‘Beeliar wetlands were our church’

By MOLLY SCHMIDT & JONATHON DALY

Standing beside Noongar woman Cathy Coomer at the Beeliar wetlands feels very different today than it did a few months ago. There are woodchips where trees once stood; it is eerily quiet where the sound of the bulldozers rose above the shouts of protesters and police.

IMG_6773“My mum gave birth to me in these wetlands,” Coomer (pictured here at the wetlands) says. “In them days, Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to go to any white person’s establishment. They were pushed on the outskirts of all towns.”

She walks through the tall grass, gently collecting cobwebs from her path with a felled marri branch.

“My mother would have been turned away, like a lot of other mothers were turned away from the hospitals,” she says.

Coomer finds herself in the aftermath of the highly controversial Roe 8 freeway project that was stopped after the Western Australian Liberal-National Government of Premier Colin Barnett lost this year’s state election.

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But the impact of the destruction lives on for the Whadjuk Noongar community, the traditional custodians of what is now metropolitan Perth, and raises questions about the importance the State Government puts on land that holds sacred significance.

Fifty-nine years ago, among the ancient paperbark trees, Coomer’s mother was alone when she gave birth to her. “My mother used to do everything herself, cut the cord and everything like that,” Coomer says.

For thousands of years, Noongar women used the wetlands as a birthing ground, while at a men’s site, Noongar boys learnt to hunt, survive and follow the ways of their people.

IMG_6841Until recently the Beeliar wetlands were one of the last sacred Whadjuk Noongar sites relatively untouched by urbanisation. It is a place of immense archaeological, spiritual and cultural value for Coomer and many others. “It’s the earth. Mother Earth is the creation of life being. It’s the animals, everything that breathes,” Coomer says. “This landscape is the bible; it’s the bible of all creation.”

But in the debate that raged between the government and opposing groups over Roe 8, the voices of Whadjuk Noongar people were barely heard and the cultural importance of the wetlands went largely unrecognised. Under State Government processes, the Noongar community’s cultural connection to the land was perceived to be in the past and clearing of the sacred site was deemed acceptable.

So in the eyes of the law, what is sacredness and who gets to define it?

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In the case of the Beeliar wetlands, the answer can be found among political processes already in motion years before November 24, 2016 – the date bulldozers began ripping trees out of the earth and uprooting culture for a road that is no longer being built.

In February 2013, Main Roads WA approached the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee to endorse Roe 8 under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

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Roe 8 was to run through the heritage-listed sites of Bibra Lake North (DAA4017), and North Lake and Bibra Lake (DAA3709). It would also have passed through a third site, Hope Road Swamp/Bibra Lake (DAA3296), which was registered, but deemed not to meet the criteria for an Aboriginal heritage site.

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(Public Evironmental Review, 2011) Figure 5.16-1: Aboriginal heritage sites

Main Roads’ perception of Aboriginal connection to these sites, and how it could be affected, was informed by a final Public Environmental Review. The review was written in 2011 by a government-appointed project team comprising senior Main Roads officers and staff from the engineering firm AECOM – one of the companies awarded $450 million of contracts for Roe 8.

The team was responsible for ensuring the project met environmental guidelines, and would not result in adverse effects on historical and cultural associations. The review found the Noongar community had an ongoing connection with the wetlands, but concluded that building Roe 8 would not diminish that cultural association, “due to the low level of traditional cultural practices currently performed in this location”. None of the project team’s members were drawn from the Noongar community.

Noongar artist Sharyn Egan (pictured at the wetlands, below, left), who lives in the nearby suburb of Yangebup,  says the perception that Noongar people no longer use the area is false.

IMG_7622As a member of the Stolen Generations she does not remember her parents but, from welfare records, Egan has discovered she spent the first years of her life at the Beeliar wetlands. She says she takes her children and grandchildren on bush walks around Bibra Lake, to teach them about their heritage.

“I tell [them] stories like, ‘Your great grandmother lived here, they were eating turtles and swans and some of the plant foods. They had fires and this is where’. It’s very spiritual,” she says.

