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Anzac Long Weekend 4

rīvus ~ River Tributaries: Positionality; being with and in the River

A meeting, not quite a meeting, nor a seminar, an exchange? A meeting that begins by taking nothing for granted. Where exactly do we begin?

The Welcome to Country is the right place. Brendan Kerin gave a warm and very personal account of his history of the story of too many lives shredded, personal histories that should never had been fit for an archive going back to 1788.

Not like the Gumbaynggirr Welcomes I am used to which talks of borders, ways of life, of language and the earth, even a song


  • Welcome to Country, Brendan Kerin, Marrawarra and Barkindji man. He told his story with great heart – see his story below.
  • Uncle Bruce Shillingsworth (Murawari) Aboriginal Childrens’ Advocate and a powerful voice for rivers – I admire his passion and commitment. He noted that Brewarrina’s sacred fish traps (the Ngemba) are the oldest man-made structures in the world. He attacked Cubbie Station, the largest irrigation property in the southern hemisphere owned by Macquarie Bank. It uses vast amounts of water for cotton growing. He said ‘Cotton should never be grown in Australia. The river is to be shared . . .  when the rivers ran dry my people suffered.’ His mother told him you have to have ceremony to heal the river, and in 2019 a convoy performed five corrobborees which Uncle Shillingsworth directed – in Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Wilcannia and Menindee Lakes, to help the Baaka (the Darling River in Barkindji). Dance groups performed and stories were told. A host of volunteers helped and costs were helped by fundraising art exhibitions. And he tells us, rain fell.
  • Clarence Slockee (Bundjalung, based on Gadigal Land) a Gardening Australia TV presenter and Education Officer at the Sydney Botanic Gardens. He attacked the changing of the river course at Ballina, and associated flooding: ‘Black, white or brindle – we all have a responsibility to this world.’
  • Uncle John Kelly (Dunghutti) and Rena Shein (Australia) work in Kempsey with Aboriginal crafts in schools. Uncle John talked of the significance of the huge midden nearby at Clybucca, probably the most significant Aboriginal midden sites in eastern Australia. It is a sacred site or has that meaning and ancestral history. I wanted to ask him how a huge line of electricity pylons came to be built right on top of it, but didn’t get the chance. Their installation in the grand courts ‘Nyanghan nyinda’ shows the first handmade tree canoe in decades.
  • With a video on Badger Bates, a Barkandji man from Wilcannia, carving a bird from wood on the banks of the Baakariver. He echoed the late Gumbaynggirr elder, Uncle Mark Flanders, ‘Everyone should have a totem – black or white.’ He explained some of his artwork, the linoprints are being shown in the Art Gallery of NSW. [see later post]
  • Justice Md Ashraful Kamal (Bangladesh) via zoom. He has done amazing legal work on river rights, but unfortunately was very hard to hear. He asked us to take an oath to take friends or family to visit a river or place of water once a month, Water is life.  ‘All humans have to cede to Natural Laws’:
    ‘Steps we must follow:
    1. Create a central digital database of all the rivers, ponds and water bodies across all nations worldwide.
    2. Educate children and students of the importance of water
    3. Educate and make aware public and private bodies and institutions.’

An Auntie from Sydney in the audience who I was talking to (but missed her name) was not keen on the central database idea, wary of centralisation. She pointed out that each nation and clan is different – and made the key point that if you give a river the rights of a person, who take responsibility for those rights.

Dr Alessandro Pelizzon, the legal expert said different jurisdictions approach it differently, but agreed that it is a key question.

I got carried away at the end of River Conversations. I made a passionate defence of natural aesthetics and my love for my river Miilba – and was reminded it was a Q&A session.

From what I recall, what I said was: If you don’t live off the river by hunting and fishing, weren’t brought up on it, never learnt the songs, dance or ceremony to embody the water – if you are a stranger, like a European – how to get intimate with one’s local river? I try by using its Gumbaynggirr name, by writing, taking photographs, swimming, walking and being there – listening and watching, and caring for her health. The word love hasn’t been mentioned yet and I think awe and natural aesthetics are helpful.

There was a question in there, even if partly rhetorical.

Six rivers are included as “participants” in this Biennale: the Atrato, the Baaka, the Birrajung/Yarra, the Boral, the Burramatta, the Napo, and the Vilcabamba. They are represented at each venue by a video of an indigenous speaker whose life has been closely bound up with that of the river.

Brendan Kerin’s story

‘My mother was five when they literally grabbed her from her mother’s arms. From there, they spent two weeks in a jail cell and then they were all shipped to Cootamundra Girls Home . . . I was born at Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Surry Hills in 1971 and I was taken away from my mother in that hospital and I never saw her again.’

‘One of the things with Stolen Generation people is we’re trying to find out where we belong. It’s more or less sitting on the outside of the ring of fire while your mob are in the middle and then slowly making that connection – being able to sit closer to the fire, within that ring of people rather than sitting on the outside.[i]

This wasn’t the time or the place to argue the philosophy of natural rights – Reading Thomas Hobbes and John Lock at university, I never believed in the foundations of natural rights. I guess if I had thought more about it, I might have shared Michael Zimmerman’s view: ‘The concept of human rights is a fiction, it is nevertheless a very useful fiction for changing how human beings relate to each other.’ [ii]

Justice Md Ashraful Kamal’s call for a database of water reminds me of Ian McHarg wish: ‘Next, we must initiate massive global inventories and both invent and install sensors to provide a continuous monitoring process. From baseline to present, we must observe changes and the operation of constituent processes, particularly biogeochemical cycles. … I can think of no human activity of greater importance. It should be seen as the primary consequence of recognizing the global environment as the principal objective in the world’s agenda. It identifies the most important purpose of the world’s population for now and all time. We must come to know this world, to understand how it works, and to regulate our behaviour to maintain and enhance the biosphere. We must identify the welts, lesions, wounds, and suppurations on the global epidermis. We must learn to green the earth, to restore the earth, to health the earth. I long to live to see it.’ [ Ian McHarg, the father of ecological planning, from his autobiography, A Quest for Life, 1996, Wiley, p374.]

[i] Jennifer Scherer, ‘When Brendan performs a Welcome to Country, it’s personal’, SBS, 24 January 2021.

[ii] Michael Zimmerman, ‘The Critique of Natural Rights and the Search for a Non-anthropocentric Basis for Moral Behaviour’, Journal of Value Inquiry 19, 1985, p50.

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