By MOLLY SCHMIDT
I connect here.
We still connect here.
It’s like our church, you know?
It’s our culture; it’s our religion.
It’s who we are.
It’s where we belong.
It’s what makes us feel closest to country and that’s the importance.
It’s our identity.
Biboorlmin Whadjuk Noongar woman Corina Abraham sits in a wheelchair facing Bibra Lake. Children play at a newly developed playground nearby, laughing and calling to each other.
Her partner Hayden Howard stands quietly beside us, his hands in his pockets, gazing out at the lake.
“The Beeliar wetlands, as a place, is significant to me on both my mum’s side and my dad’s side,” Abraham says. “The Beeliar are the river people, and we are a part of the Beeliar clan.”
Abraham turns her face to the sun and closes her eyes. She says her connection to the wetlands is through her “old fellas”. “They camped, they lived here; and we connect through our totems, through the animals too. Here, that’s the black-tailed cockatoo, so the animals connect us here to country.”
Abraham says women once hunted for turtles where children now play on shiny plastic play equipment.
“I’ve been coming here since the eighties, since I was young. I built my house years ago in Bibra Lake, just across the lake. That’s how significant it is.”
“I’m a Noongar Wangai Yamatji and this area is where my people used to congregate and to corroboree as well, from the different tribes.”
Parents and children walk hand-in-hand from the car park, and people in active wear walk their dogs along the path. The paperbark trees stretch above them, swaying gently in the breeze. I imagine the trees standing still, as the whole world shifts and changes around them.
“The more and more research I do of my own background I find out how significant this area is to me, through both sides. I have family, aunties, that still continued birthing here right through the fifties,” Abraham says.
“We are Bibbulmun people, but the government changed us to Noongars, put us all in one basket.
“We come under Beeliar too. We have Beeliar connections in our blood, through our bloodlines.”
Hayden Howard wanders away from us, but not too far. He stands in the shade of a marri tree, leaning against its trunk. He seems content to just be, peaceful in this place.
Abraham says her ancestors used to come up all the way from Pinjarra, “right up through this country. They used to camp here, reside here and hunt and gather.”
For a moment, I imagine what this site may have looked like back then. The smoke and the rhythm of tapping sticks, the sound of song and shouting and laughter.
Abraham’s words highlight the fact that so many of her peoples’ stories and histories go unnoticed, as we build a different world over the top of them.
“You can just picture, where Adventure World is, that used to be a place where they did the rain-making dance,” Abraham says. “I’ve heard at the Montessori school, the oval is built on a birthing ground.”
“Our community takes on this cultural importance, but other people don’t really. I don’t feel like we are heard.”
She now spends most of her days in and out of hospital, struggling with kidney failure. She’s had seven heart attacks in four years, but her ailing health does not stop her doing her utmost to protect the land she loves.
Last year, Abraham took the State to the Supreme and High courts in an attempt to stop the Roe 8 freeway destroying this area. “I was the only custodian who took them through the courts, in regards to Roe 8 and I got knocked back twice,” she says.
She looks out over the lake, as a black swan glides across the water towards us.
“We told [the State Government] ‘No’ years ago, but they don’t listen to us.”
Abraham takes my hand in hers and I thank her for her story.
She tells me she is making a sponge cake for her aunty this evening, and she is off to pick up some jam.
Howard gives me a nod and wheels Abraham back across the car park.
I sit at the lake a while longer as the sun lowers and the shade of the paperbark trees lengthens and stretches toward me.
Photo of Abraham: ‘Gnangarra’, Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia licence