Topic: Water for Remote First Nations Communities in Australia

After decades of living in towns and former missions and government settlements, our Northern Kaanju people moved back permanently to Country.

Inhabitants of the homelands

We, the Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju people, are ‘inland’ people belonging to the highlands – the mountains, tablelands and sand ridge country of central Cape York Peninsula. 

Our homelands are centred on the Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers and encompass some 840,000 hectares Range (meeting the Wik people and the Thanakwithi people of the west coast region).  The Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju people associated with this area comprise some 22 families from some 22 Northern Kaanju clan estates. 

The Ngaachi (homelands) 

Our Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju Ngaachi (homelands) hold social, cultural, spiritual, historical and ecological importance for its Traditional Custodians.  

Our homelands feature many significant Story (or dreaming) places, as well as sacred ceremonial grounds, totemic sites and areas of rock carving and painting.  

The Wenlock River has enormous cultural significance as the Creator of all of Northern Kaanju homelands under the umbrella of Pianamu (Rainbow Serpent).  

Reoccupation of Homelands 

In the 1980s, after decades of living in towns and former missions and government settlements, our Northern Kaanju people moved back permanently to Country. They re-established a community at Chuulangun (Frilled-Neck Lizard Story), one of the Northern Kaanju clan estates on the upper reaches of the Wenlock River.  

Today, Chuulangun acts as the hub for a number of homeland developments. 

In 2002, families living at Chuulangun established Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation to facilitate sustainable homelands and economic development and to represent people’s interests on land and resource management issues. 

Location 

Chuulangun is located on sand ridge country on the bottom of an extensive freshwater mountain spring-fed lagoon system, a 3-hour drive from the Cape York communities of Lockhart River, Weipa and Coen.  

Chuulangun lies within the boundary of the former Lockhart River Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) lands, which in 2001 were transferred back to the Traditional Owner groups under the Aboriginal Land Act 1991 (Queensland) as Aboriginal Freehold under the Mangkuma Land Trust. 

Chuulangun Community 

Chuulangun has a permanent ‘dry season’ population of 20 people, and a ‘wet season residency’ of 11 people. This number would be much higher if there were no access issues during the wet season (road conditions affected by wet conditions). During the dry, there is limited transport and accommodation options which also affects the number of residents.Despite this situation, the population tends to increase during weekends and school holidays (dry season). On several occasions Chuulangun has accommodated up to 50 people. 

Due to its central location, visits are high and an estimated 200 individuals each year ‘drop in’ on their way to and from communities and towns in the region, in particular, Coen and Lockhart River, where several Northern Kaanju people and extended families reside. Some may stay for a short visit, while others camp for a day or two. 

 The Early Years 

The development of Chuulangun as a vibrant, viable homelands community today is a testimony to the commitment and hard work of a core of Northern Kaanju people, who from the early 1970s struggled for recognition as Northern Kaanju Traditional Owners and strove to return to homelands on a permanent basis.

Our people had to ask permission to access our own traditional lands, and in the early 1990s permission was finally granted from the local Aboriginal Community Council, who was then the land ‘owner’, to set up a permanent ‘outstation’. 

In the early years, there was very little support from government for ‘decentralisation’, as government called it, yet our people struggled enthusiastically with minimal resources to rebuild a community on homelands. We used resources immediately available to us, including bush timber and corrugated iron supplied by a neighbouring family on a cattle station to whom we have close social ties. During this early period, power was supplied by generator and the only means of communication was UHF radio. 

In the late 1980s, Chuulangun was occupied for two wet seasons under harsh conditions. On a number of occasions one ‘oldfella’ had to swim the flooded Wenlock River and walk several kilometres to collect mail and basic supplies from the closest airstrip at Orchid Creek Station. 

Infrastructure

From the mid to late 1990s, a number of infrastructures was set up including sheds, house extensions, kitchens, septic toilets, showers and laundry. Water for drinking, cooking and bathing is pumped from the nearby lagoon. During this early period power was supplied by diesel and petrol run generators. 

Some of this infrastructure was acquired via funding from the former Queensland Department of Community Services and a piecemeal was funded through the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

In recent years, the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation has secured funding under the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs to construct modular houses to accommodate the Chuulangun Rangers.

Communications 

In 2000, the first community communication system was installed, which included a permanent telephone and satellite dish to access the free-to-air television and radio stations. Broadband satellite Internet access was established in September 2002. 

These communication facilities and services have been very important for the growth of our community, and for the operation of the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation (formed in 2002).  

In 2008, wireless Internet was set up for the ranger office and school room under the then Australian Broadband Guarantee. 

In 2010, a community phone was installed under the Commonwealth Indigenous Communications Program. In 2013, Wi-Fi internet was also set up on the community phone for community use. 

Solar Power 

In 2004, a Bushlight Household Renewable Energy System was set up for one household. The system was established under the Bushlight Program and funded through the former ATSIC. Prior to the establishment of the Bushlight System, the community relied completely on diesel and petrol run generators that were very expensive to run and maintain. 

In 2009, Bushlight undertook planning activities with the whole community to upgrade the system to accommodate additional houses, ranger work shed and the ranger office. The new community system was installed in September 2010.

Credits

This case study is a summary of the information publicly available from the Kaanju Homelands website: https://www.kaanjungaachi.com.au/index.htm

This case study was also published in the Closing the Water – for People and Communities – Gap report, a review on the management of drinking water supplies in First Nations remote communities around Australia, November, 2022. The full report can be found here.