Caring for country

The place where the Dreaming changed shape

SMALL FIRES STREAK the savanna beneath me, as the land is worked and cleaned. The gentle smoke on the horizon is sign of a healthy country. In the distance, disappearing into a soft haze, lies the rugged stone country of the Arnhem Land Plateau. The plane wobbles over the mouth of the Liverpool River, where saltwater meets fresh, and descends towards a thin ribbon of grey on a cleared patch of thick, earthy red: the international airport. On one side of the airstrip, a few dozen houses cluster around a football oval; on the other, a neat grid delineates the newest suburb, called simply ‘New Sub’. Maningrida, as our destination is known, takes its name from the Kunibídji phrase Mane djang karirra: ‘the place where the Dreaming changed shape’.[i]

The town’s simple layout belies the immense cultural diversity of its inhabitants. On any given day, a visitor might hear the rippling sounds of Ndjébbana, Eastern Kunwinjku, Kune, Rembarrnga, Dangbon/Dalabon, Nakkára, Gurrgoni, Djinang, Wurlaki, Ganalpingu, Gupapuyngu, Kunbarlang, Gunnartpa, Burarra and English. In per capita terms, it is perhaps the most multilingual community in the world.

Indigenous ranger Ivan Namarnyilk picks up our small team of artists, scientists and historians from the airport and drives us out to Djinkarr, where we will be staying for the next week. Djinkarr is a small outstation powered by a run-up generator with beautiful fresh water pumped from the ground. It is one of dozens of such settlements scattered across western Arnhem Land: small clusters of houses inhabited by one or more family groups, often remote from the main settlements and usually poorly connected by unsealed bush tracks. It is the kind of outstation that is out of favour with the current government, the kind that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott targeted with his ‘lifestyle choices’ rhetoric and that former minister Amanda Vanstone dismissed as a ‘cultural museum’. With the current government focus on ‘regional hubs’ (the centralisation of services in towns), the long-term future of these outstations seems tenuous. Yet there are overwhelming benefits to having people living on country. People sustain country, and country in turn sustains people.

Anthropologist and economist Jon Altman, who has worked in the region since the late 1970s, argues that supporting local Indigenous communities in their efforts to stay on country should be regarded as a form of development and conservation: ‘Developing these communities in accord with market logic is replete with contradictions.’[ii] Instead, he advocates a local ‘hybrid-economy’ where customary activities – such as hunting, burning and painting – interact vigorously with state and market regimes. The experiences of community-based Indigenous ranger groups, which employ thousands of young men and women across Australia, demonstrate the immense benefits of this model. Through these programs, a new generation of Indigenous land managers are using cultural and historical experience, as well as new technology and Western expertise, to care for their country. It is no coincidence, Altman argues, that the most ecologically intact parts of the continent are Aboriginal owned and managed.[iii]

During the next week our team will be working from Djinkarr with dozens of Bininj, as the people of western Arnhem Land are known, to tell ‘healthy country’ stories through paint and performance, science and oral history. Many of the artists involved, like Ivan, are also rangers who manage the Djelk Indigenous Protected Area to the south of Maningrida. I am helping to record the stories that are being captured in the art, as well as reflections from the rangers about their role in caring for country.

The Djelk IPA is a vast estate, extending across monsoon rainforests, tropical savannas, grasslands, wetlands, sea country and stone country – and it encompasses the territories of a hundred and two clans. It has been carefully cultivated and transformed by people for over fifty thousand years.[iv] But since the arrival of Europeans, this management system has broken down and the land is rapidly degrading. Archaeologist Carmel Schrire, who worked across Arnhem Land in the 1960s, laments that the present landscape ‘owes no more to cataclysmic events like the Pleistocene ice ages than it does to outwardly trivial ones, like the release of a few imported buffaloes from a minor outpost of a now faded empire’.[v] Buffaloes, pigs, feral cats and cane toads have trampled, chewed, rubbed and wallowed their way across a delicate ecosystem, destroying habitats, spreading weeds, muddying springs, transforming the vegetation and exacerbating the eroding impact of wildfire. The effect on native species has been devastating. Their decline and extinction have deprived the Bininj of bush tucker as well as delivering a more existential loss: the displacement of totemic beings from their ancestral homes.[vi] ‘Such loss,’ argues conservation biologist John Woinarski, ‘stains our society; it demonstrates that we are not living sustainably; it degrades our legacy.’[vii] As Ivan reflected in 2015: ‘Country is in the heart… Bininj, today, it’s like we’re suffering.’

