Meeting Mittigar

COUNTRY CUSTODIAN A man of the Darug Nation (Photo: David Walsh).
COUNTRY CUSTODIAN A man of the Darug Nation (Photo: Kevin Welsh).

A writer’s encounter with the Darug Nation.

Writing for Blue Mountains Life magazine brought plenty of insights into the region’s finest homes, yet whenever an early property’s history was explored, a constant theme arose – the indigenous heritage of the Hawkesbury and Penrith Valleys.

Ever since the area was earmarked for land grants and agriculture in the colony, European settlers and their descendants encountered the traditional owners of the lands adjacent to Deerubbin, the Darug name for the Hawkesbury River.

There’s also the matter of warfare between the settlers and the Darug, a subject rarely spoken or written of, yet an unavoidable part of the Hawkesbury’s history. This article was published in the Aug-Sep 2011 edition.

Custodians of country

Learning pathways at Muru Mittigar.

Researchers, community members and tourists are able to share a brilliant resource in Muru Mittigar. Meaning ‘pathway to friends’ in the Darug language, this cultural centre, adjacent to the Penrith Lakes, has reached out with a message of reconciliation and learning since its establishment in 1998.

The day I visit, Wayne Krause shows me through the newly renovated shop and the cultural centre itself, where a timeline, a map of Australia’s Aboriginal territories, and interpretive signage illustrate the journey of Australia’s Aboriginal people, with a focus on the place of the Darug Nation.

It becomes clear very quickly that this is not a museum in the European tradition – it comes to life only with the guides, who interpret Muru Mittigar’s displays for visitors.

“‘Art’ is European terminology,” Ngemba man Peter Williams explains, as he interprets a painting on Darug law. “This picture is telling the story in the old way, what you can and can’t do, where you can and can’t go, in relation to Darug Country”.

“The hands done in red are those of men who have done law. The hands in yellow are those of women who have done law. The black and white hands are those men and women who have not yet done law.”

Symbols of islands in the Hawkesbury-Nepean river, of land bridges, of nets for catching animals, of bush turkeys, quolls, possums and other food sources in the region are easier for me to interpret than the concentric circles – “They represent the law itself,” Peter says, also showing me the spirits figures in the work.

Peter and Wayne explain in turns how Darug culture fits into the whole of Australia’s Aboriginal landscape, often ribbing one another on points of learning and territory, yet it’s clear these men, despite being of different nations (Wayne is of the Kalara people of the Wiradjuri language group), are brothers.

“We’re all one,” Wayne says, “but there is a diversity of culture in New South Wales”.

I arrived with a basic understanding about who was a famous Darug warrior, and who was of a neighbouring nation, but both Peter and Wayne are quick to explain how warriors like Pemulwuy (featured in a near life-sized image at Muru Mittigar) are considered brothers of the many Aboriginal nations of Australia’s east coast.

“It’s not about skin colour,” Wayne says, “it’s about spirit. All the mobs have relations with others. Our dreaming coincides. Clan groups and skin groups travel, and you encounter the same stories, and the stories never stop.

“In this country, there are more sites – art sites and camp sites – than anywhere else in NSW. It’s been estimated that there are 27 sites per square kilometre.”

When I ask Wayne if it’s Muru Mittigar’s role to preserve these, he says: “It’s our job to ensure Aboriginal culture is practiced, not preserved. Aboriginal culture is alive. The challenge is now to make sure our Mother, our country, survives.”

“Muru was a necessity,” Peter adds, “to set up a permanent base for teaching. I needed to be taught Darug language, and now we have fluent speakers.”

“One of our dreams is to develop courses for people to learn about culture,” Wayne says, and Peter quickly adds: “It’s a slow process, bringing mobs together, teaching people to be one again. The law has been lost, and respect. The settlement turned everything topsy-turvy. The money system became greater than the law.”

“It’s time to come back, to take away the power struggle that money brings. It’s not ‘mine, mine, mine’, we are all custodians,” Wayne explains.

Looking over a map of Australia’s Aboriginal nations, Wayne and Peter demonstrate something about how Aboriginal interconnection works.

“If you know your clan, family, blood, animals (totems, or ‘meat’), your scarring and your teeth,” Wayne says, “you could travel across this country and the people will know where you fit into the system”.

“It’s not about which clan had which land,” Peter adds. “You can walk and sing your way through country”.

PROUD WARRIOR Peter Williams interprets a portrait of Pemulwuy.
PROUD WARRIOR Peter Williams interprets a portrait of Pemulwuy.

“Which you can’t do by flying across it in a plane,” Wayne is quick to point out.

When it comes time to ask about the wars between settlers and the Darug in the Hawkesbury, both men are clear that conflict was secondary to settlement.

“Many of the settlers were starving, and the indigenous people showed them how to survive, what to eat,” Wayne explains. “The wars happened when the indigenous peoples’ source of food was taken away. When Bennelong went to London, he saw what was coming and he knew there was no way it could be stopped, but by the time he came back, there was full-scale war.”

Looking again at Pemulwuy’s image, Peter explains how the warrior’s family scars are similar to his own: “But if you were at the same camp fire as him, you’d sit still and be respectful otherwise he’d be able to-” and he slaps a fist into himself.

Peter also notes how none of Pemulwuy’s teeth are missing, another symbol Aboriginal people look for to interpret another brother or sister’s place in the community.

I ask Peter and Wayne where they learnt about their country and their law, and they name the three uncles who, twenty years ago, ensured the next generation learned what they needed to.

“Learning breaks down barriers that don’t need to be there,” Wayne says. “It’s not about blame, it’s about teaching others to look after Mother Earth.”

“Muru encourages our people into higher education. Not just the training but employment too, in tourism, hospitality, woodwork and other industries. As an Aboriginal not-for-profit corporation, Muru Mittigar has a high amount of employees.”

“The Darug were pretty-much decimated,” Peter says. “There were diseases we had no resistance to, and we were blended into the community as a whole. We’re never going to know the full story until the law comes back, but people learn culture on many levels. and we teach what we know.”

The effects of the Hawkesbury’s settlement by Europeans is just one part of Muru Mittigar’s story – I leave with my preconceived ideas replaced by a growing understanding of the land that we share, and the feeling that the Darug nation is in very good hands.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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