Podcast episode 2: Uncle Dave Wandin

Show notes

Listen to an interview with Wurundjeri Elder and land management expert Uncle Dave Wandin. Uncle Dave has been doing extensive conservation work at Coranderrk, a former mission station and place of enormous cultural and historical significance.

You can find out more information about donations and volunteering by going to coranderrk.com or joining the Coranderrk Facebook group.

If you would like to get in touch with us, please send an email to mail@yarraranges.vic.gov.au.

Transcript

Host
You're listening to the Yarra Ranges podcast. This podcast is recorded on Wurundjeri Country. We acknowledge their Elders past, present and emerging. The opinions expressed in this recording are those of the speakers and may not reflect or represent the views of Yarra Ranges Council.

Hello! Hi. Thanks for tuning in to our podcast. This podcast is about listening to the stories of our community. This episode features a conversation with Wurundjeri Elder and land management expert, Uncle Dave Wandin.

Uncle Dave Wandin
So I’m Dave Wandin and I’m an elder of the Wurundjeri Tribe Land Council, also the chairperson of Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation. I grew up in Melbourne, went to the all-boys tech school, left that when I was 15 and I’ve worked in contemporary industry all of my life, but in 1996 I had the opportunity to come back here to my home country and I was actually moving my dad back up here to retire. He then took me around and showed me the things that he did as a child and talked about the stories of what his ancestors taught him and I absolutely fell in love with the place.

Once dad took me around, you know, walking along the creek, showing me where a woman we called Granny Jemima taught him how to fish for eel and how to tickle trout. And just walking through the bush and he just talked about his childhood and it sort of like it really resonated with me and it sort of from then it became my mission to like, I need to know all this stuff. I need to learn this and pass it onto my children.

Host
Uncle Dave Wandin runs educational sessions and tours discussing land management and the use of fire in land management. He also consults with universities and scientific organisations, providing his expertise and experience.

Uncle Dave
I’ve actually become an educator by walking and talking and explaining to them how I view the landscape through my ancestors. I use the land to talk to me, to let me know what I need to show people on a certain day. So I do many tours here at Coranderrk as often as I can, of course we can't do it with COVID, but each tour is different, because at every time of the year there is something else in the landscape that actually tells you what needs to be talked about.

Host
Yeah, I know, that makes sense. I mean, the landscape is constantly changing, isn’t it?

Uncle Dave
Yeah, that's right, yeah. And we've got to keep constantly changing with it and adapting to it. It needs constant maintenance. So as an Elder I took on the role of land management but in particular the role of fire in land management.

Host
For thousands of years, Indigenous Australians used fire strategically to promote new growth and clear land for crops or animals.

Uncle Dave
So next year we will be doing some trials here on some parcels of the property to burn, in an Indigenous way – to show the difference between burning because you want to clear the land or reduce your fire risk. But show that the right burning, at the right time of the year, can actually enhance your environment. You know that fire is not something that you need to be afraid of – it's a useful tool, if you understand it. And I understand it, because of my ancestors, you know – burning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. But this place, where we are now, Coranderrk, is a demonstration to show that even with climate change that using ancient methods – combining it with modern science, as well – that we can actually tackle climate change. So we have worked for the last five years on making this a climate change-resilient property, but still economically viable. We run cattle, so that's our modern industry if you like, but we have nearly 30 per cent of our property that's dedicated to conservation – so reforestation, regrowth, planting. We put in 20,000 trees three years ago. From that we've established for the people who helped us plant those trees we now have a dedicated group of volunteers, not necessarily Aboriginal, who come out here once a month – until COVID – started and work with us, not only to look after the trees that we planted, but to do whatever is necessary and to learn knowledge from me and other Elders that they can take back to their properties and apply that methodology to make a difference.

Host
Yeah, well, it's important that we learn from these ancient cultures. I mean it was working so perfectly for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.

Uncle Dave
It's only taken, you know, approximately 200 years to actually all of a sudden realise ‘hey, you know this land’s not looking after us anymore’.

Host
I do like how you're bringing these, you know, these learnings and these teachings back. And you're doing it in such a fresh way. I think is really interesting and I do want to thank you for allowing me to come here as well.

Uncle Dave
Oh, I want people to come here. I want people to come. This is a demonstration site for the average person, but you know I’m working with Melbourne University, presenting to their Aboriginal Science PhD students, which are from all around Australia. But you understand the physics and the chemistry that we, as Aboriginal people, did know. We were the first scientists of this country, but we actually have more data than what's been collected by the modern world today. They've only got, maximum, 200 years of observations – we have tens of thousands of years of observations, of collecting data and analysing that data and then going out with a solution to problems that have been identified. Everybody looks at our knowledge as traditional, ecological knowledge. They've never looked at it from a scientific perspective. Now CSIRO is actually putting it in words of Indigenous science, recognising it as a database system.