In the painting workshops that artists Mandy Martin and David Leece are facilitating at Djinkarr, this frustration comes to life in magnificent fluorescent colours on canvas. A sick echidna burrows into a termite nest surrounded by invasive plants and orange cane toads; the stomach contents of a feral cat are painted in x-ray style; electric-green mission grass grows up against white mimih figures on a rock wall. ‘That mission grass,’ Ivan tells me, ‘it’s messing with the mimih spirits. It’s hiding them.’ The art is a powerful way of telling stories about the changes that are happening on their country, and which the rangers are working to control. It is also a means of raising awareness at a time when government support for Indigenous land management programs remains flimsy and ephemeral. The contrast of traditional ochres and fluorescent pigments seeks to capture the rupture that feral animals, invasive weeds and wildfire represent. Ivan, who was taught to paint at the age of twelve by his father Timmy Namarnyilk and his ‘big’ father, the rock-art master Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, shows me another painting that captures the essence of the project. It is of a fluorescent feral pig rubbing up against the ochre art of a rock wall. ‘This troublemaker,’ he tells me, pointing at the feral pig, ‘he’s destroying all of our painting, this rock art here. Damaging stories. So maybe we’re going to tell stories of this one troublemaker, damaging our land.’


DESPITE MANY ATTEMPTS, Arnhem Land was never conquered, nor systematically settled by white colonists. The failures of successive large-scale and ill-devised schemes for development have, ironically, allowed northern Australia to retain vast areas of relatively unmodified landscapes.[viii] Even today, Arnhem Land exists largely outside the economic currents of mainstream Australia, and its intricate social structure eludes familiar labels such as ‘millennials’, ‘gen X’ and ‘baby boomers’ that are bound to twentieth-century Western culture. The opportunities and challenges facing young men and women in Arnhem Land have instead been defined by a different, parallel history.

As late as 1933, journalist Ernestine Hill described Arnhem Land as being ‘the only corner of Australia that has persistently baffled, and even frightened, the white pioneer… For one hundred years Arnhem Land, by the sheer ferocity of its natives, has defied colonisation.’[ix] Anthropologists Rhys Jones and Betty Meehan believe the key to the resilience of the Bininj is their long history of contact with other cultures.[x] For centuries, Macassan voyagers from Indonesia visited the shores of Arnhem Land in search of trepang, building stone houses and growing rice along the coastline, trading with local communities and even taking Bininj with them back to foreign ports. Macassan words entered the local dialects and still remain: ‘Balanda’ (whitefella) is believed to have a Macassan root.

This long history of interaction ended in 1907 when the government refused to grant fishing licences to non-Australian operators.[xi] Only a few industries were exempt from this aspect of the White Australia Policy, and in the early twentieth century Japanese pearlers began to frequent Bininj sea country, building wooden huts across the landscape, their walls plastered with ‘yellowing pictures of naked Japanese women’.[xii] Since 2007, the Djelk Rangers have joined with the Australian Customs Service (now the Australian Border Force) to monitor illegal fishing activities off the coast: the modern manifestation of a long history of cultural contact. This innovative arrangement involves fee-for-service payments, which are an integral part of the meagre funding the Djelk Rangers receive from the federal government. ‘We know all their hiding spots and where they need to come for fresh water because we have been trading with fishermen from Makassar for many centuries,’ write rangers Victor Rostron, Wesley Campion and Ivan Namarnyilk. ‘This gives us a bit of an edge… We know our sea country.’[xiii]


