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Voices from the river

By Will Mooney - posted Friday, 21 June 2013

'We always look for the river' says Aunty Jeanie. She's sitting by the banks of the Murrumbidgee. It's flowing swollen after spring rains. Sun sparkles off the murky water and through the drooping red gum leaves. Aunty Jeanie is a Mutthi Mutthi woman. Her family is part of this place. 'This is my mother's country,' she says, 'and her mothers and…,' she thinks for a moment, 'it goes right back.'

Jeanie's story is one of many depicted in a new documentary that explores two Indigenous communities' deep connections to the rivers and waterways in their country. The Cultural Flows films were created as a collaboration between the Wadi Wadi and Mutthi Mutthi Nations and activist organization Friends of the Earth. This unique community film project brings the stories, concerns and hopes of Aboriginal people living in Australia's vulnerable Murray Darling Basin to audiences across the world.

Aunty Jeanie and her family share the river's sadness. The degradation of the Basin's ecology: the damning of rivers and the drying of floodplains affects them personally. Their culture has suffered as the waters have shrunk. Dispossession, theft and forced removal from Country have left lasting impacts.


The Cultural Flows films tell these stories, but they also convey a message of hope. They are about renewal and replenishment, about the waters returning and people coming home. "All those years I lived in Melbourne," says Aunty Jeanie, "that was all I thought about: Balranld and the river. And I thought, I'll go home and when I go home I'm never gonna leave it again. "

Aboriginal communities from the Murray to the Kimberly are telling a powerful story about their connections to rivers and waterways. The Indigenous water rights movement is gaining momentum, entering the political consciousness and finding its way into government policy. The premise is simple: Indigenous people have a right to manage, own and use water resources to meet their cultural, social and economic needs. Backed up by United Nations charters and the overarching National Water Initiative, Aboriginal community leaders and activists are putting forward their case in forums and political processes across the country.

Cain Chaplin, is a Wadi Wadi man from Swan Hill with a boundless enthusiasm for fostering community and returning the Murray to health. The Wadi Wadi people want to bring the platypus back to their stretch of the river. It's their totem, a creature whose existence is entwined with their own. But the platypus hasn't been seen for years. The water quality in the Murray is too poor. Cain recounts his grandmother's story of watching fish swim around her feet when standing knee-deep in the shallow water. Now you can't even see your knees.

Cain believes that the Federal Water Act must be reformed to enshrine Indigenous rights. 'The irrigators really do have to give up some of their water,' believes Cain, 'Instead of wanting to increase their allocations all the time. They have to start decreasing and making sure they make better use of what they have.' It's an audacious claim in a political debate fraught with fierce competition for water. The irrigation and farming lobbies have fought hard to resist Federal Government buy-backs for environmental flows. It's hard to imagine them embracing the idea of dedicated allocations for Indigenous communities.

Yet, the Murray Darling Basin Authority has backed Traditional Owner's demand for 'Cultural Flows': dedicated allocations of water owned and managed by Indigenous communities. While States bicker over the implementation of the Basin Plan, Indigenous organisations have secured some quiet wins. The Plan is prefaced with a strong recognition of Indigenous people's 'knowledge and cultural values in natural resource management associated with the Basin.' The plan also includes specific requirements that States must fulfill in the development of Water Resource Plans; the catchment level plans that manage resources in each region. Outside the Basin, the Northern Territory Government has deferred a plan to set aside Strategic Water Reserves for the future economic development of Aboriginal communities. But the logic of the 'Close the Gap' campaign has given Traditional Owners there a powerful tool to pursue their claims.

Peak Indigenous organisations across Australia are putting forward the case for a bigger share of water and a meaningful 'seat at the table' regarding water management.


The Cultural Flows films present this case with feeling and passion. These poetic and authentic stories challenge the detached and technocratic mentality with which colonial Australia has approached our rivers. Aunty Jeanie's touching memories distill powerful truths and cut through rhetoric. "Everyone was scared of the welfare", she recalls, "but it didn't stop us. In summertime we would come in on a horse and cart or ride a bike, ride horses and always look for the river. Always.'

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The Cultural Flows films Premiere in Melbourne on Thursday 27th July, 6.30 pm at the Bella Union, Trades Hall, Corner of Lygon and Victoria Street Carlton. For more information visit:

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About the Author

Will Mooney is Community Campaigner with the Barmah-Millewa Collective of Friends of the Earth Melbourne.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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