by Anita Heiss
Simon & Schuster
Published August 2022
As a part time local to Bundjalung Country and someone who grew up in the flood prone Clarence Valley, I am no stranger to flood stories. As I reflect on recent and historical flood events, it is apparent that First Nations knowledges about the land have been undervalued at best. At worst, they have been flatly ignored. The failure to truly listen and observe has led to the establishment of permanent settlements in areas well-known to us to flood frequently in significant and devastating ways. Humans and livelihoods have drowned and been washed away, literally and figuratively. In the muddy depths of grief that is left behind, there are lessons to be had, opportunities to reimagine and reconfigure settler relations with the land. In fact, the emerging climate crisis, the inevitability of future disasters and the threat of another year of La Niña demands this of us all. And for each flood story, there is an Aboriginal Hero in whom our future navigational path resides.
The 1852 Gundagai flood is a key event in Anita Heiss’ historical novel Bila yarrudhanggalangdhuray, and it highlights the consequences of colonial settlers’ failure to heed Aboriginal knowledge about the land and skies. Eighty-nine lives were lost in the flooding of the Murrumbidgee river at Gundagai in 1852. This loss of life could have been avoided had the warnings given by local Aboriginal people at the time been observed.
Aboriginal weather prediction knowledge naturally extends to flooding events. We have always had our eyes on the skies. This science, developed through observation and finessed over millennia has enabled our sustainable and continued existence on these lands. A warming climate caused by colonial human activity threatens our sustainable existence. Indeed, reports of Aboriginal people observing changes to the climate following colonial occupation date back as early as 1846. The way that we live on Country has been disrupted by colonialism. The laying down of permanent infrastructure in flood zones has never been our way.
Karlie Noon and Krystal De Napoli, Gamilaraay and Kamilaroi scientists respectively, explore the astronomical science knowledge held by Aboriginal people in their book Astronomy: Sky Country. They methodically detail the evidence of Indigenous knowledge systems, noting that those knowledge systems ‘contain some remarkable techniques for weather prediction, time-keeping, hunting, agriculture and land management, and navigation across vast distances’.
Bila yarrudhanggalangdhuray begins with the establishment of the Gundagai township – and later turns to the flood. Heiss introduces us to the true story of Yarri and Jacky Jacky, two Wiradjuri men who were essential to the flood recovery efforts following the 1852, saving settlers marooned in flood waters when the Gundagai settlement was inundated. The inclusion of Yarri and Jacky Jacky as foundational characters celebrates their real-life acts of heroism and the generosity with which Wiradjuri knowledge about the land was shared with settlers. In Heiss’ rendering of events, Yarri forewarns the ‘founders’ of the Gundagai town of the previous flood waters levels and about the risks of building permanent structures on the banks of the Murrumbidgee: ‘Not a good place to live, Boss, too flat’ and later, ‘it hasn’t flooded for longest time. It will happen again. We know.’ And yet, despite his best efforts, Yarri’s appeals to the Gundagai’s settlers are met with an arrogance that reveals the settler commitment to racial superiority.
The depth of Wiradjuri weather prediction knowledge and experience of previous flood events proved invaluable when the 1852 Gundagai flood did inevitably occur. Bila yarrudhanggalangdhuray showcases the exacting benefit of this science. In Heiss’ account of the Gundagai floods, the Wiradjuri people had already left the floodplains by the time the Murrumbidgee had breached its banks:
The Wiradyuri people know to move to higher ground. They have done it many times before, and they will probably do it again. Camping and having ceremony on the flood plain is their way of life, but so is understanding the ways of nature, the flow and power of the Marrambidya, and when to get out of his way.
Records of actual conversations having occurred between the local Wiradjuri people and settlers abound in the historical record, indicating a generosity in sharing knowledge about the land and care for the welfare and lives of those who live on it. In my own research about the flood, settlers themselves documented the warnings issued by local Wiradjuri people about the flood risk in Gundagai. In much the same way as Yarri does in Heiss’ account, Wiradjuri people recounted to settlers their previous experiences of floods. An article in the Sydney Empire dated 31 August 185, reflects that spirit of generosity:
they had also the testimony of the old Aboriginals that floods had occurred, that the tops of large gums were covered water.
Here, in the soggy remains of the flood, was an opportunity to transform the settler paradigm of existence – away from desecration and towards regeneration and healing. Despite the impact of flooding on the settlement and lives of those occupying Gundagai, colonists stayed and rebuilt – committing further acts of destruction upon Country and ignoring the warnings of Wiradjuri knowledge-holders. In the 170 years since then, the wisdom of Aboriginal knowledge has found little embrace in settler consciousness.
