All photography by Charlotte Wighton.
Earlier this year, we experienced the largest flood in colonial history. When it hit us, it hit hard. The rain started falling on February 28 and continued to fall, heavy and constant. Here in Northern NSW, the waters rose and the rain didn’t stop. By March 1 the region was devastated. There wasn’t much time to think; everyone responded instinctively with their skill sets. I am a proud Bundjalung woman and I knew that in a time like this I had to support my community. Of course, right? Yes, but beyond that, if we didn’t support them, who would?
Historically, the relationship in this country between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people has been bleak to say the least. It began with the land being stolen, an attempted genocide of our peoples, and children and women being taken away from families and communities.
Today, not much is different. The land is still stolen, the genocide continues and the government is still taking our children away. The pressure of the dominant culture impacts our ability to practice culture. We are denied access to land and denied basic access to affordable healthy foods. Things haven’t changed in this country, and why would they when it is still being run by the colonisers? It's time to turn the tables. Indigenous people deserve respectable roles in our society. They deserve to be leaders and they will lead better than we will ever know. Just look at the example of the Koori Mail Flood Hub.
“The Koori Mail Flood hub provided a safe base with food, cleaning resources and equipment, shared with all and any to revive what was left of peoples’ homes,” offers photographer Charlotte Wighton. “It provided safety for many in the community with arms wide open for all.”
Based in Lismore, The Koori Mail is the oldest black-owned newspaper in Australia; 30 years Indigenous-owned and run. During the floods, the newspaper’s offices became a central point for local flood relief efforts. The all-First-Nations-led flood hub was set up by Naomi Moran and Amarina Toby, then Kirilly Dawn and I joined forces. There was a collective understanding that we were the only ones who could look after our Indigenous communities. We knew who they were and where they were.
Many of my family live on Country, inland from Cavanbah (Byron Bay) and were cut off for weeks, with bridges impassable and landslides cutting roads. Kirilly and I called on our neighbouring coastal communities for support. Friends from Byron, Mullum and beyond poured into the hub. That’s when the work really began.
What started as a group of local women, a whiteboard and a marquee, quickly grew with volunteers to lead the Northern Rivers community relief effort. [Right] Kirilly Dawn, Naomi Moran, Ella Noah Bancroft and Amarina Toby outside the Koori Mail office.
Firstly, you have to understand that many Indigenous people in Australia live in communities on the fringes of towns or small cities. They are remote and were established as ‘missions’ during the colonial invasion, a place where they would herd up Aboriginal families, women and children and attempt to assimilate them. Many of those communities are still there today, just minus the mission manager.
When I was younger I went to a mission school. I grew up on Country. I felt what it was like to be on the fringes of the town, to be isolated and under-resourced. Sometimes I would feel like me and my family were the forgotten people, an hour’s drive from shops, doctors and high schools.
Many non-Indigenous Australians do not even know these communities exist all along the east coast of Australia. Given this lack of knowledge around where Indigenous people live in the Northern Rivers, we knew that we had to contact the missions ourselves and see if people were resourced. During the floods the forgotten ones were our key priority.
During the floods the forgotten ones were our key priority.
Imagine a world where men in uniform are listening to and respecting the guidance of Indigenous women – it became reality on this day.
The Koori Mail Flood Hub’s collective knowledge of Country and community proved invaluable when coordinating rescue and relief efforts with other groups.
The Koori Mail flood hub started with a humble marquee and a table, but quickly took on a life of its own. We had our Indigenous community join our team, take off their government uniforms and stand in support and action. The red tape around these systems prevents those who are paid with taxpayer money from activating their services and making the critical impact needed in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
So many of our Indigenous community arrived at the Koori Mail offices to access the donations we had received and services we had set up. We took supplies out to cut-off towns south of Lismore, to Indigenous women who’d reached out via social media. Boats loaded with supplies travelled upriver, while Kirilly Dawn organised helicopter drops to remote communities.
We spoke to my 65-year-old Aunty Carol who told us one of our community men was stuck on one side of the Washpool River, 20 minutes outside of a mission called Baryulgil where I grew up and went to school. The bridge across the river had been completely swept away. He was trapped and if we hadn’t contacted Aunty Carol, he might never have been found. Aunty Carol told us she’d never been better looked after than when we were organising community drops for her. When the telecommunications went down during the floods, we still activated as communities and in old ways of communication. This is what happens when Mob look after Mob.
