Fight for culture survival

Written by Kerrie Alexander

“My main concern is and always will be retrieval, revival and the survival of our knowledges and country.”

Meet Gemma Cronin; a young Butchulla elder who is fighting hard to ensure that not only her family and her people, but everyone in the Fraser Coast community and beyond, can learn to be self-sufficient.

This is the story of her “Homeland Movement” – a project to bring Butchulla people back to country.

“I want all Butchulla people to return to country and I’m willing to help at a grass roots level to achieve that,” Gemma said.

This is how she is turning that dream into reality. The Hervey Bay resident of 30 years fought for more than a decade as the lead applicant in a Federal Court case for the Butchulla people to be officially recognised as the cultural and traditional owners of Butchulla territory in Burrum.

The decision had an adverse reaction from the surrounding community, but Gemma shrugged that off, knowing that what she has planned for the land is history in the making.

She said the judgement was a celebration of the Butchulla culture and the beginning of their own sovereignty.

It’s also the beginning of a beautiful relationship with non-indigenous people who want to visit the land and experience the culture and learn traditional ways of the Butchulla people through immersion programs.

The programs were designed by Gemma and her late husband Graham, who disappeared in a plane crash in the Gulf of Carpentaria 22 years ago.

To truly understand how Gemma’s life path led her to this point, we need to take a step back in time to when she was a child with a passion for music and art.

Her mother immigrated to Australia from Ireland and met her father who was Butchulla.

“I spent a lot of time with my mother in the early years and she was very strong politically when it came to sovereignty and understanding your own language; she spoke French, English and Gaelic,” Gemma said.

“French being her first language, I came from a very diverse language household.”

Her mother was part of the “new age alternative lifestyle”, living in Nimbin and celebrating what the land could bare naturally.

“As a child growing up in that space, I’d never call myself a hippy, but the good thing about that for me was the health and nutrition that my mother instilled in me and that has now gone through four generations of my family.

“We weren’t reliant on fossil fuels with the way that I was raised, and with my culture, it all melds together very well.

“I grew up in that artistic space and learnt from those around us; the fella who invited solar around the world actually taught us at school. We grew up with those kinds of people.

“That is part of where I’m at as an Aboriginal woman, as someone who has seen another way where you don’t have to rely on the system, so what I’m trying to create (at Burrum) is a micro self-sustainable community.”

Her mother’s influence to play guitar, learn to dance and perform on stage from five years of age is what played a major part in Gemma discovering all facets of her culture later in life.

“When I was in my late teens I moved to Byron Bay and had been playing a lot of music when I had my first daughter, who is 31 now.

“I think it was when I was pregnant with her that I become more aware about my culture.

“Family is everything, and the only way for people to truly to experience our inherit knowledge, handed down to us by generations, is to teach it.

“Black women, mothers, hold that key. Men have their roles too but we’re the ones that need to teach our children.

“Mothers have an essential role in children’s lives to make sure they understand their connection with the environment, the country they live on …. that’s their tribal estate.

“I think that’s something that we feel the rest of society has lost.”

After moving to Hervey Bay, Gemma started work on reviving traditional song and dance around the region.

She was also fortunate to work with worldrenowned Aunty Jeanie Bell over the years. Aunty Jeanie created the Butchulla dictionary and was one of the first two aboriginal linguists in the world.

Gemma also became a qualified linguist with degrees in Linguistics and Cultural Knowledges and has now been a cultural educator for over 30 years.

She was also by her father’s side for many years helping to run the longest established Aboriginal tour on K’gari (Fraser Island) in conjunction with a non-indigenous tour company.

She has since taken over the permit and continues his work of educating visitors and locals on protection, conservation, presentation, and management of the island.

It is now 100% aboriginal owned and managed. It is a hope of Gemma’s to one day showcase Aunty Jeanie’s research, along with Fraser Island defender and environmentalist John Sinclair’s work, in a resource centre on the land in Burrum.

All of John’s research was left to Gemma’s father who worked alongside him for many years. “The work that I have done now is extensive,” she said.

“The Homeland Movement and the stage that we are at and work that I am doing, has all culminated from this.”

