Wally Bell, Ngunawal elder, 19 April 2017
ALLISON BYRNE: Good evening everyone. My name is Allison and I’m secretary here for the CAS, the Canberra Archaeological Society. Welcome to this great night and great venue. On behalf of the society, I would like to acknowledge that we meet on the lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal, Ngarigo and Ngambri people and we respect their knowledge and commitment to this country.
Our guest speaker tonight is Wally Bell. He’s a Ngunawal elder and he’ll speak on how, as an Aboriginal man, he keeps alive a cultural and spiritual element when dealing with a very scientific approach to archaeology on his country. Welcome Wally [applause]. Nearly forgot. A very important part of the night will be an opportunity for questions, but it will be at the end of Wally’s lecture. Please don’t ask any questions until you actually are holding the microphone because this is all being recorded tonight and if we don’t have the question, we won’t know what the answer is all about. Thank you.
WALLY BELL: Okay. Thank you very much and thank you guys for coming along to listen to my spiel, I guess, about my culture and how it relates with archaeology. Since we’re on my country, Ngunawal country, I should say welcome and I’ll do that with a few words in Ngunawal language: darwa ngunna darwa ngunawal ulundi – ‘This land is Ngunawal land and welcome’.
So to begin with, who am I? There’s a lot there, I guess and that’s probably because of the fact that I do a lot. You don’t really realise how much you do until you try to write it up and be a little bit concise in what you’re writing about. This has been concise, I’m sorry. As you can see, like I said, I’m a Ngunawal man. I grew up in rural country in a little place called Girrawah. It’s where I learned all about my culture through my dad. My dad is no longer with us, but I still carry his spirit with me whenever I do anything.
So as you can see [points to a slide], I’m the eldest of seven children and that then, sort of in a way, gives me the rite of passage to take over from my dad as being the elder of our clan group. My clan group is the Yarr people. We come from the Yass area. We don’t really just live in Yass but that’s where we’re from. That’s our country. I’ve also got some qualifications too so I’m allowed to talk about some stuff, you know, because nobody wants to listen to you unless you got some sort of certificate or something. It’s funny isn’t it? I did want to do archaeology but I thought, ‘Well I know all about my archaeology anyway.’ But I didn’t want to be bound by those restrictions that were in place when you are doing those sort of things as well.
So as you can see, my organisation, the one that I chair is the Buru Ngunawal Aboriginal Corporation. Buru is Ngunawal for ‘kangaroo’. Then I also started up the Mulanggang Traditional Aboriginal Landcare Group. I set that up because of the fact that I do a lot of work on country and that’s as you can see, right down the bottom there [points to a slide]. I’m also a board member of ACT [Australian Capital Territory] Landcare. I work through the three catchment croups that are in the ACT. They do flow over the border a little bit, you know. That’s only natural. But I’m also doing a little bit of other stuff as well like looking after the rock art sites up in Namadgi [National Park]. They’re the only examples of rock art sites in the southern Alps, so they’re really important to us.
Now those nasty old fires we had in 2003 did a lot of damage to those art sites and we’re trying to figure out ways to remove some of the soot and stuff that came from the fires without damaging the artworks. Very slow process. At the moment we’re undertaking a monitoring program to see how much they’re actually being affected by the exposure to the natural environments because all the vegetation that did protect them was burned away, of course, but a lot of that’s come back now. So it’s looking good.
I’m also working with Tidbinbilla [Nature Reserve]. As you know it’s quite a significant place out there for us Aboriginal people and I like to make sure that a lot of the places out there that are significant to us are looked after as well. So I really am involved in a lot more than I can talk about. We’ll be here all night talking about all the stuff that I’m involved with but I really want to get on and talk about archaeology and Aboriginal involvement. So I guess you’ve had enough time to read through that.
Okay. [points to a slide] This is the Ngunawal boundary. Hope you can read it all. The boundary line itself follows waterways. Waterways are our pathways. They’re very important elements for Aboriginal people Australia-wide. I keep saying in my walks and talks that I do, there’s three elements that you need to survive and one of them, the whole world needs is water. So that’s why we used to travel around – along waterways, pathways and that’s why we’re finding a lot of our archaeology around waterways. Natural, isn’t it?
As you can see, the ACT is within our boundary so that sort of makes things a bit different for us in working with the ACT Government and the New South Wales Government and there’s different laws in the New South Wales Government as well. So legislations are quite different, but you’d think that with that legislation, you’re looking at protecting and conserving Aboriginal cultural heritage. But in some ways, if I can say it, I suppose it’d be a very tokenistic sort of approach.
I’ve heard of Aboriginal sites that big companies have been aware of and informed about, and they’ve consulted with Aboriginal people about it and next minute they’re bulldozing through those sites. There was one instance where there was a site that was damaged by works that were taking place. OEH got on to them – Office of Environment and Heritage – and imposed some fines on them.
