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Tradition runs deep

Ena Koongotema. Photo by James Hughes
For thousands of years before westerners arrived in Australia Indigenous people were living on the land using practices that are, in some places, still used today.

Ena Koongotema, an Indigenous member of Aurukun Uniting Church in Far North Queensland, remembers how her people used to live off the land.

“They used to go out; they used to walk (no vehicle and that) into the bush collecting food,” she said. “In the dry season the grass used to be dried and they would go out and burn it.

“Then when the rain came you would have green shoots.”

The use of controlled burning not only encouraged regrowth of grasses, attracting animals for hunting, but it also cleared scrub making it easier to walk through and making snakes more visible. Smoke also flushed animals out of hiding places making them easier to hunt.

This practice changed the landscape of some parts of the country, with more fire resilient plants becoming dominant.

Modern days

These days hunting spears have been replaced by rifles as traditions adapt to modern technology.

Ms Koongotema said that while Indigenous people moved around, they did so to specific places of importance to their clan.

She said people in Aurukun these days do the same thing.

“We have five clans and they go to their outstation,” she said. “People from the north go to the north.

“They would have to make a canoe in the old days and now we have the outboard motor and transport.

“I’m from the inland, timber country.”

Ms Koongotema has a fondness for the bush and said people were healthier living on the land.

“People don’t get sick and they are healthier out in the bush.”

She also spoke of the benefits of bush medicine and said it was important to eat what was in season.

More than land

Author Meredith Lake reflected in Tear Australia’s Target magazine (“Land for development” issue 3, 2010) that land is not just a place that provided food and water.

“It’s connected to everything we do as communities, cultures and societies,” she said. “Land is fundamentally about culture as well as nature.

“For most of human history, land has been a crucial part of how people and communities have understood themselves, their relationship to others, even their relationship to God.”

She said for Indigenous Australians land is intrinsically linked to their identity and spirituality.

“For Aboriginal people, land is not so much an object to possess as something to be part of and belong to.

“It is a source of personal identity not in the mere sense of being from this or that place, but in the very intimate sense of kin identification with particular sites and the plants and animals that exist on them.”

Photo : Ena Koongotema. Photo by James Hughes