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The role of Totems in conservation, kinship, and spiritual connectivity with the land 

Authors: Anna Turner and Kai McKenzie

Totems are a spiritual emblem in the form of a natural object, plant, or animal. Each First Nations person has at least four Totems. These include inherited ones for each nation, clan, and family group and an assigned or personal Totem. A personal Totem recognises an individual’s strengths and weaknesses and link a person to the land, air, and geographical characteristics. They also define peoples’ roles and responsibilities and their relationship with each other and creation. Totems are not ‘owned’ but they are accounted for. Each person has a responsibility in ensuring the protection of their Totem and passing it on from one generation to the next.  

Totems are split between Moieties. Moieties are the first level of kinship in First Nations society and split everything, including people and the environment, in two halves, one the mirror of the other. In splitting totems, a balance is created that ensures the long-term conservation of that Totem. For example, the goanna may be protected and conserved by members of one Moiety, while the other may eat and use it.  

Bayil Creek on conservation property Gayini Nimmie-Caira. Photo credit: Anna Turner

This balance has allowed First Nations people to live off the land and care for Country since the beginning of time. The cultural connection and custodial responsibility for land, water, plants, and animals has ensured resources are managed sustainably across some of the harshest of environments. With European settlement came regulation of rivers and waterways, land clearing for agricultural and urban development, and introduction of non-native plants and animals. These jointly contribute to habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity and an overall disruption in the careful balance maintained by the First Nations people for thousands of years.  

Through the Flow-MER program, research teams including, but not limited to, specialists in floodplain ecology, water chemistry, vegetation, amphibian, fish and waterbird diversity, work closely with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office to improve our understanding of how environmental water can help improve habitat and biodiversity and maintain important sites and values throughout the Murrumbidgee River catchment and the larger Murray-Darling Basin. Our work on the Flow-MER program in the Murrumbidgee encompasses the Traditional Owner lands of the Wiradjuri people, as well as areas in the lowbidgee wetlands of the Wathi Wathi, Mutthi Mutthi and Nari Nari peoples. It is a privilege to work on Country with such a rich First Nations history.  The Murrumbidgee MER team (Charles Sturt University) invites local First Nations students to participate in field-based monitoring for an opportunity to connect with Country and facilitate a two-way learning experience.  

This field season Kai, a proud Wiradjuri lad, joined the field crew in monitoring the response of environmental flows in Yanga National Park and neighbouring conservation property, Gayini Nimmie-Caira. Kai has a deep connection with Country, acknowledging he was on Mutthi Mutthi and Nari Nari land, he shared his knowledge of the wetlands, the surrounding landscape and the plants and animals detected during monitoring.  

Kai explained the significance of Totems for the First Nations people. His Totem for Wiradjuri people is the goanna (gugaa), and he is encouraged that the careful management of environmental water will help maintain riparian habitat around wetlands and creek systems important for the goanna. Kai had a keen eye for spotting scar trees and discussed the potential uses of the bark, such as building canoes, shields, or Coolamons – a wooden basket or tray for carrying food, seeds or babies.  

Kai with a scar tree in Yanga National Park. Photo credit: Tonia McKenzie.
Yanga Creek in flood during February 2022. Photo credit: Anna Turner
Yanga Creek in flood during December 2021. Photo credit: Anna Turner

Kai stated, “The importance of land management started well over 60,000 years ago. We have so much we can learn from the old ways. The connection is real, to be out there amongst it is to feel the ancestors spirit it talks to you. My people cared for country and would only use what they needed and would conserve and protect its valuable resources. This is why it interests me so much, as we need to start looking after country and giving back to the ecosystem for it to be sustainable for our future generations. 

The CSU MER team and Kai finished a successful week of wetland monitoring. Left to right: Amy, Eva, Lachlan, Kai and Anna. Photo credit: Tonia McKenzie.
The Charles Sturt MER team setting fyke nets with Kai in Yanga National Park. Photo credit: Tonia McKenzie.
Kai preparing to measure and release a broad-shelled turtle which was captured during monitoring at Yanga National Park. Photo credit: Tonia McKenzie.

Yindyamarra is a Wiradjuri word that means Respect. Respect the land, the animals, and Mother Earth! 

The Flow-MER team, lead by CSU, as well as the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners, their Elders past and present, their Nations of the Murray-Darling Basin, and their cultural, social, environmental, spiritual and economic connection to their lands and waters. In particular the Wiradjuri, Nari Nari and Muthi Muthi peoples, traditional owners of the land on which this publication is focused. 

Featured Photo: Artwork by Kai entitled “My community, Your community, Our community” 

Our work in the Murrumbidgee

The Murrumbidgee is a lowland river system with large meandering channels, wetlands, lakes, swamps and creek lines. Our work here focuses on understanding how native fish, waterbirds, reptiles and amphibians, as well as wetland vegetation communities, benefit from these targeted environmental watering actions.

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