Now out at New South Wales you can get fined up to $1.1 million for damaging a site either knowingly or unknowingly which is quite different to the ACT. You have to know about sites in the ACT. But with this site that got damaged, it was a multi-billion dollar company that did the damage and they were fined effectively about $2000. What would that mean to them? Nothing. So that’s what I mean about it. It’s sort of a bit tokenistic in a way. They put all the legislation in place but it’s not effective in protecting Aboriginal culture, my culture. But you know, legislation, I guess, is open to interpretation as well. People read things into words that are quite different to what we see.
So Canberra itself is – and I’m going to talk on a local level because this is my country, this is Ngunawal country – so Canberra is on the ancestral lands of the Ngunawal people and we’ve been here for a bit longer than European occupation in any way. There’s been scientific testing done out at the Birrigai Rock Shelter that was conducted by the Australian National University and their testing has proven that that place was occupied for at least 25,000 years. Small in comparison to European occupation, isn’t it? How long had the Europeans been here? 250 years or something?
So in that time we’ve learned to live within country, harmonise with country and that’s how we go about it. We are Aboriginal people and that’s why we managed to survive for over, you know, 25,000 years in this area alone. Although Australia-wide there’s evidence that Aboriginal people have occupied this place for 40,000 plus, sometimes up in the Northern Territory, they’re looking at something over 70,000 years.
So Canberra itself was one of our meeting places. Like I said, my people come from Yass area, Yarr people. But we used to travel over here all the time and come to one place. Well actually two places. The first place we went to was a place called Black Mountain and it sort of got that name from Europeans because when Aboriginal people came we settled down at the base of Black Mountain and when European people were talking about the Aboriginal people they’ll say, ‘Well that place over there, that’s where all the blacks go. ‘Blacks’ Mountain’.’ So now they’ve managed to drop the ‘s’ off it and call it Black Mountain. Yes you know, political correctness I guess.
There’s a lot of archaeology throughout Black Mountain itself. The front gates to the National Botanical Gardens are built on top of one of our ceremonial sites, so we’ve lost that place forever. Luckily enough there’s a couple of other ceremonial sites here as well and there’s also evidence of occupational sites all over the place in Black Mountain Reserve. So the occupation that took place here was in relation to the meeting up of Aboriginal people. My tribal boundary that I showed you before was surrounded by other tribal groups as well.
Down in this area we have Yuin people [points to a slide]. Bordering up here is the Gundungurra people in the Blue Mountains area. Along here we’ve got the Wiradjuri people, and Ngarigo down in that area. When we all got together we used to come up to Black Mountain, get ready for ceremony, meet up and have a good old time, chat about stuff. Then we’d move on over and we used to take two routes over to where our major meeting ground was and that is now where Parliament House sits. So that’s another place that we’ve lost. You know, all us Aboriginal people used to come there and meet from all around the place, on one major meeting ground.
Now the politicians have stolen that away from us as well. They’re coming from all around the country to meet at that place. There’s a really good vibe about that place and the way I look at it, they must have said, ‘Well if it’s good enough for Aboriginal people to come here and meet, why can’t we do the same thing?’ That’s generally what people know about Canberra, is that it’s a meeting place. Canberra has got a lot of variations to the word. It’s ‘Camberry’. You know, different ways of saying it and that’s because, like I said, there’s different clan groups within the Ngunnawal people as well. We might be the same people but we say things quite differently, sometimes using the same word but pronouncing it quite differently. So you got to keep those sort of things in mind as well.
I thought I’d just point out some of the artefactual materials that we found in this place as well. These are float materials and these materials actually provide a landscape story and that’s something that’s lacking in all the work that I do with looking after my culture. All these places that we find with all these beautiful artefacts that get recovered or salvaged are put in storage.
So what I was about to say was that there’s no story behind the things that we find, but there is a story there. It’s just not told. Nobody wants to know that story, or if they do, they don’t tell me they do and I’m quite open to telling those stories as well. There’s evidence of other things around as well like scarred trees for instance that was used for different purposes. Again, you guys know all about these things being archaeologists. There’s just an example of some of the scarred trees that are just within the ACT [points to a slide].
Now the other thing I’ve been doing recently is … Greening Australia got a heritage grant to go around and have a look at something that hasn’t been done before and that’s these things [points to a slide] – ‘ring trees’. We’ve been doing that for a few weeks now, well just one day a week but a full day and it’s quite surprising how many ring trees there are in the ACT. That one there [points to a slide] is over near Hall. It’s on the Barton Highway. When you’re going out of Canberra and you got that rest area, as soon as you … right where you pull in, there’s a little drainage line and that’s right there [points to a slide]. Nobody’s ever seen it before.
This one is out on Kambah Pool Road [points to a slide]. It’s outside the Lions Club facility, and this one, where do you think that one is? That’s from the [inaudible]. No? It’s out at the Hall Cemetery right at the front entrance or the second front entrance to the cemetery itself. So we’re sort of working on determining what each one means because with us, we do things for a reason, like I said. We were trying to work out whether some of these trees are either women’s business trees which are an indicator for a fertility area or whether they’re markers pointing you in some sort of direction and some of those are really doing that. You know, we’re up on Stirling Ridge the other way and the ring trees up there were actually pointing to places like Mount Ainslie which is a women’s business site. There’s all these new elements that are coming out now and all these things have got a story as well.
