By JONATHON DALY
I think connectedness is something we as Indigenous people don’t feel like we can lose,
with the land and the trees and the fauna.
For us the connection to the land
is always a connection to life,
for yesterday, today and tomorrow.
To know that this place will never ever die out. I might move on, but my kids will come to understand the special meaning of that place.
They will hold onto that deep tradition of being connected to the place.
Ballardong Whadjuk Noongar Elder Sealin Garlett walks slowly down a trail just off Hope Road, using a wooden stake as a walking stick.
It has been a while since he’s been in the wetlands. “I used to hunt around here. My wife and I used to go out and get bush medicine too,” he says.
Garlett stops beneath the shadow of a tall, twisted paperbark. The sound of passing cars has faded into the silence of the bush and the songs of birds weave through the trees.
Weeks earlier, I had asked him how he felt when he walked into the wetlands.
“Awesome. If you use the word awesome a lot of people would say you sound really excited and pumped up about being in the place,” he says. “For me it is about connecting to the stillness, and it’s not only the stillness of the land, it’s the stillness of who you are in that place.”
But in this moment, Garlett has a different feeling. “I feel a bit distant,” he says.
“Why I say I feel a bit distant is that it seems like there was a lot of fear put into this place. A lot of fear of destruction …
He says the destruction has brought a sense of “fleeing, a sense of wanting to move away”.
“I think in the quietness of the bush here now, we hear in the distance the birds sing and some of the chirps that take place here among the smaller birds.
“This place will eventually begin to feel the harmonious existence that it has always had with all creation. A land that will begin to flourish and grow and not be in fear of being able to be seen as being desolate.”
He pauses to reach his hand up and touch a piece of withered bark.
Garlett spent his first years at a bush camp 9km west of the Wheatbelt town of Shackleton. He can recall his early life in the bush.
But that all changed in 1964 when he was taken from his family by the Department of Native Welfare. At seven years old, he was sent to Mogumber Methodist mission, known until 1951 as the Moore River Native Settlement.
Although Reverend Sealin Garlett devoted himself to Christianity, in 1979 as a boy he was taught what spirituality and religion meant to his people and their land. “When I was a young boy I learnt two very important talks in my Aboriginal tongue: the first one I learnt as a young boy was how to survive in the bush,” he says.
“I sing out to the old fellas. I tell them who I am and identify my spiritual connection through my skin, then I ask permission for food. Then I am free to go into the bush and get a goanna, find some fruit or a kangaroo.”
Garlett says it is pretty hard for non-Aboriginal people to comprehend that kind of attachment to the natural world. “For us we get told stories for years that have been passed down of the importance of who you are and how you are connected to place,” he says.
“With that connection comes responsibility and that responsibility is being able to be a voice for those that can’t be heard from yesterday or today.
“You need to become a voice for wanting this place to be set aside for the connection of the Aboriginal people.”
Garlett has lived near the Beeliar wetlands for 39 years. He says the land still holds a value far greater than money.
“[The Roe 8 project was] a journey that we have felt a bit of pain in, because of the procedures that have happened, and so has the land. The land has felt that too,” he says.
“Without that connection to yesterday we wouldn’t be able to know the importance of who we are and the importance of where we belong.
“Part of that belonging is having a voice for this particular place that was set aside in the spiritual heart of Aboriginal people.”