NAIDOC Week started on Sunday, with this year’s theme of “Heal Country” at the forefront of the conversation.

The Heal Country theme seeks greater protections from exploitation, desecration, and destruction, for the lands, waters, sacred sites and cultural heritage of the Indigenous people.

Unfortunately, this year the usual celebrations for NAIDOC week in Yass have been delayed until September. However, the flag-raising and smoke ceremony went ahead, this morning outside the Memorial Hall.

Local Ngunnawal woman Tyahn Bell, aided by her grandmother and Ngunnawal Elder Lillian Bell, spoke to the importance of healing country for the Indigenous people.

Tyahn Bell with her dad Scott Bell

“It holds a lot of importance, especially due to the spiritual connection it holds between us and our ancestors.”

“The theme of healing country is important because country is associated with our identity and we speak about country like we would a person.”

“Country has an integral effect. When country is sick, we are sick and if you care for country, country will care for you,” said Tyahn.

Restoring the physical nature of the land is not the only dimension to healing country, and Tyahn explained what else the process entails.

“Healing country is not just a physical act, but it’s family, kinship, law and ceremonies with traditions filled with language spoken by our people now, and our ancestors before as well,” she said.

Tokenism is a trend that has grown more and more prevalent in the modern world as organisations attempt to meet social responsibility objectives. Tyahn says the key to healing country is not merely “ticking a box”. It requires genuine and thorough consultation with the local Indigenous community to ensure better outcomes for all.

“When it comes to consultation, we are seeing government and non-government organisations just find someone who is aboriginal and be like ‘that’s our consultation done’. Not narrowing it down asking if they’re Ngunnawal or from other country. Using tokenism to be lazy and tick a box that says they’re doing the right thing, when they’re not,” she said.

Not only would further action towards “healing country” benefit the Indigenous community, Tyahn believes instilling some of these healing practices would have a positive impact on the broader society.

“I think it’s very important and we’ve seen with things like the bushfires in the past. One of our practices of healing country is cultural burnings, and that can be vital in terms of healing country and not just for aboriginal people, but for non-aboriginal people as well. It’s just showing other people within Australia, how our practices can benefit them,” she said.

Mayor of Yass Valley Council Rowena Abbey said the week was about “building the bridges” with the aboriginal community and recognising the need for ongoing improvement in the future.

An initiative of Yass Valley Council in the works currently is the  interpretative trail planned for Riverbank Park. Rowena hopes it can bring greater awareness to the historical significance of the Indigenous people in the area.

“As part of this new park down at Riverbank Park, some of that will be focused on interpretative trails and conversation, which we are consulting with the local aboriginal community on that part of the process.”

“Hopefully it will bring a bit more awareness because obviously a lot of people walk around the park and to see some of that interpretative information I think will be really useful in helping us understand and grow together,” she said.

Celebrations for NAIDOC week may be somewhat subdued this year, thanks to the ongoing Covid situation. Still, it remains the perfect opportunity to pay our respects and celebrate the original custodians of our land. 

Max O’Driscoll