The Aboriginal heritage of our West Australian region

All Australian students and children need to grow up understanding and celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and contributions to increase respect and build stronger relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community. 

Noongar people have a profound physical and spiritual connection to country. It relates to beliefs and customs regarding creation, life and death, and spirits of the earth. Spiritual connection to country guides the way to understand, navigate and use the land and influences cultural practices.

This article covers the rich Aboriginal heritage, cultural traditions, practices and values of our West Australian region.

South-West of Western Australia

Noongar people are the traditional owners of the south-west of Western Australia and have been for over 45,000 years. They have a deep knowledge and respect for our country, which has been passed down by their Elders.

Noongar boodja (country) extends from north of Jurien Bay, inland to north of Moora and down to the southern coast between Bremer Bay and east of Esperance. It is defined by 14 different areas with varied geography and 14 dialectal groups.

Kids College is located in the suburb of Kallaroo in the shire of Joondalup, in northern corridor of Perth. We take our advice for our special part of Australia from the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council.

Sharing the Noongar Culture

South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council

The following information was sourced from the Kaartdijin Noongar website, produced by the South West Aboriginal land and sea council, which shares noongar culture

Kaartdijin means knowledge in the language of the Noongar people of the south-west of Western Australia. The South West Aboriginal Land & Sea Council recognised the importance of documenting and capturing stories of Noongar people. SWALSC say this is the opportunity for Noongar people to tell our story our way. Noongar people have lived in the South-west of Western Australia for more than 45,000. The aim of the Kaartdijin website is to share the richness of our knowledge, culture and history in order to strengthen our community and promote wider understanding.

Our history is an oral sharing of stories and through the work of the Native Title process we witnessed many stories. However, we need to work with the technology of today to help the generations of tomorrow to understand our community past and present. Kaartdijin Noongar shares Noongar history and culture with the Noongar community and the wider world. The information on Kaartdijin will provide a strong reference for our future generations and others to learn about the living culture of Noongar people.

On Kaartdijin Noongar you can find many of our stories, which tell of our survival, as well as cultural and heritage information, photographs, film and documents. Kaartdijin has been developed at the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, which has possibly the largest collection of Noongar specific knowledge and information brought together in one place. 
(Dr Malcolm Allbrook and Dr Mary Anne Jebb, ‘Assessment of the Significance of the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council Collection,’ 2010.)

There are two sections on the Kaartdijin website one for general public and one which can only be accessed by members of the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council. Here, photos, stories and other information can be uploaded and shared with a family, a claim group, men or women, as is culturally appropriate. This is where the idea of Kaartdijin began. Our inspiration for the Kaartdijin Website came from Gurringun Aboriginal Corporation and the Ara Irititja Project of the Pitjantjatjara Council Inc.

Joondalup Mooro Boodjar

Whadjuk is the name of the dialectal group from the Perth area. Whadjuk is situated south of Yued and north of the Pinjarup dialectal groups.

The major cities and towns within the Whajuk region include Perth, Fremantle, Joondalup, Armadale, Toodyay, Wundowie, Bullsbrook and Chidlow. The approximate size of the Whadjuk region is 5,580 km.

Throughout the Whadjuk Region there are a range of significant Noongar sites. For instance, Ngooloormayup, known as Carnac Island; Meeandip, known as Garden Island; Gargangara north of Armadale; and Goolamrup, the suburb known as Kelmscott. Noongar people may refer to Kings Park as Karra katta or the hill of the spiders or Geenunginy Bo, the place for looking a long way. Dyarlgarro Beeliar is known as the Canning River and Derbal Yiragan, the Perth estuary waters.

The Whadjuk Claim for Native Title was made in September 2006.

About Noongar

Noongar means ‘a person of the south-west of Western Australia,’ or the name for the ‘original inhabitants of the south-west of Western Australia’ and we are one of the largest Aboriginal cultural blocks in Australia. Noongar are made up of fourteen different language groups: Amangu, Yued/Yuat, Whadjuk/Wajuk, Binjareb/Pinjarup, Wardandi, Balardong/Ballardong, Nyakinyaki, Wilman, Ganeang, Bibulmun/Piblemen, Mineng, Goreng and Wudjari and Njunga. Each of these language groups correlates with different geographic areas with ecological distinctions. Noongar have ownership of our own kaartdijin and culture. Not all Noongar cultural history and kaartdijin can be shared.