Like I said, the cultural significance of this place is really high because we’ve occupied it for so long. Now one place that’s really important to my clan group, the Yarr people is the top of the falls at Ginninderra. Now you’ve got two sets of falls out there on the Ginninderra Creek line. So the second lower-down falls, that’s sort of like a women’s business area for procurement of food, things like yam daisy. But at the top of the main falls is a men’s initiation site. We generally don’t give too much out about places like that because they’re sacred areas but in this instance, we have to because you’re probably aware that there is a residential development that’s going to take place out there and the only way that we’re going to be able to protect that place is by building an awareness of what it is and what it means to us.
So we’ve done a lot of archaeological work out there and we’ve worked out where all the occupation sites are, but the story that I told about this one, it all ties in with the Ginninderra Creek line which originates up in Mulligans Flat. Now if you follow that creek line down you’ll find that most – and I only just worked this out – is that if you’re travelling down to the Murrumbidgee following that waterline down, all the occupation sites with the exception of a couple, are on the lefthand side. Why? I don’t know but when you are closer to the falls you’d understand why they travel down the lefthand side – because it’s quite steep country out there and we’ve done archaeology on the other side as well and we’ve not found anything significant on the righthand side going down.
The initiation site also has a side area upstream from it, just where west Macgregor, a recent residential development finished up on the Ginninderra Creek line. There’s an artefact scatter site there and it’s been recorded as a place that has the highest incidence of artefactual materials in the one place. But the most important part of that place is that it also tells the story about why it has so many artefacts because just a little bit further away, on the spur line is where we had our ceremony. It’s a ceremonial site that’s been test-pitted and we’ve recovered ochre materials that aren’t from the area. So it sort of supports the story that it was a ceremonial site. Plus there’s also documentation from European residents in nearby suburbs about hearing of the ceremony taking place over there – the corroboree – and we know where it is now.
Archaeology is supporting us in trying to protect that area. So you know, we can work hand-in-hand with archaeology but there’s sometimes a bit of a problem because – and it’s not because of ignorance or anything like that – it’s because the story hasn’t been told. That’s one of the things I’m trying to do – is tell that story about my culture and how the landscape has influenced that cultural practice as well.
We’re looking at places that are quite important to us but the problem, I guess, in places such as the Ginninderra Falls, where it’s a very sacred, important initiation site, plus all the supporting evidence of occupation right along the creek line itself all the way from Mulligans Flat. Well, I guess it’s a lack of understanding because – and this is my personal point of view and that is that archaeology looks primarily at scientific evidence, tactile evidence. Stuff you can see, stuff you can feel.
When we’re talking about this initiation site, there’s no real evidence that it ever was used for that because there are places that have a spiritual element to them and how do you explain something that you can’t touch or feel or see? You know like it’s … how would you compare it? Like European people for instance would build places of worship, you know like churches and things like that. Whereas Aboriginal people use the natural environment, natural landscape features for that purpose because we have a strong connection with country.
What else have I got? [checks slides] . Well I’m touching on these sort of things now, like the tangible versus the intangible. As you can see, there’s one of our rock art sites up in Namadgi [points to a slide]. You can see it, so you can understand it. You can relate to it. Yet the other one, you know, the photo of a tree – that’s my father standing there, and it was one of his duties, responsibilities to make sure that tree wasn’t damaged because that’s the tree that we call a mourning tree. It’s where people went to mourn people that had passed away and that’s supported because at that particular project, there’s burial sites in very close proximity. There’s a very special burial out there as well which belongs to one of the medicine men for our people which is a very special stone arrangement. So we know it’s for somebody that’s of importance.
My dad fought really hard on that project to have that tree protected. As you can see they put a fence around it. Very flimsy little fence and it was also a fence that was moved. We asked for a fairly good buffer zone around it, so they all agreed to it. They put that fence in but they actually moved it so that they could put in that track. These sort of things happen all the time and this is where I’m talking about cultural awareness, cultural understanding. For us, that’s an important place but how do we get that across? Anybody looking at it – it’s just a tree, but it’s a place that’s significant to us and that’s where we have difficulty in trying to get those things across.
Now heritage is all these things [points to a slide] and all the things that we used to do because we were told, or you get told about how Aboriginal people never looked after the land or never knew how to, but it’s things that we did. You know, we’ve got our human remains that were dug up and sent overseas to the British Museum to be studied and things like that. We have all sorts of cultural places that are just misunderstood or not understood at all. We’re working from our cultural side but sometimes it’s like you think you’re doing the proverbial banging-your-head-against-the-wall type thing.