MANINGRIDA WAS NEVER meant to be a town, let alone the fourth-largest town in the Northern Territory. The idea for a ‘trading post’ on the Liverpool River came from Syd Kyle-Little, a patrol officer of the Native Affairs Branch in Darwin, in 1947. Since the late nineteenth century, mines, missions and buffalo-hunting camps had caused a drift of Aboriginal people from their homelands into built-up areas. Bininj were drawn to settlements by curiosity, trade and access to food and tobacco. In an attempt to stop this drift, Kyle-Little suggested creating a commercial centre in the heart of Arnhem Land, where Aboriginal people could get access to European items such as blankets, tomahawks, sugar and tea in exchange for crocodile skins, dingo scalps, pandanus dilly bags, dried trepang and pearls. ‘I envisaged all sorts of possibilities,’ Kyle-Little wrote in his memoir Whispering Wind (Hutchinson, 1957). ‘I even had plans for extending the trading post and persuading the natives to start lumbering.’[xiv] On 9 June 1949 he settled on a site at a place known as ‘Muningreda’.[xv] He paid locals with tobacco to build a paperbark storehouse and he roved around the country spreading word of the new trading post.[xvi] Hundreds of people came to drop off trade goods, seek medical assistance or work for supplies. But the settlement was short-lived. Soon after a devastating outbreak of disease in late 1949, in which many locals died, Maningrida was abandoned.[xvii]

It was not until 1957 that the Welfare Department resolved to repeat Kyle-Little’s experiment and set up a government settlement in Maningrida. It took three days for the new managers to sail to the mouth of the Liverpool River from Darwin. ‘The only map of these waters the skipper had been able to procure was that made by Matthew Flinders in the early 1800s,’ reported Ingrid Drysdale, the wife of the first manager and first white woman to live at Maningrida.[xviii] The old trading post quickly gained a school and a hospital, a supermarket and a snack bar, a sawmill and a church.[xix] By 1969, more than one thousand Bininj lived in Maningrida along with one hundred and fifty Balanda. Missionaries mixed with woodcutters to form one of the largest towns in the territory. But disease and alcoholism were rife. In town, Bininj lived in cramped housing camps, spiritually divorced from their homelands. Even those who remained on their country struggled with the new controls imposed on their traditional practices – especially burning – by Balanda law.[xx] Drysdale lamented that the traditional owners were ‘at the end of their “dreaming” and at the beginning of a new road unmarked by the spirit ancestors who guided their every step in days gone by’.[xxi]

But around 1970, an unexpected phenomenon spread throughout the Northern Territory. In an explicit rejection of attempts at assimilation, Aboriginal people left the cramped housing in Maningrida and began moving back onto country.[xxii] Betty Meehan, who had set up the first school in Maningrida in 1958 and whose first husband, Les Hiatt, had studied social life during the initial contact period, was shocked by the rapid development of what became known as the outstation movement. When she returned to Maningrida in 1972 as an anthropologist in her own right, she was surprised to find that many of the Gidjingali people she had worked with in the town had returned to their homelands. They were hunting and foraging across their rich coastal country surrounding the Blyth River, moving camps according to the seasons and religious needs, and supplementing their diet with food bought from the Maningrida store with money from art sales and pensions. ‘Perhaps twenty years of living in a white-dominated European type town was long enough for the Maningrida people,’ Meehan and Jones mused, ‘perhaps the glitter of the Balanda culture and its material objects had dulled sufficiently during that time… There can be no doubt that they desired to avoid the unpleasant by-products of Maningrida culture – alcoholism and associated petrol sniffing, violence and delinquency – that these were burdens that they no longer wished to bear.’[xxiii]

The outstation movement began tentatively, Helen Bond-Sharp reflects in her history of Maningrida, but with the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 it gained support and momentum under the new policies of self-determination.[xxiv] In the early years at Maningrida, Bininj had experienced a sedentary lifestyle for the first time – and they had rejected it. They were driven by a responsibility to return to country, to tend to sacred sites and to work the land through fire, ceremony, hunting and gathering.

