A new RMIT Gallery exhibition weaves connective threads of the rich cultural, ecological and economic flow of water across Australia and India, lands once linked over 100 million years ago.
water + wisdom Australia India (1 December 2017 – 10 March 2018) looks at the importance of waterways in our everyday lives, and explores how artists, researchers and film makers in both countries continue to tell the story of the stewardship of water through creative activities.
The exhibition features a specially commissioned documentary People of the River, in which Elders N’Ahweet Carolyn Briggs and Aunty Di Kerr share their traditional knowledge of the Victorian waterways.
The following are edited extracts of their insights from the film.
N’Ahweet Carolyn Briggs
The largest wetland in Australia
Melbourne as we know it, Barunga, the country, was the largest wetland in Australia. The story of the rivers is one of the continual journey cycle of our food sources and our connection to place. When the watercourses were changed there were blockages and it had an impact on hunting, and people were pushed further away from their natural food sources like fowls and eels. We have got to understand how the billabongs and the lagoons are all connected up with the waterways of the major water that we know as the Yarra or Birrarung. That's why you've got the floodings every now and again. The river is trying to find its way back. Water will always reclaim itself and remind us. Man can't keep changing her direction.
If you follow the river it also floods down along what we know as St Kilda Road. The water goes along there and you'll see the tree, which about 700 years old. It's the river red gum. It's the last standing reminder of when the river course flowed out and connected up to that bay we now know as Port Phillip Bay. But sometimes you can look out to that amazing bay and see the fresh water still working its way through the sea water. So that's about the balance of life.
The importance of eels
The eels go on this amazing journey and they have to find their water course. They can travel under muddy places, but that’s the natural travel journey path of the eels. Sometimes under Melbourne University when there's big floods coming through you can see the eels doing their natural run from those drains right down to Elizabeth Street where it can flood.
Eels travel through to our beautiful bay and then go off. Some go to Gippsland, then they birth, then the children follow the same pattern of the watercourse for their long journey to another part of their world and come back.
The mastery of the eel traps were something that came from what we know as Budj Bim down near Portland in the western district. That's made up of other groupings of people. But there was this trade route. People talk about song lines and story lines and it was also about food trade. And that tells me about enterprise and it also talks about the great engineering feat of the Mara people and their watercourse and channelling the floods down in that region. And also creating stone houses, which is another amazing engineering feat of the people of that region. It says something. It says there was a bit more permanent settlement. But it was also understanding that we used the natural fish traps in the riverways and we dined well on smoked eel and other delicacies.
Aunty Di Kerr
The waterways are very important to us because the land is our mother, so I consider the waterways to be the veins of our mother, you know, very important. And you look after them. Today we do ceremony, women's ceremony at Badger Creek. We always do it near the sacred waters because water is important to everybody. It's based on tradition. But what we do now is part of our history because we are a living history. We haven't gone away and we teach the younger ones about not only their land and where they belong, but about the water and the fish and the seasons.
We do our water ceremony at the beginning of each year. We also do women's coming of age ceremonies and baby naming ceremonies along Badger Creek amongst the old trees from the Mission. We honour the water and we don't take it for granted. And when you go down there, if you ever go down there, you can actually feel the spirits of the ancestors and I can picture them, I can feel them that much that I can see them across the banks of the river. And so it was a very important area because it’s an initiation ground
The importance of the river
I hope that people understand that historically the Birrarung river is very important to First Nations Peoples and always will be, and we need to share between each other and look after it. People can't just keep taking from the land and waterways, using it up without thinking where it's coming from.
The water ceremony is about obeying the laws of Bunjil, which is not to harm the land or the waterways. People don't honour the Birrarung, it's dirty. But we try to keep it clean and do as much as we can because it's our mother, it’s part of our mother, and you always look after your mother. You never neglected her, you always honoured her and that's how we're been brought up.
I worry about what it's going to be like in the future for our future generations. If we don't teach young people to teach others, then we're going to struggle in life. So I hope that people will start to listen so our future isn't dust. That would be very sad. I've seen the rivers go down and down and down. And I've seen the creeks dry out, I've seen that. I've seen actual rivers disappear in my life and it's sad.
RMIT Gallery acknowledges the ownership of Traditional Knowledge by N’Ahweet Carolyn Briggs and Aunty Di Kerr.
water+wisdom Australia India runs at RMIT Gallery from 1 December 2017 to 10 March 2018 and is free to the public.
Story: Evelyn Tsitas