Ezzard Flowers: Reconnection and collaboration

Narrator: Welcome to Heartland Journeys and to the powerful insights of Noongar Elder Ezzard Flowers. Uncle Ezzard’s life story includes living with his extended family on country as a young boy and then being removed from family and placed in a mission. Following this experience, he faced the challenge of reconnecting to family and country and seeking his identity and purpose as a Noongar man.

Now, with many achievements to his name, Uncle Ezzard is a widely respected Noongar leader.

In this story you will hear the Noongar words ‘boodja’, which means country, and ‘wadjela’, which means white person.

Uncle Ezzard’s interview took place on a rainy south coast day in 2018.

I was born in Gnowangerup which is Goreng country. And I also have connection to Menang country and Wadjuri country. Before I was eight, I was taken out on country, I learnt the language, I learnt the connections, I learnt the totems, I learnt the songs, and I actually knew what I was meant to be. But then at the age of nine, that all came crumbling down because I was taken away from family.

I come from a strong family background that connected me to country and I think those years leading up to me being sent away, it sustained its purpose for me in regards to connection to country. Because even though that 1905 Act was meant to break the spirit of the Aboriginal culture and the Aboriginal people, and to disempower them, by putting us back on Missions in the bush, that sustained our sanity, simply because we seen the bush there, we heard the birds, and we used to go for bushwalks, every now and again.

So we were still connected to country in one way or another. But the psychological impact of that coming out the other side, we wasn’t taught to be prepared for going back looking where you come from, knowing where your family is, learning how to survive in a big city, and learning how to reconnect. it was all a big re-education process for me, going back home, listening to my family, connecting to them and sitting down listening and watching and hearing how they were talking, what they were doing.

So with the process of reconnecting to family that not only empowered me because I was reconnected to family but also going out on country with family you know, taking the kangaroo dogs out hunting kangaroos or going down to Bremer fishing in the previous family connections I had all my grandmothers and grandfathers there but this time, when I came out of the Mission, they weren’t there. So all that stuff that I learnt from them, prior to going into the mission site, I had to listen and try and pick up bits and pieces.

Narrator: Education, including a Diploma in Aboriginal Mental Health, has provided Uncle Ezzard with a vital pathway to reconnection and leadership. He is a John Curtin Medalist, recognized for his leadership in the repatriation of the Carrolup Artworks to Australia, and he’s Vice-Chair of the Wirlomin Noongar Language Stories Project.

Even though there’s been a void there for me, growing up from eight through to 35, I think going back into education has re-strengthened my spirit and reinvigorated my way of thinking systemically and culturally and also now as I’m getting on in age, as a leader I don’t want to lead from the front, I want to lead from the side, I want to lead and guide and pass on what I know to the next generation, so that my knowledge is not lost when I go. I want to make sure that people are working together, and that everybody when we come together, we all have a voice. And we all need to be mindful and respectful that what we bring to the table or on country should only be in support of one another, and collaboration with one another to look after what is important to us, not only as Aboriginal people or wadjela people but as a human society.

Narrator: Uncle Ezzard has strong messages about caring for the environment, including a story that begins with young Ezzard and his family camping near five mallee fowl nests in bush near Gnowangerup, before he was taken away to the mission.

Prior to being sent away, there was everything there that I was able to connect to through my Elders – my uncles, specially when we were staying out at Mindaribin on a farm there, which is mallee country. We had five huge mallee fowl nests on our doorstep where we was camping in the bush and my grandfather was clearing the land for the local farmer there.  the mallee fowl, were abundant back then.

And then after going into the mission and coming back out I only went back out to the site last week, where we were staying and that was an emotional reconnection. Not only to see the clearing of the land and the mallee fowls are no longer there, but the reconnection of being back there for me brought to me how significant Aboriginal sustainability needs to be in regards to protecting and taking care of the environment. Aboriginal people need to be front and centre in all conversations, in all programmes, in all projects of sustainability. They can lead and guide and educate. And also people will then get a full understanding of the significance and why we are still here because we haven’t rolled over and laid down. We still maintain our connection, our identity more so, simply because of the environment. And as long as the environment is still there, the boodja, the country, Aboriginal people will be still connected to country.

