This is Barkandji Country, the home of the Barka, or the Darling River as it’s know to those outside the community.
The river flowed here for the first time in three years in March and the children of Wilcannia spent all their spare time swimming and fishing in it.
“When the river is here, everyone has fun, everyone goes down there 24/7,” 12-year-old Amelia Whyman tells SBS News. But now, a lot of the water is gone.
“It was boring because there is not much to do, most of the other kids just walk around doing silly things,” Amelia says.
Her sister Kathalka, 11, adds: “The river is like a gathering place, that’s where people hang out, but when there is no river there is no us”.
For the past three years, the dry riverbed has been attributed to drought, but the banks of the Barka are green this year and, according to the Department of Primary Industries, Wilcannia is no longer drought-affected.
There is some water left in the riverbed from rain, but is there no flow. Instead, the river is stagnant and algae is starting to grow.
The river is like a gathering place … when there is no river there is no us.
– Kathalka Whyman, 11
The management of the river is complex as it’s part of the Murray-Darling Basin, which crosses four states.
There is a sharing plan in place, but Uncle Owen Whyman, a Barkandji man and the father of Amelia and Kathalka, believes the town is not represented.
“As soon as the water comes, they take it for greed,” he says, pointing to irrigation use and cotton farming.
“There is a lot of cotton that is popping up around western New South Wales and it is sad because the government doesn’t know or realise what it is doing to us as Traditional Owners of the land and of the river.”
Disappointed by the slow pace of government action, Mr Whyman is taking the fight to Canberra himself by creating the Indigenous Party of Australia, described as ‘an Indigenous party run by Indigenous people to tackle Indigenous issues’ at the federal level.
Mr Whyman has run for parliament twice before as an independent but was unsuccessful.
Now, he’s working on achieving 500 members to make the party official.
It can’t be officially registered with the Australian Electoral Commission without those numbers, but he says he has seven candidates who could run in different seats.
“The government isn’t listening, so we thought ‘why don’t we start our own party?'” he says.
“If they’re not going to listen, we’ll make them listen.”
Mr Whyman would run in the seat of Parkes, which has been held by the Nationals since 2001.
‘It takes all the states’
Indigenous representation on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Board, which manages the sharing arrangement, was promised by Minister for Agriculture – and former water minister – David Littleproud, last year. But 12 months on, that position is yet to be filled.
“I understand it takes all the states,” Mr Littleproud told SBS News. “I think Minister Pitt is trying to achieve that now, where all the states agree on the successful candidate.
“That is part of how the Murray Darling plan has been structured.”
In 2018, the federal government promised $40 million for Aboriginal communities to invest in water for cultural and economic uses, but no money has been paid out to date.
In a statement provided to SBS News, the new Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia Keith Pitt said he is working on a framework for implementing the water entitlements program with Aboriginal communities.
NITV: Activists blockade Wilcannia bridge, calling for action on water management
“Aboriginal communities across the basin expressed a preference for an alternative delivery model than the one proposed,” he said.
“We are listening to those communities, have done some additional work, and will engage on an alternative delivery framework in the near future.”
A mural to start a conversation
The Barrier Highway that connects Sydney with Adelaide and the outback there, passes right through Wilcannia.
So to attract the attention of passers-by – and hopefully start a conversation about the fight for the river – a mural is being painted in town.
“I don’t think they’re going to drive past and not look in at it, because it is an eye-catcher,” Mr Whyman says.
The artist behind it is 26-year-old Newcastle-based Bronte Naylor.
She usually travels the country and the world painting large collages, but COVID-19 cancelled her 2020 plans and she agreed to come and paint for this cause.
The white hands on the right-hand side of the artwork are painted by local school students.
“Even though we only had half an hour with them, it was nice to get to know them and it gives them ownership [of the wall] as well,” she says.
The eagle is one of the totem animals for the Barkandji people; they believe when they die they turn into the eagle and fly over the land and look after one another.
Storylines like this are based around the river, and the community believes its health is important for passing knowledge on to future generations.
National NAIDOC Week was marked 8–15 November 2020 to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
See more NAIDOC Week content from SBS and NITV and for more information about NAIDOC Week or this year’s theme, head to the official NAIDOC Week website.