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May 23, 2024

A prisoner of hope – healing possible as Country returned

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Eastern Kuku Yalanji smoking ceremony as part of the Welcome to Country for people attending the hand back ceremony. Photo John Stevens

In a recent conversation, with a dear friend, Gumilaroi educator Professor Bob Morgan, my spirit was lifted when he told me that after 50+ years of struggling for justice and equity for First Nations’ people in Australia and overseas that he remains ‘a prisoner of hope’ despite the glacial speed of progress and change. I am filled with this sentiment following the recent announcement that over 160,000 hectares of country, stretching from Mossman to Cooktown, Qld including the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park has been handed back to the traditional owners, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji. The traditional owners wept as they celebrated the ‘return of Bubu to Bama’.

Professor Bob Morgan is a Gumilaroi man from Walgett in western NSW. Photo supplied.

As a non-Indigenous man living in Mullumbimby NSW, I will never fully appreciate the spiritual and emotional significance of this event that returns ‘Bubu to Bama’. It is a concept that was explained to me by a number of the Kuku Yalanji people last year during an On Country smoking ceremony in the Daintree. I hope I do justice to the telling of its meaning off country:

The Daintree. Photo supplied

Bubu, the land, is Country. Country is more than a western appreciation of Country as real estate. It is the mother. It is life.

Meeting with Kuku Yalanji people to arrange the transfer of private land recently purchased by Rainforest 4 from donations to add to the Daintree handback. Photo John Stevens

The Bama are the children, the people that have sprung from Bubu. The relationship is circular. One does not exist without the other. All of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji ancestors are living among Bubu. All of the culture, lore and resources required for the children of Bubu to survive and flourish for 60 thousand years or more are located here. It is Bama’s job to care for Country.

It is well known in the scientific literature that dispossession is a leading up-stream determinant for the health gaps that torment every one of the 90+ remaining First Nations’ populations of the world, including Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The phenomenon is literally universal: that all First Nations’ populations do worse on all health and welfare measures than their non-Indigenous counterparts. On average, there is 10 years less life expectancy for instance, and it doesn’t stop there. Infant mortality, obesity and malnutrition, diseases like diabetes, kidney disease, mental illness, suicide, poverty, unemployment, incarceration rates, substance abuse, domestic violence, and the list goes on, are significantly higher in First Nations people. The source of this inequity can be traced back to colonisation and dispossession.

Part of the Daintree Rainforest that has been preserved by the hand back of 160,000 hecates of Country to the Eastern Kuku Yalanj.
Photo John Stevens

It is not just the physical removal from the land, it is the brutal severing of the connection with it that has devastated First Nations people. It results in the loss of Elders and knowledge keepers, language and customs, and the knowledge of self and who your mob are. Continuing to have to justify and explain the unexplainable loss of generations past to a dominant non-Indigenous community, whose view of the world is to see Country as something to exploit and dominate, leads to, what Professor Morgan calls ‘spiritual fatigue’.

Dispossession leading to meaninglessness, alienation and loss of culture and identity is seen as the root cause and source of the intergenerational trauma that has created the gap. The divide cannot and will not heal while the physical, social and spiritual wounds caused by dispossession remain untended and ignored. The failure to close the gap is not for want of effort or desire by a large number of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous who seek truth telling, justice and equity for all. Nor is it for lack of money thrown at well-intended solutions. It has been owing to our failure to understand and address the cause of dispossession and social and political marginalisation and the resulting inequities experienced by First Nations people.

The signed agreements held up in celebration by Elders of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji. Photo John Stevens

The return of ‘Bubu to Bama’ is more than a transfer of real estate, it is more profound than that. At its core it is a journey of reconnection and a celebration of identity of Aboriginal people; the Eastern Kuku Yalanji. The hand-back provides a window for us to witness the healing of land and people that will follow over the years as the Kuku Yalanji are able to exercise their rightful and now legally ratified role as custodians and carers of Country. This act of restorative justice will have implications well into the future. We will see, in years to come, declines in physical, mental and spiritual illness within the community. We will see the land once again being treated with respect, and the love needed for it to heal and repair and provide us all with a little more protection against climate change, if nothing else. And we have lost nothing. We who are not Eastern Kuku Yalanji will still be able to visit and immerse ourselves in the embrace of the Daintree rainforest both physically, and as a destination in our minds. When you close your eyes and imagine the rainforest, the light, the sounds, the smell, the crystal-clear creeks, the giant trees and ancient animals like the cassowary, your body is in tune with therapeutic essence, you relax! Your mind is more at peace and breathing comes more easily.   

Global phenomena such as: the rise in the incidence of infectious diseases such as SARS 2-Cov-2, the cause of COVID-19; diseases like obesity and diabetes; mental illness that is leading to record rates of suicide; the recent trend to decreasing life expectancy in many populations; degradation of ecosystems and the threat of mass extinctions; pressure on food systems and water supply are not coincidences. These phenomena are all linked, these are all outcomes related to a type of dispossession and loss of connection from our universal Bubu – the planet, and each other.

The hand-back therefore, is not just a story about an isolated case of restorative justice in far north Queensland, it is a vision and a template for what can be achieved for, and by all, if we move together united in purpose and resolve.

This hand-back is not just a feel good story for a news cycle, it is the way forward if we want a future. It is our legacy and indeed our gift to future generations.

In this act are the seeds of the solution to our survival and prosperity. In the act of restoring justice and equity across the planet, we save each other and we save ourselves. The most obvious lesson from the current pandemic is that we cannot be well until we are all well. We cannot be safe until we are all safe.

Organisations like the Mullumbimby-based Rainforest 4 Foundation are part of a growing movement providing a platform for the public to contribute to the purchase of at-risk freehold land in the Daintree Rainforest to be owned and managed by the Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners, adding to the recently announced hand-back.

That we are finding ways through all of the many and complex hurdles and obstacles to hand Bubu back to Bama lifts my fatiguing spirit and keeps me a prisoner of hope. 

♦ John Stevens is Associate Professor at Southern Cross and Newcastle universities, co-founder and Director of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine and Chair of the Board, Rainforest 4 Foundation.

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  1. When did we start referring to indigenous Australians as “first nations”, a term stolen from Canada?

    Does that make everyone else second nations, or are we going to rank people by when their race arrived here?


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