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WORDS BY LARINE STATHAM-BLAIR

There are about 5000 Aboriginal people in the Bundaberg Region today whose ancestors were the first people to inhabit the lands between Bundaberg and Port Curtis. For tens of thousands of years different tribes moved freely between these regions, sharing country. The tribes had close song lines and traded tools and food. 

When you consider Bundaberg’s dark history, it’s remarkable we have any Aboriginal people left in our community today to share their beautiful culture and valuable knowledge. People were walked off country and taken to missions. They were massacred. Whole language groups were wiped out. Disease outbreaks also devastated the Aboriginal population. 

These atrocities separated Aboriginal people from their country and culture, and caused great harm to the Gooreng Gooreng, Gurang, Taribelang Bunda and Bailai tribes. In 2011 the Native Title process brought them back together again; sharing land peacefully just as their ancestors once did. 

Sadly, Aboriginal people continue to die much younger than non-indigenous people. In 2021, only 7.4 per cent of Aboriginal Bundaberg residents were over the age of 65, compared to 27.1 per cent of non-indigenous Bundaberg residents. Locally, 29.6 per cent of Aboriginal families have just one parent compared to 10.2 per cent in non-indigenous families, impacting the household income. 

That’s what local organisations like Port Curtis Coral Coast Aboriginal Peoples Charitable Trust (PCCC) are working to change. In partnership with local Aboriginal elders and the business community, they’re creating opportunities for indigenous people to be strong, proud and empowered through cultural knowledge, quality education and economic participation.

Native title by definition is recognition by Australian common law that indigenous Australians have rights and interests to their lands that derive from their traditional laws and customs. Since the Native Title Act was introduced in 1993, native title has been granted across about 30 per cent of the Australian continent, and yet many non-indigenous Australians misunderstand what that means and what is involved. Some go so far as to be envious of what they falsely believe Aboriginal people receive through native title; forgetting what was taken away.  

The burden of proof for a native title application is onerous. Traditional owners and elders must provide evidence that the land has been handed down from generation to generation since before colonisation, among other things. Once a claim has been accepted, native title holders have the right to fight against or negotiate terms of development on the land, but that does not give them exclusive land rights. If the rights of pastoralists, mining companies, the federal government, or private owners come into conflict with native title rights, they supersede or override the native title rights.  

The legislation requires native title holders to establish a corporation to oversee their native title, negotiate land use agreements, as well as manage and administer their funds. Some progressive corporations, like Port Curtis Coral Coast Aboriginal Peoples Charitable Trust (PCCC), take on additional responsibilities in the hopes of improving their mobs’ quality of life through education, training and employment, cultural projects and economic development.  

In 1995, four tribes lodged overlapping native title claims across the Bundaberg Region, spanning from Gladstone to the Auburn Range near Monto and the Burrum River – covering 19,500 square kilometres (SqKM) of land and 26,600 SqKM of sea. It would be 17 years before the  Gooreng Gooreng, Gurang, Taribelang Bunda and Bailai peoples would formally meet. Some four years later, in 2016 they joined forces and successfully established one united corporation – the PCCC.  In 2017 native title consent determination was achieved.    

The PCCC board is comprised of representatives from all four tribes. Their mission is to care for country and sustain the natural environment, preserve their ancient culture, advocate for sovereignty, human rights and self-determination, and improve social outcomes for current and future generations. 

Their funding is derived predominantly from a land use agreement, as well as one-off government grants that are obtained for specific projects through competitive tender processes. The PCCC prudently invests the majority of their income, using the dividends to self-fund their ongoing operations and social programs. As their investment portfolio continues to grow, they directly help about 1200 traditional owners each year.

In 2021, about 900 children were assisted through the PCCC’s Back to School program, which helps families cover the costs of school fees, uniforms, resources and stationary. Cultural and sporting scholarships are available to young people who have political, social, cultural or sporting aspirations and have been selected to participate at a state or national level. The PCCC also provides financial support for local Aboriginal people to achieve tertiary qualifications. 

In partnership with the Centre for Rural and Regional Indigenous Health, the PCCC runs a Tucka Time program that teaches cooking skills, healthy eating, physical activity and emotional support. They helped almost 50 families buy whitegoods, such as fridges and freezers.

But it isn’t just about supporting their young people. In 2021, 88 local elders on the age pension received an assistance payment. It’s something the PCCC do at Christmas each year to acknowledge their elders and their contribution to the community. They also helped fund more than 20 Aboriginal funerals in 2021.

