Lynette Knapp and Alison Lullfitz: Connecting on Country

Narrator: Welcome to Heartland Journeys and to this story told by Lynette Knapp, a Merningar Elder and Adjunct Research Fellow and Dr Alison Lullfitz, Research Associate, both at the University of Western Australia. Lynette and Alison are walking and talking together on a bush property beside the Pallinup River, near Boxwood Hill.

Connection to country is a strong thread in their friendship.

And you’ll hear, on this windy day, Lynette begin by describing how Tallerack, or the blue mallee, is such a strong marker of Merningar country and how it’s common along the south coast, on land formed from an ancient sea bed, over thirty million years ago.

Lynette: Traditionally, we know our country by the growth of whatever plant that we can relate to. Merningar Country or Menang Country, that is the heart and soul of my existence is the ocean to the south, to the end of the Tallerack, the blue Tallerack in the north. And from Denmark in the West, right through to Israelite Bay in the east.

This tree tells me where me where my country is. It’s Tallerack.

That’s the blue mallee tells us where the Merningar country is. If I took my father anywhere during the day and we’re out of country, travel home at night, the minute the headlights hit that because it just lights up silver, he’d say, “Oh my girl, I’m home.” And that’s what that means to me – it’s home. It tells me where my home is.

Alison: I feel pretty grateful that I was born in this part of the world.

This is the landscape that I’ve grown up feeling familiar and comfortable in.

The farm I grew up on backed on to the Fitzgerald River National Park, so our nearest neighbour was the Ranger for the National Park. Our house was in that really kwongan kind of stuff and really diverse and there was also lots of really nice creeks with big Mo trees, as I know they are now, but then we called them yate trees. And there was a lot of bush that hadn’t been cleared out the back of our farm. So my brothers and I used to spend an awful lot of time out there.

We really developed that appreciation, I guess, for the bush. I can’t remember ever specifically learning that, we lived in this really biodiverse place, I don’t know if we would have used that language, but we just grew up knowing that it was a pretty special spot, even though we’d never really been anywhere else particularly.

Narrator: For Lynette, plant and animal totems hold great spiritual significance. Totems link her, her family and her ancestors to her traditional country as part of an integral ecological system. A study of human DNA haplogroups carried out by the University of Copenhagen has linked Lynette’s family with Merningar Country for at least 75,000 years.

Lynette: We’re totemic people. Every Noongar person has two totems: that of a plant and that of an animal.

So that makes us a part of this ecological system, we’re an integral cog in the wheel of the Australian bush habitat. This is us. We belong here.

When we die we believe our spirits go back into our totems to replenish and keep them going. So when those totems die, they become totemic spirits their spirits and our spirits go back into the rocks out at the Porongurups, or Borongurur. Borongur is totem, when you say totem, we say borongur and the place where those connections are kept are in the rocks out at Borongurup or Porongurup as it is now, so it’s like a shrine to us, that place. It’s an absolute shrine. Rocks hold all our secrets, all our spiritualism’s in rocks.

We are given those totemic things and we look after those totemic things. If we fail to there’s a huge consequence. Not so much in punishment for us but it’s taken away because you’re not looking after it properly.

This is my totem plant that I recognise on country. This is what they call teack, its emu bush. The ends, when they come out, they’re like little tiny babies dummies and when they go pink, they’re like bush sugar, lovely and sweet. But that’s my totem plant.

My animal totem is the yurdi yurdi bird, what’s called a yurdi yurdi bird. When I hear her, if we’re camped somewhere, and she’s talking from a long distance, we know that someone’s coming from that way. So we would all sit down and wait for whoever’s coming from that way to come home. The yurdi yurdi bird and I can’t describe it to you because I haven’t seen it. But I’ve heard it. She tells us everything.

Alison: But the reason that you haven’t seen it is because you weren’t allowed to.

Lynette: No, no, you can’t look at it.

Narrator: Through the story of the great serpents, swamps and the underground world, Lynette offers incredible insights into Noongar beliefs. She also shines a powerful light on the impacts that come from breaking cultural links by damaging the environment and from the legacy of the Stolen Generation.

When you’re going through country and you see all different swamps along, they’re all connected through an underground passageway. So we’ve got a world down there as well as a world up here.

The great serpents going through underground tunnel ways, that’s their breath holes when they come up to take a deep breath of air to go down and through an underground passageway to the next one. My family look at all those swamps as where the serpent took a deep breath.