“You just know you are in a special place.”

To Whadjuk Ballardong Noongar Elder Sealin Garlett (pictured at the wetlands, below, right), the sacredness of the place is timeless. 

For 39 years, Reverend Garlett has lived in the nearby suburb of Coolbellup, the Noongar name for North Lake, a significant part of the wetlands.

IMG_7654“The way the land was seen as a place of sacredness was the fact that it was a place where little children were born and blood was spilt when people died,” he says.

“I think those words in the [review] document were so people could say, ‘Well there is barely anything significant about this place anyway’. In their academic eyes that may be so, but they will never understand and maybe don’t want to understand.”

Initially, the importance of the wetlands was recognised by the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee which, in February 2013, recommended that consent for Roe 8 should not be granted due to the cultural importance of the areas to be affected.

The site deemed most important was North Lake and Bibra Lake (DAA3709), heritage listed as an ethnographic site. This site traces the resting place of the Waugal, the serpent that Noongar people traditionally believe created the landscape and freshwater rivers and lakes.

Cuiermara, Ben Taylor                                      Photo by: Ingrid Cumming 

Ben Taylor, a Yued Noongar Elder (pictured, left) who as a boy in the 1940s camped near the wetlands with his family, says the Waugal was the spiritual creator. “Religion, spirituality and culture – we respect that.”

“For thousands of years [the wetlands] were our church … We had religion here long before Captain Cook and the colonisers – in them trees, in that swamp,” he says.

Three months after the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee, in 2013, recommended Roe 8 not go ahead, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs changed the guidelines for assessing sacred sites under Section 5(b) of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

Peter Collier was Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the former Barnett Government. In 2015 he explained the department’s new interpretation of Aboriginal heritage sites. “The association of mythology alone with an Aboriginal heritage place does not mean that place is necessarily a sacred site,” he told Parliament. “For a place to be considered a sacred site, it must be demonstrated that it is devoted to a religious use rather than just a place subject to mythological story, song or belief.”

Former Greens MP Lynn MacLaren, who lost her seat at the recent state election, says Collier’s definition of religion versus spirituality indicated a narrowing down of values. “I think the word ‘religion’ could be misused in this case, and is far too narrow to adequately describe how significant these areas are to Aboriginal people,” she says. “It’s significance to the culture, it’s cultural history and archaeological history … Why wouldn’t you want to protect those things?”

IMG_6813Cathy Coomer says Aboriginal people are “sick and tired” of their spirituality being dismissed by governments. “They forget that these Aboriginal people and this country are still connected with their spiritual doings.”  She says heritage-listed sites are being “crossed out” by people who do not know anything about their significance.

The new guideline was overturned in April 2015, after traditional owners in the Pilbara region of the state successfully challenged the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee’s decision two years earlier to remove a sacred site in Port Hedland from the Aboriginal Heritage Register.

The committee had de-listed Marapikurrinya Yintha because of a “lack of evidence of specific rituals, ceremonial and cultural activities associated solely with the site”. But the WA Supreme Court overturned the committee’s decision, and Marapikurrinya Yintha regained its official status as a sacred site. The case cast doubt on 22 other sites that had been de-listed by the committee as a result of Section 18 notices between 2012 and 2015.

But still, the committee de-registered a further 11 sites in the months that followed. They included the archaeological sites of Bibra Lake North (DAA4017) and Hope Road Swamp/Bibra Lake (DAA3296), both in the path of Roe 8.

Originally, the Bibra Lake North (DAA4017) site was referenced by an excavation in 1973, which found more than 2000 artefacts scattered across its sandy ground. The artefacts were made from quartz with glass, clay pipe fragments and chert, a fine-grained sedimentary rock composed of silicon dioxide, commonly known as flint.

The presence of fossiliferous chert at the Beeliar Wetlands was evidence that Noongar people had inhabited the site since before the ice-age.

Reverend Garlett says the Bibra Lake North site (DAA4017) is a place of traditional scarification and initiation. It was a cutting ground. It could be initiation, it could be marks for manhood and status for community,” he says. These symbols could take the form of scars on the arms or chest, or a piercing through the nose.