Anbarra elder Nancy Bandeiyama, who allowed Meehan to camp near her hearth on the Blyth River when the anthropologist returned in the 1970s, exemplified the importance of connections to country in navigating the impact of white settlement. Nancy had first seen a white man in 1956. ‘She now wears European clothes, uses an iron digging stick, rides in motor vehicles and listens to rock and roll music on her transistor radio,’ Meehan wrote in 1985. ‘With little difficulty she has reconciled herself to a changing environment and taken from European culture what she wants. She is able to do this because she is firmly attached to her own land, secure in the fact that its resources are hers and that its religious forces are fully intact and working for the benefit of her people.’[xxv]

In returning to Maningrida at the beginning of the outstation movement, Meehan had not encountered ‘the end of the Dreaming’. This was the place where the Dreaming changed shape.


WHEN THE LATE Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek (Wamud Namok) returned to his country to the south-west of Maningrida in the 1990s, he gazed out across ‘the smokeless horizons of the early dry season’ and ‘cried for the emptiness of the plateau’.[xxvi] His companion, Peter Cooke, recorded his sadness at the damage wrought by recent intruders: the muddied springs and floodplains that had been trampled by herds of feral buffalo, bush foods devastated by feral pigs and the destruction of waterholes through erosion from wildfire. In the absence of traditional burning, fire, too, had become feral. The cultural landscape had transformed into a modern wilderness. Lofty was instrumental in helping to re-establish human control over fire in the stone country, working with other Aboriginal leaders, fire researchers, fire management authorities and public and private funding agencies to create the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project, a fire management regime based on an amalgam of traditional practice and use of modern technology.[xxvii] The program gained funding from the government through the carbon credits scheme, as the fire regime’s mosaic of ‘cool’ burns stopped the destructive ‘hot’ burns of wildfire. But, Cooke stresses, ‘The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project did not start with a focus on greenhouse gas abatement, but rather greenhouse gas abatement became an innovative means of securing funding to address the biodiversity, social and cultural agendas of the Indigenous and science partners.’[xxviii]

It was in this context that conservationist, anthropologist and pastoralist Guy Fitzhardinge first met Lofty and became involved in work in Arnhem Land. As a member of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee he joined one of Lofty’s cultural walks across Wardekken country. ‘They would walk and camp, walk and camp, and the kids would learn the names of all the walking trails…it was all part of Lofty’s idea to try to get kids to come back and live on country, to maintain their connections with country, to look after country.’ Fitzhardinge remembers huddling around fires at night listening to stories of the ancestors, and waking up in the morning to the soft singing of the elders. The biggest threat to the environment, he tells me, is ‘empty country’: ‘not having people on country to look after it’.

‘The landscape in Australia has been misread with regard to occupancy, productivity and modes of management since European settlement,’ Fitzhardinge wrote in 2007. ‘The implications of this misreading have been profound, not only in terms of the environment but also in lost opportunities to connect with indigenous knowledge and experience.’[xxix] He played an instrumental role in founding the Karrkad-Kandji Trust, which supports caring for country initiatives in the Djelk and Wardekken IPAs in western Arnhem Land.

The outstations, combined with the ranger services, are the key to avoiding the neglect that comes from empty country. ‘We need a lot of help from each other and from Balanda to make a new future for our outstations because they are where we can grow our culture and knowledge,’ write Djelk rangers Victor, Wesley and Ivan. ‘This is what the outstations are for us; they are like the seed for a big tree… Outstations are not about the old ways, they are the birthplace of the new ways for us.’[xxx]


AFTER A FEW days, I break away from the painting workshops at Djinkarr and join the Djelk Rangers on one of their trips on country. The ranger shed is a hub of activity in the morning as the rangers check the vehicles, discuss the agenda for the day and get lunches from the nearby supermarket. One group prepares the boats for a day on the water in search of ghost nets and illegal fishermen; another loads leaf blowers, drippers and rakes into the back of a ute to use for burning. The ranger program was created in 1991 as one of the pioneering Indigenous land management programs in the country. It now employs thirty male and female rangers, many in their twenties and thirties, who manage the land and sea country of the vast Djelk IPA. One of the young women rangers, Tara Rostron, shows me and photographer Hugo Sharp the crocodile hatchlings behind the shed. Our shadows cause a commotion as we approach, and hundreds of small scaly bodies twist into hiding. These crocodiles, little bigger than my hand, have lived their whole lives in this tank. They were collected as eggs from the coastal wetlands and soon they will be sold to crocodile farms in Darwin. It is another one of the many fee-for-service operations that the rangers conduct to supplement government funding for their work on country.

