A Reconciliation Week story

A Reconciliation Week story

A per­son­al reflec­tion on park co-man­age­ment – the peo­ple, the places, and the progress towards a fair go’.

If there’s one sto­ry I reck­on needs telling, it’s about Abo­rig­i­nal and Depart­ment of Envi­ron­ment, Water and Nat­ur­al Resources Co-Man­age­ment of parks,’ says Nat­ur­al Resources North­ern and Yorke Region­al Man­ag­er Trevor Naismith.

I arrived in the then Far North Region in 1990 as a brand new Dis­trict Ranger. Ear­ly on, I accom­pa­nied the then Min­is­ter for Envi­ron­ment Susan Lene­han on a field trip across the far north and to Witji­ra Nation­al Park on the NT bor­der. The Min­is­ter met with Low­er South­ern Arrende and Wangkan­gur­ra peo­ple and their mes­sage was sim­ple – they want­ed a greater say in run­ning their tra­di­tion­al lands which was for­mer­ly Mt Dare Sta­tion and now com­prised the Nation­al Park.

A few months lat­er in 1991, we sat down at Oasis Bore, on the dry flood out of the Finke Riv­er, one of the Earth­’s old­est water­cours­es and where the Finke dis­ap­pears into the west­ern edge of the Simp­son Desert. The Oasis meet­ing was large­ly organ­ised by Arthur Ah Chee, a Wangkan­gur­ra man whose tra­di­tion­al coun­try runs across the Simp­son Desert to Birdsville. Arthur was pas­sion­ate about what he called joint man­age­ment” and he still is, a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry later.

We lis­tened to many mov­ing sto­ries about just how impor­tant Witji­ra is to the Low­er South­ern Arrende and the Wangkan­gur­ra peo­ple. Togeth­er, they formed the Irrwanyere Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion as a step towards co-man­age­ment. We man­aged to get a Co-Man­age­ment Agree­ment (CMA) in place and we found some mon­ey to employ Abo­rig­i­nal Rangers, but it was­n’t all smooth sail­ing. We man­aged to keep Dean Ah Chee on the books and Deany is still work­ing with us today out of Port Augusta.

We kept Witji­ra going with what is now called FIFO (fly in fly out). We did­n’t call it that back then and it was a tough gig and it still is. We had a vehi­cle and equip­ment based at Witji­ra and would fly out of Hawk­er in the depart­men­tal Cess­na air­craft for a 10 day stint at Witji­ra and then fly home for 4 days. We swagged it at Witji­ra in all weath­er and often did bat­tle with clouds of flies dur­ing the day and swarms of mos­qui­tos at night. Tough on the part­ners and kids back in Hawk­er too. Any­how, I digress.

A few years lat­er we had anoth­er crack at Co-Man­age­ment this time with a Co-Man­age­ment Board and leg­isla­tive changes to the Nation­al Parks and Wildlife Act that sup­port­ed what we were try­ing to do. The Board pros­pers to this day and I was priv­i­leged to chair the Board for a few years and work with Low­er South­ern Arrende and Wangkan­gur­ra mem­bers. We com­plet­ed an extra­or­di­nary amount of work over the years that have seen the restora­tion of tra­di­tion­al names to sup­ple­ment the white­fel­la names for land­scape fea­tures, inter­pre­tive signs have gone up, her­itage sites are pro­tect­ed, camp­grounds have been revi­talised and reveg­e­tat­ed, hors­es elim­i­nat­ed and don­keys and camels con­trolled. It has­n’t been easy going at times but heck, we’ve done it! A few years ago I was asked to MC the Con­sent Deter­mi­na­tion cer­e­mo­ny where a sit­ting of the Com­mon­wealth High Court is held on coun­try’ to for­mal­ly grant title of the land to Tra­di­tion­al Own­ers. It was a huge hon­our for me and anoth­er high­light in a fan­tas­tic career.

Because I’ve moved around a fair bit with the job, I’ve had some won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties for involve­ment with oth­er Co-Man­age­ment arrange­ments includ­ing a cou­ple of years work­ing with Anan­gu from Mar­alin­ga-Tjarut­ja and Yala­ta over Mamungari (the great, invert­ed L‑shaped park on the WASA border).

