Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following story contains images and names of people who have died.
MOST Australians — even those in the cities — grew up having some sort of natural bushland within striking distance of their home or school.
‘Seeing eyes’ reveal the true
nature of Australian bush
Primary school children learnt that somewhere within apparently ordinary bushland, were medicinal plants, condiments to season food, and all the tools and material needed to feed, clothe, and house the first Australians before Europeans arrived.
Sadly, however, most people these days walk through bushland seeing only nondescript scrub.
In modern Australia, particularly urban Australia, those “seeing eyes” now belong almost exclusively to Aboriginal Elders, many of whom are re-learning traditional knowledge that up until a couple of hundred years ago was passed down from generation to generation.
They read the history of the land as though they were reading traffic signs on the road.
They gather food, medicine, even toys as easily as modern Australians fill their trolley at the neighbourhood supermarket.
Bandjin and Warragamay elder Uncle Russell “Rusty” Butler used to earn a living as a guide, teaching people about the way his ancestors were sustained by their country, and everything that grew, or lived there.
Russell with some mattrush stem, a bush tucker plant akin to celery. The long leaves of the small, bushy plant are also used for making baskets, and, plaited together to make ropes, and in modern day, even stylish hatbands.
Knowledge is an eye-opener
“It only takes a little bit of knowledge to open people’s eyes so they can see at least some things previously hidden to them,” he said.
Bush cherries still a little way off being ripe.
Russell, 71, grew up in Townsville. Mum Julia, from Hinchinbrook, was a Bandjin woman who met Albert Butler when he was travelling through North Queensland.
A Tagalaka man and skilled stockman, he was a long way from home, having been raised on properties near Croydon and Normanton where, as an adult, he was put to work.
Julia and Albert fell head over heels in love, but their marriage was always dogged by the disapproval of Bandjin elders who thought Julia should have married within her own tribe.
Albert felt he was forever looking over his shoulder for the man who surely must come to deliver retribution with a spear.
At one stage, he felt the safest place for his family was a traditional home under a tree in the middle of the dry bed of Black River, halfway between the railway bridge and the road bridge.
The soft sand on all sides provided a natural barrier that would slow any potential attacker.
Russell remembers a flood swept their home away and forced them to move up onto the river bank.
Fortunately, it coincided with Albert getting work at the railway, so life continued with nary a hitch for the children.
The Charters Towers branch of the Butler family included a number of stockmen pictured here at Black River, having just delivered a mob of horses from the Towers.
Two of Russell’s siblings – Bert and Margaret Butler. Margaret was a talented athlete and became famous within the extended Butler family and friends for having once beaten Betty Cuthbert on the running track. Russell doesn’t remember the distance or the occasion, but remembers it was at the Bohlevale State School and, as usual, Margaret ran with bare feet.
The youngest of their eight children, Russell remembers the Black River home well.
He remembers gathering bush tomatoes, bush cherries and enjoying impromptu snacks like mistletoe, bush peanuts and ti-tree flowers.
He and his siblings and their friends learnt all the uses for natural bush foods… bush celery, fruits and nuts, and the incredibly versatile palm trees, particularly the cabbage palm, because, like children everywhere, they were nearly always underfoot while their mothers and aunties prepared meals.
They also used what was available in the bush to make their own toys, including “rocketballs”.
Long before they became a fad in Toyworld, Russell, his cousins and their mates were pegging rocketballs at rocks and laughing as their friends tried to catch them ricocheting speedily away.
“We used to collect rubber vine sap, put it into a bottletop and let it cure, then carve it into a smooth ball,” he said, grinning.
Next generation of elders
Almost 15 years younger than Russell, Gudjala elder Reg Kerr, Charters Towers, was also familiar with rubber vine sap, but he used it to “improve” cricket balls.
“We unstitched the two halves of an old Kookaburra, filled each side with rubber vine sap and, when it was cured, stitched the ball back together,” he said.
The doctored ball would behave with decidedly more verve and bounce than even the lively indoor cricket balls that came along much later.
Cultural heritage, connection with country, tribal lore and history are subjects that until recently held little interest for Uncle Reg.
Now, he is passionate about it and enthusiastic about making it as accessible as possible to the next generation of Gudjula.
His moment of epiphany arrived when a visiting anthropologist handed him an artefact – a stone cutting blade – one of hundreds lying about on an area that had once been a napping floor, a sort of open-air workshop where all manner of tools, hunting weapons and cooking implements were produced.
