Mirning elder and whalesong man, Uncle Bunna became a totem figure in the campaign to save the Great Australian Bight.
Talking with Bunna Lawrie, the word goonminyerra repeats throughout the conversation. It’s a word used by the Mirning people of the Great Australian Bight to describe a sense of gratitude to country and everything that lives on it. The word dates back before time.
Part temporal, part spiritual, goonminyerra doesn’t translate directly from Mirrdinjar into English, but Uncle Bunna explains it this way. “It’s about respecting and honouring the land and the sea and sharing it with everything that lives around you. Everything that lives on the land and in the sea, we respect it. It’s about looking after the Great Creator’s creations.” This goonminyerra has been driving Bunna Lawrie to tell the story of his country since he was a young man. He wants others to understand and appreciate it the way he does. In recent years, however, it’s also been driving him to defend his country from threats posed by the modern world.
Uncle Bunna watches a whale pass by at the edge of the Great Australian Bight. Photo: Sea Shepherd.
Mirning country stretches from Point Culver in the west to the Head of the Bight in the east, right across the Eucla and the famous Bunda Cliffs. It’s a vast, crescent-shaped sweep of coastline where the ancient Australian continent falls abruptly into the Southern Ocean. This is an old coast. Bunna talks of a “time before the sea” when ocean levels were lower and his ancestors would venture out into the Bight. “They’d head out in bark canoes to fish and collect fish and shellfish… bush tucker from the sea. Our people get medicine from the sea as well.” When the sea pushed back in he tells of them paddling canoes into long tunnels carved beneath the cliffs by the Southern Ocean to trap fish and penguin. Today, apart from the occasional van pulling off the Nullarbor to break the drive, most of this coastline stands empty. If you sit on the cliffs and watch it for long enough however, you can feel the ghosts of the ancients still walking it.
Bunna Lawrie was born in the Koonibba mission, a small aboriginal community in the Bight, and was initiated at an early age into Mirning law. “That Nullarbor was my university. I’m grateful and I show my gratitude that I grew up as a Mirning boy. I’ve been through a lot of initiations with my Mirning elders and uncles. My grandfather was a big chief. He was the law man. He carried the bag, the ceremony bag. Now I’m a senior elder and also a medicine man myself.” Goonminyerra, again. “I’m grateful for this connection to the land and the ocean. It’s a gift and we share it, not only just with indigenous people.”
"My ancestors have been the keepers of that beautiful coast for 3000 generations... For you guys to come down and try to destroy it is so wrong."
The story of Jeedara, the Great White Whale is central to Mirning lore. “He’s the totem, the creator of all the whales. The Seven Sisters, they didn’t like him at first but he sprayed them and put his magic on them and they looked at him again and thought he looked handsome. They fell in love with him, and the Mirning people, we all became the children as well as the other whales.” Mirning country is whale country. The whales are womooum – “belonging as family” to the Mirning. Bunna is a whalesong man. “When you sing they come to you and they join in with you. We have the same law as the whale. My grandmother used to say they’re like policemen of the sea. They deal with law and order out there. If a shark attacks a dolphin, the whale will chase him away and give him a slap with the tail.” The whales of the Bight are sacred to the Mirning people. In recent times they’ve also become sacred to the campaign to save the Bight.
At the Torquay Fight For The Bight paddle-out protest as part of the National Day of Action, November 23, 2019. Photo: Jarrah Lynch.
Bunna Lawrie first became aware of oil and gas exploration along the Mirning coast, “maybe 10 or 12 years ago. They were drilling in the Bight and one of the drills broke and stuck in the rock in the seabed. The one that blew up. We didn’t even know about it before then. The government is saying we’re running out of oil but it’s deep and treacherous waters out there. You’ve got five different currents coming from all directions and they become powerful, they turn into a vortex. And if these people dig that hole, they do not know what they’re unearthing. They could release demons from the past, from the dinosaur age. They’re releasing this poison from the past up into the middle of all this new life.”
The threat to the Bight escalated in 2012, when a new series of offshore oil and gas exploration permits were granted, attracting multinational giants including BP and Chevron. The Fight for the Bight had begun. The Great Australian Bight Alliance brought together an unlikely collective of conservation groups, Bight locals, fishermen, surfers and traditional owners to protect it. Uncle Bunna soon became the spiritual leader of the group, a voice who could not only speak of the significance of the Bight to his people, but to all Australians.
