Rivers are a “cultural and historical artefact” according to ecologists trying to raise awareness of the importance of Sydney’s river systems.

First Nations communities along the Cooks River have been gathering for the Wurridjal Festival to celebrate the significance of the river’s ecologies and to reconnect with Indigenous knowledge and culture. The festival also also emphasises the river’s health is intertwined with people’s health.

“The river is water and water is really interesting to think about, I think the only two things we can rely on with water is that we can’t start it and we can’t stop it, it just comes when it wants, and it stops when it want,” said Jennifer Newman, a member of the Canterbury Bankstown Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI) committee.

“The importance of maintaining the river’s health for me is that if I do what I can to keep the river, the trees, the birds, the insects, if I do what I can to help the river be healthy then I’ll feel good about myself and I’ll benefit from the health of the river.

“The river, it’s a barometer, it’s a compass, and it reminds me of whether I am being a good human, part of the system.”

The Cooks River, a tributary of Botany Bay in south-eastern Sydney, spans 23 kilometers starting in Yagoona in the city’s west, and acts as a stormwater system for a 100 square kilometer basin around it, with tidal sections harbouring substantial mangroves, bird, and fish populations.

During a live panel discussion last week, Newman, a Wiradjuri woman, Dr Megan Sharkey from Better Streets, Kiran Kashyap from Regen Sydney, and Dr Andrew Thomas from the Cooks River Alliance, discussed the Cooks River, as an active transport corridor, animal habitat and public space.

The river, it’s a barometer, it’s a compass, and it reminds me of whether I am being a good human, part of the system.

Guest speakers spoke about the community’s connection and its importance to not only the community in terms of their health, but through the knowledge that it once held due to the disruption of Indigenous Australians traditions post-colonisation.

Jason L’ecuyer, an Alliance member, said for thousands of generations the Wangal, Cadigal and Gameygal tribes as well as other First Nations people from other areas, who moved to the river, have watched the river grow and change, embedding itself as a significant part of their culture and history.

“It is a greatly valued river,” he said. “The festival illustrates care for Country by practices such as bushcare and river clean-ups.

“Aboriginal people… have developed a strong sense of custodianship for Aboriginal heritage and the environment.”

The Wurridjal festival started in 2019 because of the Cooks River Alliance Aboriginal Working Group’s advice that Alliance activities needed to better align with the Aboriginal seasonal calendar.

“The festival marks the start of a season,” said L’ecuyer. “Thousands of mullet – known as ‘Wurridjal’ in the Aboriginal languages spoken in the Sydney region – enter the Cooks River during their pre-spawning migration along the east coast of Australia.”

The events of the Wurridjal Festival run until April 7.

Main image supplied.