• Aerial shot of the Bonye Bush University site. (Photo credit: Terry Royan)Source: Photo credit: Terry Royan
An ancient gathering place in Queensland's spectacular Bunya mountains is back in Aboriginal hands and has become a new place of learning for all people.
Tanisha Stanton

26 Apr 2022 - 5:57 PM  UPDATED 26 Apr 2022 - 5:58 PM

Every few years or so, thousands of Aboriginal people would leave their traditional lands and descend on the Bunya Mountains to enjoy the bunya nut harvest and conduct traditional business.

"Groups from southern Queensland and northern New South Wales came to the Bunyas for the bumper crop," said Bunya Peoples' Aboriginal Corporation (BPAC)general manager Paul Dawson.

"It was about maintenance of law, maintenance of connections, marriage systems, dispute settling. So it's a highly significant place already."

The Bunya Mountain, or Bonye Biar as it was traditionally known, was where traditional lore was developed and culture was nurtured.

"In a western analogy, the Bunyas was the Parliament House, a place of regional governance for Aboriginal peoples," Mr Dawson said.

The Wakka Wakka people of southeast Queensland have celebrated their return to the iconic mountain with the opening of a 'Bush University'.

For nearly two decades, the Bunya Peoples' Aboriginal Corporation (BPAC) have fought for a place on the mountain range where cultural knowledge and practices can be resurrected, and shared as they once were.

"Due to impacts of colonisation and the dislocation from Country, that [knowledge] was lost, so we hope through creating this space we’ll be able to bring that sharing back together."

Mr Dawson hopes the creation of such a place will play an important role in the healing and truth-telling of this country.

"It's about reconnecting people with place," Dawson said.

"It’s about sharing the real history, and that truth-telling really needs to come out."

The Bush University has been built on the southern side of the Bunya Mountain, taking almost 14 months to construct.

The centrepiece is a 120-metre-long rock and concrete rainbow serpent.  

Within its three coils are sections for women’s business, men’s business and a central meeting place.

Indigenous singer-songwriter Kev Carmody and traditional dancers performed there for the very first time at the event’s opening.

Jason Lawler, who designed and built the structure, said the easy part was knowing what he was about to build  after getting a clear picture of it from Wakka Wakka ancestors.

"Then when thinking about the design of the place, it was about, 'How can I tell that deeper story of the people’s connection to Country in the same spirit of the ancestors?'

"Incredibly, the first night I slept up here the wind blew and blew and blew: it was the Old People.

"Until midnight when it turned still. When I finally got to sleep I saw the clearest picture, shown to me by the Old People, that this is what I was to build.

"So I went and drew that the following day, and then all the hard work began."

There is also a sculpture, in the shape of a lotus lily, with 15 different cultural designs from five local artists.

Sadly, some of the Elders who fought for the creation of the site have since passed, but traditional custodians say they’d be looking down proudly.

"It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions," BPAC Board memer Selina Hill said.

"It just goes to show the tenacity from so many cultural hearts to carry on the virtue and the legacy of all of our old people.

"Our ancestors are up above those Bunya tree canopies there just looking down with great pride... they’d say look at our kids, look what they've done. 

"It is because of them that we're here. It's a testament to their legacies."

The construction of the site was made possible with funding assistance from the state government, as part of the $7 million Growing Indigenous Tourism in Queensland Fund.

Although the space has been designed for traditional custodians and other First Nations peoples to pass on cultural knowledge and practices, Uncle Wayne Fossey says it was created for everyone.

"It’s a place to welcome all. Everybody needs to come and take some time to be able to do so," Uncle Wayne, BPAC Director said.

"They [non-Indigenous people] are the biggest learners."

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