A small fire is burning at the Marrambidya Wetlands alongside the Murrumbidgee River as a group of Aboriginal elders and Local Land Services staff gather to let the eucalyptus smoke waft over them.
About 50 representatives from across the state are in Wagga for the Aboriginal Support Network meeting, and this year there are new members.
“We come together three times a year to support all Aboriginal staff across the departments and today’s our cultural day out for all our mob,” says Graham Kelly, who is the business partner for Aboriginal Cultural Engagement with LLS.
He says this meeting represents the start of a new era for Aboriginal land management in the Riverina.
“It’s a great turnout, the Aboriginal ranger team has bumped our numbers up a bit and we’ve got an extra 18 people here for the first time.”
Senior Riverina Land Service officer Uncle Greg Packer divides the gathering into two groups, leaving the women with the fire at the ”healing place” and telling them to take their time in the smoke.
“Stay in the smoke and let it cleanse you,” he tells them.
“Take some time to remember family and friends and think about who you are and what we’re doing.”
As the men move on to set up their own cleansing fire, Wiradjuri men Ben Schreiber from Wagga and Shane Nayden from Griffith explain why they joined the new Aboriginal Ranger Program in Narrandera.
“A few of the uncles saw it advertised and they approached some of us and said I should throw my hat in the ring,” says Ben.
“It’s unreal to be given the opportunity to give back to Mother and put love back in and to practise some of our traditional customs and land management techniques.”
Shane also says it feels good to be giving back.
“It’s good to be doing something for my people and working on the land,” he explains.
“I’m looking forward to getting the qualification so I can move forward in this job.”
Ben and Shane are part of the $5.95 million program training rangers in Narrandera, Tamworth, Coonabarabran and Deniliquin.
The four new trainees in Narrandera will complete their Certificate III in Conservation and Ecosystem Management as they begin work with LLS in the Riverina.
Graham Kelly says the recruits have a busy 18 months ahead.
“The traineeship itself is really designed to give them exposure to Local Land Services work and to gain knowledge and experience in all those business areas from the Travelling Stock Routes to pest animal control, weed control, natural resource management projects and dealing with agriculture,” he says.
“We’re aiming towards getting them into full-time positions or ongoing employment at the end of the program, which concludes in December 2023.”
Graham says cultural work will be a key focus of the program, identifying and documenting scarred trees and important sites, and the sharing of knowledge will go both ways.
“It’s also an opportunity for our organisations to take on board some of that perspective, from their cultural knowledge of the trainees and others in the team,” he says.
“It will help support our ongoing programs and understanding how we manage the country in a traditional way and recognise our cultural connections.”
It’s hoped the program will demonstrate a way forward for land management and create pathways for more Aboriginal people to work on Country.
“I’m hoping that we can demonstrate that it’s a really worthwhile program,” says Graham.
“Through solid delivery and solid outcomes, we hope that we will gain support to continue programs like this.”
Original Article published by Chris Roe on Region Riverina.