‘This was our home’

By MOLLY SCHMIDT

Sacred is the landscape.
The landscape is the bible; it’s the bible of all creation.
It’s the earth.
Mother Earth is the creation of life being, it’s the animals; everything that breathes.
The water breathes,
                       the land breathes,
                                      the trees breathe,
                                                    the human race breathes.
This is how the Aboriginal race is so connected with the spiritual sacred sites of the land that they live and dwell within.
And Aboriginal people, the Noongar people, they’ve been penalised because of this infrastructure of white invasion.
And sacred ground is the bible to all Aboriginal people.
It’s their bible.

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Cathy Coomer climbs over a barbed wire fence to enter the Beeliar wetlands – the place she was born. She laughs about the fact that she’s worn her white pants, as the reeds brush against her legs.

Fellow journalism student Jon Daly and I are quiet. We watch as Coomer’s eyes open wide, and drink in the essence of the place. The paperbark trees are layers of colour from pastel pink to earthy brown, centuries of stories. Spiders’ webs glimmer in the sun. There are so many shades of green. Coomer holds her hands out in front of her, and it looks like she is reaching for the sunlight.

IMG_6750“I was born in 1958 down here on the lake, at Bibra Lake,” she says.

Coomer and her younger sister were the last Noongar people to be born at the site the Roe 8 freeway was to run through. At times over the summer, she came down and joined protestors who lined the fences and watched as the bulldozers roared and tore down trees.

But now she lives in the northern suburbs of Perth, and it’s hard for her to visit what remains of this special site.

She walks with a stick in one hand to gently tap trees, stomping her feet to tell the snakes of her arrival.

“In 1958 Aboriginal people weren’t even housed, weren’t even allowed to have access to housing; and all them days they used to get rations, they used to get a piece of paper for vouchers to go to the store and everything.”

In those days Cathy Coomer lived at a camp at the Beeliar wetlands with her family.

“My mum and dad and siblings used to walk all the way from Bibra Lake to Willagee to do the shopping and things like that. Start off early hours of the morning, get into the shops then sit down at Willagee for a while, have something to eat, and the kids used to play with other siblings. Then they’d walk back, all the way back to Bibra Lake.”

It is so quiet in the bush as we walk. I imagine the children weaving through the balgas, carrying the shopping back to the camp where they lived.

Eventually we reach the fence where the bulldozers were.

It is eerie and quiet.

IMG_6835Coomer looks through the fence and I hear all the air leave her lungs.

“Unbelievable, isn’t it.”

She stands with one hand reaching towards the cold metal fence. We stand at the sacred birthing grounds, a place where Noongar women had, until recent decades, come for thousands of years to bear their children. The women and their babies would live off the abundance of the wetlands for the first months of the child’s life.

Coomer can’t remember exactly where she was born, but chances are it was under one of the trees that now lie in the dust on the other side of the fence.

She tells us that, back when she was born, Noongar women weren’t accepted into hospitals. Although her mother was a midwife who helped other Noongar women give birth at the wetlands, she gave birth to Coomer and her younger sister alone.

“My mother never spoke much about the history but she always pointed out, you know, this is where I was born.”

I imagine her mother beneath these trees as Cathy Coomer enters the world into this sacred place.

Now, a gate in the fence is open where a few months ago police stood guard. We step through the gate and stop beside felled trees, listening to the sounds of the remaining bush. Coomer runs her fingertips along a moss-covered log.

IMG_6781“My father was a naturalist and he used to travel a lot. He was the last Aboriginal person to have lived along the Bibbulmun Track, on the way down to Albany,” she says.

“My mother used to have me in an old cane pram, as a newly born baby, and when my father used to come home, he used to hear me crying, a baby crying. And he’d say, ‘Oh what’s that?’, and she’d say, ‘It’s your baby’.”

At three years old, as a child of the Stolen Generations, Coomer was taken from her family to the Roelands Mission.

She tells us that while she doesn’t have strong memories of her early years at the wetlands, she can feel in her bones that the land is her home. “I always came here and I used to sit down here and do my basket weaving. I just used to sit down there, on my own, because it was so peaceful.”

“I paint too, you know,” she says. “Art runs in my family. Have you heard of Revel Cooper? He was my uncle, he was.”

Revel Cooper, born in the early 1930s, (exact date unknown), was a Noongar artist and one of many Noongar children placed in the care of the state, and raised at Carrolup Native Settlement, near Katanning.

He began painting when his headmaster Noel White introduced arts and music programs. Cooper, who painted exquisite scenes capturing the Southwest landscape and its connection to Noongar culture, continued painting into his adulthood. His unique style has influenced generations of Noongar artists.

Coomer’s eyes sparkle when she says her uncle’s name. She has brought a painting of her own along with us – ‘Our first nation people belong’ it says. Beautiful patterns of plants weave their way around the words.

Coomer says she was part of a group of families who hunted for turtles at the wetlands, but the playground down by the lake has disrupted the turtles from their natural habitat.

“It’s sad to see that the recreation area locks the little turtles within their own environment, locks them up like they’ve locked our people up, you know, generation after generation.”

Later we sit with Cathy Coomer at a cafe and she tells us she feels that the sacred significance of the Beeliar wetlands has been disregarded.

Her words are heavy and sharp, and she points her finger into the wooden table.

“To go in there and do what they did, not even acknowledging that we exist, honouring the land or anything like that … disrupting, destroying. It is quite betraying, you know,” she says.

“Aboriginal people are connected with their religion and with the mother earth. Aboriginal people have got more power and ritual rights than everybody put together on this land.

“This was our home.”

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