IMG_7641“The boys went over to camp up at Hope Road, near Progress Drive, and from there they marched them to Forrest Road, which was a corroboree ground where they were sung to and smoked out. Then they went back to camp as men,” Reverend Garlett says.

“They could leave there and go anywhere. They were free; hey were men of the land.”

But the site of Bibra Lake North (DAA4017) was de-listed because of new archaeological findings by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in March 2014, made in response to a request by Collier that the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee reassess the heritage value of the Bibra Lake North site.

Collier also asked the committee to reconsider Main Roads’ application for Roe 8, despite the committee’s previous recognition of the sites’ sacred value.

In September 2015, Collier explained his rationale for the reassessment to Parliament: “Due to the extended period of time between when the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee first considered the matter in 2013, and new information about the archaeological heritage places on the land, [the committee] considered the Section 18 application for a second time in June 2015.”

The committee reversed its previous decision and gave Roe 8 the go ahead, with little mention of its ethnographic significance. Under Section 28(3) of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, an Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee specialist anthropologist should have been at the meeting, but there was no anthropologist present.

IMG_7712The ethnographic significance of the North Lake and Bibra Lake (DAA3709) site, that was the main reason for the committee’s 2013 rejection of the Roe 8 plans, had not changed since the initial application.

MacLaren says the site was completely ignored by the committee in the second assessment of the plans. “They didn’t consider the larger site [North Lake and Bibra Lake DAA3709] in the second meeting, because there’s no minutes about that being considered,” she says.

“In my view, they corrupted the process.”

MacLaren says “there was no way” the Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ dig in March 2014 “could reflect the significance of the site”. “You can’t really conclude anything from their cursory site examination, and they still concluded it.”

Two archaeologists employed by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs found the sites had been subjected to “high amounts of disturbance” from previous road works.

IMG_6787The assessment found no artefacts within the site boundaries, but noted: “An in-depth archaeological excavation program may establish the presence of an intact subsurface deposit below the level of disturbance which was beyond the scope of the inspection visit.”

Independent archaeologist Fiona Hook says the dig was quite shallow, with a single, 20cm-deep pit used to assess the archaeological values of a site that is at least 5000 years old.

In January this year, a volunteer dig led by Hook sought to determine whether artefacts were still present at the site. A team of 15 volunteers and members of the Whadjuk Noongar community visited the site and dug 20 shovel pits to a depth of one metre.

“Our findings were very different to that of the Aboriginal Affairs [department] dig,” Hook says.

“We were right on the margins of where we expected people [would have] camped.”

Hook says her team found stone tools made mostly of quartz 80cm below the surface. “Then when we got about a metre deep, we found fossiliferous chert artefacts and granite artefacts as well. We proved there are artefacts in quite big numbers given the small area we covered and also that some of them were at least 5000 years old,” she says.

Hook says this confirms the archaeological value identified by the 1973 excavation is still valid and discredits the Department of Aboriginal Affairs findings from 2014.

IMG_6807She says the artefacts also showed the site was used for trade, as quartz, granite and chert came from the Darling Scarp and were not found around the wetlands.

“It just backs up what the Whadjuk Noongar have always said, which is that it was a very important camping place for people, and spiritually as well,” she says.

But Collier defends his decision to accept the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee’s reversed recommendation on Roe 8.

“If the ACMC made a recommendation to me that said, ‘Don’t go ahead with it’, and I approved, of course there would be some logic to criticisms,” Collier tells communityyarns.com. “They didn’t do that, they recommended that the approval be provided. As always I adhere to the recommendations of the ACMC.”

Biboorlmin Whadjuk Noongar woman Corina Abraham, who lives in nearby suburb of Bibra Lake, says she feels sad about “how racist and discriminatory [the government] can be”.

18835128_10213118949867351_1356084850_n“Especially our state – disrespectful to our culture, to our place of heritage, our country – who we are and where we belong,” she says.

