Keicha Day, at twenty-four years old, is the oldest granddaughter in her family. She is also Gunditjmara, like her mother and her mother’s mother.
Keicha has made her way out from the Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation in Heywood to Portland today, to share some of the stories, history and knowledge of the Glenelg River, also known as ‘Bochara’. Keicha will be talking about ‘culturally safe’ traditional knowledge, that Gunditjmara share with other people, in the understanding that it will lead to a greater respect and protection for the river.
Gunditjmara country is bordered by the Hopkins River to the east, the Southern Ocean to the south, Mt Dundas and Mortlake in the north and the Glenelg River in the west. “The Glenelg River is the natural border for our mob, the Gunditjmara mob. Because it’s our western boundary, we have a responsibility to look after the river in any way we can.”
Keicha’s younger siblings aren’t yet mature enough to pass on the knowledge of their country, which has been passed down for tens of thousands of years. So Keicha listens to her mother and her grandmother, knowing that it will soon be up to her generation to protect the country, protect the river and pass on the knowledge.
“Since I was five, I’ve been helping my grandmother care for country. I’ve got about twenty cousins. I’m the oldest, so I’ve taken the responsibility.”
Keicha wants to use her intuition and knowledge to protect Gunditjmara country and ‘get rid of ignorance’.
“The media send out a message that ‘blackfellas want to come and take your country’, but that’s not true, we just want to care for country.”
Keicha runs tours out at the old Lake Condah mission, about 60km north of Portland. The site is significant to both indigenous and non-indigenous people and as the birthplace for many of the older members of her family, particularly special for Keicha.
Keicha describes how Winda-Mara, based in Heywood, works with government departments and land managers to ensure that any place of cultural significance is protected. Some of these significant places are camp sites where many years ago, Gunditjmara clans feasted on the fruits of the sea, marked by fireplaces or ‘hearths’. These hearths may contain stone flints, charcoal and shell material dating back thousands of years.
The shell ‘middens’ found along the Glenelg River also indicate that many different clans camped along the river. A midden, Keicha explains, is a layer of shell material in the soil, containing fragments of pippies, abalone and other shellfish. Midden sites mark places where Gunditjmara clans have gone to the sea for a feed and brought the feast back to camp to share with the rest of the clan.
“When you get close to Nelson, it starts becoming limestone country. That’s where the natural springs are and they’re a good source of fresh water.”
Keicha says that it is likely that water has always been a very political issue around the Glenelg River, even before European settlement. “There would have been a lot of fights over the natural springs and a few blues up the river to get the best spot.” The river was also an important meeting place. Tribes would come from everywhere to share song, dance and paintings in a corrobborree. “There are places round here where they would have met.”
As the boundary between the Gunditjmara tribe in the East and the Boandik tribe in the West, the Glenelg River also marks the divide between two very different language groups. Traditionally, Gunditjmara communicated with other tribes through message sticks. A message stick is engraved with symbols or pictures and used to send word between the tribes. Before the messenger carries the message stick into another country, they must take part in a smoking ceremony. Smoking ceremony cleanses the message stick so that it doesn’t carry any bad spirits. Smoking ceremony is also used before traveling into another tribe’s country for any reason. “A male elder lights bark and bushes to make it smoke. If you want safe passage through country that’s not yours, you need to step into that tribes’ smoke. This disguises your smell, so that evil spirits can’t smell you. This is the home tribe accepting your presence on Country and trusting you to walk quietly and softly on their Country.”
Smoking ceremony is still practised by the Gunditjmara today, most recently when a particular state minister came to visit. “We didn’t want any of the evil spirits he could have been carrying” jibes Keicha.
Although smoking ceremony is still practised today, after 170 years of European settlement, much of the traditional Gunditjmara ceremony and language has disseminated. However, Keicha feels her culture is still very much alive and relevant to today. “Just because we don’t have language or ceremony in the ‘traditional’ sense, we still have protocol that must be followed by the mob and those who choose to walk on our traditional lands, otherwise there are definitely consequences”.
Keicha says that although she still has a lot to learn, she feels privileged to have the opportunity to teach others to appreciate and look after the Glenelg River. “There’s not many people my age who are given the responsibility of looking after a river. I look out to my country and I can’t explain it, but I feel proud.”
Written and edited by Anna Boustead, April 2005