I am soon bundled into a car and we rumble out of town along the red dirt road, stopping on the way to check up on the outstations and to get permission from landowners to do work on their country. We drive south-east for an hour until the road dwindles into a track and takes us down onto the Ji-balbal floodplain, which is pocked with buffalo wallows and cobbled with their hoof marks. ‘This year we didn’t have much rain. None of this floodplain was flooded,’ senior ranger Darryl Redford tells me. ‘It used to be.’

I help make firebreaks around the outstation, blowing and raking debris away from the houses, cars and water tanks, and then watching as Darryl flicks matches into dry leaves. There is no wind, so the flames creep slowly across the landscape, cleaning the country. It is a calm, cool burn. It is protecting the land and the infrastructure against the threat of late ‘hot’ fires, which burn at a higher intensity because of weeds, and destroy habitats and blacken rock paintings on the Arnhem Land escarpment. ‘You got to look after the rocks,’ another ranger, Greg Wilson, says sombrely. ‘Our ancestors are on that.’

On another day, I return to the floodplain where we did the burning to help monitor the spread of Mimosa pigra weeds. Darryl leads the party on foot through the thick vegetation, searching for the mimosa outbreak he tagged last time. He holds a CyberTracker – a digital GPS device – in one hand and a machete in the other. Ranger Dave Moore roves in advance on a quad bike; Romeo Lane follows us in the troopy, knocking down all that stands in his way. Mimosa is an insidious weed that spreads quickly, suffocates other plants and fuels damaging ‘hot’ burns. It was introduced by Maurice William Holtze around a century ago to the botanic gardens in Darwin, Guy explains to me, ‘and it escaped’. It has virtually taken over some of the floodplains to the west. Here, the outbreaks are more sporadic – and they need to be kept in check.

We spread out in the dense growth of the floodplain, each searching our own line of bush for a rogue sprout of mimosa. Whenever an outbreak is found, a series of high-pitched calls echo through the trees and everyone converges around the weed. Jethro Brian cuts it off at the stump with a big smile and piles the limbs of the tree into a neat circle. Darryl then pours a combination of access herbicide and diesel (siphoned from the car) over the pile and scatters some pellets, which will dissolve in the rain and kill off any loose seeds. They burn the bigger outbreaks. After every treatment, Darryl takes a photo and then records the location on his GPS CyberTracker.

It is a slow process, demanding an attentive eye. In a full day of monitoring perhaps only a kilometre or two of floodplain will have been cleared of mimosa, but there is no way to rush the process. And, as much research has shown, the social aspects of this work are as compelling as the ecological benefits.[xxxi] The ranger program is one of the few jobs that allow young men and women to work on country, which makes it a source of pride within the community. Many kids stay in school longer in order to qualify for the ranger internships. ‘Soon as I was a schoolboy, I was turning up everyday,’ Jake Taylor tells me as we search the dense undergrowth. ‘That was my first job, ranger. I love this work, being on country, looking after country.’ As Victor, Wesley and Ivan write: ‘…looking after country and looking after people go hand in hand for us… For example, we did some work to help researchers on the “Healthy country, Healthy people” study. This work demonstrated what we have always known. Caring for your country makes you healthier.’[xxxii]

After three hours of walking in the heat of the day we come out onto a clear, recently burnt patch of the floodplain and spot some buffalo wandering in the distance. Controlling the population of buffalo is as important as monitoring the mimosa. They carry the seeds on their coats for miles and then trample them into the soil. In the wet season the rangers actively cull the beasts, often from the air; in the dry, the hunt is more opportunistic. Despite industry lobbyists spruiking the potential benefits of selling buffalo meat, the rangers remain determined to get rid of the buffalo. Jake put it to me simply: ‘We look after the country. We don’t like buffalo coming in damaging all this land. People upset.’ Instead of selling the meat, the rangers find other uses for a buffalo carcass, from cutting it up for a feast (and passing on some meat to the owners of the land on which it was shot) to dragging it whole behind a car in order to clear a road – ‘it was the right width’.

