Nature in Culture: Flowing from Kunama Namadgi, The Mother of Snow

Frozen or flowing, connection to the waters of the Snowy Mountains is inextricable from Ngarigu identity, says Jakelin Troy in response to Virginia Marshall’s notion of ‘Aqua Nullius’ in Episode 3 of the Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture Multimedia Series.

Photo via Shutterstock, ID:1684426627.

In listening to Virginia and Christine in conversation, my mind roams to my own ‘water Country’ where the land is frozen for half the year and liquid for the rest. This is the Snowy Mountains, capped by the highest peak in Australia ‘Kunama Namadgi’ in Ngarigu, my language. Ku- ‘snow’, -nama ‘making and having the quality of snow’, nama- ‘breasts’, -dgi ‘having’. The reference to mountains being like breasts is a worldwide observation. Witness the Tetons in the Rocky Mountains of North America from the French explorers seeing them as three nipples and the Paps of Anu ‘the breasts of Anu’ near Killarney in Ireland. It is this mother reference to my Country that is also compelling. My mother Country is being destroyed by humans who place no value other than commercial on the alps. The mighty Snowy River is now dammed and indeed damned. It is funnelled through pipes to drive turbines that create electricity in the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme. It is reduced to a trickle of water that barely supports the rich ecosystem that is the only alpine region of Australia.

“My mother Country is being destroyed by humans who place no value other than commercial on the alps. The mighty Snowy River is now dammed and indeed damned.”

In my family there is a saying that ‘any kind of water, frozen or liquid, is good’. What are we as the High-Country people of the Snowy Mountains without water? We are not who we are without snow and ice, springs, bogs, streams, waterfalls and cascading ice melts that cause the wild mountain rivers to run. My own totem a small river fish, the ‘ghost fish’ or mountain galaxias is the only native mountain fish found above the snowline all year round. This unique little fish might now be extinct in its original habitat, finished off by rain washing the ash from the catastrophic fires in the Snowy Mountains, in early 2020, into mountain waterways. If it is gone from my Country what does this mean for me? It is my spirit the thing I am meant to protect and that protects me, defines me in some senses. Am I no longer a thing myself if it is gone?

“We are not who we are without snow and ice, springs, bogs, streams, waterfalls and cascading ice melts that cause the wild mountain rivers to run.”

There is a sense that we, the Ngarigu people of this Country, have our rights respected, that we can be in our mountains, manage, live and traverse our Country, protected by legislation under Indigenous Land use Agreements, Native Title Act provisions, National Parks and Heritage legislation. But, in practice, we have no rights. Governments pick and choose who they want to deal with as Aboriginal communities jostle for income from activities connected with variously protecting and destroying Country. There is activity now to create Snowy 2 and 3, the next iterations of the hydroelectric scheme that exists in a Country that is the driest continent on earth. A kind of madness destroying a fragile and unique alpine ecosystem. There is almost no archaeological research about our Country, the history and heritage of my people is barely available. In this absence, important places like Lobbs Hole are blasted and prepared for destruction to create these water and land hungry schemes. People, animals, plants, geology all destroyed in an ill-conceived plan to generate a tiny amount of electricity at the expense of barely understood and irreplaceable world heritage.

We had ceremonies to increase the snow, the rain, to influence the seasons. To keep this environment stable and productive. Plants flowered in the summer pastures, animals, the giant bogong moths on which we feasted for months over the summer, birds, mountain emus, the whole ecosystem understood, managed and lived in with ease all year round. Now it is the playground of the rich and famous summer and winter, ski season and summer mountain biking, hiking and camping. Some value and respect the Mountains and its liquid environment, most do not. Without Ngarigu people to understand its deep past, human and non-human, it will cease to exist as the cultural place it is, dominated by Kunama Namadgi, the mother of snow.

The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture Multimedia Series, convened by Dr Christine Winter and Michelle St Anne, originated from a two-day symposium, the second of its kind. It’s an opportunity for Indigenous scholars and people working with Indigenous scholars and Indigenous peoples to come together, discuss the ways in which culture and nature are entwined in the philosophies, lives and strengths of indigenous peoples. Importantly, we reflect on the leadership these perspectives offer as the world faces multiple challenges such as climate change, pollution and associated biocultural destruction.

Episode 3: Overturning Aqua Nullius
Dr Virginia Marshall discusses the imperative to secure Aboriginal water rights, that is in disbanding the notion of aqua nullius – that the waters of the Australian continent were outside of Indigenous governance structures and cultural use and thus ‘free’ for colonial claims. She explains the inseparability of land and water and Indigenous identity and of the disaster of creating water property rights in Australia.

Jakelin Troy is a Ngarigu woman from the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, and Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at The University of Sydney. Professor Troy’s research and academic interests focus on languages, particularly endangered Aboriginal and ‘contact languages’, language education, linguistics, anthropology and visual arts. She has extensive experience developing curriculum for Australian schools, focusing on Australian language programs. She studied in Mexico and Japan, developing her interest those countries’ art, culture and languages.

For media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.