Stories To Learn From

Dr. Anne Poelina (L) and Lucy Marshall OAM

Dr Anne Poelina, a Fellow of the Peter Cullen Water & Environment Trust (2011), talks about why it is important to share stories so Aboriginal experience and knowledge can be included in land and water management decisions. She talks about the importance of a cooperative way to develop Australia's multiple economies.

A Nyikina woman, Dr Poelina contributes a significant voice promoting partnership of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal interests in the future ethical development of areas rich in cultural, agricultural, mineral and ecological resources.

Read her paper 'Stories to Learn From', published in RipRap, Edition 36, 2013

Sustainable Livelihoods On Country

Nyikina Mangala Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River WA)
Sustainable Livelihoods on Country Case Study
A. Poelina RN, MPHTM, MEd, MA, PhD and
I. Perdrisat BPhysEd , Med, MPHTM, MA
Warloongarriy….songs all got meaning. Every time we sing that song
we teach the kids about the country, how it was made.
(Darby Nangkiriny, Nyikina Mangala Ancestor)


1. INTRODUCTION (NMAC Report April 2011 )


The Nyikina Mangala people are Traditional Owners of the land from the lower Fitzroy River to the Great Sandy Desert and associated river system and coastal waters in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia. Nyikina people are river people and Mangala people are from the desert.


From the 1870’s Nyikina people were decimated when their country was taken over by force. Mangala people were herded into the river country to join Nyikina people as slaves for the pastoral industry. There is an extensive account of local history told by Nyikina Mangala Elders in their own way (Poelina 2009, Marshall 1984 & Marshall 2004). Nyikina Mangala people have spent a long time living and working together and have inter-married forming a single society in some remote communities.


As well as the initial aggression, the social policies introduced by successive Australian governments and institutions are largely responsible for determining the changed socio-economic circumstances and impacts on the wellbeing for these peoples over the past one hundred and thirty years. The result has been reduced life choices and outcomes for Aboriginal people living in the West Kimberley region of Australia.


In Australia, Aboriginal affairs remains polarised around the left and the right of western politics whereby the considerations of the necessity to sustain the connections between people and land are subsumed by the competitive imperatives of a commodity capitalist economy. Contemporary local, state and national evidence overwhelmingly highlights governments concerns for the powerful commercial and political interests. This means that there is an essential disconnect between Aboriginal philosophies and knowledge’s for sustainability of the natural resource base and the incessant need of commodity capitalism to exploit the resources of country for short term monetary gain.


While there are many citizens who see the need for a paradigm shift in approaches to Aboriginal affairs, to reduce the socio-economic disadvantage of our people, theyare in the minority. In the meantime, the Nyikina Mangala people are attempting to develop new and innovative ways of living that are based on our cultural prescriptions for sustaining the natural world, humanity and human relationships. We are doing this through returning to country and living in a good way.


Living with extreme socio-economic disadvantage has become the norm for many Aboriginal people in the West Kimberley region. There is little or no acknowledgement from governments to connect the impacts of settler colonial incursions into this country, and the continuing disregard of the people and culture, with the present disadvantaged circumstances of the people. Our experience over the past thirty years identifies the clear need for Aboriginal people to determine our own needs in relation to improving our quality and continuity of life as well as our aspirations for the common good. To this end, effective responses to overcoming disadvantage must include building cultural capital to nurture the liyan (life spirit) of our people.


Over the past thirty years Nyikina Mangala Traditional Owners have built a steady momentum towards sustainable livelihoods on country. During this time riverside communities; Jarlmadangah Burru Aboriginal Corporation (JBAC) Looma, Pandanus Park, Bidan, Balginjirr, Oongkalkada continue to see the return of many Aboriginal people to country.
This return to country has been in response to the deepening crisis in lifestyles that has resulted from being confined to areas that people are not familiar with, the loss of traditional occupations including the supporting, regulating, provisioning, custodial and spiritual links with country. Nyikina Mangala Elders made the decision to develop new and sustainable ways of living, based on the philosophical and cultural precepts of which they are authoritative, to put their knowledge about the ethical ways to live in relationship to country into practice.
As this report outlines the results have been far beyond expectations and the developing practices of the Nyikina Mangala, representative of other similar movements, promises to be a template for further developments in ways of living ethically and sustainably with country across Australia.


The culture and conservation activities being undertaken by Nyikina Mangala people are presented as the start of building a model of sustainable development because it is ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their needs’ (Jacobs 2002:4). There is a need to build baseline data for ecosystems services by valuing the landscape, cultural assets, and water resources. Baseline data will provide benchmarks for valuing environmental, social, cultural and economic relationships to land and water quality and sustainability. This is not just for the Nyikina Mangala but it is a prescription for all humanity, to find ways to live that are sustaining for all of creation.