Deep in the bush in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia's far north lives a stronghold of ancient Australian Aboriginal culture. There is a community of Wunambal people who are the descendants of a continuous lineage that extends back to approximately 70,000 years ago. Right now, the Kandiwal community on the remote Mitchell Plateau are facing challenges to pass on their ancient traditions and knowledge through to future generations in the hope of preserving their Wunambal culture long into the future.
The Kandiwal residents are the remnants of what was once a large Wunambal nation inhabiting the Far North Kimberley region, who have returned home to country after what can only be called government removal.
Throughout 2022 I was lucky enough to live and work on the remote Mitchell Plateau, and during my time in this unique and mesmerising part of the world I was incredibly fortunate to spend six months in close proximity to the local aboriginal community at Kandiwal. The area is locally known as Ngauwudu, which roughly translates in language to “high land of much water.” I was extremely intrigued by these people and this community, as the mindboggling extended history of the area along with its epic natural beauty made me want to learn more and more about the stories of the mysterious Ngauwudu.
As I spent more time here, I slowly gained more insight into Kandiwal’s story; a story of hope, pride, struggle, and determination. Soon I came to hear about the legal hurdles that have been thrown in front of this community, and the total lack of support and help that Kandiwal does not receive. It appears that the Australian government has abandoned their educational, training, and social responsibilities to these people. The fact that Kandiwal community members are still living on their tribal lands and home of Ngauwudu is a massive testament to their determination and commitment to live on country, just as their ancestors have done for tens of thousands of years. The other, much easier alternative for them would be to submit to the magnetic pull of the damaged Kimberley towns, just as many other indigenous families and groups have done. It is no secret that these places are full of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and soaring crime rates; where the detrimental effects of indigenous people being disconnected from their culture and heritage are stark and painfully obvious. In contrast the Kandiwal community is a safe haven for the Wunambal people, deep in the bush and far away from the dysfunction of the Kimberley towns.
The Mitchell Plateau
The Mitchell Plateau, locally known as Ngauwudu, is one of the most remote areas in the Kimberley that is accessible by road where it is over 250km to travel to the closest store to buy milk or bread. Located in the Kimberley region’s far north the area is well known for the incredible Mitchell Falls (Punamii Uunpu), a four-tiered waterfall cascading 80m down a sandstone range, which could very possibly be an eighth wonder of the world. This powerful place is home to the north Kimberley’s most powerful Wunggurr or Rainbow Serpent, who is believed to live in the largest pool of the falls. The area receives the highest annual rainfall in the state averaging 1400mm per year and is also the only place in Australia that hasn’t had a species go extinct since European settlement. Throughout Ngauwudu there are numerous truly sacred indigenous rock art sites scattered throughout the area, some of which date back to 30-40,000 years old. This rock art depicts dreamtime stories and lessons in cultural law, and the images have been instrumental in passing on Wunambal culture to countless generations in the area. This part of the Kimberley attracts large numbers of intrepid travellers every year, where people come to soak in the humbling power and enormity of Punamii Uunpu and the extremely remote surroundings of the plateau. This is truly a spectacular part of the world with both extreme cultural and ecological significance and is a place which is worthy of the status of World Heritage Listing, or is at least worthy of some support from the government departments and corporations who are meant to be representing them. Instead it seems that Kandiwal has been left out on a limb…
A Brief History of Kandiwal
The Wunambal tribe have been present in the region for thousands of generations, but it wasn’t until the first contact with European Australians in the 1920’s that their undisturbed and traditional lifestyles came to an end. With the arrival of missionaries in the mid 1930’s the Wunambal people were slowly persuaded and coerced to become dependent on government rations that were issued through the church missions and government stations. Over the years many families were moved into missions dotted throughout the Kimberley, namely Kunmunya, Wotjulum and Mowanjum. These places were on foreign soil from a Wunambal perspective and were far away from their spiritual and tribal home at Ngauwudu.
