Dr Treahna Hamm opens exhibition touching on fish deaths on anniversary of apology to first nations people

EMOTIONS FLOW: Treahna Hamm's first solo exhibition at burraja galley on Gateway Island features work based on the fish deaths in the Darling River. Picture: MARK JESSER
EMOTIONS FLOW: Treahna Hamm's first solo exhibition at burraja galley on Gateway Island features work based on the fish deaths in the Darling River. Picture: MARK JESSER

Treahna Hamm remembers the roar that pierced the walls of the Australian Parliament, 11 years ago this week.

The tears flowed freely as former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd read an apology to the country's Indigenous people.

"There were aunties and uncles and people from the stolen generation, and you could hear the thousands of people outside on the lawn," Dr Hamm said.

"Kevin Rudd rose to his feet and proceeded to read the apology, and there were butterflies in my stomach and an eagerness to hear the words after all this time.

"I was happy it was done, as while I didn't have a bad experience growing up, this was a symbolic gesture towards the entire Aboriginal community of the nation."

The policymakers said sorry, but a decade on, they are still not listening when it comes to many issues.

On the anniversary of the apology on Wednesday, Dr Hamm opened her first solo exhibition at the burraja gallery at Gateway Island in Wodonga.

The Yorta Yorta artist titled it 'gulpa wala', a statement on the poor health of the Baarka (Darling River) and the subsequent fish deaths that have occurred in its waters in recent months.

"Gulpa wala translates to deep water, which leads into deep thoughts," she said.

"When I heard about the fish kills, I thought of Aunty Beryl Carmichael, an elder in Menindee who is the last speaker from her tribe.

"The river is part of her identity and she has seen the Menindee Lakes disappear over time and the land deteriorate. The river feeds into the people and it is broken, and in my work you can see the spirits in the tree trunks.

"It's the sentinels who have the knowledge to bring the river back to health again."

Dr Hamm was an artist from the moment she could hold a pencil, but it was Aunty Beryl's mentoring that helped her immerse in her culture.

"My mum and dad adopted three Aboriginal children, and my sister's family came from Mildura," she said.

Dr Hamm at the opening of a possum skin photographic exhibition in Albury in 2013.

Dr Hamm at the opening of a possum skin photographic exhibition in Albury in 2013.

"About 15 years ago I visited and met Aunty Beryl, and we connected straight away. She taught me a lot about culture, significant cultural places and how to make tree bark ink, which I use in my work.

"For me to define myself as being Aboriginal, I need to know my culture."

Dr Hamm had numerous exhibitions throughout her studies in the 1980s at Wangaratta TAFE and later, undertaking a PhD in philosophy at RMIT, but came into the media spotlight when she and two other women revitalised possum-skin cloak making.

"They were a prized possession for Aboriginal people and almost map-like when you look at the designs on them," she said.

"There's not many across the world - there was one from Moama at the Melbourne museum, and we decided to replicate it.

"There was a permanent exhibition which lasted several years at the National Museum of Australia.

"I made one based on Mungabareena Reserve, which was a trading route, and it now sits on permanent display at MAMA."

It was this possum cloak that Dr Hamm gave to Aunty Matilda House-Williams to wear for the official opening of the 42nd Federal Parliament of Australia on February 12, 2008.

"Aunty Matilda rang and asked me if I was coming to the apology, and if I had a cloak she could wear," she said.

"I went from not knowing about the apology to all of a sudden standing in Parliament in the procession behind Aunty Matilda.

"It was the day before the apology and she performed the first ever welcome to country at Federal Parliament."

Later that year the 'Close the Gap' initiative was established, setting out targets to improve the discrepancy between the life expectancy and health of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The latest report on those targets was released on Thursday, showing progress in only two areas - to enroll 95 per cent of Indigenous four-year-olds in early childhood education by 2025, and to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020.

The state of the other targets was described as "unforgivable" by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Halving the gap in both child mortality rates and in school attendance was meant to be achieved by 2018, but both targets are still "not on track".

LEFT: Kevin Rudd's apology to Indigenous people on February 13, 2008 is an event Dr Hamm will not forget.

