Uncle Dave Wandin is a Director of Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Station, the Wurundjeri Corporations Manager of Cultural Practices (Fire & Water) and a recognised leader in both the promotion and execution of cultural burns in Victoria. In 2018, he was instrumental in the award- winning Firestick Project, a Wurundjeri-led program, supported by Yarra Ranges Council and the State Government. Working with Dixons Creek Primary School in the Yarra Ranges, the project provided an opportunity for students to learn about traditional fire-practices and Indigenous land management methods and resulted in the publication Parent Trees are Talking.
The following text is an edited transcript of a talk that Uncle Dave gave on the Firestick Project at TarraWarra Museum of Art in April 2019 for Conversations on Country, an afternoon of discussion and performances that shared a range of contemporary expressions and enactments of Indigenous knowledge of land and culture. This event was supported by CLIMARTE and presented as part of ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019.
It’s a really opportune time to share and to be aware of what our Ancestors left here in this country as we consider the impacts of climate change. The book Parent Trees Are Talking was indeed an unexpected bonus of my work. It’s not a book that I wrote. It was written by the children themselves and it’s the words, along with the drawings, that are really important, because they are words of healing. I was asked by their teachers to speak to those students, who were so heavily impacted by the 2009 bushfires; all of them lost property, family, their animals, and they were deeply affected. And those impacts are still being felt.
The reason I wanted to do something for these children was that they still had fire drills, as all schools should do in these fire prone areas, and they would ring the bell and all the students would run to the one brick building. And then the bell would ring when it was all clear. But some of those children refused to come out of that building and they would have to call the psychologists in to talk them out.
That’s the impact it had on these young children. But taking them out in the bush and explaining fire from an Indigenous perspective — that fire can be your friend, and it can be a tool that can be used for good, it doesn’t have to be just that one destructive power — actually healed those children better than any of the psychologists could. And those children now are ambassadors, going out to other schools and teaching them about the good use of fire, to understand the bush and that if it’s cared for in a way that it was cared for over thousands and thousands of years by our Ancestors, then we don’t need to have those devastating bushfires.
And it’s terrible that it took that tragedy for somebody to finally turn around, and this was people in government during the 2009 bushfire inquiry, and say, ‘why don’t we ask Aboriginal people how they looked after Country?’ If they had have done that back in 1770 when Captain Cook first came here, or Arthur Phillip when he set up the colonies, instead of saying we don’t want them fellas in our way, we need never have had the 1939 bushfires, the 1983 bushfires, the 2009 bushfires. But the question has now been asked and Jacqui [Wandin] and Brooke [Wandin] talked about carrying a heavy burden, taking small steps, in looking after Coranderrk [Aboriginal Station], and I’m helping them; it’s a privilege to do so. We can take that little bit of Country, that 200 acres, and, in the words of William Barak, when he said at the Coranderrk inquiry, ‘Give us this land and we will show you that we can work it’. I actually live by that motto.
Five years ago when I started doing Indigenous land management I got asked if I knew how to burn the traditional way, and I didn’t. I’ve had to go and learn. And it’s not just Coranderrk where we can show the country that we can work it, it’s Australia. Not just us as Wurundjeri people, but all other Aboriginal communities around Australia. I’ve had to go to Queensland to learn how to burn down here in Victoria and even some of my own community have said ‘but that’s different up there, that doesn’t apply’. But that’s because we’re stuck in this mindset of Western science, which says if you do A and add B you’ll end up with C.
Whereas Indigenous land management is not done by humans, it’s not done by science as we know it today. It’s done by our spirits, it’s done by the ecology, it’s done by the land telling us. And if you look at the book, it’s called the Parent Trees Are Talking. Remember we are only custodians, we are not owners. As Aunty Joy [Murphy Wandin] said ‘when you take a Manna Gum leaf it will tell you what you’re allowed to do on that Country; it gives you the lore’.
