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Change through cooperation

THERE are all kinds of Aboriginal activists, from the individuals you see at the political protests to the people in the back rooms of private and government enterprise.

Injabandi (southern Pilbara) man Noel Nannup, an activist at heart, quietly joined the department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) in 1978 because he wanted to make a difference.

At the time he was the only Aboriginal person employed at CALM.

“I genuinely believe that CALM is going to be the saviour for our people and I believe that history will prove me right,” he says.

Mr Nannup says the increasing awareness of Aboriginal issues in the 1980s and 90s inevitably led to change within the department.

“By the late 1980s I had reached the position of senior ranger and I couldn’t go any further,” he says.

“I was in charge of several big national parks and, for my own spiritual survival, I introduced Aboriginal elements to my work.

“I would sit and talk with the Elders and I had to sit and work in both worlds.

“When I went back to my mother’s country in the Pilbara I could see that I could do more.

“I learned how to burn the country, softly.

“A one-man operation, using the elements, knowing when the dew point’s coming in August.

“Knowing that if you light a fire with a certain

wind it will trickle across the country and

go out in the early evening when the dew falls.

“I was ranger in charge of the first national park in Australia to be fully staffed by Aboriginal people, and when we made the day-to-day decisions you can’t imagine the sense of power and self-control we had. Our self-esteem went through the roof.

“We made sure that the things we wanted were included in our budget, because we were in control, and that’s been maintained in that park to the present day.”

Mr Nannup says that, while he was convinced these practices could be introduced to land management through CALM, the stumbling block was his lack of sufficient education to reach a position of influence within the organisation.

He decided to study Cultural Heritage Management at the only place it was offered – the Canberra College of Advanced Education, from mid-1989 until the end of 1991.

“The changes within CALM have been many,” Mr Nannup says. “The fact that I’d been out there learning was part of the change. Going back to get an education was part of it, and the Eddie Mabo decision (1992) was part of the change.”

Mr Nannup subscribes to the oft-made claim that Aboriginal people are the best land managers because its an inherent part of their culture.

“We are the greatest land managers that ever walked on the land, and we do have something to offer and we do have something to contribute,” he says.

“There are fantastic career paths for Aboriginal people in this area and the way of the future is joint management.

“It will take some time to implement within CALM because there are some staff that need to change their attitude towards Aboriginal people as land managers and stop adopting the attitude that CALM’s way is the only way to do business.

“We’ve started cross-cultural awareness courses to help do that.”

Mr Nannup has been the head of CALM’s Aboriginal Heritage Unit for nearly six years.

“This unit is paramount for effecting the kind of change I want to see and I’ve found that everything I’ve perceived and considered and aspired to has happened in relation to Aboriginal people becoming involved in land management with CALM,” he says.

“I’m about to start employing Aboriginal students as they finish their university studies.”

Mr Nannup says the wider community should be encouraging Aboriginal land management practices and traditional links to land, rather than listening to myths and misinformation, such as the ‘Native Title will take your back yard’ campaign of the 1990s.

“There’s an order for everything, no matter what culture you’re from,” he says.

“You’ve got to be healthy, and if you’re not it means that the environment in which you live is not sustaining you. So if you take control of those things you’ve got people who have the right frame of mind to be educated.

“The saddest, most lacking thing in our country is that the majority of people can connect to only the past 200 years, and they think that this is a new place and they’ve got no culture.

“A base-line is the Aboriginal way, which will connect all of those people. If you’re seventh or first generation Australian, you can say that you were born here.

“In the Aboriginal way, if you were born here then this is your place, you come from nowhere else.

“When you can connect that fact into ancient stories and can see that story physically in the landscape, then you’ve got people who will change their attitudes.

“We live in a land that demands movement.

“If you don’t move, it will move you.”

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