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River dance rises in the West

Wednesday, 25th September, 2019

Bruce Shillingsworth in Sydney. PICTURE: “Water for Rivers” Bruce Shillingsworth in Sydney. PICTURE: “Water for Rivers”

By Craig Brealey

Large corroborees not seen in living memory will be held along the Darling next week to show the world how Australia treats its rivers.

“This will be an historical event, like the Freedom Rides in 1969,” said Aboriginal activist and dancer Bruce Shillingsworth, who will be joined by dancers from all over the nation and about 150 Sydneysiders.

A convoy of buses and cars will leave Sydney on Saturday for a tour downriver from Walgett to give support and bring hope to the beleaguered towns along its stretch.

The Sydney people, ranging in age from three to 81, will stop at towns to meet the locals, and each night Aboriginal dancers will hold a corroboree on the river bank.

It is called the ‘Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival’ and is an Aboriginal ‘welcome to the river’.

The visitors will be in Walgett on Saturday, Brewarrina on Sunday, Bourke on Monday, Wilcannia on Tuesday and will finish on Wednesday in Menindee.

The protest tour has been arranged by “Water for Rivers” which was formed in Sydney in January after the mass fish kills at Menindee, and Walgett ran dry, even though it is at the junction of two rivers.

“We are slightly overwhelmed at the response,” said one of the organisers, Rachel Evans. 

“There will be about 150 people coming, at least,” Ms Evans said yesterday.

“Two buses have been booked and we’re looking to hire a third because we ran out of tickets and there’s a waiting list.

“There’s also about 50 people, young families, coming by car.”

Other protestors included Aboriginal elders, students and “a lot of older women,” said Ms Evans.

“We have environmental campaigners and others who have never been in any campaign at all,” she said.

Ms Evans said Mr Shillingsworth, originally from Brewarrina, now living in Sydney, was the man behind the plan.

“It was his idea for this bus tour and to have the corroboree festival every night.”

Mr Shillingsworth said the catastrophe at Menindee in December and January inspired him to act in the way that Charlie Perkins did when he led the Freedom Ride on buses in 1969 to win Aboriginal people the vote.

“All those fish kills and the river drying out, that got the ball rolling,” he said.

The numbers on the tour will be boosted by about Aboriginal 20 dance groups getting involved along the way, and each comprised about 20 members, he said.

“They’re coming from the Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Canberra and Melbourne.

“Bourke’s also got about 20 dancers and the same in Wilcannia.

“People can’t wait for us to get out there. Most of the First Peoples of NSW are in the river towns and they’re suffering.

“The rivers and the chemicals in them from the irrigators are making people sick, and where you’ve got sick people, you’ve got a sick community.

“I believe there is corruption in the government and they should be held to account. Overseas companies now own 70 to 80 per cent of our rivers.

“We want to send the message to all people in Australia and across the world that the water must be put back in our rivers.”

The dances will be held about 6pm - in Wilcannia by the Victory Caravan Park, and at Lake Pamamaroo by the Burke and Wills campsite.

Everyone was welcome, Mr Shillingsworth said.

“We want to bring back our cultural traditions and give non-Indigenous people an education.” 

“Water for Rivers” has held two protests in Sydney this year and helped supply drinking water to dry towns, Ms Evans said.

“I’ve done research into who is doing what on the Murray-Darling and that got me interested in this project,” she said.

“We are in this mess because big agricultural companies and government have colluded to steal the water from the rivers and put it in their dams.

“Seventy per cent of the water licences in the Murray-Darling Basin are owned by two businesses.

“(Ex-Prime Minister) John Howard privatised water in 2004 and since then government has solidified this corrupt process.

“It is an absolute disaster and government, state and federal, is doing nothing about it.

“There was a flow in the system recently in the Namoi but that only lasted a small amount of time before it was bled dry again.

“We’ve got towns with zero water and still the government and the bureaucracy do nothing but blow hot air.”

The “Water for Rivers” tour is being backed by the Brewarrina, Walgett and Central Darling Shire councils, Maari Ma, Museum and Galleries NSW, the Jimmy Little Foundation, Aboriginal Culture, Heritage and Arts Association, and the Maritime Union of Australia.

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