I spent a lot of time … I was doing some wet-sieving with an archaeologist and I spent the whole day standing next to this person talking about my culture. At the completion of that project this person had written up their draft report and when I was reading through it, it came to a section that said, ‘Aboriginal people don’t divulge information about this place,’ but I was thinking, ‘Well I just spent a whole day talking to you about it, telling you about what it means to me as an Aboriginal person,’ you know. ‘Why are you saying this in the report?’ The report, in the end had that little bit taken out, but there was nothing else put in its place. There was no cultural understanding side of it, the cultural element was missing from that report.
Those sort of things make it a little bit difficult for me as a Ngunawal man trying to talk about my culture and it’s not being told to anybody. You know, there’s a lot of stuff that gets said in conversation that is probably taken out of context, or not given the proper value that it should have. It’s quite easily dismissed. But then again you look at the fact that as Aboriginal people we’re bound by our own protocols, our own law – L-O-R-E – law that says that we’re allowed to talk about stuff to a certain degree. We can’t tell you the insides, practical elements of that story because we’re not allowed to by our own people. It’s knowledge and culture that’s been passed down for thousands of years.
It’s not that we don’t want to tell you about us, it’s just that we’re bound by our law to not tell you about it. We can say, ‘That place is significant to us,’ and we can say why but we can’t tell you the inside story about the whole thing because we’d be breaking our own law. In the old days that would have been punishable by spearing the leg or something like that. It’s not just us that have this problem – the Aboriginal people of Australia –it’s a problem worldwide with different cultures, and good old UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization]were trying to come up with a proper definition of what intangible cultural heritage is. I’ll let you have a little bit of a read of that [points to a slide].
So as you can see, like I said, there’s different cultures around the world that have the same problem in talking about spiritual places. The three listed at the bottom there [points to a slide], folklore or in our case, our Dreaming stories, our oral history or songlines about certain places. Then again, the other thing is our language. We’ve lost a lot of our language but we’re trying to revise some of that at the moment. We lost our language due to government process. For a long time they thought they were doing the right thing, protecting the poor old Aboriginal people, putting them on missions and telling them, ‘You need to learn to be a white fellow. You’re not allowed to talk your language. You’re not allowed to carry out your cultural practice,’ and that’s how we lost a lot of our language and our culture.
But my dad was on the Hollywood Mission over in Yass. It was Hollywood reserve but everybody calls it a mission. He told me the story about how – well he was born there as well – but he was telling me how they were told, ‘Don’t talk your language. Don’t carry out your cultural practice,’ but he said, with a wink in his eye, ‘But we used to sneak off and do it anyway. We just go down by the Yass River there and keep on carrying out our culture.’ That’s why my dad, he was such a knowledgeable man. Let’s say I’ve learned so much and that’s where I’m hoping to be able to carry out what my dad set out to do.
At the moment we’re working with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies [AIATSIS] to try and revive our language. It’s a hard process because of the fact that a lot of our senior elders passed away and they’re the ones that were still able to speak our language fluently. We’re trying to bring it back because we think it’s quite necessary for us to be able to relate who we are while on country.
Yes, Aboriginal places – now as I’ve already said, they don’t have a lot of archaeological indicators about what they are because they are places that are spiritually significant to us, and by that I mean they’re places that we frequently come back to because we have a belief in country. We believe country is where we come from. We’re here for a little while as custodians and that’s another story, I guess. We’re here for a little while as custodians and then we return to the country and that’s why when I work with the country, I call upon the ‘spirit of the land’ which is also my ancestral spirit because that’s where everybody is. It’s our cultural belief that that’s where we all are.
We have our dreaming stories. Our main one is about the creation of this country for us by our ‘creator being’. We call our creator being Budjabulya which is a serpent that lives in a place called Ngungara. Nobody knows where Ngungara is, do they? Everybody else knows it by another place. Ngungara in Ngunawal is ‘flat water’. Bit of a hint, flat water, big flat water? Lake George. Now Ngungara is formed by Budjabulya. So what happened there is Budjabulya was sleeping. You know that big long escarpment that you got running along the side of the road as you’re going to Sydney? That’s where Budjabulya sleeps because he nestled up against there and pushed it all up. You know, geologists will tell you different [laughter], but that’s where our creator being is and still is today.
Now Lake George, Ngungara, was made by Budjabulya one day when he woke up and he was feeling really happy. So he looked around and he saw bright blue sky, sunshine and he was feeling a little bit cramped from sleeping for so long. So he starts rolling around and around and he’s made Ngungara. He’s made it nice and flat because you’ve got the escarpment where he was sleeping, then you’ve got the other side where the … what’s there now? The Capital Wind Farm [laughter] up in those hills. So after a while he stopped rolling around and he decided to travel around. So he moves off, down past Bungendore way.
