An ancient Dreamtime story about the birth of the Great Barrier Reef is uniting Aboriginal Australians in a new tourism drive.
The story, passed down by elders of the Cairns-based Yidinji clan, is the basis for a cultural heritage tour connecting tourism operators with traditional owners along the Queensland coast from Gladstone to Cairns.
It is a tale which naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who has previously visited the Yidinji, acknowledges as a close reflection of the science behind the formation of the reef.
It tells of two brothers who went out fishing, and were told by Bhiral, the Creator, not to hunt a particular fish. One of the brothers ignored this, spearing the fish and bringing down the wrath of Bhiral, who threw lava and hot rocks down from sky. This caused the sea to rise, and when the lava cooled it formed what is now the Great Barrier Reef.
The project is the brainchild of Cherissma Blackman, whose lineage stretches the length of the Great Barrier Reef from the Torres Strait to Bundaberg.
“I had a lot to do with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority traditional owner reference group, and a lot of elders said how they used to sit down and tell the government stories,” she told the ABC.
“They felt their stories were getting captured but being used the wrong way, and I wanted to make sure that we did get the traditional owner group stories for that area.”
When Cherissma saw the group’s 50-year strategic plan was devoid of economic development for Indigenous peoples, she decided the tour would be a “fabulous way to start to capture some of the opportunity there”.
She gained permission from her immediate Yindinji clan, her mother’s family, to use the story.
“Rekindling the language and keeping those storylines is so important, and I am just so thankful that the Gimoy Yindinji story is still there,” she said.
Ms Blackman said she felt heartened by Mr Attenborough’s acknowledgement of the story’s similarity to the scientific explanation of how the reef was formed.
“That is really, really significant to me and that just shows how the stories that were passed down from our elders is really accurate,” Ms Blackman told the ABC.
“How we pass it down is through our language and dancing, and that’s why the songlines and storylines are so important to our people.
“It also shows we know particular areas of sea and on country, and we’re the best people to protect those areas because they are part of the storylines and songlines.”
Ms Blackman, who is also Gurang and Gooreng Gooreng, met with the traditional owner groups along the Great Barrier Reef to gain support for the venture, and has run pilot tours in Gladstone, the Whitsundays and Townsville.
This has been supported by the Northern Regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation.
“As we get up along the Great Barrier Reef, there will be opportunities for tour guides to take tourists through the islands,” she said.