Working with caring for country and looking after sites and listening to the Elders talk about significant sites in the region, it brought back a lot of that Dreaming stuff of our connection, and the stories that connect from the land to the sky. even with the songlines, and the stories that we were fortunate enough to get back I think not only did that empower me and renew my spirit, it gave me a vision to look through the eyes of a black fella and understand and know and connect how significant and important the environment is to us in regards to our survival, our continuity and our collaboration and partnerships.

Narrator: Caring for Country is not only about connection for Uncle Ezzard, it is also tied to the Noongar seasons.

Aboriginal people got six seasons and that’s how they work to protect and preserve the environment through those six seasons, and everybody within those individual regions, do their own protective taking care of country.

When we look back to how this land was prior to settlement, we got to look from the Dreaming, to the land, from the land to the culture, from the culture to spirituality, and from spirituality to the people. Aboriginal people always knew that their environment was within a circle, and that everything within that circle was used for purpose of survival and sustainability.

When you think about land, well then you got to connect people to that land, and you got to connect the Dreaming to that. So the circle was complete and unique, so much so, that when Aboriginal people went to protect, preserve and sustain what they had within their culture, it was all about connecting to the biodiversity, through knowledge that’s been handed down, whether it was through dance performances, corroborrees or whether it was through language in song.

Oral knowledge and connection has always been passed down through two systems, one was the woman’s business, the other is the men’s business. And that’s how Aboriginal sustainability and culture preserved and sustained itself up until the coming of European people. then once European people came in, they looked at the land and the environment through different eyes. The Aboriginal eyes were that everything was connected and was there for a purpose. Why? Because not only was it a form that sustained them as people, but because of their totemic connection and also their spiritual connection.

So people spirituality and totemic connection sustain the Noongar people. Why? Because everything we see around us is not only living and part of the environment and its connectivity, but to us, because it’s totemic, it’s a living existence, it connects with our spirit.

Narrator: There is a great desire from Noongar and wadjela people to help the land get back its strength and Uncle Ezzard sees collaboration as vital to that work.

Once we learn how to communicate, collaborate, and work in partnership, then the land will get its strength back because at the moment, everybody’s working in boxes, the box over here doing stuff, there’s a box over here doing stuff, but if we open those boxes up to make it into a circle, then we can hear Mother boodja breathe a sigh of relief because at the moment her veins are being polluted because of introduced species and other things.

Our totemic connections are disappearing in one way or another. And the black fella needs to be back on the land, working with the wadjela bloke, because all that knowledge and information that we share and collaborate with one another could only mean that the legacy that we leave for the next generations, a lot better and healthier.

We need to breathe life back into the nostrils of mother boodja to make sure that her heart is pumping again and that blood is running through her veins, there’s ways and means that we could do things that protects our environment.

Not only do all us Aboriginal people have a moity or a totem we want to pass on to the broader community things like that as well. Every Shire has an emblem. But we want to give them something to connect to in a cultural perspective. We want to not only shake hands, we want to embrace and work together for the better of our environment. We’ve got a beautiful environment, right from Walpole right through to Esperance.

When we talk about boodja  we respect boodja, because boodja to us is our  Mother Earth,  her bloodline and her strength and  what flowed through her sustained us as a people, as a community , as a society, even though you don’t see infrastructure that rises like the Empire State Building or Sydney Harbour, our infrastructure is the bush, we take care of it, we protect it, we preserve it, why? Because it does the same to us.

Narrator: This has been a Gondwana Link production with story development by Nicole Hodgson, Margaret Robertson and Keith Bradby. Narration by Nicole Hodgson and music by Rod Vervest. Our warm thanks to Ezzard Flowers, and to audio editor Teresa Ashton Graham and producer Kim Lofts of Blue Manna Studio. Thanks also to Frank Rijavec and Margaret Robertson for the original recording.