraging across their rich coastal country surrounding the Blyth River, moving camps according to the seasons and religious needs, and supplementing their diet with food bought from the Maningrida store with money from art sales and pensions.

The outstation movement began tentatively, Helen Bond-Sharp reflects in her history of Maningrida, but with the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 it gained support and momentum under the new policies of self-determination. In the early years at Maningrida, Bininj had experienced a sedentary lifestyle for the first time – and they had rejected it. They were driven by a responsibility to return to country, to tend to sacred sites and to work the land through fire, ceremony, hunting and gathering.

Buffalo and pigs

After a few days, I break away from the painting workshops at Djinkarr and join the Djelk Rangers on one of their trips on country. The ranger shed is a hub of activity in the morning. One group of rangers prepares the boats for a day on the water in search of ghost nets and illegal fishermen; another loads leaf blowers, drippers and rakes into the back of a ute to use for burning.

The ranger program was created in 1991 as one of the pioneering Indigenous land management programs in the country. It now employs 30 male and female rangers, many in their twenties and thirties, who manage the land and sea country. Such programs have been shown to have immense ecological and cultural benefits, and are making important contributions to health, education and local economies, as well as offering meaningful employment to those who want to stay on country.

A Djelk Ranger burns off around an outstation in western Arnhem Land. Hugo Sharp

I am soon bundled into a car and we rumble out of town along the red dirt road, stopping on the way to check up on the outstations and to get permission from landowners to do work on their country. We drive south-east for an hour until the road dwindles into a track and takes us down onto the Ji-balbal floodplain, which is pocked with buffalo wallows and cobbled with their hoof marks. “This year we didn’t have much rain. None of this floodplain was flooded,” senior ranger Darryl Redford tells me. “It used to be.”

I help make firebreaks around the outstation, blowing and raking debris away from the houses, cars and water tanks, and then watching as Darryl flicks matches into dry leaves. There is no wind, so the flames creep slowly across the landscape, cleaning the country. It is a calm, cool burn. It is protecting the land and the infrastructure against the threat of late “hot” fires, which burn at a higher intensity because of weeds, and destroy habitats and blacken rock paintings on the Arnhem Land escarpment.

“You got to look after the rocks,” another ranger, Greg Wilson, says sombrely. “Our ancestors are on that.”

Darryl Redford plots the location of a Mimosa pigra outbreak on his CyberTracker. Guy Fitzhardinge

On another day, I return to the floodplain where we did the burning to help monitor the spread of Mimosa pigra: an insidious weed that spreads quickly, suffocates other plants and fuels damaging “hot” burns. We spread out in the thick vegetation, each searching our own line of bush for a rogue sprout. Whenever an outbreak is found, a series of high-pitched calls echo through the trees and everyone converges around the weed. Jethro Brian cuts it off at the stump with a big smile and piles the limbs of the tree into a neat circle. Darryl then pours a combination of access herbicide and diesel (siphoned from the car) over the pile and scatters some pellets, which will dissolve in the rain and kill off any loose seeds. They burn the bigger outbreaks. After every treatment, Darryl takes a photo and then records the location on his GPS CyberTracker.

Before returning to Maningrida, the rangers shoot a buffalo on the floodplain and efficiently strip the animal of its flesh as eagles gather and circle above. They stop at the outstation to exchange news about the mimosa outbreaks and distribute the meat to the landowners, keeping two legs for a barbeque at the ranger shed.

“That old man whose country we’re on,” Darryl says on the way back,

he was telling me when he was a little boy, you know, he was saying everything was good. But he’s seen a lot of change. Soon as when the buffalo got here. Buffalo and pigs. They moved in and that time everything was changing.

Tradition and technology

Today, rangers have incorporated the use of GPS, satellite imagery and aerial photography to help manage their country. Visual artist Alexander Boynes draws inspiration from this convergence of tradition and technology to add another dimension to the painting workshops at Djinkarr. He uses technologies such as depth mapping and 3D imaging to create installations with Aboriginal dancers about caring for country.

Alexander Boynes’ Dreaming Story, Pigment Enamel on Acrylic and Aluminium.

The result is a dazzling, electric display of movement and sound, in which figures are broken up into lines and dots and primary colours. “The colours and textures used in Alexander’s artwork are very Dreamtime,” his sister and independent dance artist Laura Boynes reflects. “It looks a bit like the brushwork they do in their own paintings.”

Laura is talking with Bininj about healthy country stories – such as ferals and fire – with the goal of working with them to fuse “traditional dance with contemporary styles to create a new dance”. For her, live performance is key. Singing and movement are natural expressions of connections to country.

“When we dance we follow the stories, we follow everything,” one young performer, Brendon Cameron, reflects. “And plus when we sing, I follow the same story.”

On one of the final days, Laura collaborates with a group of men to choreograph a traditional/new wave dance. One hunches over an iPad, softly singing and drawing a digital image of red clouds and a polluted sea, which is projected onto the performance. Another plays didgeridoo, while a third thrusts a feathered ‘morning star’ pole at the audience with a blood-curdling cry. It is the story of a songline being broken by increasingly wild storms.

This performative aspect of the project – along with the digital dimension – feels fresh and exciting. And the reaction from younger generations in the community is immediate.

“The importance of the project,” Alexander explains, is to connect.

For people in the Djelk IPA to realise that there are people in the wider world who care very deeply about their country and their culture and really want to do very positive things to maintain the lives that they live. It’s not a lifestyle choice; it’s a way of life. It is their life on this land. And the stroke of a pen or the government of the day cannot undo or change 60,000 years of life on this land.

This essay was amended on May 29 to include a correction to the number of rangers employed by the Djelk Ranger program, which is 30. The earlier version suggested ‘more than sixty’, which was incorrectly sourced from the Djelk Healthy Country Plan 2015–2025. This version now reflects the actual number of employees.

The essay grows out of a short-term, independent art and environment initiative known as ‘The Arnhembrand Project’. The paintings and digital works created during this project have been acquired, through donation, by the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art. The collection will be exhibited at the Macquarie Bank’s ‘Space’ gallery in Sydney from 6-27 July 2017. Learn more about ‘The Arnhembrand Project’ at arnhembrand.com.