Host
Let's talk about the pandemic and your work since the pandemic started. So, how has it impacted your work and changed what you've been working on?

Uncle Dave
It hasn't changed anything that I’m working on, because I’ve got my finger in so many pies. I’m an honorary member of, I think, something like 34 environmental groups, all across Wurundjeri Country. I do a lot of work, as I said, with Melbourne University – doing presentations on Indigenous land management. That has dropped off, but what it has given me is to do more work out here at Coranderrk. Now because we're using technology that's actually given me more time working from home, that as soon as it's five o'clock I can come out here to Coranderrk. I actually feel healthier than I’ve felt in a long time through not having to be rushing around everywhere, so when I do get out here at five o'clock I get a lot more done in my two hours than whatever spare hour I used to have and even if I’m not actually doing any work sometimes it's beautiful down on the confluence of the Badger.

To sit underneath and look at those magnificent manna gum trees, which have been there for probably four or five generations before me, and if you sit there long enough they'll tell you what you need to do. And I’ve done that and it's a beautiful feeling, because sometimes I do go down and go, you know, what's my next thing – what should I be doing today? And a couple hours later those trees tell me, ‘you don't need to do anything here, you need to be going over there, you need to be going to this park, you need to be looking after this’.

You know, I’ve said this for I don't know how long – we've got to stop balancing economy versus ecology. It actually has to work equally, it has to be beneficial both ways. It can't be one way all the time, because that's how we've got to climate change and my father told me 24 years ago when he did take me around and showed me the places that he knew as a child, he said, ‘You need to learn all this is it because one day Australia is going to be asking you’. Not just me personally, but the Aboriginal people – how did you survive for so long? Because this climate change is nothing new to us – we have gone through climate change before in our creation stories. We have a creation story about the Yarra River itself. Back in my ancestors time they watched the birth of the Yarra River. The Bunurong people to the south of us tell the story of when the Yarra was formed and how Port Phillip Bay, which was their traditional lands, actually filled up. You know, they've seen the formation of Port Phillip Bay as we know it today. It wasn't always there and all of a sudden they find this evidence of this Aboriginal occupation. How did Aboriginal people live under the water in Port Phillip Bay? Because the bloody water wasn't there.

Host
That's just incredible though that that story was passed down for so long.

Uncle Dave
Without being written down. They say we didn't record it because we didn't write it on paper, but we did record it. We recorded it in song and dance, we recorded it in oral history. So there was no school as such for our children – they went out every day alongside their mum or their uncle, their auntie, grandma whatever – and they learnt things. But it wasn't learning, it was like, ‘okay we're just going off and we're going to do this’, but once everything was done that was needed to support the village – which is usually done by lunchtime – then it was back underneath the big gum tree or the manna gums, and you talked about what you observed that day. You were asked questions and you talk back and say, ‘oh, I’ve seen such and such’ and then the Elders would go, ‘did you see…did you notice…while you're doing that, did you see that this bird here?’ Or even sometimes even down to insects and ants and all kinds of different things. But that was their way of getting you to be a researcher.

They didn't say, ‘you've got to go and research this’, they just asked you the questions and if it was something exciting you were encouraged to interpret what you've seen in song and dance. So when you talk about singing country, if you've heard the expression, that's what that is.

As we did move around, we weren't as nomadic as what people think, but we did move around the Country. But as you were walking through the different parts of Country, you'd be asking the kids, ‘so what do you say here?’ and ‘what is it, what's the story about the wombat?’ And they'd sing the story about the wombat and that was the way we retained our memory.

And I love that science is now studying that and finding out that our legends, as they call them, or our creation stories or our dream time stories actually have scientific fact to back it up. 

Host
Now at the time of recording, Stage Four stay-at-home restrictions had just been announced in Victoria and the State Government had yet to explain in further detail.

Uncle Dave
I feel sorry for the people that don't have the opportunities that I have, to be able to come out here. Not everyone has that opportunity. I can't imagine how some people are coping, you know, in the city environment. But, I mean, I’ve grown up with a lot of adversity and I’ve always been the glass-half-full person and take on the challenge and go, ‘okay, I’ve got to be locked down – that's all right, I’ve got plenty of food’. Something I’ve learned from being a street kid in Melbourne, not knowing where to get food and learning to be hungry.

So all the panic buying that went on – why are you doing that? And my message from all the COVID restrictions are to come in but they've came in and everyone's going, ‘oh this is an imposition on me’. Remember that's just a minimum that's required and I think we should all be thinking, ‘okay, so that's what I’ve got to do – what can I actually do over above and beyond what's the government's asking us to do?’ What can we actually do, each personal individual actually do, to think about, ‘okay, I’ve got to go wear a mask and I’ve got to wash my hands and I’ve got to do social distancing – well, what else can I do?’ And if it means having that shopping list when you go to the supermarket, so you're not walking around just browsing, like a lot of people used to – and I was one of them – it's like, go there with a fixed plan in mind. Don't be out more than you need to. Well, even if you're locked inside your house and it's not the bush, but your house actually talks to you, even if it's only a rented house. I’m talking other people, a lot of people, ‘yeah I’m home’ I’m isolated and I want contact’. We've got phones, we've got FaceTime, we've got all the technology. We are so lucky with the communication networks that we've got today.