Abraham (pictured, left) says the approvals process was flawed, because most of the people the committee consulted do not live in the area or have strong personal connections to the Beeliar wetlands.

Of the 54 Noongar people consulted, 28 opposed the Section 18 application, while 26 did not object. But all of the people consulted acknowledged the significance of the site. Abraham says the Noongar community members who did not object to Roe 8 only did so because “they were told there was no other option”.

Last year she challenged the approval for Roe 8 under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act. Her case was dismissed by the Supreme Court of WA and then by the High Court of Australia.

IMG_0709South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council regional development unit manager Gail Beck, (pictured at the wetlands, right) a Noongar woman who, like Reverend Garlett, also lives in Coolbellup, says she does not agree with white people dictating the importance of any Aboriginal heritage site.

“The brief of the DAA is to protect our sites. I do believe they have failed us,” Beck says.

But Collier disagrees with the claim that the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee was unsuited to making the assessment and swears “hand on heart” that he never used his ministerial position for political expediency.

“I made sure that the majority of the ACMC were always of Aboriginal descent,” he says. “As a non-Aboriginal man, I certainly can’t make decisions for the Aboriginal people.”

He says that growing up alongside the Wongi people in Kalgoorlie gave him a deep personal regard for Aboriginal people. “I will never ever compromise their integrity, their heritage, their history and their culture for politics,” he says. “But in regards to Roe 8, it is a crying shame that Roe 8 is not going ahead, quite frankly.”

Roe 8 is named after John Septimus Roe, Western Australia’s first surveyor-general. In 1834, Roe was the only unarmed man to accompany the state’s first governor, James Stirling, on a punitive raid that killed an estimated 14 to 30 Binjareb people on the banks of the Murray River at modern day Pinjarra, south of Perth. According to Curtin University Elder in Residence Associate Professor Simon Forrest, the attack was a watershed moment in relations between Aboriginal people and those of European descent in Western Australia. It is the only example nationally of an attack on Aboriginal people led by the leader of a colony or a state.

IMG_7732Ben Taylor says his father told him about the attack when he was a boy. “The bodies are twisted up in the roots of [the Murray] River,” he says.

Back then in the wetlands, Taylor says, the old people, women and children had nothing, “just spears and boomerangs”.

He says the government is ignorant and does not want to listen to Noongar people. “What we tell them has been handed down to us around the campfire. The land is our mother.”

Taylor says the entire ecosystem of the Beeliar wetlands is intertwined with Noongar beliefs and tradition.

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(Public Environmental Review, 2011) Figure 5.16-2: Noongar environmental values of the project area

The land cleared for Roe 8 ran through areas inhabited by the karrak [red tailed black cockatoos], and mooja or christmas trees [Nuytsia floribunda], both of which are of great significance in Whadjuk Noongar culture. The souls of Noongar ancestors are believed to rest in mooja trees before they are carried to their resting place by the karrak. Killing a mooja tree is thought to cause spiritual sickness among Noongar people.

IMG_7710 The lake system stretching south from the Swan River, through the wetlands to the Murray River at Pinjarra was a major trade and migration route between the Noongar groups that lived at either end.

Corina Abraham says the migration route was once followed by her  ancestors.

“Our ancestors used to come up all the way even from Pinjarra, right up through this country. They used to camp here, reside here and hunt and gather,” she says. “When I was growing up, my grandfathers would tell me just how our old fellas were a part of this country.

“The Beeliar are the river people, and we are part of the Beeliar clan.”

Piles of wood chips left by the Roe 8 clearing works.
Piles of wood chips left by the Roe 8 clearing works.

Abraham says it was very hard to come to the wetlands once the demolition started. “I couldn’t even drive past. It displaced me from my place, because you could see the hurt and pain of what was happening.”

Four months before the March 2017 state election which Labor, led by Mark McGowan, was to win in a landslide, the Barnett government started clearing for Roe 8.

In the lead up to the election people gathered to protest in their hundreds, with the hope they would delay the destruction until after the election and a newly-elected McGowan Government would scrap the project as promised.