The PCCC has an employment and training arm, where they partner with businesses and organisations that are committed to maximising participation of local Aboriginal people in their workforce. In January last year, PCCC helped place eight people in traineeships. The PCCC supports about 50 people into roles each year across the Bundaberg and Gladstone regions. They also hold an annual career and pathways showcase called Dorrie Day. 

Each of the PCCC’s programs is having a positive impact on the lives of Aboriginal people; addressing the social determinants that will hopefully one day help close the life expectancy gap of our local traditional owners – gainful employment, healthy lifestyle and education. 

The PCCC wishes to acknowledge their elders; past, present and emerging, as well as neighbouring tribes – Wakka Wakka, Kabi Kabi, Butchulla and Durrambal.

Learn more about PCCC and their work at www.pccctrust.com.au  

The largest Aboriginal rock engraving site on the east coast of Queensland sat undisturbed on a northern bank in the humble Burnett River, near Pine Creek, for tens of thousands of years. That is, until 1971 when the 3348 square metre petroglyph was cut into 92 stone blocks, each weighing up to five tonnes, and dispersed throughout Queensland. 

While some were displayed at the University of Queensland, Griffith University and Queensland Museum, others sat in the gardens of businesses, organisations and private homes in Cherbourg, Maryborough, Bundaberg and Rockhampton. The state government of the day argued the rocks needed to be removed for their own protection. They planned to build an irrigation barrage downstream that would cause irreparable damage to the important archaeological site.

The earliest European documentation of the site dates back to the 1880s. They attempted to interpret the engravings as taking animal and human forms, outlines of feet and hands, as well as myths and symbols significant to local Aboriginal people. Elders today reference the markings as relating to men’s and women’s business that can’t be shared freely. A photograph donated to the Queensland Museum in 1915 shows the site imbedded in sand, ‘clearly contrasting with surrounding miles of impenetrable scrub’ (read more about Bundaberg’s scrubland on page 40).    

Together, first nations peoples from the Gooreng Gooreng, Gurang, Taribelang Bunda and Bailai tribes and the PCCC have been working with the Queensland Museum to locate as many of the blocks as possible and repatriate them to country. Currently in the custodianship of local traditional owners in Bundaberg, the PCCC and Museum will soon start consulting local Aboriginal people and the Bundaberg community more broadly to determine where and how these culturally significant carvings should be displayed.

Background research and images thanks to the PCCC and the journal article, Obligations to Objects.    

Totem animals are significant to all Aboriginal people with important morals and teachings shared through Dreaming. One sacred totem that is recognised throughout the Bundaberg region, is the Milbi, also known as the bum-breathing white-throated snapping freshwater turtle. Several indigenous language groups use the word Milbi to describe turtles in a more general sense. It’s why Bundaberg Regional Council’s ten-day community celebration of all things turtle was named the Milbi Festival. 

Known affectionately as Turtle Town, Bundaberg is home to the largest turtle rookery in the southern hemisphere, where several species of sea turtles return to nest each year. The annual cultural festival, which will kick off on October 27 this year, honours our love of turtles, the Region’s rich indigenous history, as well as our commitment to protect the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

Welcoming locals and visitors alike, the Milbi Festival was designed to bring people together from all walks of life to celebrate rebirth, ritual and regeneration. It’s an ethos that is reflected throughout the Festival’s intrinsic branding and design, curated by local Goreng Goreng and Taribelang Bunda artist, Rachael Sarra.

Next time you’re at the Mon Repos Turtle Centre for a nightly ranger-guided encounter in turtle season or enjoying one of their year-round interactive experiences, take the opportunity to indulge in a treat at the Milbi Café. 

Operated by the Gidarjil Development Corporation, the Milbi Café celebrates local ingredients across their menu. They provide training and employment opportunities for Aboriginal youth, and also showcase the Region’s indigenous culture through art and souvenirs that celebrate the milbi. 

Behind the scenes, their attentive staff share the Region’s first nations culture, working alongside Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service rangers to implement history and culture into the Mon Repos Turtle Centre experience.

Sit back and relax with a cuppa and cake, admire the rich architectural design and soak up all there is to know about turtles. 

WORDS BY KATHERINE REID, CEO OF BUNDABERG TOURISM

More visitors than ever before are seeking experiences that are real and authentic, that share the story of people and place. Importantly, they want to learn first-hand from the oldest continuous living culture on earth. 

