Please note, this piece contains the name of a person who has passed away.

Driving out of Mudgee NSW, the mountains end and the land begins to flatten.

Nestled out in the wheat covered, red dirt country is Balladoran, home of Wiradjuri elder and small-town celebrity, Uncle Ralph Naden.

There’s no one quite like Ralph, a community man through and through. For years, he has been dedicated to sharing knowledge and culture to communities across central-west NSW and beyond, and mentoring youth at Yalmambirra Boogijoon Doolin, a cultural school he built right next door to his home.

Uncle Ralph Naden’s cultural camp museum. Photo by Rachael Knowles.

Recipient of a 2019 Order of Australia medal for his volunteer work, Ralph received a visit from The Honourable Justice Margaret Beazley QC AO Governor of New South Wales.

The Governor visited Yalmambirra Boogijoon Doolin this month, taking up an invite extended by the elder.

“When they first called up, they said, ‘Hello, Mr Naden. You have won the Australia award.’ I hung up. And it happened again and I hung up again. I said to Kim, my daughter, ‘I got some scammers!’ She reckons I did win, so the third call, I had to accept.”

“I got to the ceremony with twenty minutes to go and my suit was back in the hotel. I went and asked a policeman if I could borrow a necktie. A bloke standing there said, ‘Do you need a suit too?’ I said, ‘Please, if you got one.’ Lucky it fit. I was the last one in, but it all went well!”

“That’s when I asked her, the Governor, if she would like to come out to Balladoran to my camp and she said she’d love too. And she came out.”

Ralph put fifty-seven chairs out for the Governor’s visit and was shocked when there weren’t enough. The camp saw over seventy people arrive for the event. Ralph stayed very humble.

“It’s not all about me. It’s about my community helping, supporting and respecting me, and letting me do what I’m doing.”

Born in Peak Hill in 1945 and raised in the Christian faith, Ralph and his family came to Gilgandra by horse and cart in 1948. The family settled in the Pines with other Aboriginal families until the area was wasted by the Castlereagh River flood of 1955.

Most Aboriginal families relocated to the showground, but Ralph’s family didn’t—they resettled in Balladoran on a 22-acre block given to the family by the Church of Christ.

“My first job was out here. I used to ride a bike out, eight miles each day, for $10 a week. I was doing farm work, fencing, tractor driving, all that.”

“I learnt how to shear, and then I went away shearing. I had got a farm out in Trangie for my family, all my kids were raised out there. I came back to Gilgandra, bought a house with Audrey, my wife, and moved around shearing, border-to-border almost.”

Eventually, Ralph and his family returned to Balladoran, setting up the culture camp on a block of land next to their home.

Crime in the 1990s within Wilcannia, Bourke and Gilgandra was high. Audrey was working at Gilgandra High School and with Barnardos as a youth worker.

This inspired Ralph to start mentoring kids.

“I did my mentor training for juvenile justice, and it all went from there.”

Initially Ralph would take kids from town out spotting, or rabbiting.

“We’d do it Friday and Saturday nights. I couldn’t pick them up in town in the back of the ute, they had to walk over the bridge or out to my place.”

The camp began in 1991.

“When I first started the camp, there was nothing. We slept by the tree over there, with a group of seven kids from one family. The smallest one was two years old. We had a fire there to feed them. The DOCs bloke slept nearby. He was the first white man to sleep out here, Reg Humphries, a beautiful man.”

“When I started, there were no drugs, no ice. It was petrol and breaking and entering that was causing trouble.”

“But we had trust. They were always respectful. If there were a few fellas getting into a bit of trouble, if one of them came out here, I’d ask them to go get wood. He’d get a load. He’d come back, and chop it up, all ready for me.”

“It’s good to have that relationship where you trust them and they trust you. A lot of people put them down because they’re black.”

“I always tell people—this is open to anybody. They want to come and stay, they can.”

Yalmambirra Boogijoon Doolin. Photo by Rachael Knowles.

Ralph refers to his back paddock as his shopping centre.

“Our Uncles would take us out, hunting goannas, kangaroos. We loved goannas, echidnas, possums and fish.”

“I would bring the kids down, show them how it’s done. We catch goannas. It’s easy. You lure them down; they love stinking fruit!”

“I got a walkway to a block where we do smoking ceremonies and dancing. I teach the kids how to hunt, look on the ground, see what birds are doing, pick up different rocks.”

“See, I’ve grown up in the bush. All the trees have different names to me, than what they are to white man. And I tell the kids that.”

Ralph has built his life on a steady foundation of community, family and faith.

“There’s a word, Dhiiyaan, it means one. One god, one mob … You have to treat everyone equal. And if they do something wrong to you, then just stay away from them, that’s what I tell the kids. If someone is going down the wrong track, you don’t have to follow them. They’re not leaders. Be your own person.”

“I achieved so many good things in my life, and number one will always be my family. They’re the rock I stand on.”

Audrey Naden is a huge part of the family’s legacy.

“I remember when we met. I was working a farm in Trangie. Me and brother boy ran out of food, so we went into town. I saw this good sort walking up the street. I asked her a few questions and she said she came from Coonabarabran and I made up a little song. She liked that.”

“It went from there. We just started dating. We had four lovely kids, we adopted one, who’s my daughter now. When she [Audrey] died, I got her placed down the back, so she’s with us.”

“She was a very lovely woman. Something is taken away from you, when you lose someone close to you like that … You don’t get over anything like that. It’s in the back of your mind every day of the week. It breaks your heart. But you still got to go on.”

Ralph also said there’s another hurt, a divide that many people feel.

“I come from a Christian place, I don’t come from a Stolen Generation place, I can’t talk on behalf of that history. But it’s sad a lot of people can.”

“That’s what the divide is about. So many people are still holding that hurt. What you grew up with stays in the back of your mind and your old people’s minds for a long, long time.”

“People who don’t stand for the national anthem, don’t force them too. They were traumatised by the history.”

Photo from Uncle Ralph Naden of Balladoran School, 1957.

For Ralph, it all comes back to family and community.

“You build your house on sand, and what happens? It washes away. But you build it on a good foundation, a foundation of a good family, and a good community, and you’re gonna be able to grow and build.”

With almost thirty grandchildren and great grandchildren, surrounded by a loving community, Ralph is still teaching, and still dancing.

“I’m 74 this year and I’m still dancing. They told me the other day I still got some moves for an old fella!”

By Rachael Knowles