And what’s he doing when he’s doing all this? He’s forming the landscape for us, making places for us to survive. What’s he making? The most important element of all – water. He’s not making the water but he’s making the rivers so that we can travel along through country; all those rivers – the Molonglo River, the Queanbeyan River and all those places. Now what’s one of the features of rivers? How do they run? Do they run in straight lines? That’s right. [points to a slide] They move like a snake. Yes, that’s why they call them winding rivers because they follow the pattern of a snake.
So Budjabulya has made this landscape for us and that’s why we respect the land. That’s why we consider ourselves to be custodians. A lot of people like to refer to Aboriginal people as being the owners of the land. Us in particular, we like to be called custodians because we’re here to care for the land because we have this strong belief that, like I said before, we come from the land. We need to look after it so that we can survive while we’re up here and running around. To do that we need to make sure the country is well cared for so they can provide us with whatever we need to survive.
When you look at those sort of elements, that’s the story side of stuff that, I guess on a lot of projects you don’t talk about with archaeologists because they’re too busy doing the scientific side of stuff. I’d like to be able to do more of the story – the telling about the landscape because it’s a cultural place for us. It’s where we come from and it’s where we belong and we have so many stories to tell about the land, but we don’t get asked those sort of questions. It’s like I said, the more tangible side of stuff that archaeology is focused on. We can respect that because we also need that tangible scientific side of stuff but there’s also the intangible side as well which is important to us because it’s about our culture. It’s about the land itself and we never get that opportunity to do these sort of things.
So country is there, you know, it’s our belonging place. It’s where we come from. It’s where we go back to. It’s where we belong and that’s again, part of that spiritual connection with land and we also believe that all these artefactual materials, the stone tools and things that are made from the elements from the land have a spiritual connection with the land still. That’s why we call for what we refer to as a return to country. It’s where we want those artefactual materials, instead of being stored in a filing cabinet or something in some warehouse to be returned to country so the spiritual connection is remade. Spirit is everything for us and that’s why we need to work on that side of stuff as well. It doesn’t happen as frequently as it should.
Again, the importance of scientific evidence outweighs the cultural side of stuff which doesn’t really fit too well with me because I call for the return to country all our artefactual materials that are salvaged – saved if you know what I mean. The tactile materials are saved but then if you’ve got a residential development taking place, what happens there? The land is [makes whoosh sound]. The whole lot of it’s removed. You have a record of there being, say an ‘artefact scatter’ site where somebody sat around and made tools, but you can’t go back and look at it. It’s no longer there.
So we lose a lot of our culture that way, but you know, it’s sad I guess because we do understand the fact that culture that’s thousands of years old just won’t be able to stand in the way of progress, which is going to happen a whole lot more these days. So yes, there’s all these stories that we need to talk about. We have natural landscape features and again, I’ve already touched on it about how they’re important to us from a spiritual side because these places that we go to still, to do things that to anybody else would look like just a natural landscape feature.
Now, we know about these places because of the fact that elders are passed on this information and all our history is oral. The reasoning behind why it’s oral is that if we wrote stuff down there’d be no need for elders anymore. Elders are the people that are our knowledge holders. Think we got something about them as well … because they actually teach us all about cultural values, social values. They’re our spiritual and traditional values that are handed down by our elders over thousands of years. They’re things that we still listen to today and they tell us stories about the natural landscape features. These places that we need to go to reinvigorate ourselves.
One of those places that you guys could even go to now in central urban areas such as Gungahlin, in a place called Franklin is Gubur Dhaura – ‘red ochre ground’. It’s our ochre procurement site but it’s a significant place, not only for the ochre procurement but also a place of spiritual reconnection, and I feel that reconnection every time I go there and I’ve had non-Aboriginal people say that to me as well. They feel really at ease when they go to this place. It’s like I said, it’s a really spiritual place.
There are other things that our elders tell us about as well. Things that have happened. There’s good things, and there’s bad and you don’t … we like to tell the whole story. So we have a good history about the good things that have happened and we’ve got a history of the bad things that have happened as well, and a lot of those bad things non-Aboriginal people don’t like to talk about, because they’re bad. Yes, so that first sentence sort of says it in a way.
When you talk to Aboriginal people, if you’ve got different tribal groups then you probably use the same place, like the meeting place that’s no longer there at Parliament House. Their interpretation would be quite different probably to the way we see things as Ngunawal people. You know, the Walgalu or the Ngarigo probably think of it quite differently to the way we look at it. Although it’s similar in some of the story, it’ll be quite different to the way they tell it. That’s probably why in the second sentence there they have a different relationship to it, different way of looking at it because when you look at Australia-wide, there’s over 400 different tribal groups and within that you’ve got over 700 different language groups as well. So of course that story is going to be told differently isn’t it? There’s so many variations in there but it’s all going to have quite a strong similar vein running through it.
So it’s one of those things, like this local government for instance – consultation with Aboriginal people – you think that being recognised as being Ngunawal country, the first people they would go to talk about country would be the Ngunawal people. But for the lack of government, for them, consultation is with Aboriginal people who have different story because they have different cultural backgrounds. How they can work their way through that, I don’t know. They’re sort of coming at it from an angle that wants to be, what they tell me, ‘We’ve got to be all inclusive’. You know, that old phrase.
