Grave fears held for hundreds of important NSW south coast Indigenous sites

By Lorena Allam

Aboriginal people living along the New South Wales south coast are gravely concerned about hundreds of important and protected sites they fear have been damaged or destroyed by bushfires.

Yuin people said there were several sites that may have been wiped out between Gulaga (Mount Dromedary) and Mumbulla mountain, north of Bega.

Mumbulla and Gulaga are part of a chain of important Aboriginal cultural sites stretching from the Shoalhaven to the Victorian border.

A Yuin man, Warren Foster from Wallaga Lake, said people need to be supported to go out on country to assess the damage.

“These are the worst bushfires in our history,” Foster said. “It’s never gone up like this. Our people never knew fires like this.

“The ancestors would be wild, I reckon, about what’s happened to the country, to our totem animals.

“There are hundreds of sites, male ceremony places, sites on our sacred mountain, that burned. Not only Yuin land but all over – there’d be thousands of places destroyed by these fires.”

These places have “been there for thousands of years but once it’s gone you never get it back. It’d be good to go out and see how bad the damage is.

“We need our country to be healthy so we can be healthy. We need the animals. If that is all lost, our spirits die when they die.

“This might be a wake-up call for them now to listen to us Indigenous people on how we do our cultural burning. It’s time to ask us how to look after the country.”

Yuin people gather at Gulaga mountain in early December as smoke clouds the sky, to perform a ceremony to heal the country. Fires swept through the region over the new year period.
Yuin people gather at Gulaga mountain in early December as smoke clouds the sky, to perform a ceremony to heal the country. Fires swept through the region over the new year period. Photograph: Rachel Mounsey/The Guardian

The NSW Aboriginal Land Council said its immediate priority was “offering much-needed support to local Aboriginal land councils in fire-affected regions of the state”.

“The impacts of these fires undoubtedly extend to the degradation and loss of vital culture and heritage,” the council said. “However, we are currently focused on the very significant immediate human needs arising from this crisis.”

Bushfires devastated the small community of Mogo, south of Batemans Bay, destroying the local land council office, which was a social and cultural hub for the Aboriginal community, providing housing, art and education programs, and caring for country through the ranger program.

“The ranger team has lost important equipment they need to support their work including vehicles, a working shed filled with land and sea care equipment, monitoring devices, among a range of other tools and necessary equipment for sustainable land management,” the chief executive of Mogo’s Local Aboriginal Land Council, Linda Carlson, said.

“The Mogo LALC rangers have been working for years to restore the land, freshen waterways and fish stock and marine environments within their country in order to increase its resilience.

“This is now critical to ensure that all fast-growing weeds and invasive species are removed to ensure the full health of creeks, wetlands and lagoons are restored to attract local species of fish and local animals.

“Returning to their ranger work is also important to ensure that cultural heritage and local knowledge is protected for future generations in the area.”

A fundraiser is operating to help the community rebuild, supporting families and elders, including providing trauma and mental health support.

A destroyed car next to burnt bushland in the village of Mogo.
A destroyed car next to burnt bushland in the village of Mogo. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

The NSW government said it had received reports of impacted Aboriginal heritage places and local and state heritage register-listed sites, and was working to support affected property owners and complete urgent works.

The government is working closely with the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee and the Heritage Council of NSW to ensure that impacts to these sites are assessed and managed effectively in the recovery phases.

In a statement on its website, the NSW government’s Aboriginal cultural heritage advisory committee said it “shares the nation’s concern over the current fire crisis, the tragic loss of lives, and the impact to wildlife, livestock and property”.

It provides a phone number and email address to contact the committee “if you are aware of any Aboriginal cultural heritage places and objects affected by the fires”.

“The members of [the committee] and the staff of Heritage NSW send our sympathies to everybody affected and offer our strongest support in the management of your cultural heritage now and in recovery phases.”