It was during the height of the Coronavirus Pandemic that the importance of becoming self-sufficient really hit home to Gemma.

The want to use the land for traditional purposes was always at the forefront of the fight but now extra attention has been placed on establishing a Community Garden, full of fresh, completely organic, and chemical-free food, that will be open to all.

Gemma has teamed up with the Living Circle Communities to help establish the garden, which will start in the next few months.

“I lived in the Bay for over 30 years I have never seen the supermarkets empty like I had. “Not just bread and milk but everything!

“My Grandparents grew up in the depression and the great war and talked about stuff like this, but I had never seen it and it made me extremely uncomfortable. It should be making everyone extremely uncomfortable.

“So that’s why I want to become self-sustainable. We’ve got eggs from free-range chickens and there’s a mad biodiversity happening on our block. It’s vital for us to step forward.

“We’ve got different technologies that aren’t harmful and don’t leave massive footprints and we have plenty of room to set up lots of those and not do damage.

“It’s not just for my mob. We will share knowledges about growing our community with everyone and working together we can create something really magical.

“I really do have great hopes for the future, for my children, and grandchildren. It’s very important for everybody.”

Armed with the knowledge and experience to really make a difference, Gemma said it’s her cultural responsibility to bring this project to fruition.

She wants to see her people get back to their roots, using the land and its natural wonders to truly experience aboriginal life.

“There are many parts to aboriginal life and culture like land management, hunting and gathering skills, making medicines, and learning skills like spear making, net and basket making from the natural resources around you.

“Learning our kinship system and the laws of how we govern ourselves and the laws of nature. “I have a cultural responsibility to see that my culture survives.

“The number one thing is land. We need to remind people that they are not separate from the land. You live with it, not on it. She will nurture you as much as you nurture her.

“As a parent and grandparent and a midiru for country, I am the eldest Butchulla woman in my family line.

“I have a cultural responsibility to make sure that my family is safe, that my dreaming stories, animals, and plants … everything within our environment is safe.

“This is physical healing, working together for the whole community is emotional healing and returning to country is spiritual healing.”

Vic Graham, a founding member of Living Circle Communities, couldn’t agree more.

“We want to establish a community cooperative that will be owned by the community,” Vic said.

“We are a group of people that are actively working together to provide a buyers group and community garden solutions, and website to share across communities.

“We create alternative options to help create and build all-inclusive, independent communities.

“Our buyer’s group is one project that’s been supporting our community and local farmers for the last few months. The group gets produce straight from local farmers and brings it to the people!”

Vic said the idea of helping to support Gemma’s initiative for Butchulla nation, while teaching others to be self-sufficient was an invigorating prospect.

“Working with Gemma and her people is giving us the opportunity to learn a lot over and above what people in our community already know and potentially get better outcomes from that.”

“As I’m getting older and watching things disappear, I’m realising if we don’t help everyone else reconnect what is going to happen? Where is the future for everyone?”

The cost associated with individuals and businesses, of any race or culture, taking part in the immersion programs or buying the fruit and vegetables will help fund the not-for-profit Homeland Movement.

Guests will be able to take part in a four-tier program where they spend a week of each tier on the land to experience aboriginal life. Four weeks in total.

“We can tailor our program to different groups and businesses that want to attain real cultural awareness and live the life of an aboriginal person, even if it is only for a week.”

Gemma and the family look forward to working with the Living Circle Communities, which was formed on the same premise the community garden was built on. To provide a platform that’s supports local growers and live a self-sufficient lifestyle.

The group have an online presence where residents on the Fraser Coast and Bundaberg can buy seasonal fruit and vegetable boxes from local farmers and producers.

“This is not just for the Butchulla people. We want to lead by example, and this is the best way to do it,” Gemma said.

“The Living Circle want to provide good healthy food at a small cost for the community and we want to work together to achieve that.

“We will all help build the garden and nurture it and hopefully that will continue. This will heal country.

“This will contribute to the healthy lifestyle of the whole community, particularly our family groups as we have many chronic diseases in the Butchulla community which are caused by diet.

“This is physical healing, working together for the whole community is emotional healing and returning to country is spiritual healing.”