The frustration with buffalo reflects a wider concern with the displacement of native species caused by feral animals. ‘At the river there,’ Darryl tells me, pointing over the steering wheel, ‘out on the floodplain, we used to go out fishing, driving along like this and we always see goanna, you know, just strolling along the way… Since cane toad moved in we haven’t seen any goannas round here.’ He goes silent for a moment, before adding, ‘Maybe those animals just move out to some place, quiet place, where no people is hurting them, no late fire coming in.’ In the painting workshops, ranger Greg Wilson has depicted the arrival of these intruders in electric colours. He gets fired up about the changes they have wrought: ‘First Captain something, Captain Cook, he’s the one, he made the mess, mucked up this country. He bring buffalo… They don’t belong here. Get rid of them. This country belong to kangaroo and emu and brolga, not cat or cane toad or buffalo.’

Before returning to Maningrida, the rangers shoot a buffalo on the floodplain and efficiently strip the animal of its flesh as eagles gather and circle above. They stop at the outstation to exchange news about the mimosa outbreaks and distribute the meat to the landowners, keeping two legs for a barbeque at the ranger shed. ‘That old man whose country we’re on,’ Darryl says on the way back, ‘he was telling me when he was a little boy, you know, he was saying everything was good. But he’s seen a lot of change. Soon as when the buffalo got here. Buffalo and pigs. They moved in and that time everything was changing.’


TODAY, RANGERS HAVE incorporated the use of GPS, satellite imagery and aerial photography to help manage their country. Visual artist Alexander Boynes draws inspiration from this convergence of tradition and technology to add another dimension to the painting workshops at Djinkarr. He uses technologies such as depth mapping and 3D imaging to create installations with Aboriginal dancers about caring for country. The result is a dazzling, electric display of movement and sound, in which figures are broken up into lines and dots and primary colours. ‘The colours and textures used in Alexander’s artwork are very Dreamtime,’ his sister and independent dance artist Laura Boynes reflects. ‘It looks a bit like the brushwork they do in their own paintings.’

Laura has perhaps the most challenging task as an artist. She is talking with Bininj about healthy country stories – such as ferals and fire – with the goal of working with them to fuse ‘traditional dance with contemporary styles to create a new dance’. For her, live performance is key. Singing and movement are natural expressions of connections to country. ‘When we dance we follow the stories, we follow everything,’ one young performer, Brendon Cameron, reflects. ‘And plus when we sing, I follow the same story.’ On one of the final days, Laura collaborates with a group of men to choreograph a traditional/new wave dance. One hunches over an iPad, softly singing and drawing a digital image of red clouds and a polluted sea, which is projected onto the performance. Another plays didgeridoo, while a third thrusts a feathered ‘morning star’ pole at the audience with a blood-curdling cry. It is the story of a songline being broken by increasingly wild storms. This performative aspect of the project – along with the digital dimension – feels fresh and exciting. And the reaction from younger generations in the community is immediate. ‘The importance of the project,’ Alexander explains, ‘is to connect… For people in the Djelk IPA to realise that there are people in the wider world who care very deeply about their country and their culture and really want to do very positive things to maintain the lives that they live. It’s not a lifestyle choice; it’s a way of life. It is their life on this land. And the stroke of a pen or the government of the day cannot undo or change sixty thousand years of life on this land.’


