We Kuuku I'yu Northern Kaanju or Kaanichi Pama are 'inland' people belonging to the highlands - the mountains, tablelands and sand ridge country of central Cape York Peninsula, Northern Australia. Ngaachi refers to our 'homelands', traditional 'country' and 'home'.
Our homelands are centred on the Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers and encompass some 840,000 hectares, stretching westward from the Lockhart Valley and across the Peninsula to and including Embley Range (meeting the Wik people and the Thanakwithi people of the west coast region). Our lands extend south to the Archer River (to meet the Southern Kaanju), north along the Wenlock River to Schramm Creek, then down to the southern bank of the Olive River (to meet the Wuthathi people). The Kuuku I'yu Northern Kaanju people associated with this area comprise some 22 families from some 22 Northern Kaanju clan estates.
The Kuuku I'yu Northern Kaanju Ngaachi hold social, cultural, spiritual, historical and ecological importance for its Traditional Custodians. Our Ngaachi features 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). The deterioration of the land is felt by Pianamu, and under Northern Kaanju law if proper land management is not carried out Pianamu will not allow the land to be sustainable. Other important story places on Northern Kaanju homelands include Malandaji (Thunder, Lightening, Coming of wet season), Ching'ka (Quoll), Umaachi (Black-Headed Water Python) and Nhanthanji (Sea Eagle). We are obliged under Northern Kaanju law and custom to 'look after' our Ngaachi in a sustainable manner. In return our Stories, which are the land, will look after us physically, culturally and spiritually.
Kuuku I'yu Northern Kaanju Ngaachi feature a range of natural environments - open savanna in the west, riverine environments and extensive lagoon systems centred on the Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers, and upland tropical and sub-tropical rainforest environments along the east. There are also pockets of open bushland, sand ridge country and areas that feature vine thickets and sink holes. Further, our homelands feature vast wetland areas and riparian forests that are considered nationally important.
Our Ngaachi is rich in biodiversity, supporting a myriad of fish, bird, amphibia, reptile, mammal, insect and plant species. Our lands provide habitat for a number of rare, threatened and endangered fauna species, including the North Eastern Tree Kangaroo, the Antillopine Wallaroo (Maangkay), the Spotted Cuscus (Kulaan), the Northern Quoll (Ching'ka), the Eclectus Parrot (Piimpa), the Magnificent Rifle Bird, the Cassowary (Kutani) and the Palm Cockatoo (Kila). Further, the area of Chuulangun on the upper Wenlock has been identified as potential suitable habitat for an undescribed species, the Pseudophyrne frog. From our perspective as northern Kaanju people this frog is an important story and totem. Further, we have Stories of 'Albino' crocodiles (I'wai) and 'Lightening' and 'Rainbow' fish (Wapi) found only in the spring fed lagoons and water systems in and around the Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers.
The Kuuku I'yu Northern Kaanju people, as with Aboriginal people across Australia, have suffered immeasurably as a direct result of the colonial enterprise and associated government policies and practices. From the mid to the late 1800s our people were decimated by frontier violence - first by the gunfire of exploration parties, then by detachments of Native Police. Later we were ravaged by introduced diseases (such as influenza) to which we had no immunity. Under repressive and discriminatory legislation (notably, the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 Queensland) and official removals policy, we were taken forcibly from our traditional homelands and moved to such distant locations as Lockhart River Mission on the east coast and Cowal Creek Mission (now Injinoo) on the tip of Cape York. Many Northern Kaanju people were shifted several hundreds of kilometres away to the south to Yarrabah Mission and the then 'penal' settlement of Palm Island. A number of Northern Kaanju people walked back to their homelands on the Wenlock River only to be sent back into incarceration.
By the mid 1930s most of the Northern Kaanju population were living in reserves or missions or employed in the cattle industry or by white families in towns such as Coen. However, there were a small number of Northern Kaanju people living a mostly traditional life on their homelands at isolated camps such as at Chuula and Muula, and still others living on the fringes of white camps at the Batavia Goldfields on the Wenlock River and Sefton Creek Station on the upper Wenlock. By the mid 1950s these camps had dwindled with many Northern Kaanju people being shifted to the mission at Lockhart River. Here and at other towns and government settlements Aboriginal people's lives were controlled under the rubric of assimilation.
There is a rich oral history of this era of removals, suppression and control. Today, some Northern Kaanju people recall living in camps such as at Sefton Creek. Others remember being held at police 'holding' camps in the Wenlock area before being forced to walk to Lockhart Mission. It is for this reason that sites such as 'Clay Hole' and 'Choc-O-Block' police holding camps and Mien and Moreton Telegraph Station need to be recognised as places of historical and heritage importance to Northern Kaanju people.
After decades of living in towns and former missions and government settlements Northern Kaanju people are moving back permanently to homelands. We have re-established a community at Chuula or Chuulangun (Frilled-Neck Lizard Story), one of the Northern Kaanju clan estates on the upper reaches of the Wenlock River. Chuulangun will act as the hub for homelands development on other estates, including Pa'un, Malandaji and Muula. In 2002, families living at Chuulaestablished Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation. The purposes of our organisation are to facilitate sustainable homelands and economic development and to represent the interests of the Northern Kaanju families living at Chuulangun on land and resource management issues.
Kuuku I'yu Northern Kaanju Homelands are rich in plant, animal and mineral resources. Today, as in the past, the land and its resources provide sustenance and medicine for our people, as well as materials for traditional activities such as basket weaving and the making of implements (e.g. spear, woomera, wa'ap). As Northern Kaanju people move back permanently to homelands we are looking to our lands and our Stories to help us build an economic base in order to support our people and sustain the land into the future. We are have developed a Land and Resource Management Framework that sets out our plans for the protection of the cultural and ecological values of our homelands. The framework incorporates projects that are based on sustainable homelands and economic development, biocultural diversity protection and collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous land managers living and working on country. In 2008 we declared the Kaanju Ngaachi Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers Indigenous Protected Area on a large part of our homelands.
If our Ngaachi are not managed properly and in accordance with the Kuuku I'yu Northern Kaanju law and custom, the land and people will suffer. The deterioration of our homelands is already in evidence - severe land degradation and erosion, weed and feral animal infestation, a lack of proper fire management, and the desecration of significant cultural sites due to prolific unregulated public access are land management issues needing our immediate attention. We have developed protocols that set out rules and appropriate behavior for visitors to our homelands and we have a team of rangers working on country who are working hard to address management issues.
Our people are also suffering in the towns and communities where we were forced to live over the last century. In order to restore the environment to its sustainable state, and revive our people, proper Indigenous management needs to be re-established and acknowledged as the primary method for the management of Northern Kaanju homelands and our people need to be recognised and supported in the permanent reoccupation of homelands.