Leading the way in sharing these stories with travellers from across the globe is our thriving tourism industry. In the five years to December 2019, participation in indigenous tourism experiences grew 6.4 per cent; in some cases that’s 6 per cent more than participation in other tourism sectors. Annual visitor expenditure on indigenous experiences accounted for more than $500 million. About 400,000 travellers immersed in Aboriginal culture. 

In the past ten years, tourism bodies like Bundaberg Tourism, industry, government departments, indigenous organisations and Aboriginal elders have been working together to support and foster the development of sustainable first nations experiences. 

Recognising the thousands of generations of continuous culture that has shaped this country and the people on it, Bundaberg Tourism is proud to currently be working alongside two local cultural tourism experiences to empower them. We are helping them grow and become market ready, so that Australian and international visitors can take part in authentic, local indigenous experiences that share culture respectfully.  

Looking ahead, the Brisbane Olympics in 2032 brings an exciting opportunity for Queensland’s first nations tourism experiences to be at the forefront, leading and championing these authentic cultural offerings. Committed to sustainability and protection of our natural environment, the Bundaberg Region has a significant role to play and a lot to offer.

In January, the Bundaberg Region became the second destination in Queensland and fifth in Australia to announce Eco Destination Certification through Ecotourism Australia. It’s a significant achievement, brought about through extensive effort and collaboration between Bundaberg Tourism, the PCCC, local eco-certified tourism operators and Bundaberg Regional Council.  

Our local tourism industry has long believed that experiencing internationally significant but fragile natural assets is the greatest way to educate people about the need for conservation. The Bundaberg Region continues to shine as one of Australia’s most exciting emerging tourism destinations. The knowledge that their holidays are underpinned by respectful, sustainable and, in some cases, regenerative business practices will only strengthen our desirability as
a destination. 

Late last year Queensland Tourism Industry Council and the Queensland First Nations Tourism Council released a best-practice guide for working with first nations tourism in Queensland. Available for all, the guide is the first of its kind in Queensland and aligns with the interests and aspirations of the mainstream tourism industry.

The sharing of stories, connection to country and culture through tourism is a step towards reconciliation and sustainability. Acknowledgement and education through truth telling brings communities together. 

WORDS BY JESS MARSELLOS

Yee Gee, or hello in Taribelang language – this was one of the many traditional language learnings I took away from my time on the Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow Tour run by Taribelang Bunda Cultural Tours. 

This immersive, thoughtful and intimate tour shares the rich history and culture of the Taribelang people who have lived on country for more than 60,000 years, while visiting sites of significance, truth telling and story sharing of what has been, what is now and what is to come.

After the Welcome to Country, which is spoken in both English and Traditional Language, the tour sets off under the Burnett River (Booral Booral) bridge and weaves through the centre of town, educating participants on many of the traditional place names in Bundaberg before emerging at Baldwin Swamp.

Your guide will explain the swamp was a place of rest and natural water source for elders past and provided essential shelter, food and medicine items (like melaleuca leaves) for treating ailments. 

The darker side of historical aspects of farming and cane industry is also explored with the practice of blackbirding and taking slaves from South Sea Islander communities to remove large volcanic rocks and stones from what is now abundant farmland. Many of the so-called kanaka walls can be seen lining farmland. 

Now you will find yourself atop one of the only hills in Bundaberg – The Hummock. Here your guide will talk in depth about how boomerangs are made. On our tour day we got to enjoy delicious damper with lilly pilly jam and bush tomato relish. 

Your guide will share interesting information about traditional roles within the culture, how messages were passed through country historically, the roles of family and kinship, the totem animals and their traditional language names.

As you amble out of the bus at Kirby’s Wall and look across to Paddy’s Island a gentle river breeze will blow. What will also meet you is a sombre mood, as the painful past of Paddy’s Island across the river is shared openly and honestly. It’s a moving part of the tour and a vital acknowledgement of past atrocities. This is the beauty of this tour – nothing is glossed over or made right – it’s an honest truth telling and sharing space to engage and inform.

The tour provides locals and visitors an opportunity to look at the Region through a different lens.

Taribelang Bunda Cultural Tours also work closely with the local community, sharing their stories with schools and collaborating with groups such as WYLD Projects Indigenous Corporation and Lady Musgrave Experience to educate and connect on country.

Book it!

Turtle and Taribelang Bunda tours (Tuesdays and Saturdays) can be booked at www.bundabergregion.org 
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