Harmony with the natural environment

Noongar people lived in harmony with the natural environment. Noongar social structure was focused on the family with Noongar family groups occupying distinct areas of Noongar Country. For the Noongar people in the Perth area the main source of food came from the wardan (ocean), the Swan River and the extensive system of freshwater lakes that once lay between the coast and the Darling Escarpment. Further south and east Noongar people lived off the resources of the Karri and Jarrah forests. In the southern coastal area around Albany Noongar built fish traps and hunted turtle. To the north and east Noongar people lived in the semi arid regions of what is now the wheat belt.

Noongar Seasons

Noongar people have traditionally hunted and gathered food according to the six seasons. In our Noongar language these are called Bunuru, Djeran, Makuru, Djilba, Kambarang and Birak and are determined by the weather patterns. The seasons tell us which animal and plant resources are plentiful at those times. Noongar people know when it is the season for harvesting by signs in nature. A hazy summer sky foretells of the salmon running or the blossom on paperbarks brings the mullet fish. Noongar communities have always taken care to assure the survival of animal and plant species. We always leave some honey for the bees to build on. And when the fish travel upstream to lay their eggs, we catch them on their way back down.

For Noongar people, the bush is our gourmet delicatessen. We harvest many types of yurenburt(berries), karda (goanna), bardi (witchetty grubs), yongka (kangaroo), turtles, and birds’ eggs. Food from the sea and waterways are a major resource for Noongars: djildjit (fish), wardan noorn (eel), abalone, cobbler, marron and gilgies. Fishing was traditionally carried out by men, whilst women gathered yams, berries, and quandongs.

It is an important part of Noongar custom and lore to take only what you need from nature in order to maintain biodiversity. By eating foods when they are abundant and in season, natural resources are not depleted and will still be available for the next year. As guardians of our country, we achieved balance and adaptability through thousands of years of living in harmony with the bush. Our knowledge of the seasons and managing the land was given to us by the Waugal and passed down by our Elders.

Noongar language

The word Noongar means ‘a person of the south-west of Western Australia’, or the name for the original inhabitants of the south-west of Western Australia’. While Noongar is identified as a single language, there are several ways of pronouncing it, which is reflected in the spelling: Noongar, Nyungar, Nyoongar, Nyoongah, Nyungah, Nyugah, Yungar and Noonga.

Our language is made up of fourteen different dialects. Noongar dialects have changed over time, incorporating and mixing with English. Many Noongar people of today grew up speaking English in school and Noongar at home. The kurrlongurr – children who were taken away to missions – the Stolen Generations – were forbidden from speaking our Noongar language.

Noongar place names

Noongar people also have many names for places and towns throughout our boodja. Some well known places in Whadjuk boodja are: Wadjemup, now known as Rottnest Island; Ngooloormayup,now known as Carnac Island; Meeandip, now known as Garden Island; Gargangara north of Armadale; Goolamrup, now known as Kelmscott; Dyarlgarro Beelya, now named the Canning River; and Derbal Yiragan, the Perth estuary waters.  Some Noongar place names and their meanings are in Noongar Wangkinyiny.

Noongar Spirituality

Noongar spirituality lies in the belief of a cultural landscape and the connection between the human and spiritual realms. Everything in our vast landscape has meaning and purpose. Life is a web of inter-relationships where maam and yok (men and women) and nature are partners, and where kura(long ago, the past) is always connected to yey (present). Through our paintings, music and koroboree/kobori (dance) we are paying respect to our ancestral creators, and at the same time, strengthening our belief systems. 

Noongar connection with nature and boodja (country) signifies a close relationship with spiritual beings associated with the land. We express this through our caring for boodja and observing Noongar lore through an oral tradition of story-telling.