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Protesters at the wetlands

Two days after the election, McGowan confirmed his government would halt Roe 8. “The start of the rehabilitation program marks a symbolic end to the Perth Freight Link saga,” he announced. A community-led group commenced rehabilitation of the 40 hectares of cleared bushland on May 24.

The newly appointed Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Yamatji man Ben Wyatt tells community yarns.com he will focus on protecting Aboriginal heritage in this term of government.

“There is broad agreement that the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is outdated, and that change is required. Our commitment to stop the construction of Roe 8 ensures that the environmental and Aboriginal heritage value of the areas surrounding the Beeliar wetlands are retained.”

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A protester message to the community

But what do Noongar people want to see done with their sacred land?

Four days after the March state election, a community group gathers at the nearby Hamilton Hill Memorial Hall to discuss what should be done next with the land that has already been cleared.

Reverend Garlett sits with his family while a gathering of otherwise white faces debates what should be done with his ancestors’ land.

Near the end of the meeting the group asks what he makes of it all. “Roe 8 has opened a door ajar for a lot of us who would not even cross a street to say hello to one and other,” he says. “It brought out a group of people that really knew that we stand together harmoniously for what we believe to be right.”

After the meeting, Reverend Garlett tells communityyarns.com he is interested in a new plan by the Cockburn Community Wildlife Corridor Committee to develop the land into the wildlife corridor but hopes, this time, his people will be consulted properly.

IMG_7726Corina Abraham is on the board of the Cockburn Community Wildlife Corridor Committee. She says the cleared land should be a place for cultural education. “We won the fight. There’s no tar.”

“We can replant our trees. We can regenerate that place, and community are going to bring it back together. We need to put a lot of the cultural heritage, history and research back into the place.”

But Abraham says the committee is not as inclusive as it should be. “We have to be more involved, because our cultural heritage needs to be acknowledged.”

Committee secretary Kellie Barnett says committee members have been intermittently attending meetings held by the Cockburn Aboriginal Reference Group to keep the Noongar people informed. “We are really eager to have a Noongar name on the corridor … to follow correct protocols,” she says.

IMG_7611Sharyn Egan says a wildlife corridor is a good idea. “If it’s touristy it won’t be touched again.”

Gail Beck says the land should be given back to the Noongar people in joint partnership with Department of Parks and Wildlife. “I’d like to see that it gets heritage listed. Get it listed federally so the Feds can’t come in and override the State,” she says.

The Federal Government had long supported the Barnett government and Roe 8, but ultimately reallocated the $1.2 billion funding to 17 other road and rail projects in WA. Federal Finance Minister and WA Senator Mathias Cormann says the Perth Freight Link is “critically important” to WA, but the Federal Government had to “make some pragmatic decisions in the public’s interest”.

Beck says she does not entirely trust politicians to not revisit the project. I will be very angry … if they have spoken with forked tongues to get votes,” she says. We haven’t won yet, we have just stopped it.

“At the end of the day it is a place that is our parliament, our church, our place of sharing knowledge with kids and with each other. Let us bring it back.”

Ben Taylor says the Beeliar wetlands should be handled by Aboriginal rangers who can tell stories of the land passed to them by Elders. “We will work with them to tell you all about what [the wetland] means.” Cathy Coomer says she Noongar rangers can teach people about how her people are still connected to the land. To Coomer and the surrounding Noongar community, the connection to the Beeliar wetlands remains strong.

Coomer finds herself in the shade of the paperbark trees she was born under.

IMG_7756This part of the wetlands holds an uneasy silence, like the aftermath of a battle. It is quiet enough to hear distant thunder and the rain gently hitting the remaining trees. From behind the project’s high boundary fences, the ground is bare.

Coomer reaches her hand towards the fence that still keeps her from her sacred land. Her eyes look upwards, searching, reflecting.

“[Australian Aboriginal culture] is the oldest … of all the continents of the world, and from the day of colonisation we have never had the beauty of Aboriginal people who are so connected to their lands and their heritage, acknowledged,” she says.

“How cruel is the white man’s mind, to be so destructive?”

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