By Jasmin A. Fragias, Bachelor of Advanced Science (Physics)
What is country? What country do I live on? How can I connect and learn more about country as a non-Indigenous person living in the city with no connections to the Indigenous community?
These are the questions I asked myself stuck at home in the midst of lockdown during the COVID -19 pandemic. Stuck inside the house, I craved the outdoors, longing to be present in nature. I missed my family. I missed connecting with friends in person, and as panic buying kicked in and supermarket shelves were nearly stripped bare, I started to wonder how I could survive in the bush and what native foods I could eat, in admiration of Aboriginal people who have done so on this land for thousands of years before us.
Welcome to Country
Studying remotely meant Welcome to Country was conducted a little different. Instead of the beautiful Welcome to Country video acknowledging the traditional custodians of the Macquarie University land, the Wallumattagal clan of the Dharug nation, Professors and Lecturers would now respectfully acknowledge the countries units were being delivered from, followed by acknowledging the ancestors who have been studying the natural world on this land for millennia and paying respect to Elders past, present and future.
But what is this Welcome to Country? (I note this is the title of a must see TEDx Talk) Jade Kennedy, a Yuin man from the Illawarra and South Coast of New South Wales, asked his grandparents after attending his first day at university and hearing his first ever Welcome to Country in a building. To answer this question his Elders replied: “Son, the question is “What is Country?” and just like Jade did in his own way, I was motivated to embark on my personal journey to learn more about the land I live on, be culturally more aware and ultimately become a better global citizen.
Steps of Action
Step 1: Find out what Country you live on
I found out quickly that I live on Wangal country and that in fact, we are, thanks to Rachael McPhail, a Gomeroi woman’s campaign (supported by Australia Post), welcome to add the traditional place name of our residence to the first line of our address. I think this is a fantastic initiative to celebrate our First Nations people and to acknowledge the traditional land we live on. You can find out Traditional Place names through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) or like I did through your local Council.
Step 2: Learn how to connect with Aboriginal Culture where you live
The Coursera course ‘Cultural Competence - Aboriginal Sydney’ (UG: Credit Petition – 10 points) not only helped me to develop cultural competence capabilities, it also encouraged me to explore the history of my neighbourhood and learn about initiatives my local council had undertaken to assist in preserving and promoting sites of cultural significance. Here I discovered that in fact my local area has four Aboriginal culture sights, in which evidence of etching and middens indicate that the traditional owners of this land previously used the waterfront for fishing and conducting feasts. Through this newly gained knowledge, I feel a greater appreciation for the land I live on, and my curiosity continually growing, ready to explore, learn and care more for country.
Step 2: Learn about Native Plants and Indigenous Food
I was fortunate to use one of my Dine and Discover Vouchers to attend an Aboriginal Bush Tucker Tour at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. However, even without the voucher, this is a very affordable way to learn more about native plants, Indigenous bush foods and their traditional uses. I will not spoil it for you by going into detail, rather encourage you to attend a tour for yourself to taste and learn more about bush tucker. All I can say is, that I will guarantee you will be mesmerised how in tune Aboriginal people are with nature and how they respect and care for country enabling the land to thrive.
While you there, I also recommend you visit the Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters and First Farm, where guests are invited to walk and spend time, to read, to respect and to reflect on images and stories from local Indigenous people along the 50m Gadigal storyline. The sculptural “storyline” displays the Indigenous history of Sydney, which was put together from a wide range of sources, including over 40 interviews with local Aboriginal people. It was here that I gained even more insight regarding colonisation and the first encounters between early European settlers and the traditional owners of this country. The thought-provoking trail tells the story of racism and injustice, and sadly the high number of children who taken away from their families never to be reunited again (The Stolen Generation).
Step 4: Learn from the Traditional Owners of this land
You don’t have to study science to attend the Indigenous Science Experience (UG: GL X28 – 10 points), a hands-on free, community open event celebrating Indigenous and Western science. It is filled to the brim with knowledge to be shared and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. From Yaegl Elders sharing information regarding bush medicine, South Coast Seaweed sharing knowledge about foraging edible seaweeds, I also gained further insight regarding Aboriginal artefacts and their traditional uses. Besides, by attending the Indigenous Astronomy Talk presented by Dr Robert Fuller, I learnt about the Dreamtime story of Tnorala and how Aboriginal people read to night sky to obtain knowledge ie. regarding the right time to collect emu eggs, which is when the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Emu appears in the night sky. Further, I learnt how songlines are used to travel long distances, and that even some of our roads today follow songlines, after first settlers consulted with Aboriginal people. But the day did not finish here. Visitors, including myself, were taught by Rayma Johnson (dancer/choreographer of the Buuja Buuja Butterfly Dance Group) how to perform a traditional dance, joyously filling the room with beaming smiles and laughter.
Steps 5: Learn more about Aboriginal Culture beyond your state’s borders and perhaps even their language
‘Kaya, nganyang kwell Jasmin. Naatj kwell? Ngany Australia boodja. Windja noonook boodja?’
(‘Hello, my name is Jasmin. What’s your name? I am from Australia. Where are you from?’ in Noongar language)
Noongar people are the traditional owners of the south-west of Western Australia. To date, completing the Noongar Language and Culture Course (UG: GL X26 - 2o points) has been the highlight of my journey so far. Not only did I learn a range of conversational Noongar words and phrases, enabling me to string together a few sentences, I also learnt about Noongar boodja (country) in WA, the weather, the six seasons, the flora, the fauna, native bush foods and traditional medicines. I learnt about Koori yeyi (past to today) Noongar's history, as well as gained wonderful insight into the Noongar spiritual and cultural beliefs, and contemporary expressions of Noongar culture through art, music and dance.
And now? What is Country?
I have learnt that country is much more than the land, sea and sky. Country is about people, family, relationships and the connection with ancestors walking in their footsteps. While during lockdown we may have longed for to travel overseas to learn more about foreign countries, history, foreign languages and cultures, let’s not forget the 60.000+ years of history and culture we have here in Australia.
This journey has been such a rewarding experience and I can only recommend embarking on your own. Having an open mind and always on the lookout for more opportunities to learn and grow, I know this is not the end of my own journey, I will continue to open new doors, find ways to educate myself and hear the stories awaiting to be told. I started this journey after having already completed 200 Experiential Credit points. Now graduating the GLP with Merit has made this experience even more rewarding!