The creation underground is just as rich as what is up on top of the ground. But the top of the ground is being destroyed, and all that underground stuff is going to be not there either. Because they need the top part as well as the bottom part to live, breathe.

It hurts me to see all those things being cleared – swamps and waterways because it compresses the ground and the life underneath, the world underneath, stops. When they stop, everything disappears.

As a child we were taught not to go near any springs or waterhole, because of the great serpents that lived in them. I remember when we were in Bremer, all us kids were wagging school and we were all running around trying to sneak on whatever they told us was in these waterholes around the townsite, that is, now there’s no waterholes there now because they’ve all been filled in and we went to one and there’s this great big black and white serpent. I can remember it just rolling over into water and disappearing.

And that was the last time I went and disturbed anything. We got in trouble, we got in a lot of trouble for doing that. What do they say now? You reap what you sow? It’s very similar. but our culture is we don’t just talk about it, we live it, so far up ‘til now we’ve lived that culture. I mean because I was left home by myself and my brothers and sisters were taken away and put in the mission, you can see that link that’s been damaged, like a waterway that the holes been filled in, you know what I mean, the waterway has been broken, compressed, and that’s what’s happened to my brothers and sisters.

Our culture’s been broken. Like, I remember someone asking my father about cultural stuff, many years ago, not long before he died. He died in 92. And I remember him saying that the black man’s world wasn’t never the same, you know, after they took over, it was never the same. It’s been broken. There’s a thing that you break and you can’t replace it.

Narrator: Lynette shares a powerful and important story from her father about connection to country.

Lynette: Carol and I joined the Southwest Aboriginal Land and Sea Council Working Group representing our family. Noongar country is run on a consensus. So you take home your information after I went to the first one, I went home and I said to Dad, I’m wanting to know from you, what your connection to country is. You tell me what your connection to country is and I’ll think about it. Yeah, he had a good old think, and he said to me, ‘Well, my girl when my mommy found me’, in other words, when he was born, didn’t say his birth that was a no, no, you didn’t talk about that kind of stuff. ‘When my mommy found me, all the Yorgas, all had a yardie, that’s woman’s dance’, he said, and ‘everything to do with mum finding me was buried in the ground.’

He said ‘That’s my DNA connection to this land. My boodja, my country, this is yours. This is your connection to this country. This is your kids, their kids and their kids.’ He said, ‘it’s in that ground for centuries and no-one can get it out because they wouldn’t be able to find it. The DNA would still be in the soil, they can bulldoze the place down, put it over there in a big heap, but it would be still in the soil. They can’t get rid of it. So that’s our connection to this country.’

And I was quite satisfied with that because it helped me understand his need to be connected to country. for an old, old man to tell me things like that, it was very important.

Narrator: Alison and her partner Rob own the property where this conversation is taking place. Located next to the very high and steep riverbank, it offers breath-taking views down and across the sharply curving form of the river.

Lynette: Well that’s magical isn’t it. That river there is what is known as the Pallinup River. Noongars call it Marra River. And it’s a big dividing line for tribal stuff. you got to have permission to go over the other side of that. So the tribes all belong on the Merningar coastline or the Menang coastline, but I say Merningar because that’s how it is.

They’re all the same except when you come to cross borders, like this here, you got to ask permission to go over the other side. And look at it, what a magical, beautiful place it is.

Narrator: Across Merningar Country, Noongar people have shaped the growth of some trees to funnel water down the stems into a deep ‘bowl’ near the base. The water collected is often for ceremonial or medicinal purposes.

Lynette: We’re lucky in a way that Ali and Rob owns this property because on their property is what we call gnamma borna, in other words, a watertree. Gnamma borna – tree is borna, gnamma is water.

What you can see is a very important tree even though its dead now, it’s been looked after very well. And this here would have been part of a lid to go on top of that. Possibly stop animals getting into it. But you see how the bark was used to catch the water as it came down from the tree and just redirect it down here to fill that up.

This is one of the farming methods of water. They would have used this water to possibly perform ceremonies, a very ceremonial tree I’d say.

Narrator: Lynette and Alison are talking at a grove of moodjar trees, or Nyutsia floribunda, also known as the Christmas Tree.

