A story 65,000-plus years in the making — the Nyikina Dreaming of Woonyoomboo — has been documented in an interactive multimedia e-book for Indigenous youth before some locations are potentially destroyed by development.

In 2006, an early print book project led by Nyikina Elder Annie Nayina Milgin and Sharing Stories Foundation Founder Liz Thompson, told the origin story of the Martuwarra (the Fitzroy River) in WA’s Kimberley region.

“Annie and I worked together mapping the story on paper and then travelling with children from Nyikina Mangala Community School out on to Country where Annie transferred the knowledge to those young people, or deepened it,” Ms Thompson told NIT.

“Then I worked with the young people at the school with Annie to interpret the stories through art.”

The print book led to another eight years of collaboration between Ms Milgin, John Darraga Watson, Sharing Stories Foundation and the Nyikina Mangala Community School.

Annie teaching kids about Country, Jarlmadangah. Photo supplied by Sharing Stories Foundation.

The result; Woonyoomboo the Night Heron, an 85-page multi-touch book telling Woonyoomboo’s story in a truly interactive way.

The story of Woonyoomboo is written in English and local language, accompanied by artwork, animations and songs relevant to the journey sung by Mr Watson and Ms Milgin’s father, Darby Jayi-kala Narngarin.

“Everything that we’ve done . . . has been driven by this deep imperative from Annie’s perspective to ensure that knowledge is recorded for Nyikina young people,” Ms Thompson said.

“Ensuring it’s available in future and is passed on.”

A mapping man, Woonyoomboo rode the Rainbow Serpent across Country as it created the Martuwarra. Along the way he began naming things: plants, places, and animals, and left law for the people to follow.

“He (taught us) how to look after the river and have respect for the river,” Ms Milgin told NIT.

“You got to do the right things for the river . . . that’s the law he put for us as he journeyed.”

For Ms Milgin, recording cultural knowledge is essential so young people can learn “the right way”.

“We’re putting the stories there for our kids . . . (so) they know who was the Creator,” she said.

“It’s very important, so they can protect the river and Country and all this (land).”

Ms Thompson said another aspect of the project driven by Ms Milgin involved upskilling the young people in digital media.

“(It was) to make sure young people could work alongside their Elders to record their knowledge in new ways, using new technologies . . . ensuring young people could self-represent, sharing stories in the public domain in a vibrant way,” Ms Thompson

Story recording in action. Photo supplied by Sharing Stories Foundation.

While upskilling and recording knowledge were two major outcomes of the project, they were not its key purpose.

“The focus wasn’t about this incredible book that is now available as a resource . . . it was actually about the practice; transferring skills and inscribing the story in young people,” Ms Thompson said.

“The actual creative act of making the book has been a process of returning people to Country for the purpose of intergenerational transmission.”

John Darraga Watson and Annie Nayina Milgin leading a Walangari with young people in Jarlmadangah Community. Photo supplied by Sharing Stories Foundation.

Ms Milgin agreed and said teaching on Country was not as easy as it was before.

“Our Old People talked to us, (took) us out on Country before . . . what our Old People taught us we had in our head and we grew up with,” she said.

Now, with the increasing threat of development on Country, it’s better to record knowledge before it’s lost forever so young people “will never forget, they will carry on”.

“I’m not a founder, I’m a teacher. My founder is our old people who had knowledge,” Ms Milgin said.

“All those young people are now waking up. We have two ways: modern way and Indigenous way. That’s my work, two ways together. It’s not for me, but other people.”

The WA Government has plans to develop the Fitzroy River, including a water allocation plan for the Fitzroy catchment, a commitment to preventing the river being dammed, and a national park.

This potential development threatens important cultural sites for the Nyikina people and other Traditional Owner groups who live along the river, prompting them to form the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council in 2018.

An important stakeholder group in the region, Traditional Owners hold Native Title across the entire catchment area and own approximately half of the pastoral leases.

While discussions were largely on hold due to COVID-19, a discussion paper was tabled early last month outlining the McGowan Government’s approach to development.

Water Minister Dave Kelly said the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation had “consulted with pastoralists, Traditional Owners, environmental groups, and other stakeholders about protecting the cultural and environmental values of the river”.

Minister for Regional Development Alannah MacTiernan said the paper was “a real step forward” in continuing discussions.

“Community, industry and others will all have the opportunity to provide their views on the role water plays in supporting and diversifying the economy,” she said.

The paper has been released for comment until May 31 next year and is said to form the basis of further face-to-face consultations with Traditional Owners and other stakeholders.

However, many traditional owners are against taking water from the river altogether, with some gathering to create Voices of the River, a campaign sharing Traditional Owners’ views towards developing the Fitzroy Valley via video.

“Our concern is with the farming. If they’re getting more water out from here what are we going to see, another Murray-Darling? Because all that riverbed’s all dry, trees are dying,” said Gooniyandi woman Helen Malo.

Another “voice of the river”, Walmajarri man Anthony McLarty, said the river has always been a spiritual place for his people.

“They’re wanting to extract water through big pumps for irrigation, for cattle grazing. They’re wanting a lot from us but nothing’s actually coming back to our table,” Mr McLarty said.

“When you start looking at the Murray-Darling river system and how that’s been affected by huge development and the fight for water, the river became sick. This is all dry Country . . . we just can’t trade water for every dollar. Water is a natural resource for everybody to enjoy.”

For many, the current state of the Murray-Darling Basin is a scary yet real prospect for the Fitzroy River. Ms Milgin, who sits on the river council, said the Martuwarra must not suffer the same fate.

“The biggest worry for us is what happened to Murray-Darling . . . we don’t want things like that happening to us.”

By Hannah Cross


*Editor’s note: This story contains some changes that were not in the print version of NIT’s Dec 3 broadsheet in The West Australian.