I had the privilege to sit down with Patricia Goonack, Kandiwal’s eldest member who has been living in the community since its inception in 1987. “The old people wanted to get their country back” she said, the ‘old people’ being the Wunambal elders who have since passed on. They were the four brothers that had significant influence in setting up the Kandiwal community and lobbying against the state government to secure Kandiwal’s native title. She explained to us that by the mid 1950’s the majority of the Wunambal tribe had ended up in the Mowanjum mission near Derby, and by that point the tribal elders were determined to take their families back home to Ngauwudu and the Mitchell Plateau. This dream of returning to home to Ngauwudu for the four brothers was finally realised with the establishment of the beginnings of the Kandiwal community in 1987. Wilfred Goonack, Alan Balngu, Laurie Uttemorrah and William Bunjuk all held fiercely to this dream for nearly 30 years. The fact that these people made it back to their home of Ngauwudu reflects their knowledge, love and connection to their tribal lands and country and is a story worthy of being revered in wider Australian culture.
Chris Brown, or ‘Browny’ has been a tour guide in the area since the 1980’s and worked closely with the community for years as their corporation manager and community advisor. He knew most of those Wunambal elders personally, and explained that “the old men wanted their children, their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s children to be back on country… Not to be in a place like Derby or Broome. These towns are poison to bush people, and kids don’t have the upbringing they deserve in places like that. There’s crime, there’s drug addiction and alcoholism.” Cathy Goonack went on to explain what the kids get up to around Kandiwal: “They are in the bush. They go hunting, fishing, they do anything around here you know. It’s quiet and peaceful.”
However, during the traditional owner’s absence from Ngauwudu throughout the mid 1900’s numerous mining companies took the opportunity to explore the area for bauxite – a mineral which is extracted and refined to make aluminium. Miners set up a camp where Kandiwal is presently located today and used strip mining techniques to explore the entire Mitchell Plateau for minerals. Strip mining is an extremely damaging process to the environment, and the result of exploration was considerable devastation to the land. Evidence of grid patterns completely void of any vegetation criss-cross the whole area and can still be seen clearly today even 70 years later. It is inconceivable to think that they wanted to rip up the entire Mitchell Plateau, which would have certainly caused the whole area to become barren. Once the mining tenements were finally revoked by the state government in 2012 it allowed the complete possession of the Nguauwudu area by the Traditional Owners through the Native Title Act, but this means little if the Traditional Owners cannot get the infrastructural support that they need to continue to inhabit their traditional lands. The mining company at the Mitchell Plateau had promised Kandiwal that the exploration camp would be handed over complete with buildings, accommodations and some vehicles that would help to establish a permanent community. There was a change of heart by the company and all the dongas and infrastructure were auctioned away in Derby, leaving the Wunambal people with concrete slabs to come home to.
Voicing Community Concerns
Throughout the conversations that I had with elder Kandiwal community members, it became very clear that these people are extremely concerned for the loss of knowledge in their ancient culture. There are several contributing factors that are limiting Kandiwal’s growth as a community and it is imperative that we now find a way to get these people the support that is deserved, and to help make the changes that are needed to preserve this precious indigenous heritage.
There are only around 30 people who live at the community permanently, however there is a community aspiration to have 170 indigenous people living at Kandiwal, back on their tribal country. This could be possible if Kandiwal received its allocated funding from the government, as a community development strategy was designed by the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage way back in 2010. However since then nothing has changed and this has instead turned into a neglected community dream. A damaged solar system needs to be fixed, the septic system needs to be upgraded and funding for additional housing is needed before Kandiwal is able to bring the rest of their family back home to Ngauwudu. Cathy Goonack explained to me why the community needed the government funding and additional housing; “We are trying to get families back on country to help our next generation know their culture, so they can learn that, and pass it on to the next generation and the next one. So our tradition won’t fade away…” In that moment I realised that this is about the preservation of the oldest continuous culture on the planet.
Jeremy Cowan is one of the last people to still know the Wunambal language, traditional song lines and dreamtime stories and he openly expressed his concerns to me. “I want to share my knowledge with the kids, teach them how to sing corroborees and all that and show them what I have learnt from my grandparents. Now that our grandparents aren’t here, I’m the one who must be a teacher for the kids, showing them the art sites and things.” Jeremy has mentioned he wants to move back to Kandiwal, but he is not able to due to the lack of housing at the community. He is an essential figure to pass Wunambal culture, language and knowledge onto the children but currently there are no employment opportunities for him on Ngauwudu. If funding was secured it is possible that he could be employed as a cultural teacher at the Kandiwal school where he could teach the Wunambal culture to the young ones. Presently none of the community members can speak in their native language, and instead these bush kids are being forced to learn Indonesian as the alternative language in the current school curriculum model.
