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Byron Shire
September 24, 2021

Calls for a Bundjalung Cultural Centre in Ballina

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A community member who wants to do something for his community, Bundjalung man Eli Cook. Photo David Lowe.

Local community member Eli Cook is calling for a new Bundjalung Cultural Centre for Ballina, and a change.org petition to Ballina Shire Council has already gathered over 1,100 signatures in support.

The wording of the petition says sustainable industries are needed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to have something to aspire towards. ‘We want to create jobs for our children’s future,’ it says.

‘We want to share our culture with broader Australian society as a means of breaking down misconceptions and working towards reconciliation. Help us convince the council of the importance of this movement.’

Mr Cook envisions the cultural centre as a showcase for local artists, and a keeping place for the many artifacts discovered in the region.

He works as a teacher, and says the Centre could be a ‘key learning resource for local schools’, providing the basis of a legitimate cultural tourism industry within the Ballina Shire, as well as being a safe space to share language and culture with future generations.

Time for action

Eli Cook at Angels Beach. Photo David Lowe.

With the recent public support from council for indigenous economic initiatives, a Bundjalung Cultural Centre gives councillors the opportunity to accompany words with action.

Eli Cook told Echonetdaily he’s been reading documents from different levels of government.

‘There’s money out there for Aboriginal infrastructure projects, and for culture and language programs,’ he said. ‘There’s all this stuff they’re saying they need to do, but we’re not seeing it on the ground level.’

With the fast growth of the petition, he’s had productive discussions with several councillors, including Mayor David Wright, and Ballina MP Tamara Smith, whose input has been ‘invaluable’.

Mr Cook has ambitious plans for the Cultural Centre, but thinks the first step is a shopfront with high exposure in town. ‘We really want to do something for our mob here in Ballina, so we don’t want it to be too far away from our schools, or from local families, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, for them to access as well.’

Angels Beach local. Photo David Lowe.

In terms of structure, he says a non-profit organisation is the preferred way to go.

‘We want to train up young people to be tour guides, tourism management, all sorts of things,’ said Mr Cook.

‘If we can get this facility up and running, we could have cafes, we could have apprenticeships running through there, we could have lots of different opportunities for our kids.’

Local control

Mr Cook says the reason many ‘things for Aboriginal people’ have not worked is because ‘we’ve never had any control over it. It’s always been us waiting for money to be handed down to us. But we want to build something that’s sustainable, and to do that you need industry. Aboriginal people to this point have no industry.

‘We haven’t been able to get into the fishing industry, we haven’t been able to get into anything pertaining to our culture and our customs, so now we’ve got to find other ways of building industry, and tourism seems like the way to go.’

Mr Cook sees Bundjalung culture as the anchor and focus, moving forward. He’s also done his research.

Sign with artwork by Digby Moran, Angels Beach. Photo David Lowe.

‘This is a report here from the government of Australia, he said, reading.

‘”The government recognises that indigenous arts and languages are essential to the wellbeing and identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and play an integral role in ensuring sustainability, viability and strength of indigenous communities.”

‘So that’s the sort of stuff we want to be building towards.’

From another government report he reads, ‘”Indigenous cultures are a key point of differentiation in the highly competitive international tourism market.”

‘So while tourism isn’t happening to that great extent now, we’re looking 2-3 years down the track when things do open up again, and capitalising on that need of tourists wanting to engage with Aboriginal culture.’

Mr Cook said, ‘A tourist comes here with $100 from overseas, and they might set aside $40 of that to engage with an Aboriginal cultural experience, but they go home with $30 still in their pocket because they haven’t had that opportunity.

‘They might have bought a boomerang or something down in Sydney.

‘But these sort of urban areas that we live in today, our culture is still thriving underneath all that, and we’re more than willing to share and try to make something happen.’

Lack of opportunities for young people

Mr Cook says what set him on this path is seeing the disadvantages local children face. He has also been talking to Arakwal woman Delta Kay and other local Bundjalung movers and shakers.

‘We want this to be about our community, not just about us,’ he said. ‘And from seeing those kids and that disadvantage, what I notice is over those eight years I’ve seen them leave primary school, go into high school, and there’s not a lot of HSC attainment levels.

‘The way I see it, there’s not a lot of hope and aspiration for our children to look forward to. If you walk down the main street of Ballina, how many Aboriginal faces do you see working in those shops? So for an Aboriginal person to walk down that street, where do they see themselves? They don’t see themselves anywhere really.’

Sacred landscape, Bundjalung country. Photo David Lowe.

With jobs in Aboriginal corporations and land councils highly limited, Mr Cook says new industries are a way to create new opportunities.

‘If we can generate an industry those kids will go, hey, there’s something for me. I’ll go to Year 12 and study tourism at university, or I’ll do business management, all that sort of stuff.

‘We want to see outcomes for our next generation of kids.’

