This year’s NAIDOC Week theme is ‘Heal Country!’. To celebrate, we shine a light on the vital conservation role of Indigenous ranger groups Gudjuda Reference Group Aboriginal Corporation and Girringun Aboriginal Corporation, and find out what healing Country means to them.
Protecting the hawksbill turtle is healing Country
Gudjuda Ranger Coordinator and Elder Eddie Smallwood has a special connection to turtles.
“My Aboriginal name is Gungu, which is the turtle. I'm very proud of that because it was passed down by the elders,” Uncle Eddie said.
For Uncle Eddie, protecting critically endangered turtle species like the hawksbill is a culturally-significant way to put this year’s NAIDOC Week theme into practice. “The NAIDOC theme this year is healing Country. And I think it's a whole opportunity here for everyone to get together and work on Country.”
In collaboration with James Cook University’s Turtle Health Research Facility and WWF-Australia, Gudjuda and Girringun Rangers assisted the release of eleven hawksbill turtles on the Great Barrier Reef in early May of this year. The hawksbills were fitted by the rangers and JCU research staff with satellite trackers, funded by WWF-Australia, to improve our understanding of this critically endangered species.
For Birri Gubba Juru Elder and Gudjuda senior ranger Jim Gaston, it was a significant moment seeing the hawksbills discovering the ocean for the very first time.
“It’s important for us to return back to yunga yalga, which is mother earth and the sea, what we take. So by returning and releasing the gungu or sea turtle that’s our part in the big picture”.
Uncle Eddie agrees wholeheartedly. “The land and sea are part of our mother nature and we want to continue looking after our Country. As a Bindal person, which is part of the Birri Gubba nation, it's great to be involved in this research because it’s another way of healing our Country”.
When Country is hurting, we are too
For WWF-Australia Indigenous engagement manager Cliff Cobbo, a proud Wakka Wakka man, healing Country means respectfully acknowledging why so much healing is needed. “If you talk about healing, that means there's a wound, there's a scar. Something's happened. Somebody is hurting in this case. It's not only the first peoples of this place, but it's also Country. Country is hurting.”
Girringun Aboriginal Corporation’s Olivia Mooka believes healing Country is a journey that extends across land and sea. “Once we lose all the rainforest and animals and stuff like that, then we're going to be trying to do everything we can to get it back to how it used to be.”
Take action together now ‘while we can’
Cliff and Uncle Eddie see working together in partnership and practice is the best pathway forward. “You know, even just with beach cleanups, we all got a job to do and not just Traditional Owners, but everyone”, Uncle Eddie says.
For Cliff, Indigenous ranger groups working together with researchers at JCU is a perfect example of such partnership. “Saltwater people want to be at the pointy end of the research. They want to integrate their knowledge, which goes back thousands of years. Marrying Western science and traditional knowledge is the best way to conserve turtles for future generations”.
“We all need to come together to heal Country. And we can only do that through partnership, through respect, through an understanding whereby we listen to each other only. Then when that happens, we can start the process of healing.”
– Cliff Cobbo, WWF-Australia
Olivia believes taking action to heal Country now is the key. “Healing it now while we have the opportunity to saves us all the trouble, trying to save, save animals and like plants and stuff from extinction. Do it now while we can.”