IN RECENT YEARS, the population of Maningrida has rapidly grown again; many of the thirty-two outstations in the Djelk IPA are being visited less often or not at all. The Northern Territory intervention and associated policy changes, especially the focus on regional hubs, has seen a decline in outstation support services like the mobile supermarket ‘tucker run’ as well as education and medical support for people living on country. Once more, Bininj are being forced to come off country and into towns. The shift presents new cultural, ecological and social problems, which the landholders and rangers are trying to tackle with their 2015 Djelk Healthy Country Plan. Outstations will play a key role in their plan ‘to keep the land, the sea, culture and languages strong through appropriate use and management’.[xxxiii] Alongside climate change and ‘unhealthy fire’, the management plan outlines threats from pigs, buffalo and ‘problem animals’ like cats and crocodiles, as well as mining, visitors, illegal fishing and coastal pollution. The biggest threats facing this generation, however, are ‘loss of knowledge’ and ‘empty country’.

The Indigenous ranger programs, created in the final decades of the twentieth century, have empowered a generation of men and women to care for their country. The rangers are recognised as expert managers of their lands, harnessing modern tools and knowledge to refine long-established practices and skills. Today, Aboriginal land managers are looking after some of the most biologically intact and culturally rich landscapes in the world. And because of the fabric of interconnections, the programs are also making important contributions to health, education and local economies, and offering meaningful employment to young men and women who want to stay on country. Yet, as one of the early art centre managers at Maningrida, Dan Gillespie, laments, ‘The work is being done on a shoestring and many of the successful outcomes so far are small miracles.’[xxxiv] Too often, ranger programs are dismissed as a form of ‘welfare’ or a pathway to a ‘real job’. The Australia-wide Country Needs People campaign is urging the federal government to heed the funding advice of its own Productivity Commission, which has repeatedly highlighted the ranger programs as one of ‘things that work’ in overcoming Indigenous disadvantage.[xxxv]

The Bininj recognise the immensity of the challenges ahead and they are seeking long-term support and funding for their programs. ‘Today it’s like we’re floating,’ Ivan reflects, hunched over a canvas. ‘In the territory, we always listen Balanda government, we always listen government. But they no listening back.’ The vibrant, electric paintings and performances they have produced at Djinkarr are simply one of the ways they are sharing their story, hoping to create understanding, urging the nation to pay attention.

This essay grows out of a short-term, independent art and environment initiative known as The Arnhembrand Project. The paintings and digital works created during this project have been acquired, through donation, by the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art. The collection will be exhibited at the Macquarie Bank’s ‘Space’ gallery in Sydney from 6-27 July 2017. Learn more about ‘The Arnhembrand Project’ at

This essay was amended on 29 May 2017 to include a correction to the number of rangers employed by the Djelk Ranger program ,which is thirty. The earlier version suggested 'more than sixty', which was incorrectly sourced from the Djelk Healthy Country Plan 2015–2025. This version now reflects the actual number of employees.


[i] Victor Rostron, Wesley Campion and Ivan Namarnyilk facilitated by Bill Fogarty, ‘Countrymen standing together’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), 162–73.

[ii] Jon Altman, ‘Living the good life in precarious times’, Inside Story, 2 June 2015, <>

[iii] Jon Altman, ‘People on country as alternate development’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), 1–25., 2.

[iv] Christopher Clarkson, Mike A. Smith, Benjamin Marwick, Richard Fullagar, Lynley A. Wallis, Patrick Faulkner, Tiina Manne, Elspeth Hayes, Richard G. Roberts, Zenobia Jacobs, Xavier Carah, Kelsey M. Lowe, Jaqueline Matthews, and S. Anna Florin, ‘The archaeology, chronology and stratigraphy of Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II): a site in northern Australia with early occupation’, Journal of Human Evolution 83 (2015), 46-64.

[v] Carmel Schrire, The Alligator Rivers: prehistory and ecology in western Arnhem Land (Canberra: Australian National University, Terra Australis 7, 1982), 17.

[vi] JCZ Woinarski, S Legge, JA Fitzsimons, BJ Traill, AA Burbidge, A Fisher, R Firth, IJ Gordon, AD Griffiths, CN Johnson, NL McKenzie, C Palmer, I Radford, B Rankmore, EG Ritchie, S Ward and M Ziembicki, ‘The disappearing mammal fauna of northern Australia: context, cause, and response’, Conservation Letters 4 (2011), 192–201.