So yes. I think I’ve covered most of what’s in that slide about the complexities, and the different social values and all those sort of things that Aboriginal people have Australia-wide. Again, connection. Connection with country is quite strong. It’s quite important to us as Aboriginal people. Not only here as a Ngunawal man on a local level but Australia-wide. Because every different Aboriginal group, like I said, there’s 400-plus tribal groups and they have different cultural beliefs because of the changes in natural environment. They’ve got different plants and things like that as compared to here, you know.
So a lot of the culture is based on the natural environment. The natural elements out there that we needed for thousands of years to survive. We’ve learned to harmonise with the natural environment and learned to live within that environment which means then that there’s different story. Our story here is going to be quite different to the Yuin people down on the coast because there down on the coast, they’re looking at the sea which is going to provide a whole lot more different food sources than we have up here. There’s got to be different story, doesn’t there? The simple fact of where you live within Australia. Desert people have got different story to us because their vegetation is quite different. Like I said, we still got that same cultural vein that runs through us as Aboriginal people. Those stories, practices and beliefs are going to be just a little bit different.
So you know, like I said, cultures are different. Even our culture changes according to where we’re at and that’s why as Aboriginal people, we used to lead a very nomadic lifestyle. People talk about the seasons. European people have four different seasons whereas we have six but we don’t call them seasons. That’s a European interpretation of the climactic changes that happen around the place. Our seasonal changes – well, see I’ve got to use seasonal there [laughter].
Our pattern of life is based on the vegetation patterns within our tribal boundary because we used to interact with the natural environment. We learned how different plants and things ripened at different times all over the place. We had to move around as well because we didn’t want to deplete those food sources at certain places, so we just kept moving around. That’s just quite basic skills that we learned. Like I said, we’ve got six different seasonal patterns. I have to think of a better word than seasonal when I talk about these things, hey? [laughter].
Alrighty. So what I’ve been talking about is probably where you’re looking at cultural difference between the tactile, tangible evidence-based against the spiritual cultural side of stuff for us. From my way of looking at it we need to learn more about Aboriginal cultures to be able to understand Aboriginal culture. I keep saying, there’s 400 different tribal groups and wherever you’re working within Australia, if you want to learn more about that certain area of country, like the Southern Tablelands compared to arid country in the Northern Territory, you’re going to have to talk to the people here about those sort of things. You got to look around and you got to find the right people to talk to.
A place like Canberra is quite difficult in trying to find the right people because not all the Ngunawal people live here in Canberra. A lot of the consultations that takes place is with Aboriginal people who have come here to live and they bring with them their own cultural story which is different to the Ngunawal story for this country. That’s one of those difficulties I’ve always had for a long time about being an RAO [Representative Aboriginal Organiser]. I mean this place is being identified by the government as being Ngunawal country yet they’re consulting with every Aboriginal person they can see on the street. But you know, not all like that, but that’s what it seems like to me.
Talking to people and listening – there’s a lot of people that listen but do they hear what they are being told? I don’t think they are because they have to go through that process. You know, like it’s a tick-the-box exercise. So they’ll sit down and say, ‘Well, yes I’ve consulted with the Aboriginal people. I’ve gone through … ’ under [inaudible] for instance, you have to go through the consultation process, they even got a consultation protocol that you have to follow. But still it’s not happening like it should, not from my point of view anyway because people don’t – like I said, it’s been a whole day talking with this archaeologist and she never heard a word I said.
Then you got to learn. Learn that our culture is different. Not only for the Ngunawal people but for each different area that you’re working in as an archaeologist around the country. It’s quite different. I’ve already said how the cultures are practised differently because of their different environmental parts of Australia that you’re in, and being able to understand that is important. I’ll leave it with that. I think I’ve said enough [applause].
ALLISON BYRNE: Does anyone have any questions for Wally?
QUESTION: Yes. I’m not an archaeologist but I’m very interested in Australian history. What I wonder is if you go out with an archaeologist for the whole day why can’t you agree beforehand, ‘Now I can tell you a whole lot of things which you’re perfectly welcome to write down’. There are other things, like a journalist might have with someone like a politician, ‘Certain things I’ll tell you but you’re not allowed to publish them’. I’m thinking that someone like John Mulvaney must have done that with Mungo Woman [Mungo Lady] because he consulted widely with the people there, and then you get to have a look and say about what was written up. Is that possible?
WALLY BELL: Yes, but that incident I was talking about was where there was a failure on behalf of that person to listen, learn and take on board what I was saying. They were more interested in finding artefactual materials than listening and learning about the cultural landscape that I was talking about, that we’re working in.
I mean you probably touched on a bit there with, I guess, artistic licence about what they put into a report and there’s no, what would you call it – direct requirement to have them actually report what is being told to them, but I guess when you’re looking at somebody that totally forgets about stuff that you’re talking about, maybe they’re not listening. I don’t know if that’s the answer you wanted but to me it’s sort of not happening in the way that it should be these days because there should be more cultural awareness, and that’s something that needs to be built upon in the places that they’re studying in as well.