Although speaking in the context of bushfires, Paola Balla aptly articulates the decolonising work that is required in what she refers to as the ecocidal manifestation of colonial practices:
In the wake of climate change caused by colonisation, settlers literally plan how to re-construct, therefore, re-colonise. If ‘we’ are to decolonise, then that requires de-structuring, dismantling, breaking, and disrupting what is constructed to maintain colonisation.
In more recent times, the response to Northern Rivers floods in 2022 did little to centre Indigenous world views and science. Indeed, the Lismore mayor told the media that following the flood that there would be a new levee for Lismore as well as remodeling of the Wilsons River. Remodeling involves permanently altering the landscape of the river and the surrounding structure, a distinctly colonial venture characterised by disruption and destruction as alluded to by Balla.
In March 2022, the New South Wales Government commissioned an independent inquiry into the flood response. Unsurprisingly, a key finding of the inquiry was that Indigenous people could lead the community through understanding the environmental impact of floods and through what needs to be done to restore and remediate country. The irony of this finding is not lost on me. That Aboriginal knowledge and science can lead (and indeed, have led) communities through flood events has always been true. The Report’s conclusion reflects that settlers are only now finding their way to our truth.
The Aboriginal Hero embodies an ethics of care (both in respect of the land, as well as towards our human and non-human kin) and athletic exceptionalism. Stories of Aboriginal heroism (like that of Yarri and Jacky Jacky) are not new. In fact, our oldest stories tell of characters of high esteem, knowledge, and courage. Aboriginal Hero stories, both the real and imagined, reverse the settler mythology that it is us in need of saving and position us as warriors and nurturers of exceptional skill and depth of love.
Following tragedies like floods, the Aboriginal Hero emerges from the deluge as a pillar of humanity and compassion. By embracing relationships of reciprocity, Aboriginal Heroes enact a love ethic of the kind articulated by bell hooks. hooks posits that through adopting a love ethic, individuals and communities can transform:
When love is present the desire to dominate and exercise power cannot rule the day. All great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic. Concern for the collective good, of our nation, city, or neighbor rooted in the values of love makes us all seek to nurture and protect that good.
In the Gundagai floods, the Aboriginal Heroes were Yarri and Jacky Jacky. The exact number of people saved by Yarri and Jacky Jacky varies but is somewhere between 60 and 100 people. The rescue effort in 1852 took three full days. Yarri performed rescues using a bark canoe. Navigating flood waters is a dangerous task, let alone in a bark canoe. In Yarri and Jacky Jacky, the full capacity of human endurance, athleticism and engineering comes into view, and the image of the Aboriginal as the savage evaporates. In their efforts, they exemplify what it means to adopt a love ethic.
Instances of Aboriginal people rescuing settlers (particularly in floodwaters) are numerous, and yet such heroism does not appear to inform any sense of national pride or afford such knowledge precedence. As Luke Pearson laments, ‘Even these stories have struggled to get their place of recognition in the hearts of Australians.’ In her book Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray Darling Basin, Emily O’Gorman examines the feats of Yarri and Jacky Jacky as well as their subsequent treatment, noting that at the time their rescue efforts received some praise and their actions were the inspiration for a number of settler poems, however, it was not until well after the flood in 1875 that they were to be compensated for their actions. By this time, Jacky Jacky had died. In 2017, a statue was erected in Gundagai honouring Yarri and Jacky Jacky. What and who we celebrate speaks volumes about who we are as a nation. Can the same ethics be found in those in whose honour we have erected other statues? Yarri and Jacky Jacky are members of a long legacy of real-life Aboriginal heroes who have used their knowledge of the land and its weather patterns to save settler lives, which in combination with exceptional athleticism manifests a type of Aboriginal ethics of care and responsibility for human kin that comes from living in relation to all things. Noon and De Napoli articulate the interconnectedness of Aboriginal existences:
If we value the relationships between things, then everything is vital to everything else, with no human, animal, plant or object being more important than another.
This concern for all living beings is captured in the question posed by Wagadhaany, Bila yarrudhanggalangdhuray’s protagonist and the fictional daughter of Yarri, when she asks her father ‘How many people have been swept away, Babiin, how many?’
