The Martuwarra River Keepers
A First Nations-led workforce protecting and regenerating Martuwarra/Fitzroy River, culture and community
Supporting the protection and regeneration of the largest registered Aboriginal Cultural Heritage (WA) and National heritage-listed Martuwarra/Fitzroy River, the lifeblood of the Kimberley.
What is the Martuwarra River Keepers program?
The Martuwarra carves a 700km path through the West Kimberley, along deep sandstone gorges, savannah woodland and open floodplains. The River has sustained nature and First Nations people for countless millennia. For the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, representing Traditional Custodians from Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Nyikina, Wangkatjunka and Walmajarri groups, Martuwarra is a living, ancestral being.
The Martuwarra River Keepers program is a First Nations-led initiative that will protect and regenerate the natural and cultural values of Martuwarra through Indigenous knowledge-gathering and the development of a local cultural conservation economy.
The initiative transitions Indigenous community members into a sustainable career pathway that provides the opportunity to live and work on Country.
“This is crucial work, not only for preserving the culture of the River and its natural beauty, but also for the communities in the region who will benefit greatly from the creation of a sustainable conservation economy."—Chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, Dr. Anne Poelina
The River Keepers will rely on a two way science approach to prioritise Indigenous science in conservation efforts, and encourage emerging leaders to work with elders to map Traditional Ecological Knowledge─the environmental, cultural and spiritual knowledge of the River.
"[It’s] like our ancestors before us. They protected the River. They were living in the River. We'd like to do the same. Other people can come, they can see how this River runs, and then get more experience and a clear understanding of what the River means to Indigenous people," says Lloyd Kwilla, one of the new River Keepers. "We’re sharing knowledge to non-Indigenous people as well, you know, so they can really feel the River and the knowledge of what our father would teach us.”
“As the inaugural partner of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Keepers Project, the Wilderness Society is proud to support this inspiring initiative which is a result of First Nations self-determination," says Amelia Young, the Wilderness Society's National Campaigns Director. "Listening to Country, and to voices of traditional cultural knowledge holders, is vital for establishing new economies that protect and restore natural and cultural values."
The incredible life and landscape of Martuwarra
Martuwarra Fitzroy River aerial view, Gooniyandi Country. Image: Jenita Enevoldsen.
Martuwarra is one of the last strongholds for the critically endangered freshwater (largetooth) sawfish (Pristis pristis). Image: Simon Fraser University.
Peeking through to the Martuwarra, downstream from the Wilare Bridge, Kimberley. Image: Patrick Gardner.
Meet the River Keepers
The River Keepers are a group of 12 Traditional Custodians working on Country to research, manage and protect the globally unique Martuwarra/Fitzroy River system in the West Kimberley. This initial project is planned over a three-year period.
The concept of Martuwarra River Keepers arose from the ‘Circle of Wisdom’ - a series of dialogues between Martuwarra Elders and young Indigenous leaders in 2021.
“When we go back to Country, it lifts our spirits. We feel alive, because the land itself is alive. It's a spiritual connection that we share with the River, the trees and the animals. It's like a healing place. We want to keep that continuing into the next generation.”─Patricia Riley, Martuwarra River Keeper & CEO of Panadanus Park Community
Three of the new River Keepers share their thoughts:
“As a mother, I think it’s good to be out on Country, to live and work on Country. It gives my kids an understanding of what we grew up with, what we grew up knowing, and not only that but from our ancestors. The land that they walk on, the food that they eat, the knowledge that they passed down.”
“Getting out, making everybody motivated to come out to Country, do stuff for the Country, with people from the Country, it’s good. It's great to have a lot of projects, have people investing here, help out the community, just so we can keep preserving this place for younger generations, for my children.”
“I’m a Martuwarra man. I feel really proud for that. Proud for my family, they left it for me to look after the River. And for my other people to look after it too, generation after generation can carry it on, from all the grandchildren.”
River Keepers have the opportunity to live and work on Country, along the banks of Martuwarra, spanning the communities of Yurmlun (Pandanus Park) and Balginjirr─on Nyikina Country, 60 kilometres south of Derby, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.