LEFT: Kevin Rudd's apology to Indigenous people on February 13, 2008 is an event Dr Hamm will not forget.

Life expectancy at birth has improved, but the gap is not on track to be closed by 2031, with the life expectancy for Indigenous men currently 8.6 years less than non-Indigenous men, and 7.8 years less for Indigenous women.

Dr Hamm sees how these numbers translate to injustice in the real world constantly.

"It hasn't felt like 10 years at all; I can still remember the moment I found my traditional birth certificate before I met my Aboriginal mother," she said.

"I have 60 first cousins and about five or six of us were taken in the 1960s.

"I was lucky I ended up living back where my family came from and I met my natural mum in 1997, but unfortunately my brother and sister could not, as she passed away at 51.

"My father who adopted me died at 92, and my mum is still going strong at 90 and a half.

"Closing the gap is there in everything, and people can say 'sorry', but words without deeds are worthless."

Dr Hamm believes the government needs to listen to the first nations people about the Baarka and the thousands of fish deaths that have devastated all Australians.

"It's desert country, and with the changing climate we need to reassess variations in weather and farming practises, and not be greedy," she said.

"When you make waterways political it doesn't work, and it hasn't worked.

"Everyone's aware of how important the river is, no matter where they live.

"There's knowledge that exists of how to regenerate the river but for the elders to talk, they need to be given respect first."

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Dr Hamm's sentiments are echoed by the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, a group that represents 24 nations including the Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta.

Executive officer Will Mooney said elders living on the river consider the conditions of the river and the fish deaths, although exacerbated by drought and heat, as not naturally-occurring.

"It's convenient for governments to say 'This is a result of the drought and we can't do anything about it', but the science and community knowledge is telling us something different," he said.

"Yes, at a time of drought there are low flows, but the elders are saying there would usually still be deep-water holes in the river that the bigger fish could seek refuge in.

"They are saying this has never happened before, that it's a completely unprecedented situation, where there's been mass deaths of particularly the older Murray cod.

"The river is sick, and the people are sick and feel at a loss. 

"It's hard for non-Indigenous people to perhaps understand the depth of that connection at times."

An estimated one million fish died in a single weekend at Menindee in January

An estimated one million fish died in a single weekend at Menindee in January

The call for governments to listen to elders leads into an ongoing campaign by MLDRIN to increase the role of first nations people in water management.

"We're arguing for the rights of Aboriginal people to own a share of the water as well, just like an irrigator can," Mr Mooney said.

"We talk about cultural flows; the inherent right of Aboriginal people to own water on their own country.

"It's a way to address the cultural and ecological impact we're seeing at the moment, but also to provide self-determination of Indigenous nations."

Mr Mooney said the release of a five-year research project last year provided a tool for determining how much water would be needed for cultural flows.

"We're starting to roll that out, but the other side of it is we need government to commit to providing water allocation where we can identify those needs," he said.

"There has been $40 million given for traditional owners' water entitlements, but when you spread that funding across 40 Indigenous nations, in a competitive market, it comes down to not being enough.

"That funding is a step in the right direction, but we're arguing for a bigger policy shift.

"We still need a braver commitment by government to properly recognise their rights."

Curator and Wiradjuri woman Bethany Thorber with Dr Hamm

Curator and Wiradjuri woman Bethany Thorber with Dr Hamm

When the land is so intrinsically intertwined in the health and well-being of Indigenous people, the government can not work towards 'closing the gap' without respecting and empowering their views on how water is managed.

Dr Hamm spoke about the need for governments at all levels to value their Indigenous communities on Wednesday at a morning tea with local councils present.

"That sort of event means a lot to people like myself and shows that the councils take it seriously," she said.

"I think Albury-Wodonga is a wonderful place and that the councils have led the way as far as having good relationships with Aboriginal people go, and with employment and projects.

"I think it's important to hand down culture and knowledge, and I do it through art and education."

  • gulpa wala, curated by Murray Arts Aboriginal Arts Curator Bethany Thorber, is showing until April 16. Situated on Gateway Island, burraja gallery is the only dedicated Aboriginal arts gallery in the region. The work of Phil Murray and Brendan Kennedy is also on display.