As a younger man, Bunna Lawrie had fronted Coloured Stone, a rock band he’d formed in Koonibba in the early ‘80s. With hits like Black Boy and Dancing in the Moonlight, Coloured Stone were a big deal. They sang about indigenous issues, with an indigenous sound, and along with the Warumpi Band (and later Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust album) they gave mainstream Australia a sense of life out on country and the plight of Aboriginal Australians. Bunna’s music bridged a huge cultural divide and continues to do so today. “My music has been my angel,” he offers. “Without my music and my culture, I wouldn’t be here today.”
A talented musician, Uncle Bunna fronted Coloured Stone in the '80s. Photo: Hallvard Kolltveit.
After seeing off BP and Chevron, there was a brief window of hope for Bight campaigners before Norwegian fossil fuel giant Equinor showed up. Equinor however was a unique company. Two-thirds state-owned, they were accountable to the Norwegian people. If hearts and minds in Norway could be swayed, the Bight could be saved. A delegation from the Bight Alliance travelled to Stavange, Norway in May last year to present their case to the Equinor AGM. For Uncle Bunna, it felt a long way from his home in the Bight.
“Norway was amazing for me – a bit strange – but there were some really good people we met. I spoke to the company. They were bragging, ‘We mined 20 oil wells in the Arctic’ like they’d just shot a giraffe or an elephant and were taking a photo with it. I said, ‘Mate, you know, you people don’t understand.’ I got up and I talked and said, ‘My ancestors have been the keepers of that beautiful coast for 3000 generations and they’ve cared for it, and that’s why it looks pristine today. For you guys to come down and try to destroy it is so wrong.’ And their heads all dropped. They dropped to the table. They never forgot me after that.”
Uncle Bunna led an envoy to Norway to urge Equinor to reconsider it's Bight drill plans in early 2019. Photo: Hallvard Kolltveit.
The campaign to save the Bight then circumnavigated the Australian coast, with a rolling series of paddle-outs and protests. Uncle Bunna was on the road again. At paddle-outs he’d address the crowd wearing white ochre face paint and his ceremonial white cockatoo feather to talk story, talk country, and deliver an impassioned plea on behalf of the Bight. He was able to create a sense of the Bight for people who’d never been down there. He was the bridge, both culturally and geographically. “When I did the paddle-outs in Torquay and St Kilda I said, ‘Come over, brothers and sisters and I’ll paint you.’ When I was putting the white ochre on their faces some of them were in tears. They just couldn’t believe it. They felt connected. Come and join me. Be a protector and a custodian. In time, you want your children to enjoy the beautiful sea like we have, so we all need to be custodians now.”
Despite the Bight campaign engaging hundreds of thousands of people and becoming the largest collective environmental action ever seen on the Australian coast, there was a sense of inevitability that Equinor would win. The deck was always stacked in their favour. In November 2019, Equinor were given formal approval to drill in the Bight.
On February 25 this year however, without notice, Equinor pulled out. Bunna remembers hearing the news. “I’d been down and out,” he recalls. “Then I saw that message and it made my day. I had a sore ankle and after that I went for a walk I forgot about my twisted ankle. I didn’t feel any pain. I walked around with tears in my eyes. It was pure joy.” At the time The Wilderness Society South Australia Equinor cited commercial reasons for pulling out of the Bight, but the significance of the Bight to its traditional owners had begun to weigh heavily on them. We’ve got Uncle Bunna to thank for that.
The ceremony before the Torquay paddle-out on November 23, 2019. Photo: Jarrah Lynch.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done. We made Equinor change their minds.” Bunna pauses for a second to contemplate higher powers at work. “You know, you do something good and it comes back to you. The ancestors and the Great Creator reward you in a very mysterious way. ‘Why did Equinor change their minds?’ We must have done something good. This is what Jeedara sees.”
As for what’s next, Bunna is now leading a campaign to have the Bight listed for World Heritage status, protecting it forever. “We’re pushing hard to get it listed as a World Heritage site and I think it deserves that. It doesn’t deserve oil in the sea.” He’s also continuing his Caretakers for the Great Australian Bight campaign to have the Bight recognised under Australian Native Title law, adding another layer of protection. “It’s a very special place the Great Australian Bight. The Great Creators have given us this beautiful gift, and me and my elders, we have a responsibility to it. We’ve been doing it for a long time.” Bunna knows however that in the modern world it will take more to save it. “We need more custodians. It’s our duty now to make it their duty as well, the people who show love and care for the Bight. There are lots of them out there. I’ve seen them. Thousands of them, all around the country. They’re now the custodians of the Bight as well as the whale people. They need to help protect it.”
Banner image – Photo: @saltywings.