Noongar spirituality is one of many kaartdijin systems within Aboriginal Australia, and like other knowledge systems, there is diversity in our Noongar interpretations.

The Dreaming

The storylines, song-lines and Dreaming associated with the creation of all life form the basis of the Nyungar belief system (kundaam). This treading in the steps of our fathers reaffirms the beliefs, values, the social structures and fabric of the creation of the earth, the water and the sky and all things that live in and on it.

Family at the heart of Noongar

Family is at the heart of Noongar culture. Our family trees are vast. Noongar ancestral connections are like an intricate system of roots, reaching back to the Dreaming or Nyitting. Our people are connected by kinships, the way stars in the sky form intricate constellations, connecting points together to form a unique shape.

Stolen Generations

The Stolen Generations are the Noongar and other Aboriginal children who, over one and a half centuries, were taken away from their families and placed in institutions and missions. Most often it was the lighter skinned children who were taken to be assimilated into white society. Sometimes children were on their way home from school or visiting their siblings when they were taken.

Noongar Elders are custodians of knowledge

In the South-West, yeye or today, as in kura or the past, Noongar boordier or elders play a role as custodians of all knowledges, and in particular “special” knowledges which are to be passed on. 

Today this continues through intergenerational Noongar interaction using oral and written discourses. As each generation passes on, it is then our and their duty, as the current and future generation of Noongar people, to take on these custodial responsibilities, passing them on to our future generations. These include keeping harmony with social protocols in our past, current and future worlds by ensuring that each successive generation of regional Noongar descendants, be they Whadjuck, Balardong or Minang, are brought up to understand and take their responsibilities and place as active participants and custodians of such ancient katitjin or knowledges.

In contemporary Noongar societies of south Western Australia, these concepts are still evidenced. Noongar Elders are still acknowledged as the custodians of knowledge and wisdom of their boodjar, moort and katitjin, and are responsible for the perpetuation through ongoing communications of Noongar knowledge’s and its application. Elders are recognised by their community, they are not self appointed. Both men and women are acknowledged as Elders. They have as much respect today as they have for many centuries.

Kevin Fitzgerald snr. talks about the role of elders and the adaptation of Noongar lore:

Traditionally, the circle of elders was mostly men. They were given this position in relation to their age and stamp in society. It was a position that was earned, through initiations in lore, like a set of qualifications.

In contemporary society, men and women acknowledge one another and responsibilities are shared. Some of these include teaching, welcome to country and storytelling. This has come about over the past 20 or 30 years, as women have taken on more responsibilities.

Noongar lore has adapted to contemporary society where men and women are equal. We still go out to hunt and we acknowledge Noongar lore but we’ve adapted it to today’s laws and views. We still respect our elders and they still have a lot of decisions to make. They still have a major role to play.
Kevin Fitzgerald snr., oral history, SWALSC, 2011

Nyitting – Dreaming

The Nyitting or Dreaming means ‘cold,’ ‘cold time’ or ‘ancestral times.’ Noongar people know it as the Creation time. It is the time before time when spirits rose from the earth and descended from the sky to create the land forms and all living things. Nyitting stories laid down the lore for social and moral order and established cultural patterns and customs. Our Noongar Elders have the ability to comprehend the knowledge and to maintain it in an unchanging way. Noongar creation stories can vary from region to region but they are part of the connection between all living things.

At York you can see where the Warkarl (water snake) left a track when he came over the hill. The Warkarl made the rivers, swamps, lakes and waterholes. He came over the hills at York, and his tracks can still be seen. He came down the Avon river to the nanuk (neck) of the river at Guildford, where there is a bend.

When he finished he went to a great underground cave in the river. He did not go on because the water further on was salty. The Warkarl is very important to us Noongar because we believe in the Dreaming.

Dreamtime stories

The Dreamtime is a commonly used term for describing important features of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and existence. It is not generally well understood by non-indigenous people.

Aboriginals believe that the Dreamtime was way back, at the very beginning. The land and the people were created by the Spirits. They made the rivers, streams, water holes the land, hills, rocks, plants and animals. It is believed that the Spirits gave them their hunting tools and each tribe its land, their totems and their Dreaming.

