Cotter River, ACT. Photo credit: Mark Lintermans

Traditional Knowledge

Indigenous relationships with waterways, aquatic life and more

There are over 40 Aboriginal Nations within the Murray-Darling Basin with Aboriginal people utilising freshwaters, fish and other aquatic fauna and flora (mussels, crayfish, plants, waterbirds) with enduring cultural and language connections to species, ecosystems, places, ceremony and story.

Waterways have provided food, meeting places, ceremonial and other significant cultural resources for Aboriginal people for at least 65,000 years, yet since European colonization Aboriginal people have been largely excluded from the protection and management of aquatic resources. Aboriginal knowledge and involvement in water planning and management is essential. Fishing is a key cultural practice informed by traditional Aboriginal knowledge and passed on through the generations. As part of the deep Aboriginal connection to Country, when rivers are healthy, Country is healthy, and when Country is healthy Aboriginal wellbeing improves.

Ancient Aboriginal connections to fish and fishing are still apparent in many places with the engineered and ancient fish traps (traditionally known as Baiame’s Ngunnhu) in the Barwon River at Brewarrina one of the best known examples. These traps are known as one of the oldest human-made structures in the world, with stories of their origins being passed down over thousands of generations. As well as stone traps, a variety of fishing methods were employed by Aboriginal people including wooden, brush or stick traps and pens, nets, spears, plant toxins and diving (for crayfish and mussels). Archeological excavations reveal Golden perch, Murray cod, yabbies and freshwater mussels were commonly hunted and formed an important food group for >30,000 years.

Fishing remains a vitally important part of culture and community for Aboriginal peoples, as a way for older generations to pass on knowledge to younger ones, strengthen family relationships, connect to Country and care for others by sharing the catch. There are substantial middens of freshwater mussel shells along the Darling-Baaka/Barwon and Murray rivers, which are ancestral places for camping, eating together and ceremony, distinguished by the mounds of shells left from cooking, accumulated over time. The size and number of middens in many places are testament to the long connection Aboriginal peoples have with aquatic resources in the Basin. Mussel shells were traditionally used for tools, jewelry, ceremony and artwork, and are still used and valued in this way. As well as direct cultural values of mussels, crays and fish, many water places have cultural value. For example, the Ngemba Old Mission Billabong supplemented water to the Mission during dry times and acted as a filter providing ‘healthy water’ to the downstream Brewarrina Aboriginal fish traps.

Aboriginal cultural connection also includes creation stories with the most widely known being the story of Ponde/Pondi, the Murray Cod, and the ancestral hero Ngurunderi and the creation of the Murray River. The story varies between regions and Nations but essentially:

Guduu, Thagaay and Gaygay (2008)
Artist: Bradley Moggridge

A huge Murray cod Ponde emerged at the source of the Murray River after a great earth shock or earth tremor and was chased by a great hunter, Ngurunderi and as Ponde thrashed along the channel, it formed the bends, reaches and billabongs of the river with its head and tail.

When the great fish was speared at Lake Alexandrina, the hunter threw pieces of the cod back into the water, naming them for the fish they would become; golden perch, bony bream, silver perch and so on.

When he finished he threw the remainder back and said, ‘You keep on being ponde’.

One long overlooked aspect of Aboriginal knowledge is in the common names of fish.

While some names have become more widely used (e.g. Goodoo for Murray cod for Kamilaroi people) the variety and breadth of Aboriginal fish names deserve wider appreciation.

Just as society now recognises the value of Aboriginal place names in Central Australia like Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Watarrka, Aboriginal fish and river names in the Basin also deserve recognition. The naming of Darling or Baaka River for the Baakandji People and the dual naming of Macquarie River in NSW with the traditional Wiradjuri name of Wambuul are recent examples.

Improved understanding, acknowledgement, appreciation and respect of Aboriginal knowledge and culture can only benefit native fish conservation and recovery.

What's being done to recover our native fish?

The Native Fish Recovery Strategy is a joint Australian Government initiative developed in partnership with Basin state governments, Aboriginal Nations and the wider community. It sets out a program of actions involving government, communities and industries across the Basin to ‘recover native fish for future generations’.

Learn More

Discover related content on the Finterest website, your home for stories about our Australian Freshwater Native Fish.

Since 2013, Finterest has been sharing great stories and information about the work being undertaken across Australia to bring back our native fish, particularly across the Murray-Darling Basin. It's a great source of inspiration and knowledge for anyone interested in Australian freshwater fish and native fish, and is updated with new stories regularly.
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