Reviving the river system through ceremony


An ambitious project to reinvigorate Aboriginal ceremony and bring attention to the state of the Baaka (the Darling River in the language of the Barkindji people of far Western NSW) led to a series of corroborees across the north west earlier this month with support from Museums & Galleries of NSW and the NSW Aboriginal Culture, Heritage & Arts Association (ACHAA). Event co ordinator Dr Jenny Brown provided this report.

Corroboree YAAMA NGUNNA BAAKA began as a callout for all Aboriginal people to gather in support of those living along the Baaka, who are in need of free-flowing water in their river, and to reinvigorate ceremony as large corroborees.

Drawing from the 10-year ringbalins (a Ngarrindjeri word for ceremony) of Major (Moogi) Sumner’s Tal-Kin-Jeri Dance Group of South Australia that have been joining groups along the Baaka river system, Muruwari and Budjiti man Bruce Shillingsworth directed a five-day roving festival in Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Wilcannia and Menindee.

Performing across the festival arc were NSW dance groups the Kamilaroi (Walgett), Barkindji (Wilcannia), Wankamurra (Bourke), Wakagetti (Brewarrina), Garul Giyalu Rock Mob (Katoomba), Budjiti (Enngonia and the Murrawari (Goodooga). The Adelaide-based Tal-Kin-Jeri Dance Group and the Cunnamulla group from Queensland also performed.

Between 400 and 600 people each night saw dance describing many cultural group stories contextualised with remarks about ongoing struggles for land and water rights, and the devastation of eco-systems.

Bruce Shillingsworth held fundraising art exhibitions in community spaces at Mosman Art Gallery and NSW Parliament House, followed by another at Articulate project space (Sydney) comprising donated works by over 30 artists.

To pave the way for the delivery of festival elements in each of the townships, co organiser artist Dr Jenny Brown developed partnerships with the four local governments in the region, the Tribal Warrior Corporation and the NSW state-wide ACHAA committee that M&G NSW’s Aboriginal Programs Manager Steve Miller convenes. As an advisor to the festival, Steve obtained the ACHAA committee’s endorsement, and this fostered conversations with Baaka committee members about site selection, protocols and program content.

Aunty Virginia Robinson from the Dharriwaa Elders Group and Elders Learning Circle provided Walgett’s traditional welcome with the Yuri Yuri Creation Story about the Barwon and Namoi Rivers.

Virginia met with festival attendee Professor Richard Banati, so he could learn about how a network of breast milk donors might be embedded within the community for mothers unable to breastfeed due to diabetes or other illnesses.

In Brewarrina, Bradley Hardy of the Brewarrina Aboriginal Cultural Museum held museum and fish trap tours while in Bourke, Muda Aboriginal Corporation’s 2Cuz FM radio station manager Alex Dixon organised a film screening in the rotunda and cultural talks and brokered the first aid support from the Bourke Medical Service.

The Foundation for Regional and Rural Renewal, local government councils, Tolarno Station, Maari Ma Health and Foodbank sponsored the free community evening meals devised in partnership with Sharon Winsor, a Ngemba Weilwan woman from Western NSW, who provided menu advice using the products from the company that she founded, Indigiearth.

Locally provided emu, kangaroo and Jonny Cakes added to the mix. Surplus food supplies were distributed throughout the journey, with Bourke’s Maranguka Community Hub providing 205 food boxes to community families, a school holiday breakfast program, and a cooking program that became another community meal.

In Wilcannia, where M&G NSW is assisting the development of the proposed Baaka Cultural Centre, members of its steering committee were instrumental in making this special whole- town event happen. Brendon Adams compered with great gusto and led the set-up for food and performance; Owen Whyman played the yidaki with his Barkindji Dance Group; Central Darling Shire’s general manager Greg Hill assisted with coordination; the committee’s executive member visual artist Badger Bates spoke about the depleted river; and Elder Cyril Hunter gave the Welcome.

Volunteers from the local communities also included those that came from the Menindee Men’s Shed; Local Area Land Councils, and the SES, health, police, and fire and rescue state services. A core team of around ten dedicated car-convoy volunteers helped cook meals under the direction of arts writer Dr Ann Finegan.

Dharriwaa Elders Group (Walgett), Brewarrina Aboriginal Cultural Museum, Muda Aboriginal Corporation (2CuzFM) in Bourke and the Baaka Cultural Centre Wilcannia Aboriginal Corporation are all members of the NSW Aboriginal Culture, Heritage & Arts Association (ACHAA) for which M&G NSW provides secretariat and co ordination support. M&G NSW and ACHAA were supporting partners of YAAMA NGUNNA BAAKA.