Ten Local Aboriginal Land Councils came together on 26 January to welcome more than 15,000 people to the Saltwater Freshwater Festival at the Coffs Harbour Botanic Gardens.
The popular event attracted a diverse crowd which enjoyed the music, art and culture of the Gumbaynggirr, Biripi, Dunghutti and Worimi nations.
The Festival opened with a Welcome to Country by Gumbaynggirr elders Uncle Mark Flanders and Aunty Bea Ballangarry, dancing by Wajarr Ngaarlu and a smoking ceremony from Uncle Michael Jarrett and David Carriage.
This year marked the fifth celebration of Saltwater Freshwater which has been hosted by a number of Mid-North Coast towns including Port Macquarie, Taree and Kempsey. The increasingly-popular event will be held at Coffs Harbour for the next three years as a flagship event.
NSWALC Mid-North Region Councillor Peter Smith said the event was making great strides. “It’s about learning culture and about youth. It’s learning more about our culture and other people’s culture,” he said.
It was a theme Gumbaynggirr Elder Uncle Larry Kelly was keen to expand on: “I go around doing camps with the men and boys about culture and I try to keep that alive. It’s the most important thing for Aboriginal communities, to keep that culture alive because if you let it go – your language and culture – you’ll end up with a dinosaur dynasty. We’ll be extinct and we can’t afford to let that happen. That’s why it’s so important today for all these young people to understand that and enjoy it.”
Away from the main stage – which featured some of Australia’s finest musical talent, headlined by Archie Roach, Emma Donovan and the Putbacks, Radical Son, Briggs and didJital – Uncle Larry and Aunty Anne Edwards shared their memories of the Freedom Ride when Charles Perkins led University of Sydney students to regional NSW towns including Bowraville, exposing segregation and racism to the wider public.
Aunty Anne, a Gumbaynggirr Elder and member of the Stolen Generations, recalled the first time she met Charles Perkins in Sydney, which led to the Freedom Riders including Bowraville on their list of towns to visit in 1965.
“He’d found out about me and my sister being taken away from Bowraville and placed at St Anthony’s at Croydon. So he turns up there one Sunday morning as we were coming out of Mass. We told him what it was like (in Bowraville) and when we’d finished talking he said Bowraville’s on my list. We said your list for what? Then he explained about the Freedom Ride. So I made sure I went home for that.”
Aunty Anne will take part in next week’s reenactment of the Freedom Ride visit to Bowraville where she will reflect on the positive changes resulting from the students and the community.
“Charles didn’t make it happen overnight. It took a long time. It took a lot of Elders in the community to be strong and to work towards building those bridges between black and white people. “
Fifty years later, gatherings like Saltwater Freshwater play a vital role in bringing local communities together as Gumbaynggirr man Troy Robinson explained: “I think it’s really great that 10 Land Councils have come together to produce this massive big day on a day named as Australia Day when most Aboriginal people see it as Invasion Day. What we can all celebrate I guess is Survival Day. We’re still here, we’re surviving and the best way to do it is through one big corroboree and this is kind of like it.”