"We wanted to have the school up here for the kids to grow up in, because a lot of bad things are going on in town with drinking and smoking.” During our conversation with Pat she explained that the community doesn’t receive any financial support from the government, and instead the community has had to pay to educate their children out of their own pockets. “We have to pay the schoolteachers to stay here with our own money, with the community money…”
Browny also shared his frustrations. “Here’s this little struggling school that’s scratching around for funding and being run on a shoestring, when there should be traditional owners here teaching the young people their own language, their own stories, their own country. Not talking about elephants from Africa, or European history or learning Indonesian, I cant believe it. That’s not what Aboriginal children in their own country should be learning… Why should you learn a foreign language, when you could be learning your own language and your own identity? That’s what is going to be more important to these people.”
The Government decided not to proceed with funding for the school and instead consolidated a School of the Air (SOTA) education service, which is a questionable education model for a remote indigenous community. Kandiwal’s school tutor Paula MacDonald often talked to me about the shortcomings of remote online learning. “Each child has their own laptop and their teachers teach online from Derby, and I facilitate their offline learning. I find this difficult with the kids… They are hands on, they are bush kids, so to sit them in a room in front of a laptop doesn’t quite work at times. I mean they do well, but it’s not the model that I think would be best for children that are very practical. On country learning is the best way that these kids learn.”
The Preservation of an Ancient Culture
The Western Australian Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage created the Kandiwal Layout Plan back in 2010, and pledged to help contribute and ‘support education, job training, health services, work and housing for members’ as well as ‘to help and encourage members to keep and renew their traditional culture’. It is commendable that a community development plan was made for Kandiwal by the State Government, but I question the integrity of their promises. It has been over 12 years since this document was created and since then little has changed for the community. What I observed during my short 6 months on the Mitchell Plateau is a small and determined remote indigenous community that has been struggling to stay on country due to a lack of funding and support from the organisations and corporations that are meant to be representing them.
Kandiwal is located 518km from Kununurra, the nearest Kimberley town that has a hospital and medical services. The journey is across unsealed, extremely corrugated and unforgiving dirt roads. “We are very remote and we don’t have any doctors, or clinics around here.” Jazzlyn, a Wunambal woman of 22 shares her concerns for the lack of basic healthcare up on the plateau. During the time I was living on Ngauwudu there were several health emergency scares in the community and surrounding areas that resulted in RFDS retrieval and transfer back the hospital in Broome. The very real and present danger of venomous snakes in the area, as well as pre-existing medical conditions that are present in the community along with a complete lack of health services at Kandiwal all contribute to an underlying concern for the health of the population. Kandiwal is supposed to receive healthcare support from the Derby Aboriginal Health Service (DAHS) every six weeks, but the community seems to have dropped completely off the radar despite being listed with this government department. Paula voiced her concerns to me for the lack of basic healthcare. “Simple things like immunisations, anything for the younger children, like dentists. I’ve lived here for a year and a half and haven’t seen a dentist or doctor up here...” Having a health clinic up on the Mitchell Plateau would enable families to stay at Kandiwal year-round and receive basic health support as needed.
“We know for a fact that Aboriginal people, Australia wide the first groups came to this country around 70,000 years ago, and one of the main entries into Australia was this very area right here (Mitchell Plateau). This is a very ancient land and a very ancient lineage of people who have been custodians for this country, and now the young people growing up here need to have the best possibility, and the best opportunity to carry on what people have been doing here for tens of thousands of years, literally.” – Chris Brown
Traditional Owners are fighting through red tape and are up against an unfair system in the struggle to pass on their culture to future generations of Wunambal people. The Kandiwal community expressed to me their concerns that their heritage is at true and impending risk of being completely lost to the rapidly changing and fast paced world that we live in today. Without any support, more and more young indigenous children in the years ahead will be poorly educated, and the opportunities for them to be gainfully employed on country in the remote tourism industry of Kimberley may be lost to another generation or two. This is only one example of a wider problem that is affecting many indigenous communities Australia wide. In what is one of the most remote locations in Australia, the Kandiwal community need well deserved help and support to continue to live on their ancestral lands and tribal country; to upgrade housing and infrastructure in the community, bring families back home to Ngauwudu, to employ cultural teachers in the school and to teach and pass on Wunambal culture to the next generation.
If anyone wants to assist Kandiwal in their endeavours to upgrade housing infrastructure and school facilities, please get in touch via email to firstname.lastname@example.org