My name is George Skeene, I am a Yirrganydji elder. Our traditional country lies along the coastal plains from Cairns to Port Douglas. The Yirrganydji people are one of the eighteen Aboriginal tribal groups whose country lies within the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The Wet Tropics Management Authority and the Yirrganydji people have been working together for many years to preserve and document our history.
My story begins in March 1998 when the Yirrganydji people were handed tenure to seven hectares of their traditional lands at Wangetti Beach. The Wangetti Land Trust manages the land to this day. This was the first time Aboriginal people had been given back their land in the Wet Tropics region – a very significant step towards reconciliation.
For me, however, it was not just getting the land back, it was the personal significance of the gesture. The handover gave me the motivation to gather my cultural heritage from other Yirrganydji people and places of significance. It re-ignited my personal journey of discovery.
Later that year, after researching at the Cairns Historical Society, I found out that an eminent German anthropologist, Prof Hermann Klaatsch, visited the region in the early 1900s and may have taken artefacts back home. My curiosity aroused, I then travelled to Germany to the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne and uncovered ten Yirrganydji artefacts from lower Barron River which I then researched and catalogued. Negotiations are continuing for the artefacts to be returned to the Yirrganydji people.
In 1999 I undertook a cultural heritage project for the Yirrganydji people between Ellis Beach and Yule Point. German anthropologist, Dr Margaret Bruell, volunteered her time as the official photographer and together we documented many cultural sites in this area.
Since then I have worked with many government agencies to document our traditional country, particularly the Wangetti Beach area. Uncovering this traditional cultural knowledge has helped to manage many significant sites. Also, as part of the Wangetti Recovery Team, we have developed recreational areas, replanted coastal dunes and reduced impacts. As one of the Traditional Owners for the area, I was asked to write the pre-history of Wangetti. It is a story of survival and adversity and outlines the importance of the Wangetti Beach area to our people.
Today I remain very passionate about documenting my people’s cultural heritage and stories within the Wet Tropics. The learning and sharing of this knowledge is important for the future. I want to leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren.
My love of recording our Yirrganydji cultural heritage has also led me to write about my own journey. Many people have written about the Aboriginal Reserves and Camps in Cairns from the outside looking in but this is written from the inside looking out. Even though the reserves and camps do not exist today, my and others’ memories remain. By telling my story, I hope that other people will come forward and write about their memories. We all have a story to tell.
George grew up in two Aboriginal Camps and Reserves in Cairns from 1948 to 1959. He is a descendant of the Yirrganydji, Wakaman and Birri Gia tribes. In 1998 George travelled to Germany and researched Aboriginal artefacts from the Cairns area, collected during the 19th century and stored in museums across Germany. In 2003 George received a Cassowary Award as an Unsung Hero for documenting his culture. He currently volunteers at the Cairns Historical Society, schools and James Cook University, and still works with government agencies for the betterment of the Yirrganydji people. In September 2008 he published his biography – ‘Two Cultures: Children from the Aboriginal Camps and Reserves in Cairns City’.
Campbell grew up in Victoria and moved to the Northern Territory in 1986. He worked primarily in outdoor education, tourism, Aboriginal training and land management. In 2000 he moved to Cairns and has worked with the Wet Tropics Management Authority as a planner and in community relations.
Steven is a professional photographer who specialises in Australian wilderness. His collection also includes images of environmental destruction and degradation, along with conservation initiatives to preserve and protect our dwindling wilderness. Steven has his own photographic publishing business in Cairns and publishes wilderness posters, postcards, bookmarks, calendars and photographic prints. In 2003 Steven launched a wonderfully elegant and powerful photographic art book about Hinchinbrook Island. In 2004 he worked with the Kuku Yalanji people on a book promoting Aboriginal culture and fire management. During 2005 and 2006 Steven was invited to perform photographic assignments in Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea highlighting the development of the Millenium Development Goals.
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