Rivers of resilience

Exploring the history and significance of the Georges River for Indigenous communities.

I acknowledge that the Kamegal, Bedigal, Cabrogal, Cannemegal, Gweagal and Norongerral peoples of the Eora, Dharug and Dharawal nations are the original custodians of all land and water in the Georges River region.

“Something about [the river] transcends the everyday and material,” muses Grace Karskens in her book, People of the River: Lost worlds of early Australia (2020). She describes the certain, mystical aura of a river as a waterway that shapes the land, quietly connecting place and culture and standing as a source of sustenance for so many. 

For Aboriginal Australians, this is an obvious truth. The river is not just a focal point for life and culture, but a symbol of retaliation, of resistance and remembrance, and a powerful sign of continued Indigenous presence on invaded land.

This is especially true of the Georges River, which connects the land of the Dharug people on the northern shore, and the Dharawal people in the south. Originally known by its Indigenous name, Tucoreah, the mighty urban river expands over 960 square kilometres of land, beginning in the forested headwaters at Appin and snaking through Southwestern Sydney suburbs before finally plunging eastward into Botany Bay. In its wake, the Georges River forms both natural and man-made catchment areas, grazing over 14 local government areas, and constituting a home for over 1 million residents, 5000 of whom are Indigenous.

The Georges River predominantly traverses three Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALCs) – Gandangara, Tharawal, and Sydney Metropolitan regions. Land councils play a significant role in protecting the rights and interests of Aboriginal communities on a state or territory level.

A conversation with the CEO of the Metropolitan Land Council, Nathan Moran, revealed that initiatives have attempted to preserve the natural ecology around the Georges River, counter environmental degradation, pollution, and sewage overflows that threaten its beauty and biodiversity.

“We actually built rainmaker gardens to teach [Georges Riverkeeper] how to make the most ecologically advanced ways to manage water spaces, and we hope it’s a project that will continue to be replicated,” says Moran.

Georges Riverkeeper is an independent and not-for-profit organisation consisting of eight member local government councils, with the goal of managing, protecting and improving the health and liveability of the river and its surrounding communities. Moran told Honi that the Metropolitan Land Council had previously worked in close partnership with Georges Riverkeeper from 2015 – 2018 towards this goal.

“We think [the project] shows its best value, if not best practiced example of how we Blackfellas can work with everyone to improve the environment and also record the cultural knowledge of the place,” Moran says.

“But it’s unfortunate that [the Riverkeeper project] is a one-off Commonwealth funded project.”

Since the state government stopped funding LALCs in 1998 (as per the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act), Aboriginal land councils have been left to financially support themselves, which has implications on their ability to care for the land in line with their mandate. In light of recent flooding events across NSW, the adverse effects of neglecting environmental issues have become clear. It is high time that we begin to actively listen to the voices of the Indigenous communities who, for generations, have sustainably cared for land and shown limitless eagerness, resilience, and patience when combating climate emergencies.

Unsurprisingly, there is often very little, if any, truth-telling about the history of the First Nation peoples around the Georges River.

In 1933, Indigenous activist Joe Anderson demanded that Indigenous peoples be included in the Federal Parliament and be seen as part of contemporary Australia. He did so on the banks of Salt Pan Creek, a notable tributary of the Georges River. The continual legacy of his message, conveyed through the medium of film, not only stands as a testament to the power of Indigenous voices, but also to the resilience of the river in carrying those voices across nation and time.

Moran says that LALCs work to preserve Indigenous histories, cultures, and traditional knowledge, and ensure that they continue to be told. For example, the Metropolitan LALC has undertaken initiatives to provide opportunities for school students to learn more about the cultural and artistic sites around the Georges River. Alexandra Park Community School is one among a few schools that have partnered with the Metropolitan Land Council.

“[The school] has gotten Aboriginal students from Aboriginal studies to talk with the land council about nearby cultural and heritage sites [around the Georges River]. The school does cultural tours with the land council. It’s actually an annual event that we take the staff, all the teachers, on a cultural experience and we assist their students to learn more about cultural sites surrounding the school,” Moran said.

These enriching experiences create spaces to retell stories that counter colonial narratives, and inform Georges River communities about the historical and continual resilience of Aboriginal peoples on stolen land.

“If we can get [young people] to understand the place they’re on, we know we’ve got more protectors and preservers of the environment and Indigenous culture,” says Moran.

The Georges River’s deep significance for Indigenous communities, and more widely, the people of Sydney, is unparalleled. We share an equal responsibility for caring for the river and its surrounding lands; for protecting it and recognizing the continual presence and resilience of its original custodians. After all, the river is a meeting ground, an amalgamation of stories, histories and lives, and only by keeping them alive can they continue to have transformative power.

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