[vii] John Woinarski, ‘Correspondence: After the Future’, Quarterly Essay 49 (2013), 85–88, 88.

[viii] John Woinarski and Freya Dawson, ‘Limitless lands and limited knowledge: coping with uncertainty and ignorance in northern Australia’, in JW Handmer, TW Norton, and SR Dovers, eds, Ecology, Uncertainty and Policy: Managing Ecosystems for Sustainability (New York: Prentice-Hall, 2002), 83–115, 84.

[ix] Ernestine Hill, ‘Arnhem Land: Deals, Death and Defiance’, Northern Standard, 21 Jul 1933, 5.

[x] Rhys Jones and Betty Meehan, ‘The Arnhem salient’, in Desmond Ball, ed, Aborigines in the defence of Australia (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1991), 100–62, 100.

[xi] Campbell Macknight, The Voyage to Marege’: Macassan Trepangers in Northern Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1976), 124.

[xii] Syd Kyle-Little, Whispering Wind: Adventures in Arnhem Land (London: Hutchinson, 1957), 177.

[xiii] Victor Rostron, Wesley Campion and Ivan Namarnyilk facilitated by Bill Fogarty, ‘Countrymen standing together’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), 162–73, 169.

[xiv] Kyle-Little, Whispering Wind: Adventures in Arnhem Land, 123.

[xv] Ibid., 172–73.

[xvi] Ibid., 177.

[xvii] Ibid., 237.

[xviii] Ingrid Drysdale, The End of Dreaming (Adelaide: Rigby, 1974), 81.

[xix] Helen Bond-Sharp, Maningrida: a history of the Aboriginal township in Arnhem Land (Howard Springs: Helen Bond-Sharp, 2013), 114–123.

[xx] CD Haynes, ‘The pattern and ecology of munwag: traditional Aboriginal fire regimes in north-central Arnhem Land’, Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia 13 (1985), 203–214.

[xxi] Drysdale, The End of Dreaming, 194.

[xxii] Bond-Sharp, Maningrida, 141–46.

[xxiii] Betty Meehan and Rhys Jones, ‘The outstation movement and hints of a white back lash’, 1978, 135.

[xxiv] Bond-Sharp, Maningrida, 157.

[xxv] Betty Meehan, ‘Bandeiyama: She Keeps Going’, in Isobel White, Diane Barwick and Betty Meehan, eds, Fighters and Singers: The lives of some Australian Aboriginal women (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1985), 200–13, 211.

[xxvi] Peter Cooke, ‘A long walk home to Warddewardde’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), 146–61, 147.

[xxvii] Peter Cooke, ‘Buffalo and tin, baki and Jesus: the creation of a modern wilderness’, in Jeremy Russell-Smith, Peter Whitehead and Peter Cooke, eds, Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australian Savannas: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition (Canberra: CSIRO Publishing, 2009), 69–84.

[xxviii] Cooke, ‘A long walk home to Warddewardde’, 153.

[xxix] Guy Fitzhardinge, ‘Attitudes, Values, and Behaviour: Pastoralists, land use and landscape art in Western New South Wales’, PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney, 2007, 81.

[xxx] Rostron et al, ‘Countrymen standing together’, 172.

[xxxi] CP Burgess, FH Johnston, HL Berry, J McDonnell, D Yibarbuk, C Gunabarra, A Mileran and RS Bailie,  ‘Healthy country, healthy people: the relationship between Indigenous health status and “caring for country”’, Medical Journal of Australia 190 (2009), 567–572.

[xxxii] Rostron et al, ‘Countrymen standing together’, 167.

[xxxiii] Djelk Rangers, Bininj Landowners and Jennifer Ansell, Djelk Healthy Country Plan 2015-2025 (Maningrida: On Demand, 2015), 9.

[xxxiv] Dan Gillespie, ‘Foreword’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), vii.

[xxxv] Productivity Commission, ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators’, 2016 report, 145.

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