THE FUTURE: Cousins Andrew Gilmartin and Natarnie Neal-Yeatman from Cairns, on country for the first time.
THE FUTURE: Cousins Andrew Gilmartin and Natarnie Neal-Yeatman from Cairns, on country for the first time. Christine McKee

Woppaburra return to Great Keppel Island in historic milestone

NOT since 2007, when the Woppaburra people were handed freehold title over 170ha of their ancestral land have so many senior elders gathered on Great Keppel Island at the same time.

Last weekend they returned to country to unveil signage at the newly designated fish habitat area at Leekes Creek.

The beauty of Leekes Creek was only surpassed by the quiet, but deeply felt emotion as 40 Woppaburra, including six senior elders stood together on their island homeland.

ON COUNTRY: Woppaburra elders celebrate the work that culminated in a fish habitat zone on Great Keppel Island's Leeke's Creek this weekend.
ON COUNTRY: Woppaburra elders celebrate the work that culminated in a fish habitat zone on Great Keppel Island's Leeke's Creek this weekend. Christine McKee

It's a milestone that represents another step into the future of a culture that for too long has been shrouded by its past.

115 ago the last of the Woppaburra people were forcibly removed from the island in the most degrading of circumstances.

Their experience with white men had been one of displacement, rape, slavery and massacre.

The atrocities against them have been well documented by archaeologist Mike Rowland, who joined them at last weekend's ceremony.

Leekes Creek was nominated in 2004 for declaration as a fish habitat area and the Woppaburra have worked closely with Queensland National Parks and Wildlife since the process started.

Leekes Creek is a significant ecosystem and a significant cultural heritage site for the Woppaburra.

Keppel MP, Brittany Lauga said the partnership between long-time island resident Carl Svensen, who first proposed the area for declaration 10 years ago, had resulted in the first fish habitat of its kind off the Queensland coast.

Senior conservation officer, Rochelle Jupp lead the project covering an 865ha area from Passage Rocks, to Half Tide Rocks, Big Peninsula and the Leekes Creek estuary.

Together they've worked on fish surveys identifying a wide range of juvenile target fish species and mature popular species such as barramundi, mangrove jack, bream and whiting.

The declaration prevents coastal development to protect fisheries into the future and to reduce habitat loss and declines in water quality flowing into the Great Barrier Reef, but allows for limited appropriate infrastructure along with legal commercial, recreational and Indigenous fishing.

National Parks project officer, Rochelle Judd
National Parks project officer, Rochelle Judd Christine McKee

Chair of the Woppaburra Land Trust, Christine Doherty said seeing the elders on the island together was a very emotional experience.

"It's not about one of us, it's about all of us together...whatever we try and do benefits many and that's what important,” she said.

"What the Woppaburra do benefits all the users of our traditional islands, the people who live here, the people who work here. We want to share its beauty with everybody.”

The Balban Dara Guya (Leekes Creek) declaration came about in line with the Traditional Use of Marina Resource Agreement, which gives Indigenous people the right to hunt.

But TUMRA steering committee chair and former NAIDOC Elder of the Year, Bob Muir said Woppaburra decided against hunting and instead to focus on research.

It's a focus that brings the younger people together with the elders, all working in a common direction.

"The elders have done their time and the young ones are the future generation,” Christine Doherty said.

"We, in between, set the boundaries for change and bring about these wonderful projects that benefit everybody.”

Cousins Andrew Gilmartin 9 and Natarnie Neal-Yeatman with Christine Doherty and archaeologist Mike Rowland
Cousins Andrew Gilmartin 9 and Natarnie Neal-Yeatman with Christine Doherty and archaeologist Mike Rowland Christine McKee

At 23, Jade Gould was the first person in her family to finish high school. She is the great-great granddaughter of Fred Ross who, at 8-years-old was removed from Great Keppel Island.

Jade has a Bachelor of Science degree from James Cook University and is now studying for a master's degree and in 2015, she was selected to represent Australia's Indigenous youth at the World Climate Summit in Paris.

As part of the TUMRA, she has used her scientific knowledge to help in the conservation of particularly dugongs and turtles in Keppel Bay.

"I've brought my traditional knowledge and western science to build a bridge between the elders, the department and scientists,” she said.

"We're pushing away from more materialistic values to more cultural values and it's cultural values that have such an impact on well-being.”

Robert Muir jnr agrees that the elders are leaving the younger Woppaburra with good stepping stones for the future.

"This is something we can pick up and keep moving forward with,” he said.

As the Woppaburra continue to move forward towards their dream of Native Title, last weekend represented a milestone that proves they are more than able to manage the land that was taken from them more than a century ago.



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