The knowledge of the Rainbow Serpent is being showcased in new documentary, The Serpent’s Tale in a bid to highlight the importance of protecting the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River.
Countless generations have shared stories, song and dance about the Rainbow Serpent to teach the importance of keeping living water healthy.
This ancient knowledge is written in the landscape and embedded in the First Law of each river.
Indigenous people have lived along Martuwarra, the Kimberley’s Fitzroy River, for tens of thousands of years. The Fitzroy River is the largest registered Aboriginal Cultural Heritage site in Western Australia.
Martuwarra First Law is grounded in the Rainbow Serpent, the sacred ancestral being that has the right to live and flow.
In 2011, the significance of the Rainbow Serpent tradition to the Kimberley region was recognised by the National Heritage Listing of the Fitzroy River, for it is an outstanding example of First Law across multiple language groups that are united under one law.
This knowledge is shared in a new powerful documentary The Serpent’s Tale by filmmaker Mark Jones.
The film describes the ancient story of the creation of Martuwarra, and the coming together of Indigenous Living Water Law (Indigenous science) and western science to protect one of Australia’s last wild rivers.
Nyikina Warrwa woman and Chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council Dr Anne Poelina said it is a story to be shared with the nation and the world.
The Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council was created in 2018 in response to growing Traditional Owner concern over water extraction proposals and the need for greater governance in all decision-making processes regarding protecting and managing the River.
The historic step evolved from a two-day meeting in Fitzroy Crossing, where Traditional Owners stood in solidarity to produce the Fitzroy River Declaration, pledging to work together to protect and manage the cultural and environmental values that underpin the River’s National and Aboriginal Heritage Listing.
Dr Poelina said it was a privilege to work with Elders and young leaders on the film to share the ancient wisdom of sustainable water management and governance.
“It is significant; Elders and younger leaders have come together to share their knowledge and to stand together to develop a united pathway for collaboration, cooperation and sharing information about the multiple values of this globally unique riverine system,” she said.
“As the oldest living culture in the world, we have been living in harmony and balance with Martuwarra/the Fitzroy River since creation.”
“It is our whole livelihood, our spirituality and the essence of our identity, economies and wellbeing.”
Despite the heritage listings, the Fitzroy River is under threat from large-scale agriculture developments and faces a similar fate to the Murray-Darling Basin if plans to take water from the River and aquifers go ahead.
These developments threaten to harm the people, cultures, and economies.
Families and communities thrive in the unique remote tropical environment and the last stronghold of the critically endangered giant freshwater sawfish.
Director and creator of The Serpent’s Tale Mark Jones said he was captured by the ancient story and was honoured to help tell it.
“This film is about the struggle to maintain an ancient culture and the River in which it resides, but it is also more,” Jones said.
“Through this story we see a window into how wisdom collected over tens of thousands of years is sung, painted, and embedded in the law of the people of the River. It still has relevance today.
“It shows us that our new language – science – is reinforcing what the ancients have always known, that is, without water, we are nothing.”
“It is a film that shows us that the Rainbow Serpent is not a myth, or a story, but powerful knowledge that links the past, present and future together.
“Orality and geomythology are now proving that these stories are of great antiquity, and rather than them being relegated to fairy tales, they illuminate elemental truths about climate change, human adaptation and geological knowledge that were known and practiced.”
Jones said he was captured by the powerful stories that were told to him while working on the documentary.
“I first met the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council in 2019, then I went out and met with people from remote Aboriginal communities in the River Country. They told me beautiful stories and took me to the places where these acts had happened,” he said.
“I literally felt like I was standing in a long line of people that went back tens of thousands of years to when the story was created … as a marker and a guide.”
Amazed by how the story shifts as the River moves, Jones was most in awe of the people’s relationship to Country.
“Aboriginal people are intrinsically tied to their Country in a five-dimensional relationship that most westerners do not understand. If they did, their decision-making would be very, very different,” he said.
“The Martuwarra is one of the last known ‘riverine cosmology’ left in Australia.
“Put simply, it is one of a few rivers with the historical creation story attached. If that is the case, then it is quite possibly the last in the world. To me that is worth protecting for generations to come.”
Dr Poelina said the film would shine a light on the threat to the survival of Martuwarra and its people from unjust and invasive development.
“We want to protect Martuwarra for our fellow Australians to come to the River and experience its magnificence,” Dr Poelina said.
“I say whether you come for one night, one week or one lifetime, once you come to see, hear and feel the River, you will always be a part of it.”
The Serpent’s Tale premiered in Perth over the weekend with more screenings to be shown across the Kimberley in coming months.
For more information on the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River visit: www.martuwarrafitzroyriver.org.