Our Ancestors knew to listen to that Country. Every day when we went out in the morning, prior to colonisation, we went and collected our food, our fibre, our medicines, our shelters and did our day-to-day business. What we were also doing was, which is something that scientists think they invented, we were out there observing. It’s not just that we were looking for berries for that night’s dessert, but we were looking at the leaves, we were looking at the animals, we were looking at the worms, the insects, the birds and the reptiles, and if there was any missing or if there was more than there should be, and we went back to our Elders in the afternoon, and we gave them our observations. Is this starting to sound like something familiar to you in science? We were actually out there collecting data, taking it back to our Elders, to our professors in today’s terms. And those professors would pick through their brains and go, ‘hmm, I remember this happening once before when there was a shortage of this or an abundance of that’, and it meant that something was out of balance. And they would go back and say well what did we do that time? Ah that’s right Aunty or Uncle, or Bunjil or any of our other creator spirits, applied medicine to the land, applied a solution. And that’s what we did the next day, we went out and applied that solution. But because we observed it and knew that it happened and reported it and acted on it straight away is what made this Country so beautiful when the Europeans first came here. Because we did improvements, on a very, very small scale that did not upset the balance.
Since then, since colonisation, the settlers came here and said ‘look what we’ve got, we can take as much as we want out of here, there’s so much of it’. Now they’re all looking and saying, ‘hey look, we’ve run out.
Let’s invent new science, let’s bring more stuff in from overseas to replace what we took away’, and they’ve upset the whole balance. When we talk about people and ownership, when we look after land, the Aboriginal people, not just with fire but with many other things, it is not for people. Yes, we’ve got to feed ourselves, but it is for everything that lives within that system, all those birds, animals, reptiles, mammals, insects, the microbes in the soil. It’s observing those all the time and noticing the changes, knowing the right time to apply the medicine.
Not sitting down and having an inquiry that lasts for ten years and deciding we should apply this. Now Indigenous land management can’t improve this Country with one fire. Because there is no one fire, there’s only the right fire. Right fire for the right Country at the right time. And there’s only one way to do that. It is only by walking Country together that we can heal Country. And when we heal Country you heal people. Not just our community. This is the way that we heal, by having healthy Country.
The problem is most people don’t know what beautiful Country is yet; there’s very little of it left here in Victoria. You need to travel up north to the Daintree rainforest to see a beautiful wetland system. You can’t see a grassland here, our grasslands on the western plains are less than 1% of 1% of what they were at colonisation. But we can repair it. If you allow the Indigenous people, if you allow science to catch up with us. Because we were the first scientists and we can actually teach the scientists. I can’t believe this, that 23 years ago when I moved back here to Healesville and my dad said to me ‘learn as much about your culture as you can because one day Australia’s going to be asking you how to fix this country’. He didn’t mean me specifically, he meant Aboriginal people. And again it’s a tragedy that it took a tragedy for the scientists to start asking me and other Aboriginal people how to heal Country. And now,
I am standing up there in universities lecturing people on fire ecology. And one of the things I discovered, we all think we should trust science, and science has got the answers for everything. Yes, we’re going to need a combination of modern science, but we need to take a step backwards in time and learn from the people who actually knew what happened.
We can work together, we can walk together. We will heal it. It’ll take time. But I’m not giving up. Jacqui and Brooke aren’t giving up. William Barak didn’t give up. He left us with a legacy: ‘Give us this land and we will show you that we can work it’. And we’ll continue to do that. And the great thing is, just like Brooke and Jacqui, I didn’t know too much about my Aboriginality, it wasn’t taught, but I do know it now and I’m teaching it to my son and he’s out there doing land management. And my grandson, he’s just finished school now, but he’s going to be out there doing land management as well. He’s going to be practicing his culture, he’s going to be showcasing it. I’m only one person doing fire from Wurundjeri. There’s one person from another tribe. That’s in this generation. In five years’ time there’ll be four and five. And next time when you see a fire, it won’t be a bushfire, you’ll see a fire and you’ll see the colour of the smoke, and you’ll see that it’s a beautiful white smoke, just like if you’ve ever gone through a ceremonial smoking and you know that it’s healing Country. And you won’t be there and ringing the fire brigade, you’ll say to the kids let’s go and watch this fire and see how it heals the land. And watch the animals return immediately after the fire, not months later.
A fire does not have to be that fearful thing. We’ll show it at Coranderrk, we’ll make a conservation area. We’ll ask you to come and share. Walk the fire with us. You don’t have to be Aboriginal. We can all learn. If you claim a little bit of Country as your own, you must take responsibility for it. But you don’t have to believe the chemical companies and you don’t have to believe that you need this plant because it looks beautiful. When you want to do anything with that land ask an Aboriginal person. We will do our best to guide you the way that our ancestors and our spirits still guide us today, in doing the right thing for Country, at the right time, and we will heal Country.