This information regarding Noongar history and culture has been collated from a range of available sources provided, to share Indigenous connections to country. Information provided refers specifically to the Whadjuk region of Noongar land, and encompasses Perth. Such knowledge, or kaartdijin, of country is important to understanding and celebrating Perth’s amazing biodiversity.
This information as well as helpful links will allow you to learn more about the Indigenous history of Perth and demonstrate the significance of the land on which we live. Our greatest respect goes towards past present and future elders as well as all Noongar peoples who continue to maintain and share their knowledge of country (boodja).
Throughout this website,we have maintained the spelling as Noongar, and we respectfully include all people in the South-West.
What does ‘Noongar’ mean?
The term ‘Noongar’ refers to the First Nation peoples of the south-west of Western Australia and means “river/coastal person or person originating from the edge of the bush”. Noongar country ranges from Jurien Bay to between Bremer Bay and Esperance and extends inland as far as north Moora; within which there are 14 different dialectal groups. Perth as it is known today falls inside the Whadjuk region.
Whilst the Noongar dialect is regarded as one language there are different pronunciations and spellings of words e.g. Noongar, Nyungar, Nyoongar, Nyoongah, Nyungah, Nyugah, Yungar and Noonga.
Map of Noongar country in the south-west of Western Australia from Whadjuk Walking trails.
Where does Perth fall within Noongar land?
TheWhadjuk region spans a total of 5,580kms of Noongar land, as well as extending past the shore line and encompasses islands off of the coast including, Carnac Island (Ngooloormayup), Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) and Garden Island (Meeandip). Within the Whadjuk landscape are the districts of Perth, Fremantle, Joondalup, Armadale, Toodjay, Bullsbrook and Chidlow.
This area is also imbued with Noongar stories and spirituality, with the environment not merely acting as a background setting but a central character within the narratives, personified and alive, as for Noongar people the land is an inseparable part of identity. For Noongar people the creation period, or ‘Nyitting’, involved the ascension of spirits from the earth and sky, specifically the ‘Waugal’, the Dreamtime Serpent. Often also referred to as the “Rainbow serpent”, the Waugalis said to have risen from Ga-ra-katta, now recognised as Mt. Eliza (located at the foot of Kings Park), and is the central spirit within the Noongar belief system. The Waugal’smovements across the landscape are said to have shaped dunes, hills and carved out freshwater rivers, swamps and lakes.
Birds-eye view of the Swan River, Perth (2009) – reproduced with permission from Michael Abicare
Noongar culture & connections to country?
Noongar culture and identity are strongly tied to the three pillars of, country ‘boodja’, family ‘moort’and knowledge ‘kaartdijin’. To Noongar people country is more than a physical landscape it is recognised to have its own consciousness and is understood to need a personal and ongoing relationship with the people who live on, and with it.
“The land is lonely because there is no-one to look after it rather than breathing easy because it has not been abused by humans”
– Catherine Laudine (in ‘Contemporary Aboriginal voices’)
Itis this spiritual connection to ‘boodja’that guides the use of land and its resources. Noongar people recognise the importance of human involvement within the natural world.
TheBoonarWaginy: The Trees Speak festival at Kings Park, 2019 – reproduced with permission from Rachel Barrett
Biodiversity within the Whadjuk region?
The south-west of Western Australia is globally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot,and yet many people residing in Perth and its surrounds fail to recognise the immense biodiversity that encircles them, even within the now urbanised landscape. In particular the Perth wetlands have all demonstrated to directly or indirectly support the wildlife within the area; that being 2,100 plants species, 15 amphibian species, 156 species of native birds and 71 reptile species.The Perth wetlands, located on the Swan Coastal Plain (Beeliar, Hyde Park, Chelodina etc.) are predicted to be only a remaining 10% of what was once found within the region.Many of Perth’s wetlands have cultural significance to Noongar people; with archaeological remains indicating art work, engravings and burial sites close to existing and pre-existing wetlands.
Native flora of Perth (2015) – reproduced with permission from Jana Schreier
Where are Indigenous sites of significance in Perth?
These are sites recognised and protected with the assistance of Governmental departments involved in heritage protection, and attempts to protect all Indigenous heritage sites in Western Australia, whether they are registered or not. ‘Sacred sites’ are formally described localities concentrated with spirits, however, it should be recognised that all Indigenous land is charged with spirituality.
In particular The Waugalis associated with a number of significant sites along the Swan River:
- The location of the Swan Brewery was known to the Noongar people as Goonininupand it is here that the Waugalserpent camped along the river
- BurswoodShell Bed: the scales of the Waugalwere scraped off in shallow water, in the form of oyster shells.
- KennedySprings: where the Waugalleft the river and created an underground tunnel connecting to Lake Monger and believed to possess curative powers.
The story of the Charnockspirit woman and significant associated sites:
- Point Walter (Dyoondalup) – This area is significant to one particular Indigenous dreamtime story about theCharnockspirit woman from the creation period who’s hair became the Milky Way. Traditionally this area and the shoreline along the southern bank of the river was a women’s place with the opposing shoreline a men’s place – ‘connected’ by the sandbar (a strand of the Charnock’s woman’s hair).
- BlackwallReach (Jenalup) – The cliffs of this area are one of the Charnockwoman’s footprints and historically was an important tribal ground, specifically for women and children.
Many others areas within Perth, including a number of its wetlands are sites of significance to Indigenous people. The places listed above are only examples of the myriad of locations important to Noongar peoples within the Perth region.
What is IEK (Indigenous Ecological Knowledge)?
Whilst there is no official definition or explanation for what Indigenous/Aboriginal ecological knowledge (IEK) is, one of the more widely accepted definitions is “the body of knowledge, practices and beliefs evolved by adaptive processes and passed down through generations via cultural transmission between Indigenous peoples, and serves to explain the relationships between living beings. Within Noongar culture to have a connection to country means to have responsibility to the land – to care for the environment, to speak for country and to acknowledge its value to communities.
This ecological knowledge of local biodiversity empowers Indigenous participation within biodiversity management and assessment. Indigenous communities do not perceive management as a linear process, in which people take actions to affect, change or improve the environment but encourage a two-way interaction between people and country. This is important to recognise as, for Noongar people, IEK also encompasses aspects of spiritual experience and relationships with the land.IEK is unique in its resources, with Indigenous Australians being able to offer different perspectives on environmental management issues and methods, and as such where possible, collaboration with Indigenous communities should be made a priority in scientific research and governmental applications.
Painting entitled “Maali” (2012) – reproduced with permission from Deborah Bonar
What are the six Noongar seasons (Bonar)?
The Noongar calendar represents:
- Food availability and abundance
- Locality of Indigenous peoples (migration both inland and to the coast to follow rainfall patterns)
- Climate (temperature, weather and storms).
Six Noongar seasons of the south-west from australiassouthwest.com
How can non-Indigenous Australians improve communications with Indigenous peoples?
Reconciliation Australia has identified ten important steps that can assist in successful Aboriginal programs, research and engagement:
It is important when working with Indigenous peoples and communities that protocols are respected and followed. However, protocols vary in different areas around Australia. In most populated areas, such as Perth, there are some general protocols and appropriate behaviours. Alternatively when working with people from traditional and remote communities, locally sourced training/advice is appropriate and required.
Build relationships before “working partnerships” – relationship before business
Show respect – acknowledge country
Understand cultural obligations
Be aware of cultural differences – training is available if sought
Treat everyone as an individual.
Painting entitled “Snake Dreaming (2001) – reproduced with permission from Walangari Karntawarra