QUESTION: I’m not an archaeologist either, I’m just interested in history and you made a comment that your elders pass on all the information and if it wasn’t for them, then there would be no need for the elders. Are they being recorded for all the information they have to pass on to your younger generations? Because there’ll always be a place for elders to make sure that it’s being passed on correctly. So is there something that’s happening today for that history of yours to be recorded and recorded correctly?
WALLY BELL: I touched on it before about how under our own law we’re not allowed to divulge certain elements of our culture and then that’s something that I don’t think there’s a way around it because it’s our law, unless there’s a change in being allowed to do that. Under law, it will just continue as it is, I think.
QUESTION: If you want people to actually understand everything, surely there must be a way around that because people won’t understand if you can’t pass on the complete story.
WALLY BELL: Well there is a way of telling things without getting into the detail. So that’s where we don’t like to give our full description about, say men’s initiations and things like that because those are sacred practices that we carry out, and if we divulge those sort of things, you know like in the old day, if you broke those laws, they were punishable.
QUESTION: You mentioned about ‘artefact scatters’ and you said you don’t like them being gathered up and put into buildings or on shelves and so on, and you’d like them back. Where would you put them? Who would you give them to? How would you preserve their integrity?
WALLY BELL: Yes. I thought I’d explained that we’re trying to develop a return to country policy. Now that means that we want to have all those artefactual materials returned to where they came from, that we actually re-bury them so that that spiritual connection with country is remade because, like I said, we believe in the spiritual side of those artefacts and materials being disconnected when they’re taken away to be analysed. We want that spiritual reconnection which means that we need them to be brought back to where they come from or in the case of a residential development where you can’t, a place that’s close by and that won’t be impacted by any future developments.
QUESTION: So you’re saying that the stone tools, flakes and so on, that are found, if they are returned to you, for example some found in camp forest or the Tuggeranong valley, if they were found by a creek in the Tuggeranong valley, you want them put back there?
WALLY BELL: Yes.
QUESTION: What’s to prevent them being moved again or taken?
WALLY BELL: Well we conduct investigations about certain areas of land that crown leases and stuff like that, that won’t be impacted or taken away. So if we can find places like that, that’s an ideal location for that return to country. If there’s nothing like that available we look at places that are protected under law such as nature reserves, or even a national park like Namadgi.
QUESTION: So it’s not really an integrity but it’s as close as you can get to what’s the ideal?
WALLY BELL: Yes, yes, yes.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Wally, thank you. My name’s Jenny. To comment first there seems to be some connection between the cultural landscape and the physical landscape that could inform a lot of the archaeological sites in Europe as well, if the conversation could ever be held, because I’ve been sitting here fascinated. My question is very specific. It’s about Ginninderra Creek. You mentioned the sites were on the left of the creek. There’s some understanding around the suburbs where I live that there used to be an occupation site on what is now the Melba shops on Kingsford Smith Drive. Do you have any information about the exception to the left of the creek or whether in fact there was a big settlement to the right of the creek in Melba?
WALLY BELL: Yes, I sort of indicated that the majority of these sites were along the lefthand side with the exception of a few that are on the righthand side. The creek line near the suburb of Crace, there’s a hilltop that’s got artefactual materials up on top of it which is on the righthand side as you’re travelling down. There’s also the CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] site as well and that’s got thousands of artefacts through there. There are exceptions to every rule of course but the landscape lends itself to those sorts of situations and I’m guessing where Lake Ginninderra is, where the dam wall is, there’s also artefactual materials on the righthand side. Landscape features are main determiners of space of where people sat as well.
QUESTION: Thank you Wally. My name’s Larissa. I’m a high school teacher. I’m very keen to connect with some Ngunawal teachers. We have at our public school before. I’m a language teacher and I’m very curious as to how soon your Ngunawal revival project might see the introduction of basic language in schools, because I think there’s a really strong connection between respect, understanding and language.
WALLY BELL: Yes. We’ve already had a pilot program trialled at Fraser Primary School, and using language we taught children how to do the ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ song. You know, basic, but I guess that’s where you got to start from. So we want to try and introduce our language in the school. Like I said, we’re working with AIATSIS to recover our language and it’s a slow process because our fluently-speaking elders are no longer with us, so we need to work on what we’ve got. Also, as we’ve been told we’ll probably need to create some words as well. That’s all part of the language revival process. Is that what you wanted? I mean there is that pilot program and we’re working on doing some more in schools.
QUESTION: Yes. We’ve had an Aboriginal education officer that I brought into the classroom but unfortunately, being Wiradjuri, it doesn’t feel quite right. So yes.
WALLY BELL: And I respect him for that.
QUESTION: Yes. It’s going to be nice to have that connection for the kids.
WALLY BELL: Yes.