The Aboriginals believed that the entire world was made by their Ancestors way back in the very beginning of time, the Dreamtime. The Ancestors made everything.

The Ancestors made particular sites to show the Aboriginal people which places were to be sacred. The Aboriginals performed ritual ceremonies and customary songs near the sacred sites to please the Ancestral spirits and to keep themselves alive.

Distinct tribes had different philosophies and beliefs about the Ancestors who made the world. Some believed that the Ancestors were animal-spirits.

Others in parts of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory believed the Ancestors were huge snakes. In other places the spirit who created the world were believed to be the Wanadjina.

Dreamtime is the foundation of Aboriginal religion and culture. It dates back some 65,000 years. It is the story of events that have happened, how the universe came to be, how human beings were created and how their Creator intended for humans to function within the world as they knew it.

Aboriginal people understood the Dreamtime as a beginning that never ended. They held the belief that the Dreamtime is a period on a continuum of past, present and future.

The Aborigines learned about their beginnings through their Dreamtime creation folklores that told of the momentous actions of the creators. The myths were the foundation of Aboriginal society and provided certainty about existence.

The Australian aborigines believed that the land they occupied was once not in existence like it is today. It was free from form or life, vacuous – empty.

They unquestionably believed that this was the way things once were because the ancestors had said so and they would never doubt their word. It was during what has become known as the Dreamtime, the land, mountains, hills, rivers, plants, lifeforms both animal and human and sky above were formed by the actions of mysterious and supernatural spirits.

During the Dreamtime the creators made men women and animals, declared the laws of the land and how people were to behave to one another, the customs of food supply and distribution, the rituals of initiation, the ceremonies of death which are required to be performed so that the spirit of the dead travels peacefully to his or her spirit-place, and the laws of marriage.

Some Dreamings told of the mythical creators disappearing. They believed that the creators disappeared from the sight of mere mortals, but continued to live in secret places.

Some lived in the tribe’s territory in rock crevices, trees and water holes. Others went up into the sky above as heavenly bodies. Others changed into (or perhaps became) natural forces such as wind, rain, thunder and lightning.

It is believed that many of the creators continued to live on the land or in the sky above watching over them. These supernatural enigmatic creators were often referred to as men and women who had the ability to change shape into animals and other creatures such as the Rainbow Serpent.

There are also stories of heroes and heroines and Father and Mother figures.

The Dreamtime may be difficult for many of us to understand fully but it is part of who the Aboriginal people are, the very essence and reason for being here. It is all encompassing and will forever be at the centre of their existence as a people.

Charnok Woman story, especially important to our region

Back in the dreamtime there was a tall spirit man and a tall spirit woman called Charnok People. The Charnok woman had long white hair down to her back. In the darkness of the dreamtime, the spirit woman saw a small pair of eyes looking up at her. She picked up this little being. It was a spirit child. She did not want to part with this child so she placed it in her long white hair and the child held on tight. As she travelled she collected more and more of these spirit children. As she crossed a large valley that the Waugal created, which we now know as the Swan River, she left her footprint. We know this place today as Blackwall Reach.

The spirit woman continued north as the male Waugal created the lakes toward the north… Collecting more and more spirit children
as she travelled… She realised what she was doing was wrong and had to place the spirit children back. She remembered the spirit man collecting the children and eating them. She had to stop him so she headed south where she last saw him…

On her way she came across spirit children that hadn’t been collected and they began to cry for the children in her hair… They turned themselves into Koolbardie the magpie and picked the children from her hair. When the children hit the ground they turned to stone… she headed south leaving a trail of stone behind her leading to the largest stone (Kartakitch), Wave Rock, where she stepped onto the stone and was lifted into the sky. Her hair is the Milky Way and the stars in the sky represent those children she collected.

She knew she could never return to the land as her punishment. If you go to Lake Joondalup during a full moon, it is said that you can see her long white hair reflecting from the stars above. So this place is called Joondalup (place of the long white hair.) The lake is often referred to as the water that glistens.

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