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Thursday, December 01, 2022

Pointing to the sacred: How a tribal elder harnessed photography in a groundbreaking land rights battle

Lynne Thomas opens a large-format book to a photo of two mountains nestled together, tracing her hand along their ridge lines.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of people who have died.

The book she is holding helped pave the way for one of the first land rights victories in NSW.

“When you look down the coast, you’ll see Gulaga and you’ll see Biamanga lying next to her,” said Ms Thomas, a Yuin-Biripi cultural knowledge holder.

The two mountains, between Bega and Bermagui on the NSW far south coast, are sacred to the Yuin people.

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“When one mountain is destroyed, the other one is affected as well because we no longer have that visual view of our songlines,” she said.

Lynne’s father, Yuin tribal elder Ted Thomas, was known as Guboo or ‘good friend’. He was an activist at the forefront of the Aboriginal land rights movement in NSW.

Ms Thomas has given permission to use the image of her late father in this story.

Black And White Photo Of Clear-Felled Forest With A Sawn Tree Stump In The Foreground
Wesley Stacey’s photos documented the desecration of Biamanga mountain by logging.,Supplied: Wesley Stacey,

In 1978, the Aboriginal community at Wallaga Lake registered a claim for the title deeds to the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal reserve.

The land rights campaign took on a new urgency when intensive logging threatened sacred sites on nearby Biamanga mountain in 1979.

“It was obvious that wood chipping, with a system of roads, stream crossings, and log dumps, was impacting Aboriginal sites,” archaeologist and anthropologist Brian Egloff said.

Dr Egloff was given four months to prepare a report to the state government on the cultural significance of Biamanga mountain, recording interviews with the Aboriginal community and settler families, visiting sites, and scouring historical documents for evidence.

“The community was telling us that it was a very important place,” Dr. Egloff said.

“It was the dreaming place of Jack Mumbulla, his tribal name was Biamanga. And we’d been told that’s where initiation ceremonies were held.”

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Guboo Ted Thomas and Percy Mumbulla address the NSW parliamentary select committee at Wallaga Lake,Nation World News, 1979,

In 1979, a NSW parliamentary select committee visited Wallaga Lake for what was effectively the state’s first land rights hearing.

Meanwhile, an advisory committee set up by the Wran government was urgently investigating the impact of wood chipping on the five state forests between Bega and Bermagui.

“The opposition to reigning in the Forestry Commission in Bega was very, very strong,” said Jack Miller, who represented conservation interests on the Ashton committee.

Senior Aboriginal Man And Younger White Man Standing Together On Open Ground On A Drizzly Day.
Guboo Ted Thomas and Jack Miller at a bora (ceremonial) ground in Budawang National Park in 1979.,Supplied: Jack Miller,

Guboo Ted Thomas, Percy Mumbulla and other elders were not just confronting hostility and fierce resistance from the local community and the forestry industry. They were up against the more conservative members of the state government.

“One cabinet minister said he wouldn’t take notice of a black fella who just clapped a couple of clap sticks together,” said Terry Fox, who worked closely with Guboo Ted Thomas on the campaign.

“There was a complete denial from some ministers that there were any sites on Biamanga mountain.”

Photographs help win battle for hearts and minds

Wesley Stacey was a respected photographer when he bought a block of land with a few mates on the far south coast in the mid-1970s.

“I tried to set up home down here on the coast, right beside where the Forestry Commission were logging,” Mr Stacey said.

Black And White Photo Of Bearded Man In Dappled Light In Coastal Forest With An Intense Expression.
Wesley Stacey’s photos played a vital role in the protection of Aboriginal sites on Biamanga mountain.,Supplied: Narelle Perroux,

Mr Stacey and Eleanor Williams joined forces with Mr Thomas to document cultural sites on Biamanga in a series of images that evoked the site’s spiritual power and its desecration by logging.

Mr Thomas would choose the sites for Mr Stacey to photograph, often without talking about their significance, and introduced Mr Stacey to a new way of seeing the landscape.

“Ted taught me how to photograph the bush better,” Mr Stacey said.

“I had to really try and get in tune with what he was on about, the character, and the mystery of the bush.

Black And White Photo Of An Aboriginal Elder Sitting Cross-Legged On A Large Rock In The Forest
Guboo Ted Thomas led the fight to protect Biamanga mountain from logging.,Supplied: Wesley Stacey,

One of the enduring legacies of Mr Stacey and Mr Thomas’s collaboration is the book Mumbulla Spiritual Contact, which Mr Stacey describes as a “propaganda gadget”, a photo essay printed in large format to “stuff it in the face of politicians and it would take up most of their view, so they’d have to have look at it”.

In 1980, parts of Biamanga mountain were declared an Aboriginal Place and Protected Archeological Area. But the fight to protect the coastal forests between Biamanga and Gulaga continued for decades.

Biamanga and Gulaga National Parks were proclaimed in 1994 and 2001 respectively.

In 2016, the five state forests surrounding the two mountains were reclassified as flora reserves, in recognition of a resident population of koalas — considered a protector custodian of the Gulaga-Biamanga cultural area.

Guboo Ted Thomas passed away in 2002, four years before Biamanga and Gulaga National Parks were handed back to traditional owners in an emotional ceremony.

Worn Black And White Close Up Photo Of A Tribal Elder With A Serious Expression.
Tribal elder Jack Mumbulla, whose traditional name was Biamanga, on the cover of Mumbulla Spiritual Contact.,Supplied,

“That vision that they had kept going,” Lynne Thomas said.

“It’s like a continuation, like everything we see in this landscape, it just keeps going.

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