ALLISON BYRNE: Any more questions?
QUESTION: Hi Wally. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and culture today. I just had a question from, I guess, a student perspective. I think there might be a few from the ANU [Australian National University] student group. It’s just that when you’re doing student research, it’s quite difficult, as you say to follow correct processes and procedures and to know what the protocols are when you’re coming to a country which you’re quite new to, particularly if you’ve moved from somewhere else. I just wondered if you had any kind of takeaway messages for any students here about how you would like to see students go about working on your country and researching on Ngunawal country.
WALLY BELL: Well I think students coming into the ACT have got to find it quite difficult. Like I said, there’s so many Aboriginal people that have come here and there are a lot of Wiradjuri people here as well. So it’s a major problem because there’s no really set processing place whereby this … like what happens in other places where they’ve got, well you know, want of a better word I guess – a register of the local people; because in New South Wales it’s quite difficult as well because they’ve got the local Aboriginal land councils and a lot of those places don’t consist of the local Aboriginal people. The ACT doesn’t have Aboriginal land councils but it’s pretty much in the same boat.
They have a lot of Aboriginal organisations here and a local government. They’ve got two bodies, United Ngunnawal Elders Council and the Aboriginal Torres Strait Advisory body; and members there aren’t solely Ngunawal people. So you’re looking again at … I mean it’s really hard for people in your situation to deal with the right people. But how do you get around that? I really haven’t got a solution to it. It’s a knowledge thing where you got to know the right people, if you know what I mean?
QUESTION: Wally, can I give a suggestion to the ANU student as an ex-ANU employee – possibly to go to the Tjabal Centre [Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre] to speak to the director there to get some pointers as to which Aboriginal organisations in Ngunawal country they could go talk to. There’s also the contacts through yourself and the other RAOs, but as an ANU student, that might be the first place that they can go to because it’s on campus.
QUESTION: I’ve got two issues to raise to people in this room as well. Thank you Wally for giving us such a broad view but just one specific thing – as Canberra keeps on growing and we’re expanding across to Ginninderra Falls, sadly it’s across New South Wales, your wonderful ceremonial area, and there’s very little dialogue between our ACT Assembly and the Yass Valley Council. In fact a group I’m in have had to try and do the heavy lifting. So it’s the parliamentary process that’s lacking and the ACT Heritage Council or … there’s no interaction and they just do a Pontius Pilate and wash their hands of these issues. The tragedy is I’m showing my age now. If we headed the NCDC [National Capital Development Commission], today you would have good quality independent Aboriginal people advising what the Government should do; but now this development down towards the Ginninderra Falls is run by the Land Development Agency and a developer. You can’t blame both of them. You must blame our ACT Assembly.
The next thing I wanted to say is that you say we must harmonise with your stay on the Ngunawal country. How can we harmonise when we know that the only way you survived over millennia was by looking after country? All we worry about is economic growth, population growth. Most of our food is coming from a long, long way from here. We’ve got no understanding of sustainability of food supply. There’s a wonderful guy here in the Fenner School, Professor Duncan Brown and he said, ‘When our civilisation moved away from your village lifestyle to cities and industrialisation, that was our end.’ So we in this room really can’t harmonise because we’re locked into a way of life which will go in a matter of centuries. We won’t be around here like you were for 25 grand [laughter].
ALLISON BYRNE: Probably a good note to end on. One more? Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks Wally for the lecture tonight. As you know I’m not an archaeologist nor am I a politician but I was just interested in that UNESCO definition on the tangible and intangible values that’s probably good to say this tonight whilst the majority of the people in the room are non-Aboriginal. From my understanding not all countries worldwide have become signatories and I’m not quite sure where Australia is, whether they signed or are thinking of becoming a signatory to UNESCO statements.
But as Wally said, ‘there’s over 400 tribal groups here in Australia and we all come with our different cultures and our different values’. I’m one of the Aboriginal people that have been in Canberra for a very long time but I’m not a Ngunawal man and I need to listen to the Ngunawal people before I make decisions about what’s going to happen, because I’m a part of that decision-making processes [Leanda, I cut a chunk out of this sentence to make it flow better].
So having said that because we do have a variation in our cultures and our values, it’s very important that people like, who are in this room have that understanding about whether we should be a signatory to those customs because, as Wally’s pointed out, we all grow up in different households where we get our norms and values. We all grow up in different countries where we get our norms, values and cultures.
[SPEAKER: Will you please thank Wally Bell? [applause].
ALLISON BYRNE: Thank you Wally. It’s only a very small token of appreciation but on behalf of CAS and behalf of the Friends of the Museum, thank you.
WALLY BELL: Thank you very much.
ALLISON BYRNE: It was a very informative lecture.
WALLY BELL: It was my pleasure. I just would like to say thank you very much for listening, but we still have a long way to go and by my doing this sort of thing, hopefully I’m instilling some thought that you guys could espouse for me, I guess. Thank you very much [applause].
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Date published: 29 August 2017