I sit at home and I’ll be just going through emails and I go, ‘oh there's someone I haven't spoken to for a while and I’ll give them a call’ and you'd be surprised how many times when you do it, that they say ‘do you know what, I was just thinking about thinking about ringing you’. It's because you're actually, if you use the spirituality of Aboriginal people, you are communicating – you might not have rang them, but you're actually thinking about them and while you're thinking about them, that message of thinking goes out to those people.

Host
That's so interesting, because that happens to my mum all the time. She keeps saying, ‘I was literally just thinking about this person’ and they'll call her. I have to tell her that, she'll love it.

Uncle Dave
It happens all the time if you learn to listen to it. And this is an opportunity during COVID, to actually listen, I guess, to your subconscious you'd call it, or your spirituality or your religion or whatever it might be, but to actually stop and listen.

Host
2020 has been, for all of the terrible things that have happened, it has been kind of like a reset.

Uncle Dave
Yeah, think about your computer. You're working away, you're working. Every now and then it crashes and you've got to reset it. And that's what nature's done – it's crashed and it's telling us, ‘hey, look I’m going to reset it for you, I’m going to send this flood through here, I’m going to clean out this area, I’m going to put this fire through here’. What we as Aboriginal people would look at that as an opportunity, especially after a fire, is to go back in there after it and see what's happening and then manage it and we'd look at it as an opportunity. It's an opportunity to do what nature has been asking us to do.

Host
For anyone who's unfamiliar with the land that we're on right now, with Coranderrk, can you speak a little bit about the history, the history of Coranderrk? I mean it's such a significant place, so it's hard to…

Uncle Dave
Yeah, yeah. So Coranderrk was one of the first mission stations set up in Victoria, if not the first, but it was also the first land rights claim in Australia back in 1863. So it wasn't particularly set aside as a mission station, it was a place chosen by my ancestors where they wanted to stay and they went and petitioned the government for this land and they won their petition, they won their claim, and this land was set aside for Aboriginal people – 4800 acres in perpetuity, it was legislated. Yeah, our people went and petitioned the government but they knew to hang onto it that they would have to work it in a modern way, as taught by the superintendents that used to be here, the white superintendents. And they did it and they did it really successfully and they showed the white people – I’m going to use that word – that we could adapt and change because it would have to do much worse than that, you know, with climate change and, you know, disasters and yeah all these kind of things that have happened prior to what we've recorded in, you know, recent history.

And two of our people, Simon Wonga and William Barak actually knew there was a change coming when the white people first came to Victoria. They were very, very young boys but very still intelligent. And Barak actually took the time to learn to speak the Queen's English and to write letters and he became a force to be reckoned with, with the government. But because he was so successful or they were so successful and all the people that were here were so successful, the government then said – because it wasn't what mission stations were set up for, they were set up for us to die out somewhere else. The very first mission station, I remember this story now, it was in what we now call Toorak, that was close enough to push us out of the city. That was the first place we were saying, ‘no, you stay there’. Imagine if we had managed to hang on to that land, huh? But we did get shifted around to a lot of different places, and different people didn't want us there.

So William and Simon Wonga chose this place and they did prove that they could work it, make it successful, actually even make it economical, and so then they brought in white people to do the harvest and they collected the money. They didn't pay our people. So they managed to do more and more harvesting but they weren't getting paid, so they couldn't buy food, so they would nick off from the harvest and go and harvest out of the river the bush foods and the eels and the perch and the freshwater crays and the mussels and all the things that used to live in these healthy rivers. You won't find mussels anymore. So they would go and do that, then they get punished and they'd actually have their rations dropped so then they have to go back to the harvest to get just enough to feed their family and they did all these things because it wasn't the way it was supposed to work. So over time they carved it away and carved it away and carved it away.

And remember it wasn't that long ago, it was only 1924 when it was finally closed down, but we're keeping that story alive.

Give us this country and we will show you that we can work it. We can still be economical but we can also be conservationists and it's still a demonstration to this day of the of the tenacity and the vision that William Barak had for his people and we continue that in his name.

Host
Earlier this year protests erupted around the world in response to the tragic death of George Floyd. In Australia, the Black Lives Matter movement focuses on our Indigenous communities, where injustice social disadvantage and historical atrocities continue to impact our nation. Australian Indigenous people are the most incarcerated people on the planet. Some have suggested that the COVID-19 lockdown forced people to notice what was going on and recognise the issues that Australia is facing. Uncle Dave Wandin had mentioned how COVID was nature's way of forcing us to stop, so I asked him if it has also pushed us into a cultural reset.

