Kakadu National Park and the Gagudju

Aboriginal flag 24.9K
Aboriginal flag

The Aboriginal elder and Chairman of the Northern Land Council (NLC) Silas Roberts' comments on their relationship with the nature and the land:

Aboriginals have a special connection with everything that is natural. Aboriginals see themselves as part of nature. We see things natural as part of us. All the things on Earth we see as part human. This is told through the idea of Dreaming. By Dreaming we mean the belief that long ago, these creatures started human society.

These creatures, these great creatures are just as much alive today as they were in the beginning. They are everlasting and will never die. They are always part of the land and nature as we are. Our connection to all things natural is spiritual.

Heron 43.4K

Heron, Yellow Waters Billabong
Courtesy of Beyond the Blue, NT, Australia

The Kakadu National Park is located in the tropical north of Australia, 120 kilometers east of Darwin. It covers a total area of 1,975,700 hectares. It was inscribed on the World Heritage List because of its outstanding biological and cultural values. The park has a distinct beauty of its own. It is full of wetlands, billabongs of the watersheds, woodlands and rock plateaus. Because of its unusual climate and almost undisturbed environment, it has a rich variety of flora and fauna, including many rare and endangered species.

The name Kakadu comes from Gagadju, one of the local Aboriginal languages. The Gagadju speaking Aborigines were believed to be the region's original inhabitants. It was believed the Australian Aborigines first set foot in the country during the ice age, either in the Kimberley of the west or the Arnhem land of the Kakadu National Park in the east. In 1990, with improved technology and dating techniques, Drs. Mike Smith and Rhys Jones of the Australian National University found the evidence of Aboriginal residence in the Park dated back more than 50,000 years ago.

Unlike most societies, the Aborigines have a very unique infrastructure of its own. There was no government set up, no established trading, nor any sense of land ownership. They lived a nomadic or semi-nomadic life. There were around 35,000 Aborigines living at that time. When the British Governor Philip landed in Sydney Clove in 1788, he saw this an opportunity and applied the terra nullius doctrine (a territory belonging to no one) to the country. The Aborigines immediately became dispossessed and lost all rights and freedom. In the following decades, the Aborigines were treated as out-casts, non-humans. Many were shot, killed and poisoned.

Lightning Brothers rock art 142.4K
Lightning Brothers rock art
Katherine River, N.T., Australia
Courtesy of the NT Tourist Commission

Things began to change a bit better for the Aborigines in the early 1970s. With the the passing of the Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Act 1976 in Canberra, the Aborigines were granted land rights to the Park. It was then leased to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (ANPWS) in 1978 to be managed as a National Park over a fee. It was believed the Gagudju has been here at least 50,000 years. The Gagudju has left behind enormous treasure of rock art and paintings. Some of earliest paintings are claimed by authorities to be at least 20,000 to 23,000 years ago or even 35,000 years ago. More than 1,000 have been recorded. Because of its unusual characteristics, the Kakadu National Park remains a favourite tourist destination.

Spirit figures painted in 1964 52.5K
Spirit figures painted in 1964
Last major rock painting in Kakadu

The Aborigines have a strong attachment to the land and the land is a part of themselves. The land carries part of their legends, beliefs, tradition and history. Many older Aborigines still live in their traditional ways in the National Park. Most of the younger generation of the Gagudju nowadays are said to be not interested in the own culture and the traditional way of life under the western influence. In fact, only less than a dozen elders now still live in Kakadu. The most senior traditional elder is Bill Neidjie. No matter how the elders try to preserve their culture and stick to their traditional way of life, the constant changes and development in Kakadu doesn't make it easy.*

Before the year 1974, the Kakadu National Park was pretty much left untouch to its natural state. Besides being rich in biological and cultural resources, the Park also contains plentiful minerals. Kakadu National Park is very rich in uranium and gold. The Australians saw a good fortune out of it and there are already three uranium mining leases operating in the east of the Park. Even though they have the land rights, any rights to any minerals remains with the Crown.

Mining can damage the Aboriginal sacred sites and contaminate their food and water resources. The uranium and gold mining also pose serious threats to the environment in the Kakadu, especially the extensive wetlands. Any tonic waste generated may have killed the organisms living in the billabongs. Mining has been going on for the last fifteen years in the Park. The Aborigines are concerned about the negative impact of mining on their people.

Uranium mining at Jabiluka in the Kakadu National Park was proposed last year under an old contract signed by the elder of the previous generation in 1982. The present Senior Traditional owner of Jabiluka Ms. Yvonne Margarula and many others strongly oppose the mining and are fighting against it. The people who have long association with the Kakadu National Park and its indigenous people founded a non-profit organization called Friends of Kakadu (FOK) Friends of Kakadu (FOK)providingnews and commentary in support of the campaign to block the construction of the new uranium mine in the Kakadu National Park.

 Links to more information on Kakadu

[Dreaming I Legends of the Gagudju I Contemporary Aboriginal living I Bibliography]


Written byHelen Lam
Created: December, 1996
Updated July 4,1999 by:
Ken Binns

*S. Breeden and B. Wright, Kakadu--Looking After the Country-the Gagudju Way. Brookvale,NSW: Simon & Schuste, 1989, p. 168

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