Another Hero story is that of Joe Banks. In 1870, Banks, an Aboriginal man, was marooned on the roof of a hut in floodwaters with a settler who was ill. Banks fashioned a canoe out of bark from the roof to take the sick man to safety. Like Yarri and Jacky Jacky, Banks’ use of and skill in navigating a bark canoe proved invaluable. Feats like these cannot be underestimated. Flood waters are dangerous –the unpredictable and strong currents and debris make entering such waters perilous, showcasing the athleticism of the Aboriginal Hero.
In 1911, an Aboriginal man named Neighbour was being conveyed across flood waters as a prisoner in neck chains. When his captor (who was on horseback) was washed away in the current, Neighbour risked his own life to rescue the man. . The lack of dignity afforded to Neighbour by his captor in the manner of his imprisonment is juxtaposed by Neighbour’s integrity and care in saving him. There is power in choosing care over control.
Neighbour’s remarkable feat was reported on by the Black Range Courier and Sandstone Observer at the time with the following caveat, ‘One doesn’t often hear of the Aboriginal Australian in connection with deeds of heroic altruism’. That the settler narrative of Neighbour’s exceptionalism was to immediately diminish it, is unsurprising and reflects a reluctance to see his humanity along with a commitment to the idea of the Aboriginal savage.
In 1932, two Aboriginal men, George Wing and Black Tommy, entered Georgina River floodwaters in Queensland to rescue an elderly white man, Patrick McNamara who was marooned in a tree. Tommy lost his life in the rescue effort, but McNamara was saved. Tommy lost his life saving someone who likely would not have reciprocated the favour. Indeed, as Aboriginal residents of Queensland both Tommy and George Wing’s lives were subject to the oppressive regime of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. There are many other stories of this nature. Aboriginal Heroes aren’t confined to the floods, and emerge following other natural disasters and human catastrophes. Stories that have gone forgotten and uncelebrated. All of them convey the generosity and depth of Aboriginal ethics of care.
In the aftermath of the 2022 Northern Rivers Floods, the Aboriginal Hero materialised in the form of the Koori Mail, an Aboriginal-owned newspaper based in the region. The Koori Mail coordinated local rescue efforts even before government departments were on the ground, when SES resources were at capacity.
Later, the Koori Mail exacted a flood recovery effort that was unparalleled in size, reach and depth of love. Everyone was welcome at the Koori Mail hub which included a food bank and a regular rotation of social and emotional wellbeing services and supports. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike were beneficiaries of the heroism of the Koori Mail. Many of those staffing the Koori Mail in the post-flood apocalypse were volunteers. Having spent time at the hub myself as a volunteer, I can attest that it was a monumental feat in community care.
This is in stark contrast to the experience that Aboriginal people reportedly had in other mainstream disaster recovery centres. For example, Aboriginal people of Cabbage Tree Island experienced racism in seeking to access housing after having been displaced from the island because of the floods. Experiences of racism within disaster recovery responses are not exclusive to Australia. In the US context, there is evidence of systemic racism both in relation to the effect of disasters on minority communities as well as in the government response to them. This is the kind of dehumanising that bell hooks warns occurs within cultures of domination which fail to live in accordance with a love ethic. The Koori Mail’s actions and efforts are in the tradition of the Aboriginal Hero. All those living on Bundjalung Country (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike) and affected by flooding were beneficiaries of the Koori Mail’s organising in much the same way that those marooned by the Gundagai floods were recipients of Yarri and Jacky Jacky’s heroism. Aboriginal love is expansive and extends beyond any one individual to a care for community and deep respect for human dignity. This is apparent in the actions of the Koori Mail and of the Aboriginal Heroes of other floods – Yarri and Jacky Jacky, Joe Banks, Neighbour, George Wing and Black Tommy. Settler colonialism has much to learn from Aboriginal Heroes – through them, radical and transformative relations can be imagined and practised not just with each other, but with the land too. Similarly, there are lessons for governments in the ways to enact recovery efforts in ways that are swift, effective, but most importantly, embody the principle of care for all living beings.
Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, Wednesday 11 March 1846
Sydney Empire, 31 August 1852
Noon, K and De Napoli, K, “Astronomy: Sky Country”, Port Melbourne, Thames & Hudson, 2022
Hooks, bell, “All About Love: New Visions”, New York, William Morrow 2001
Emily O’Gorman, “Flood Country: An Environmental history of the Murray-Darling Basin”
Paola Balla, Tyirrem; the end of the world as we knew it. Sydney Review of Books 2020.