Connecting to Country and culture
Minda Murray has been preparing to bring Indigenous knowledge and Western science together her whole life, Jessica Fagan writes.
Minda Murray has always been a wearer of many hats — Aboriginal ranger, firefighter, elite cyclist, environmental scientist, policy worker. But for the proud Yorta Yorta and Duduroa woman, the connection to culture and Country has been a constant.
Her family moved to the Dharnya Centre in the middle of Victoria’s Barmah Forest when Murray was just five, after spending time on an Aboriginal mission. This is where her real interest in Country took off.
“I’m extremely fortunate to have been able to learn about and celebrate my culture right from the get go. There are some Aboriginal people who aren’t so lucky to live on Country,” Murray says.
“School kids would come to the Dharyna Centre to learn about nature and Indigenous culture and I got to live there, on the campgrounds, with my dad working as a site manager.
“It was an incredible time, I got to be surrounded by and immersed in nature. I could really connect myself with Country there — it was a place alive with energy.”
These early experiences established a need to care for Country that has continued through Murray’s adult life, and led her to a new position at ANU.
Murray’s role at the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research is twofold — she is working as a First Nations Research Associate while completing her PhD.
Her move to Canberra was delayed by COVID-19, but Murray says it was a blessing in disguise, allowing her to spend precious time on Country again.
“I was moving up from Victoria, so I stopped at Mum and Dad’s near the border and got caught by the travel restrictions. I did my first eight or nine months at ANU remotely — so it was an interesting start! But it gave me time to reconnect.
“Mum and Dad’s place is where it all started for me really, so I don’t think I could’ve made the move to Canberra and taken on something this big without having that time first.”
It’s fitting then that Murray’s research will focus on Victoria, and in particular Aboriginal self-determination there.
She says the southern state is actually making great strides in terms of Indigenous recognition. She’s interested in what that looks like in a practical sense, and how First Nations peoples are responding.
“First Nations peoples in Victoria have been governing themselves successfully for thousands of years — we’ve just had particular challenges placed upon us.
“For example, when it comes to things like cultural burning, there’s a rhetoric of ‘we want to allow Aboriginal people to be more self-determining’, but immediately there’s a barrier there because government policy says to light a fire on public land you have to tick all these boxes — you have to be a fully-fledged firefighter and have a medical from an approved doctor.
“At the end of the day we’re talking about cultural burning, using traditional methods from our ancestors. We’re just looking after our Country and connecting to our ancestors.”
Murray is interested in what’s being done to remove these structural barriers and how the narrative of Indigenous self-determination is changing.
We’re just looking after our Country and connecting to our ancestors.
“We’ve had to change our systems to fit around a settler society government, so I’m also really interested in our response, now that government is trying to change the way it works to accommodate our systems.”
Murray says she feels like she’s been preparing for this opportunity to bring Indigenous knowledge and Western science together her whole life, starting her apprenticeship as that young kid on Country in regional Victoria.
“My dad was an Aboriginal ranger for a long time, so when it came to choose a career, I was always going to go down the environmental science path. After I finished university there was a period of time where Dad was the ranger on the Victorian side of the Murray River and I was on the NSW side — so the Murrays had the Murray covered!”
Recently Murray was able to travel back to Victoria for a women’s cultural camp —part of a project to help bushfire recovery.
“The bushfires hit pretty hard down there. Our aim is to help heal Country, and part of healing the Country is healing the people.
“Catching up with my aunties and hearing all of their stories, I’m learning from them and I’m also able to pass on some of the Western knowledge I’ve picked up, so it’s pretty special.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to a stage where I’m really able to give something back. Everything we do as a people is for the next generation. We need to leave things in as good a condition if not better for them, that’s my intention.”