Board meet­ings were right­ly held in lan­guage (Pit­jan­t­jat­jara) with a trans­la­tor busi­ly employed keep­ing us white­fel­las informed of the meet­ing pro­ceed­ings. Mamungari is a vast, amaz­ing place but is only part and par­cel of a much greater land­scape where the con­cept of bound­aries, be they nation­al park or even state, is irrel­e­vant to Anangu. 

These days, I’m a mem­ber of the Vulkathun­ha-Gam­mon Ranges Co-Man­age­ment Board and I’m in good com­pa­ny with Adnya­math­anha Board Mem­bers, many of whom are old friends, neigh­bours and work­mates from my decade of liv­ing and work­ing in Hawk­er. This is anoth­er Board who have accept­ed respon­si­bil­i­ty for a mag­nif­i­cent park and run with it. Much has been achieved and the Board are just­ly proud of what they are doing.

There have been a cou­ple of piv­otal peo­ple in this jour­ney that have had a pro­found influ­ence on me. One was the late Rex Stu­art, an Ara­bana man. Sit­ting around a camp­fire one night, Rex told me how he used to work along­side white­fel­la ringers all day when he was a young fel­la work­ing for a big South Aus­tralian pas­toral com­pa­ny. But as an Abo­rig­i­nal, he had to eat his tea out on the wood heap and not in the Mess with the oth­er sta­tion hands. I was out­raged but Rex was­n’t bit­ter about this treat­ment but he was reflec­tive on what were the norms of the time. Rex had a great gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it and spoke five Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages. He used to vol­un­teer his time as an inter­preter at the Port Augus­ta Court as he reck­oned Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple weren’t get­ting a fair go because they could­n’t tell the mag­is­trate their side of a sto­ry. He was that kind of a bloke. Rex passed a few years back when he had an acci­dent on Huck’s Hill in the Flinders. Spare a thought for him when you go past his road­side memo­r­i­al on the way from Wilpe­na to Ora­parin­na. I always do.*

The oth­er big influ­ence on me was the late Gilbert Coulthard, an Adnya­math­anha man who was one of the first Abo­rig­i­nal Rangers in the state. Uncle Gil was pre­pared to take us young white­fel­las under his wing if he reck­oned you were alright. He was a nat­ur­al edu­ca­tor, men­tor and guide. His sense of humour was wicked and mis­chie­vous but woe betide any­one who was­n’t lis­ten­ing when Uncle was try­ing to teach you some­thing. He had a fear­some tem­per and you did­n’t for­get a dress­ing down from Gil in a hur­ry. He treat­ed us all as fam­i­ly and our kids loved him as their Adnya­math­anha Grand­fa­ther. Years down the track, even as I write this, I’m still moved to tears. These days when I go to Bal­canoona for a Board meet­ing, the spir­it of the old Uncle absolute­ly per­vades the place. I keep expect­ing to see him walk­ing around a cor­ner call­ing out his famil­iar Goo­day’. I miss him greatly.

Well that’s about it for my long and ram­bling sto­ry about Co-Man­age­ment. Why is it impor­tant to me? Well it was Abo­rig­i­nal coun­try long before us boat peo­ple arrived. Their fore­bears were dis­placed and treat­ed pret­ty bad­ly. So maybe Co-Man­age­ment is nat­ur­al jus­tice or maybe a much sim­pler Aus­tralian con­cept of a fair go’. And it’s been great to work for the Depart­ment for Envi­ron­ment and Water (DEW) which has been con­sis­tent­ly pre­pared to give Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple a fair go. While the jour­ney has been along a rough road at times, it’s only right that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are giv­en self-deter­mi­na­tion over the man­age­ment of their tra­di­tion­al lands.

Sure­ly, there can be no bet­ter exam­ple of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion than Co-Management?’

Below is a pho­to of the Vulkathun­ha-Gam­mon Ranges Nation­al Park Co-man­age­ment Board and mem­bers of the Adnya­math­anha com­mu­ni­ty. Find out more online about Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Week and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Week activ­i­ties .

A Reconciliation Week story

* The word­ing and ref­er­ences to these events were approved by Arron Stuart.

This con­tent was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with  Good Living