I feel like this year…COVID has also had this interesting effect. It's caused people to stop and think about this country and, you know, there were the protests back in June.

Uncle Dave
Oh, Black Lives Matter.

Host
Yeah, people have been doing more reading, listening more – probably not quick enough and probably not enough people doing it.

Uncle Dave
But look, the media is out there and there's so much awareness that we can't pretend it's not happening. Whether any individual or any government can actually make the changes that are necessary in the short term, I’m not sure, but I did read the statement from Scott Morrison about the new Closing the Gap initiatives, which I think is a fantastic step forward in empowering individual communities to have control over how funding is managed. And I did that quite a few years ago in land management – I did a presentation for an environmental forum and someone said to me, ‘what would you like to see in new funding projects?’ and I said, ‘well, I would actually like to design the projects myself and then you support me to do it’, rather than somebody sitting at a desk and saying, ‘oh here's a nice idea, what about we get the Aboriginals – they can go off and do x y and z’. Which are usually on a rotating cycle, so they are a lot of them are good initiatives.

What I did in land management was say, ‘I want to stop that funding cycle – we'll develop the projects and then we'll develop a business out of it and then we'll apply, just like anybody else, will tender out for our jobs’. What we're developing now is an opportunity for people to become employed within their communities. They have control of their future, for all of their future, not just, ‘oh, I’m going to make good money for three years but then I’ve got to wait two years to start it all over again’, because that can actually really break people's spirit. And yes, you need funding to set the places up. What happens if you get too skilled? The government goes, ‘geez, you're good at your job – you want to come work for us?’ Which is great for that individual, but then the community has then lost the skill set and they've got to start the process over again.

So we make sure now that we retain all our people. They can go and work for the government but not be employed by them. We basically second them back to the government. They still work for our community, they still get paid by our community, they're not paid by the government organisations – so that their knowledge stays there. And they're given the time, that if they need to go off to their community and do their cultural practices – you know, our men's camps and our boys camps and our women's camps and our girls initiation camps and all these things that we're doing in the background, which are not tourist attractions, they're actual cultural practices – that we need to do and we're building a much stronger Aboriginal community.

Host
I think it's incredible, and the resilience I think is something that everyone can learn from and should listen to. I was just thinking about William Barak, because he was a traditional doctor.

Uncle Dave
That's right, yeah.

Host
Yeah and I was just wondering what his perspective – and it's probably just an idle thought – but what his perspective would have been on all of this and I think his importance is even more relevant at the moment during COVID.

Uncle Dave
Yeah, so there's not much that we've uncovered so far and I think he might have been a bit too young, but the smallpox epidemics that, you know, wiped out more than 50 of the Victorian Aboriginals back in 1835 uh and then again in 1850. In 1850 William Barak was only about 11 years old, so dealing with an epidemic like that but yeah we had lots of epidemics here, with just with pneumonia and tuberculosis. But when that was happening he'd actually made a promise to John Green that he would stop, as it was called, ‘witch doctoring’. From then the Wurundjeri people haven't had a medicine man, or a medicine woman. We still hold some of the knowledge, bits and pieces of the medicine, but we haven't really had anyone who is recognised as our doctor.

That's one of the good things that I’m finding now, that for many, many years it's the old divide and conquer – where the government's kept all the different mobs arguing against each other. And now we're walking away from that and we're starting to talk to each other and we're finding that we've all got little bits of knowledge that's been handed down from our ancestors. And when you combine them all, we've actually got a big lot of knowledge, and we're starting to do that. We're building up this database and seeing where all the little different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fit together and the more we put in there the more it's uniting our communities, not just here in Victoria, but all around Australia, of being able to communicate again and share that knowledge and pass it on to our children.

It’s the kids that are taking it the next step further again. My grandkids are speaking language. They're learning that off one of my cousins, Brook, so that's great to hear them talking in language. I only know a few words, some of the names are some of the plants but I can't actually string a sentence together, but the kids are starting to talk to each other in Woiwurrung language. That's an amazing thing to see.

Host
A huge thank you to Uncle Dave for taking the time to chat and share his knowledge with all of us. If any organisations or individuals would like to contact Uncle Dave, you can contact him via the links in our show notes. Find out more information about donations and volunteering by going to coranderrk.com or joining the Coranderrk Facebook group.

You can find this podcast wherever you stream your podcasts or by visiting yrc.vic.gov.au/podcast. Say up-to-date on what's happening in the region by following Yarra Ranges Council on Facebook. For some resources, good news stories from the region and to share your own stories from the pandemic visit yrc.vic.gov.au/podcast. Thanks for listening, stay safe.