Lynette: I’ve never known any Noongars to camp under it {Yep} I’ve always taught go away, leave it alone, let it grow, it’s our spirit tree. And of course Aboriginal people and spirits are a big thing and this is the pathway to kooranup. Kooranup means long place, means Heaven. Well koora means long time ago, or for a long way to go, so this is the beginning of those travels so we don’t want them spirits coming out and onto us, so we steer clear of camping under these places. They’re sacred.

Alison: So it’s like the link between us real living people and kooranup?

Lynette: Kooranup. Yeah that’s the land that they go to, that’s our heaven. Our spirits go and sit in those branches and rest for a certain amount of time and then they take their journey to kooranup.

When these flowers come out about Christmas time we believe that’s all our spirits that have used this to launch themselves into kooranup. Their spirits coming back to look over their country. So we don’t pick this tree if it’s in flower because that’s killing your spirits.

So that’s the story of the old moodjar tree.

Narrator: Being part of and looking after country are central to Noongar beliefs and culture, and this is often at odds with non-Aboriginal concepts of land ownership. For Lynette, there is an enormous impact from country being cleared, fenced and developed, without consultation.

Lynette: When you look at mountains and hills and things we call them Kaart, Kaart. Our heads are kaart. So when we are on country and we’re on kaart or amongst kaart, amongst the great mountains. We know they’ve got eyes and ears. And they’re watching our every move, so we have to show those kaart special consideration. We have to respect them. If we don’t respect them, we know that we’ll be paying for it down the track. It’ll come back to haunt us.

We belong to the bush. We belong there because our totems are an integral part of the landscape.

That’s how we live it. that’s what we believe in. It’s like losing a finger or losing an ear or something, it’s a part of you, it hurts. It hurts to see things knocked down and big great concrete slabs put where they shouldn’t be put. And there’s no consultation. You know no one comes to a blackfella and say ‘Oh, can we build a house here or put a building there, and what’s so important about it if we do?’ Of course it’s important, its replacing all our culture.

And I suppose that’s why it was so easy to take country off us because there was no ownership put on country, or boodja, We were a part of it, we didn’t own it. Whereas when people come along started putting up fences, it stopped everything and it knocked all our bush out. We don’t own it, it owns us, it more or less owns us. We do what that system tells us we’re part of the landscape.

That’s why we got totems, we have to look after those totems, and that’s gone. It’s not lost, its stolen. Because everything’s not there anymore. As a child, I used to watch those great tractors with great big chains, just driving through country. And then it was heartbreaking, really, because when they cleared the mallee, I’m talking about mallee country, up up around the wheatbelt area where my father and his brothers were shearers, and when you see the great chains going through, and then all of a sudden, it’d be all flat. And all the sudden one little tree would pop its head up. It was like, Help me! You know, it was, it was distressing.

Your property, Ali, is the only property that I’ve been on without a fence. Fences were a great big part in chucking us out of our country. Harrison and I know that we can come here any time of the day, doesn’t matter when and we’re welcome. Yeah. It’s different, you’re treating the country with respect, Ali, and that’s the way I think it all should be. And its welcoming.

Alison: I think since getting to know you and spending time with you, and Aunty Carol and Uncle Eugene and other Elders I feel a lot more of a sense of responsibility too though. Because your old people looked after this for so long {thousands of years}, yeah, for tens of thousands and we’ve got the privilege because they looked after it so well to enjoy it. And so I feel like it’s this responsibility to them.

 Lynette: Yeah. I mean, when we first got involved down here, we came in and burnt a lot of this stuff out here. And it was wonderful seeing Harrison and the girls going through looking for bardis. And they’re all having a good old feed of it. It was awesome.

Alison: it’s been incredibly heart-warming. I loved that day. And you’re there showing the kids how to cook the bardies on the fire and, you know, it just felt like that’s how it should be {Yeah} It just felt…

Lynette: Well, there’s been no difference between us here has there?

Alison: Well, I’ve learned a lot from you.

Lynette: And same here, vice versa.

Alison: I think the big thing that I’ve learned is that it’s, I used to think how important wilderness was, you know, these untouched kind of places {mmm beautiful} and now I think I feel really differently. And I feel like I think the worst thing that I could see ever happening to this place is for it to have no one to look after it, to not have people to care for it. that sort of been this 90-degree flip in my mind, and it’s been since…

Lynette: We’ve corrupted you.

Annette: In a good way.

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