TRaCK: Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge

Science and knowledge that governments, communities, industries for sustainable use of Australia's tropical rivers and estuaries

River scientists learn culture from Mitchell River Traditional Owners

River scientists learn culture from Mitchell River Traditional Owners

Scientists coming onto Aboriginal land need to understand and appreciate the culture, history and knowledge of local people before carrying out research on country.

This is the belief of the Mitchell River Traditional Custodian Advisory Group (MRTCAG), representing four traditional owner groups from the Mitchell River Catchment, northwest of Cairns.

MRTCAG leaders spent last Friday (13 August) on Kuku Djungan Traditional Country bringing river researchers from the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) up-to-date about their culture and its connection with country. And on Saturday, a larger group of Aboriginal people heard about TRaCK's latest research outcomes and plans for the future.

"It is really important for us to know that the scientists who come on to our country understand our culture," says Ruth Link, Chair of MRCTAG and a traditional owner from the Western Gugu Yalanji people. "Water is life to us and it is time for our people to live again."

Ms Link says Aboriginal people are sick of researchers coming on to their land without understanding the connection of the people to their country, how they have been displaced in the past and the hurt that people still carry with them.

"We also need to understand what the research is about. So far I have not seen any TRaCK project that is not relevant as they are all about caring for country," she says.

Professor Stuart Bunn, Deputy Director of TRaCK from Griffith University, was along for the training and reporting back and says the experience was enormously valuable.

"I have read and learnt a lot about Aboriginal history and culture in the past, but it means much more when people personally explain what it means to them and how they have been affected," he says.

Ms Link believes working together has spin-offs for researchers and Aboriginal people: "Our people are more likely to be open and honest with scientists about changes to the river and their interactions with the river if they feel a relationship of trust with the scientists."

The scientists who presented about their research on country were asked numerous questions by the Traditional Owners.

"It was exciting to see people's interest and enthusiasm," says Professor Bunn. "For example, when one of our researchers showed them gully erosion and explained how it happened, they wanted to look at how we could work with them to fix the problem. Gully erosion not only eats into their productive use of the land, but it also destroys sites that are sacred or important for community meetings."

Ms Link says the traditional owners from four different groups are enthusiastic to work together and with researchers to understand and solve some of their river and land problems.

"These four groups have different cultures, totems and connections with the country," she says. "But for the first time we're working together to better look after our country."

MRTCAG represents Traditional Custodian groups from the middle and upper regions of the Mitchell River Catchment. The Group works in the tradition and custom of educating people who come onto traditional country about respect, peace and responsibility according to their communities. Traditional Custodian groups included in MRTCAG are: Western Gugu Yalanji, Gugu Mini and Koko Mullarichee operating as one group, Mbabaram, Wokomin and Kuku Djungan.

Established in 2007, TRaCK is a research hub under the Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities Program, providing knowledge for government, communities and industry about sustainably managing Australia’s tropical rivers and estuaries. For more information, see the website

For interview:
Ruth Link, Chair of the Mitchell River Traditional Custodian Advisory Group (MRTCAG), phone 0435 183 092
Professor Stuart Bunn, Deputy Director of Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) research, phone 0417 300 018

For media assistance, photos and vision of the cultural awareness training:
Jenni Metcalfe, 0408 551 866


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