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After decades with no traditional burns, Noongar Elders return to Denmark forest

Emma Ruben -

After a decades without a burning involving the Noongar people, the Shire of Denmark has seen their first Elder-led Noongar burn.

The burning was part of a cross-cultural collaboration by the University of Western Australia and the Walking Together project.

The project aims to build on the knowledge of conservation biologists and Noongar Elders to inform contemporary management of the unique biodiversity and cultural assets of south Western Australia.

The burn in Denmark was led by PhD candidate Ursula Rodrigues after it became the focal point of her honours project.

Noongar Elders Carol Pettersen, Aden Eades, Averil Dean, Ezzard Flowers, Lester Coyne, Lynnette Knapp and Treasy Woods participated in the burning.

Rodrigues said this project felt natural after studying a Indigenous studies and natural resource management.

"I naturally felt that in my education...the teaching was not keeping up with the rhetoric that we were having about managing land, and whose land it is to manage, and whose right it is to manage," she said.

"Especially in the south-west region which is so biodiverse and really really unique from a biodiversity perspective but also has a really long history of being managed my Noongar people.

"So we spent a week in the bush down here in the great southern and that sort of changed my perspective a lot and opened my eyes to what was possible and what was being excluded."

A member of the Denmark fire service passes the matches to Aunty Carol Petersen to begin the burn. Photo: Shire of Denmark

Noongar Elder Aunty Carol Pettersen said their focus as Elders is on the health of the land.

"The fire is only a tool and that's how we feel, that we listened to the land and respond to those natural messages that come through, it's like a sub-conscious," she said.

"The fire is just a tool and for the health and the needs of the land to stay healthy, it's a trigger for our obligation to truly care for the land."

Aunty Carol said what underpins their way of burning is looking at what is the best way to work with nature.

"So when we look at fire and we do patch burning, that's all about providing shelter or ensuring that we provide shelter and food for the animals," she said.

"When we look at what happened in Victoria at all those animals that died, for those who survived there was nothing left for them to eat.

"So our cultural burning provides those patches so that the animals including a tiny beetle, can blow in the wind.

"Prior to all these wild bushfires, we were never afraid of fire. Fire was a friend, fire was our tool, fire was our medicine, fire had a spiritual energy to it."

After decades without a cultural burning, Aunty Carol said she hopes it doesn't take just as long for the next one.

"It's wonderful that it's now a national conversation, it's wonderful that the conversation has seeped down to a local level, " she said.

"For us it has been a yearning. It's been a yearning to want to do something to heal the land because we could hear the crying was a sense of powerlessness.

"But on that day, they gave me a box of matches and said you light the fire...and it was a very emotional feeling.

"I didn't see any people, I didn't feel any people around me. What I felt was connection with nature and culture once again."

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