There’s a sorrow in Uncle Colin Walker’s voice when he speaks about Dhungalla.
The Yorta Yorta Elder, 87, recalls days living at Cummeragunja as a child swimming in the river which sustained his ancestors for thousands of years.
A food source and an escape route, Uncle Walker remembers using the river to swim away from government and church officials trying to wipe his culture from the map during the Stolen Generations.
“Our Elders said [Dhungalla] was our supermarket for our food, and it was also our protector when we’d have to run away from the welfare,” Uncle Walker says.
“Fish was an everyday diet to us, and we had our crayfish, our turtles.
“There are three different turtles – our totem, and another one and one we eat.”
In the mid-1900s Dhungalla provided a bounty of burrmanga (Murray cod), yellowbelly, bream, redfin, mussels, turtle and freshwater crayfish.
Today Dhungalla, or the Murray River as whitefellas know it, is sick.
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The river’s problems are well publicised and highly politicised – climate change and agriculture have put huge pressure on the system, leading to drought, mass fish kills and carp infestations.
For the Yorta Yorta people, the reason for the failure to protect Dhungalla is simple: the people who call themselves experts have not listened to the people who know the river best.
“Today, the survey they do with the young ones… we wonder why we can’t get a lot of stuff now,” Uncle Walker says.
“In our childhood days we would have competition, fill up a … bottle… with water. We would throw that in the river and dive for it, and you would open your eyes and you see that bottle.
“You open your eyes under the water now, they get infected, more or less.”
And it isn’t just the waters Uncle Walker has seen turn – the forests of his mother’s country have been scarred too.
“The old emu… they only lay once a year, or it might be twice – but now they lay four or five times,” Uncle Walker says.
“Why did the emu lay that many times? He’s confused [because] the seasons have changed.
“The little ducks are everywhere now, which they shouldn’t be.”
As a Traditional Owner, land council chairman and Murray-Darling Basin board member, Uncle Walker’s life has been intertwined with Dhungalla.
He recalls vividly telling two “men with briefcases” who asked him join the Murray-Darling Basin Board exactly what he believed they had done to Dhungalla.
“I said ‘Look, could I just say something? You stuffed up the river system’,” Uncle Walker said.
His concerns ranged from the selling of water to draining pesticides into the river, issues which still plague Dhungalla today.
And in the forest it isn’t just confused emu Uncle Walker is worried about.
A lack of water around Barmah Island means fewer swans laying eggs and timber harvest in and outside of protected areas has proven problematic.
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The key to restoring health is to take lessons from the old ways, Uncle Walker said, when children were taught how to respect nature’s bounty.
“When our fish are spawning… we don’t touch them, and if they are undersized, we don’t touch them,” Uncle Walker said.
“This was all handed down to us without going to university.”
This taught discipline governs how all traditional food is gathered and how all fauna is used, and could be beneficial for Australia to help Dhungalla heal. That is Uncle Walker’s belief.
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