DR NOEL NANNUP—Living in a Land That Demands Movement


Dr Noel Nannup, is a respected Aboriginal Elder, story-teller and cultural guide. He is a heritage consultant, has been named NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year, and is ECU’s Elder in Residence. He began with a Welcome to Country, in which he ushered the bad spirits out and the good spirits in. Noel said that when Europeans arrived at Perth in 1829, they were welcomed to this “place of plenty” on the Swan River, and that according to ancient Nyoongar protocol were told “the campsite is yours until you leave”.

Noel continued, recalling incidents that pointed him in the direction of being a spokesman for Nyoongar people. One was that his mother taught him that words are precious. Another was the life of Edith Cowan, who was passionate about women and the rights of the less fortunate. As a student at a Geraldton school, a visit from Vin Serventy and Harry Butler filled him with awe as he came in close contact with native animals and learned about them. As a child he learnt to get close to nature and “feel the spirit of the place”—a sentiment which Charles Darwin had also expressed. Noel felt he had to get himself a university education and after graduation from the University of Canberra, returned to WA for a job with the Department of Conservation and Land Management at Narrogin, working with the Aboriginal community and learning how they used the land. This led to Noel, together with an Elder from Wagin, documenting and mapping hundreds of Songlines.

These Songlines are Dreaming trails along which the people moved, subsisted, became wise and were buried, Noel said. They are the place where you light your fires. They follow the tracks where heroic deeds were performed in the Dreaming. The Dreaming consists of past, present and future. Groups moved across the land in a six-season cycle—six campsites in different locations along the trails according to the season, each with its own diet, and colour, and light.

Noel said that for Aboriginal people to maintain an existence continuously over a long period of time (going back to the Ice Age and beyond) they had to use their long experience to establish a system of laws—marriage laws, rules for the gathering and sharing of food and so on. Totems and blood groups are part of these laws. The laws even helped use food efficiently by assigning different parts of an animal to different people according to their blood group (e.g. the liver to the “red meat” people). The laws also helped to maintain personal qualities such as humility, respect and spirituality. And they used story, song, dance and art to maintain these laws. Continual ceremonies were held, guided by the moon cycle, with the different generations joining in at prescribed times. To participate in this was to pay homage to the social order and the totemic system. In the totemic system, each person is assigned a natural object as a spiritual emblem according to a complex system of rules. If a certain bird is your totem, then that bird is you.

“This planet is in trouble and needs help,” Noel reminded us. He suggested that we could learn from the Aboriginal world where living in harmony with nature was a priority and where forward planning by the Elders extended seven generations into the future, in contrast with the short-term view that is prevalent in the modern world.

It was an enlightening talk, sharing with us the very close connection that the Aboriginal people have with country. The land has always given them their identity, and caring for it has been their key to survival. It might remind us that even in this modern world, we all depend utterly on the natural world for our survival.

In collaboration with Dr Stephen Hopper, Dr Nannup explores the similarities between the Nyoongar creation stories and the western scientific understanding of nature in a film Synergies: Walking Together—Belonging to Country. It is available on YouTube.

Mike Gregson