Our hub was First Nations and female-led to begin, then our brothers showed up and did the heavy lifting, literally. There was a truth in the fact that not one person did more than another, and no one person was getting the applause. We were all in it together. We all recognised the beautiful blanket we were weaving with our different skill sets and how that blanket gave great care and warmth to Lismore and the surrounding communities.
The Koori Mail Flood Hub was a brilliant example of black excellence. There was no boss, just a group of First Nations people working together, leading a bunch of non-Indigenous people through a disaster recovery response. We had non-Indigenous women crying in our arms, saying they never felt such belonging at our hub, because our hub was for everyone. It was inviting and empowered our people to see it being run by their own.
In daily life, Kirilly Dawn is a doula and embodiment practitioner. At the Koori Mail flood hub, she organised helicopter rescue missions.
This right here, this is how we reconcile in this country. It’s time for non-Indigenous people to take a back seat and be led by our First Nations leaders. Indigenous people deserve to be in positions of power because it's how we stop the dominant culture from destroying our lands, waters and planet. It's not really about power, it’s about protocol.
Honestly, I have seen the best in humanity since my involvement in the front-line flood support and my hope and happiness was constantly reignited by the overwhelming support, love and care that our community gave. It was like overnight all the politics went out the window, a bridge was made between rich and poor, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and between Liberals, Labor and Greens. All worked together for the common good to care and love one another.
The Koori Mail flood hub instilled a real-life experience of how many hands make light work and showed the true power of people in numbers. This is how the old people would have done it – together – and this is how we save the world from destruction. We give the power over to people who aren't going to abuse it.
This is how the old people would have done it – together – and this is how we save the world from destruction.
The ground floor office of the Koori Mail didn’t escape the floodwater.
Around 50 years ago we moved into a new geologic era, a time known as the Anthropocene, an era of human hierarchy across the entire planet. When we value fast-paced societies, cities pathed with concrete, apartment blocks, production lines and fashion trends that change weekly over the need for clean water ways, community living, long-lasting products and things crafted from natural materials then we are moving in the wrong direction.
Could this mindset, these systems of living, these dominant cultures, values and morals be the reason we are all so sick? Could these ways of living in the world be the cause of floods, fires and pandemics? I believe so. Communities all around the world are experiencing natural disasters due to overdevelopment, sea rise, poor fire management and development on flood plains. Most of the communities first affected by climate change are Indigenous communities.
Our ancestors cared for the whole world and when they created and designed, they did it with more than their human kin in mind. We are naturally beings of relation and migration, following the seasons and making home for some time and then holidaying in other areas as the rain or sun falls. The mullet season might bring us to the shoreline for big feasts, while in the hotter months we might retreat to the freshwater hinterlands. Nature is constantly in motion, as we should be. Stagnancy in water and in humans can lead to disease.
We have to return to societies that are not human centric, individualistic and hierarchical. My ancestors knew their purpose here on earth was to be in the right relationship. When we create for just one species, for just one way of being in the world, we end up destroying the rest of it.
There has never been a better time for us to reassess the situation and embrace the change. The choices we all make every day can help to change the future of our planet. But how do we move with hope in our hearts, when the world is on fire or flooding?
But how do we move with hope in our hearts, when the world is on fire or flooding?
The Koori Mail flood hub might have been Indigenous-led and run but was open to all in need.
This country is riddled with a disease that the European invaders brought with them on those boats in 1788 – the disease of individualism. I am a big believer that to heal Country we must first heal the community, and a big part of healing community is showing up and supporting people so they feel heard, seen, protected and safe. Healing community means trusting in others, and giving power over to those who care, those who are there to stand for their community and not for themselves.
Communities like mine are screaming to the rest of the world to wake up. We need a power change, a political change, a healing. Our governments do not work, they do not come in a time of crisis and they perpetuate the capitalist, colonial ways that have caused so much harm in such little time.
The planet is crying, and her tears destroyed our communities and many people's lives. She pleads for her children to return to a world of reciprocity, to return to the ways of living as a collective, empowering communities not individuals, and reclaiming our knowledge systems. There is a silver lining in every story, and my time at the Koori Mail has shown me more than anything that we can make change when we work together. We rose above and we stood up with love in our hearts.
Learn more about the Koori Mail here.