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First Nations cultural values could be harmed by decline in remote waterholes, NT academic warns

Brendan Foster -

First Nations' connection to Country will be broken if waterholes across Australia continue to be poisoned and polluted, according to Northern Territory academic and proud Nyunga man Dr John Binda Reid.

Dr Reid's ground-breaking study looked at First Nations migrations and their connections to waterholes and found the poisoning of remote billabongs is the equivalent of polluting Sydney Harbour.

"Aboriginal people across the Northern Territory have come together to tell us that these waterways are sacred and an important part of their identity," he said.

"People need to understand the significance of the waterhole, it is where life begins."

The Research Fellow from Charles Darwin University interviewed representatives from 11 communities and six language groups, over six years, to study the 'drivers' of Aboriginal male migration in central Australia.

Dr Reid's research found waterholes were critical for the ceremonial, cultural and social life of Aboriginal tribes who lived in remote environments.

"The waterhole was a place where knowledge development and knowledge transfer occurred, it was a place where belief systems were conceptualised, it was a place where cultural values evolved, Dr Reid said.

"The waterholes across the region are the epicentre of migration patterns for all the men surveyed in the study, they all confirmed that waterholes and billabongs are places that men travelled to in precolonial and even now in post-colonial times to practice ceremony and share knowledge."

Dr Reid studied the oral history and Indigenous methodologies with waterholes and discovered there was a direct relationship between the breakdown of First Nations' traditional values with the loss of billabongs.

"When I first started, the blokes kept talking about how the billabongs and waterholes are the beating heart of their country, and the rivers, creeks and streams that flowed into the billabong resemble blood vessels, and arteries that pump blood into and out of the heart and up into the brain, where all the important cultural thinking takes place," Dr Reid said.

"The men believe that if the rivers and creeks become damaged by kardiya (whitefella) development, then that waterhole becomes poisoned -then the hearts of Yapa (Aboriginal) people get weaker. When that happens, culture might die, and ceremony and storyline die too.

"You have to keep the billabong strong like we have to keep our heart strong, and we can only do that by keeping it healthy and free from poison-if the water is contaminated then everything else will die like the plants and trees and animals."

Dr Reid also explored what he dubbed the 'ngapartji-ngaparti' (Three R's' Respectful Reciprocal Relationships) practised at the waterhole by animals and humans.

He said governments and researchers needed to implement ngapartji-ngaparti to build a reciprocal respectful relationship between all stakeholders.

"If we can connect Indigenous methodologies, which are grounded deep in traditional Aboriginal belief systems, these can help us learn how to properly listen, engage and collaborate with First Nations people," Dr Reid said.

"We must listen to these voices to ensure that these stories and knowledge can continue to be shared for generations to come."


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