It’s no exaggeration to say holding that artefact in the palm of his hand and wondering about where, and how it had been made, and by whom, changed his life.
“I became obsessed, and now I try to spend time on country every week,” Reg said.
Database for the young
His bedroom is packed with artefacts collected from forays into Gudjula country around Charters Towers.
It’s bittersweet for him that most of what he knows about his heritage, his culture and about the artefacts, sites and plants he finds when he is out “on country”, has been gleaned from Youtube.
Reg documents every find, photographs every item, and carefully records each survey of Gudjula land, no matter how brief, in a database he hopes will form the basis of a tool to ensure the knowledge is passed on.
He is well aware of the irony of using the most modern technology to ensure the cultural survival of the world’s oldest civilisation.
NQ Dry Tropics has helped Reg, and people like him from other North Queensland tribal groups, by providing a private, secure facility where all their material can be archived.
Senior Project Officer Ian Sinclair who works with 16 Traditional Owner groups across the NQ Dry Tropics Natural Resource Management region, said the database facility was at the very least, insurance against the inevitable disastrous losses that would occur when information was stored on one personal computer, with no backup.
The NQ Dry Tropics facility – available to all the groups represented in the NQ Dry Tropics’ Traditional Owners’ Management Group – is secure, completely private (the owners of the information have complete control as to who can access it), and is protected by backup.
Since the Mabo decision in 1992, and the resulting Native Title Act passed in 1993, Traditional Owner groups have accepted the responsibility of continuing their connection with the country in which their cultural heritage is contained.
Most commonly, once determination is granted, that process begins with cultural surveys, basically a sweep of the land looking for sites, and artefacts of significance to the tribe.
Amazingly, these cultural surveys, often sporadic and covering relatively small areas, still uncover ceremonial sites that appear to be largely untouched since they were last used by traditional Aborigines.
Only weeks ago, a ceremonial site – at first guess, possibly a place involved in initiations – was discovered north of Charters Towers.
Reg, accompanied by Yulba man Russell Purcell, a family friend, found a small ceremonial site they had never before seen, tucked away in a fold of a hill.
Reg knew immediately it was a special place.
About 10m deep and five metres wide, a circle of stones in the centre dominated the area.
Inside there was a smaller circle, possibly marking a fireplace. Around the outside at a fairly constant distance from the perimeter of the main circle was a series of small cairns of basalt stones, each including a firestone.
(The firestones are easy to identify because of the small hole drilled into them by the action of the firesticks spinning on the rock).
He stayed behind while Russell led the way to the napping floor out of sight and out of earshot from where Reg stood quietly on the edge of the newly-discovered site.
Fifteen minutes later there could be little doubt about Aboriginal connection to country.
These eyes and the slight tremor evident in his whole body was clear evidence he was deeply affected by what he felt when he was alone at a site he firmly believed his ancestors used for important, and very spiritual ceremonies.
Fear or excitement, Reg couldn’t distinguish, but he knew there were people from eons past affecting him, watching him while he was near those stone circles.
He thinks it may have been an initiation site, and another suggestion that it may be a “meeting place” to bestow good luck on young lovers is also a possibility.
The Gudjula dreaming for the area is that the Rainbow Serpent, common to almost all Aboriginal creation dreamtime stories, clashed with the Sea Serpent near where the North Queensland coastline is now.
During the battle, the rivers, mountains and coastline were formed and the Rainbow Serpent became a series of islands, beginning with the tail that formed the Great Palm group of islands and going through Hinchinbrook to the head of the serpent that became Magnetic Island.
The scales that were shed during the battle fell on Gudjula country near Charters Towers leaving only the long, flowing lines of basalt rocks behind.
Firestones – the telltale holes drilled in them by the action of the spinning firesticks – are placed at regular intervals around the circle of stonesfound by Reg Kerr.
NQ Dry Tropics’ Traditional Owner Management Group includes representatives from the Bidjara, Jangga, Manbarra, Mywaigi, Birriah, Bindal, Juru, Wangan, Warrungnu, Jagalingou, Gia, Gugu Badhun, Widi, Wulgurukaba, Gudjala, Yirendali and Iningai groups.
If you would like more information about the support available to NQ Dry Tropics, contact Senior Project Officer Ian Sinclair firstname.lastname@example.org or ph: 4799 3545.
A grinding stone where, mixed with a little water from the nearby stream, grain and other food was ground into a paste.
Known around Charters Towers as the “tree of hope”, this pair of trees could represent reconciliation. Nobody is sure whether the white tree is supporting the black tree or vice versa… and that’s the point.
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