If you walk into the town square in the Victorian ski village of Mt Buller, you will be greeted by a sculpture of a mountain cattleman on his horse. In all of the ‘high country’ towns of south eastern Australia and throughout the ski resorts, there is a pre-occupation with the history of the cattle families that, for generations, drove their stock into the mountains. There are roads, buildings, and events all named after these pioneers, stickers on cars, photos and sculptures, and endless homage to these tough people and their way of life. But where are the images or mention of the Indigenous people who lived in this country for perhaps 1,000 generations?

Paul McLeod

We are all aware of the on-going struggle by Indigenous peoples to assert their rights – to their land, culture, and economic development. The mainstream news does report on The Kimberley, Top End and North Queensland – most often when there is conflict around Indigenous communities – be it the Wild Rivers legislation in far north Queensland, or the NT Intervention, or gas developments in WA. And traditional owner (TO) groups are, more and more, on the media’s ‘radar’ even in the south east, and occasionally break through into mainstream reporting, like when the Yorta Yorta were successful in getting the state government to commit to the first jointly managed national park in Victoria’s history.

But one struggle for recognition that is almost unknown – outside the community where it takes place – is the one by traditional owner groups with connection to the Australian high country.

A few years ago, a man who thought he knew a lot about Indigenous history told me that much of the Alps were ‘orphan country’ – land that has no one left who has connection, responsibility, or rights relating to land. It was, in his words, ‘wilderness’ because the original people were gone.

This bit of information would probably come as a shock to the 100 Aboriginal traditional owners from across the Australian Alps who came together in May 2010 in Jindabyne to share ideas at their second five-yearly First People’s gathering.

The Australian Alps have been inhabited by indigenous nations for millennia. But as Taungurung man Mick Harding said recently “we were removed from our lands” by the invaders and “scattered to the four winds”. Disease, murder and relocation were the order of the day, and a century passed with outsiders paying little attention to those who remained. But over the past decade or so, a growing number of people and communities have been re-establishing connection to their country, and the focus for this has been the First People’s gatherings.

If people know anything at all about pre invasion culture in the High Country, they will be aware of the journeys to the mountains to gain access to the Bogong Moths that migrated from the western plains of what is now NSW. They provided a great source of fat and protein and all manner of business and ceremony occurred around the annual gatherings to gather the moths. This ancient tradition, of gathering together in the High Country was resumed at Dinner Plain in Victoria in 2005.

Uncle Ernie Innes of Taungurung country in Victoria said that the 2005 meeting was the first time elders had come together in that part of the mountains for 150 years. He said that from this meeting it was agreed to put governance structures in place so traditional owners could speak with one voice across the Alps. As Mick Harding has noted, meetings and other events have “re-ignited our bond as traditional owners of country – this is something we did for many thousands of years”.

Since the 2005 meeting, a key focus of the group has been to establish a working relationship with the government authorities that manage public lands across the Alps. This has been a success, with strong relations developed with the Australian Alps Liaison Committee (AALC), which includes the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), Parks Victoria, ACT Parks Conservation and Lands, and Parks Australia, all working directly with TOs through a body called the Australian Alps Traditional Owner Reference Group (or TORG). There are now also TORGs in NSW and Victoria. In 2006, the involvement of TO groups was officially acknowledged in the new management plan for the Kosciusko National Park.

Now, Aboriginal elders have decided to formalise the relationships that have been re-created through plans to develop a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between traditional owner groups across the Australian Alps, which includes up to 20 groups. They stretch from Gippsland (Gunnai/ Kurnai country) and the ranges to the east of Melbourne (Wurundjeri and Taungurung) all the way across the Snowy Mountains to the tablelands to the north and east of the Alps – to the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people near what is now Canberra. The intention is also to see a treaty developed which would then be agreed on by all other land users and managers. The intention of this is to acknowledge and enshrine the reality of continued Indigenous existence and connection to land.

Mick Harding

In 2010, Paul McLeod and Mick Harding attended the annual Alpine Resorts sustainability forum, which was held at Mount Buller. Both of them spoke passionately about the need for proper recognition of the fact that no indigenous groups ever gave up their sovereignty. They called on the managers of the ski resorts to do what the Parks Services have done in recent years – to acknowledge TOs, and work towards developing partnerships with them.

Apart from simple recognition that Indigenous peoples still maintain connection to their country, a key aim of this new partnership will be to develop economic and employment opportunities for these communities. Paul, a Yuin man with family connections across the Australian Alps, said “our ultimate aim must be to see the development of accredited, indigenous run tourism”, using the system that is in place and works well in the NT as a basis. Mick echoed this sentiment, noting that prior to invasion, local peoples had robust and well connected local economies, which had been broken as people were displaced. “We want to be able to develop a healthy economy again, one that includes opportunities for our people”. In addition, groups need support from resort management so that “we can build our capacity so that we can take our rightful place in mountain communities.” Paul noted that a good relationship is developing with some resorts – especially Perisher in NSW. Traditional Owners do an opening ceremony there at the start of the ski season. But both Mick and Paul stressed that the relationship must be far deeper than this and must include real economic opportunities for communities.

Where to from here?

TO groups are re-asserting themselves, and reminding the rest of the world that they still exist and continue to hold connection to country. They are strengthening their own relationships with their country and to each other. In the political realm they can see that there are many needs, and they will need support and solidarity from the broader community for all of these to come to fruition.

These tasks include:

  • gaining access to funds to allow ‘caring for Country’ work

  • training and employment opportunities

  • a MoU, then Treaty with other land users in the Alps

  • full involvement in all management plans for public land across the Alps

  • a Keeping Place or Culture Centre

  • Indigenous controlled tourism

  • Joint Management of the existing national parks

As Mick said at the conference, “we have moved past consultation – we now need partnerships so everyone (in the indigenous community) can fully engage in the economy”.

In the short term, they see the need to build relations and start partnerships with all land users and managers, including the ski resorts. This should start to see growing public recognition, for instance through signage and much more information becoming available about the history of Aboriginal people and their on-going connection to land. This, in turn, will help to educate the broader community, especially those who come up to the Parks, the resorts and the mountain towns. And perhaps, in time, we will see the living presence of indigenous peoples, if not replacing, then at least gaining equal space with our current fascination with the mountain cattlemen….

Cam Walker

You can find details on Mick’s work here.

Further info on the TORG here.