• Adnyamathanha sisters sing in language to protect sacred land from being developed into a waste dump. (NITV News)
This 4-year-old Adnyamathanha girl is using her culture to help save sacred spot, Yungapunganah, from being turned into a nuclear waste site.
By
Laura Morelli

18 May 2017 - 6:00 PM  UPDATED 19 May 2017 - 4:22 PM

Ngarlaa, (which means sea turtle in Gumbaynggirr, her father’s heritage) and her family are raising awareness of their culture, people and the important sacred site their tribe is battling to protect against the South Australian government.  

The song Ngarlaa sings is called 'Vakuvaku', which translates to ‘the Bellbird is singing to you’, and links back to the storyline of the waterhole.

Currently, the waterhole is located next to a string of sacred sites, that are all part of a 70km long songline, running directly through Barndioota - a property leased from The Crown by former Liberal senator, Grant Chapman.

The waterhole is the only registered story song through the Offices of Environment and Heritage South Australia. Now, the federal government will undergo a cultural heritage assessment of that area and based on their judgement, which will determine whether either go ahead with the proposed nuclear waste dump or not. A proposed move which Ngarlaa’s mother, Juanella McKenzie says ‘must not happen.’

“I grew up near the waterhole, as did my mother, her mother and so on. From a young age I was immersed into culture, now I have taught all three of them about their ancestors, dreaming stories and also to sing in language,” Juanella said.

"If they ruin this site, they ruin Adnyamathanha culture."

 

Story of Yungapunganah and song of Vakuvaku

"Long time ago there used to be a camp. In that camp there was a young girl and her husband, but the mother kept interfering. The mother ended up killing the girl, who was pregnant. The mother buried the young girl under the humpy (camp), and when the body started to decay, bibiawi (water) spurred out and made the spring. The young fella started crying when he realised what happened so the vakuvaku (bellbird) - which is the comforter, came carrying the song with the flap of his wings. He came to comfort the young boy with this song."

"Listen closely to Ngarlaa singing and in the background you can hear the Bellbird sing," Juanella says.

"The thing about Aboriginal culture is that it lives on and that's the way it should stay."

Juanella’s mission now is to ensure her daughters grow up to become strong Adnyamathanha women, like those before them and hopefully like the rest to come. She says culture is in their blood. Apart from Ngarlaa, there is also one-year-old Ngintaka, whose name represents a totem on her grandmothers side of the big 'pirinti' (lizard) and two-year-old Ngayan (meaning, 'sun'). All girls have also learnt the cultural song in language. 

Ngarla has been able to sing the song in language since she was 2-years-old. The young activist has already voiced her strong opinion about preserving the sacred site, when she attended a rally in Sydney to raise awareness to the rest of the nation.

Juanella says more than 100 people heard Ngarla’s speech and listened to dreamtime stories of the Adnyamathanha people to help the rest of the nation become part of their journey.

 

Sacred Site

Juanella describes Hookina, (where the waterhole is located) as a very special place.

“You feel welcome – it’s like the warm hug of a mother. You can feel that when you go there. You feel safe, you feel loved, it’s beautiful,” she said.

“When I was 8-years-old, me and the other kids would use to steal the car to go swimming in the water hole and we would stay there for as long as possible. We always knew that there was a special dreamtime story about this water hole. We respected our country and we loved being there because of its importance.”

Juanella and her family are on a mission to protect the sacred site, which she says is a cultural hub for the Adnyamathanha tribe.

“There’s yabbies there for hunting, there’s medicinal supplements too such as 'yutar' (native lemon grass) – you can make a tea good for detoxing and you can also burn it and inhale the smoke which helps combat chest infection and sinuses,” she said.

Reminiscing on her childhood, she remembers the sacred site being utilised as not only a birthing place, but also a healing place.

“If you follow that water system you have all the bush medicine up there such as eremophila, a bush medicine that you dry out and drink if you mix with gum from trees or you can make a bush rub to apply on your skin. There’s another one too called cassinia which has similar effects,” she said.

“That water hole is a healing place. If you have xma, you rub the mud on your body and it will release the aggravated skin. If you’ve got an aching body, you rub it and your body will heal.”

 

Intergenerational Culture 

Juanella's mother, Regina McKenzie has been the driving force for maintaining the sacred site.

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“We registered the storyline for 'pungapudinah' (smell of springs) 10 years ago and it was a program we done with the SA govt. we registered our SA heritage and mapped it in our culture center in the way that we look at storylines. It was the first storyline registered in that format.”

“What they’re taking from us is our belief system. No matter where they are in Australia, when they touch our land they ruin our belief system."

Regina says the area they’ve proposed the nuclear waste ‘dump’ is the area they’ve been working in.

“This area is an ancient trade route where our ancestors and people from all over Australia came up to that area to trade ochre. The amount of archeological remnants in that area is very high. There are even ancient bones that are fossilized.”

Apart from the registered song lines, the sacred area is swimming with Aboriginal heritage. It also holds the story about the Seven Sisters, the story of the Wagtail, and the Bevou Mulclta Vitnaha story, which is about lore in the form of a dance ground. Regina says these stories are powerful because they are spiritual discussions.

“You’ve got the tangible and then the intangible. Story lines and song lines are our belief system.”

She says ‘whitefellas’ don’t understand the negative impact they have when they touch Indigenous sacred sites.'

“What they’re taking from us is our belief system. No matter where they are in Australia, when they touch our land they ruin our belief system."

Regina says each dreamtime story is like a riddle, and within the riddle you must find all the lessons to be learnt.

“When you are taught them you must learn them and practice them. The more knowledge you have the more humble you must be, and you must pass on that knowledge to the next generation. The western world would class an elder by their age but in our way, it’s about the knowledge that is held.”

 

'Culture Must Continue to Flow'

That’s why Regina is proud of her daughter for keeping Aboriginal culture flowing.

“Everything my daughter has been taught by the aunties and uncles, she’s taken it in and learnt it. Now she’s passing it on to her children. She may be young, but she’s got the knowledge to keep our culture strong.”

The thing that Regina worries most about is the fact that Aboriginal culture isn’t about books and computers; instead it’s about word of mouth and passing on through practice.

“My father used to walk us along story line, take us camping and would reward the kid that remembered the most. He was worried about children losing our cultural knowledge,” she explained.

“I too have a dream of recording all our dreams and storylines. I want to see our culture live long into the future.”

“Our culture is our past, present and future. If they were to rob these children of taking their kids there, then that is robbing our future of passing on our culture.”

Regina says Adnyamathanha people were scientists in their own right because they observed their own environment and this is what she loves about her granddaughter.

“When she goes out she asks questions and in our culture children aren’t only seen, they are heard,” she said.

“Ngarla is important because she’s the eldest girl, so it’s going to be her job to teach, learn and work with her younger sisters. They will have to work together to keep their culture alive. Women are the backbone of our cultural heritage.”

The waterhole is part of Regina’s family’s storylines but without it, they’re culture is at risk.  

“My father taught me, I taught my daughter, now my daughter is teaching her daughters and I am a part of that and can watch my eldest granddaughter pass it on.”

Regina says if anything was to ruin this water system, it would ruin a significant part of their heritage.

“Our culture is our past, present and future. If they were to rob these children of taking their kids there, then that is robbing our future of passing on our culture.”

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