Long term vision

Eli Cook said, ‘At the end of the day, this could be a thirty year project, building something from the ground up. We want to have galleries, museum facilities, auditoriums for performances, a cafe, possibly camping areas.

‘We want to build something quite substantial, but a shopfront is the initial focus, because we know we can’t just go like that, bang, we’ve got it all at once. We need to show that we can build something so that we can generate support. We want to show that we’re capable, so people look at us and go, look what this community can do.’

He said the councillors so far have been ‘really receptive’. The next stage is a strong proposal to be formally presented to council in 2020-2021.

Until then, Mr Cook would love people to sign the petition and get on to the new Facebook page for the Bundjalung Cultural Centre project. ‘We’re going to start really building the momentum through that page,’ he said.

New signage in the Aboriginal Place at Angels Beach. Photo David Lowe.

Echonetdaily met with Eli Cook at Angels Beach, which is a major site for the local indigenous people, and a place where Ballina Council has acknowledged that connection with some wonderful new signage and opportunities to hear from elders in person via QR codes.

‘This whole area, as much as it’s changed over 150 years, since European people came, is one big cultural site,’ said Mr Cook.

‘There’s remnants of us living here for thousands of generations. And people walk past this stuff every day, they drive over this stuff every day, without even realising. So it would be really good to have people recognising and understanding the importance of Ballina as a place to the whole Bundjalung Nation, because it really is.’

Mr Cook’s aunties and great uncle Douglas Cook are quoted on the new interpretive signage, relating to the story of The Three Brothers and the sacred rocks in the area.

‘People walk past it every day and never know. It’s part of this story here. Around the corner there’s another set of rocks, another sacred site, all the way up to Lennox Head,’ he said.

Lennox Head. Photo David Lowe.

‘Lennox Head is the most sacred of sites, but no one ever knows that. It’s the start of a songline that goes all the way to Broome.

‘This is something our future tourism agents could be taking people through.

‘A lot of people are living amongst this rich history, and don’t even realise they’re living on top of it.’

Living history

Eli Cook says Aboriginal people are all connected through their stories. He himself grew up in Evans Head and has lived in Bundjalung Country all his life, born and later living in Ballina.

‘This is where my family is from. My grandfather lived in the Ballina/Cabbage Tree Island community for most of his life. My great-great grandfather was part of the first mob to settle on Cabbage Tree Island, he was a South Ballina man originally.

‘But dispossessed, you know what I mean? This area had a tribe living here in the North of Ballina, Nguthungulli people, and a tribe living in the south of Ballina, Noogingulli people.

Sign detail, Angels Beach. Photo David Lowe.

‘People try to say that we were nomadic, but they’ve got to understand we moved around in one cultural landscape. There was plenty of food around here. This was always our place.

‘However, there were massacres just up here at Black Head, also down at South Ballina, there was a poisoning near the beach, and another massacre at Wardell, potentially one at Broadwater that hasn’t been fully confirmed by historical reports, and one up here in East Ballina.

‘Those mobs that were living here were dispersed quite early on, so we took refuge further inland, mixed in with other mobs.

‘That’s what happened in those days, you’d seek refuge with each other.

‘So eventually a group of those people up and came to Cabbage Tree Island, and settled there,’ he said.

‘Slowly but surely we started settling back in Ballina, but not on what’s traditionally our lands. This is still a sorry place here. Our mob’s out at West Ballina, which was swamp, prior to settlement.’

Healing needed

‘The history needs to be more well-known, and more well-respected,’ said Mr Cook.

‘Yes we were living here, for thousands of generations, and that connection hasn’t stopped. We still have a connection here, we just haven’t had our opportunity to heal here. That’s another thing that needs to happen with setting up a Cultural Centre.

Eli Cook at Angels Beach. Photo David Lowe.

‘Those healings need to happen, here in East Ballina, down in Broadwater, over in Wardell, it’s never happened, because we’ve never had the opportunity to get back on country properly.

‘It’s going to be a really good healing thing for everybody. It’s what needs to happen in a lot of communities.’

Eli Cook said the thinking about ‘helping’ Aboriginal people needs to be reversed.

‘For a long time governments and councils have thought, what can we do for Aboriginal people? Now it’s time to go, what can Aboriginal people do? Because we’ve got the skills, we know what our community needs, and how to make them thrive, we’ve just never had the opportunity.

‘They always talk about Aboriginal people surviving, well why can’t we start thriving as well? That’s what a Cultural Centre can do.’

You can get behind the community petition for a Bundjalung Cultural Centre here.

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  1. As I understand it the Bundjalung language survived the impact of colonisation much better than some other Indigenous languages, yet there is little opportunity for non indigenous residents to learn much about that language. Surely language is a fundamental component of culture. Incidentally the word “culture” is often misappropriated. But I like the definition “individuals exhibit behaviour but societies exhibit culture”


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