Lala Gutchen

Erub Meuram Person, Erub & Poruma Island, Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait)


Lala Gutchen with her parents Athe Kapua Gutchen & Aka Florence Gutchen

To be a Erub Meuram person means to still have my identity.

My culture has been alive since the beginning of time and my Ancestors have walked on this land. We the Zenadth Kes People are the first and rightful owners of this Saltwater Country in the Torres Strait. Everything we do and speak belongs to this land and sea.


My cultural knowledge that I have now, was passed down by my Elderly father. He has taught me for as long as I can remember, until now. Every day I learn new things about my culture, from walking on the land to practicing culture on the sea. Speaking and teaching always goes on in my household, and everywhere I go.


My experience of culture is different to my dad’s because of climate change. My daughter’s experience of her culture, too, will be different to mine because of climate change.

We have always been fishermen

My people has always been known as fishermen and I too am a frequent fisherman. I practice my culture a lot by being out at sea.


I have fished since I was a little girl. My mum and dad were fishermen so they both taught me fishing. My grandparents on both sides were fishermen too. I take my daughter out fishing with me and my nieces too. To fish, we use our traditional knowledges to help us to know where they are and when to find them. We use the moon and the tides to guide us. I hold the map of reefs around Erub in my head. Now, I am so experienced I can feel what kind of fish I have by the pull at the end of the line. 95% of the time I am right. 


My fishing is being affected by climate change because it’s affecting our sea life and killing our reef.

The quality of the reefs varies now. In some places in our reefs the coral has become soft. Now when I spearfish, and I stand up on the reef, sometimes the coral will break, my leg will sink maybe 40cm down and that part of my leg will get cut. I’ve got lots of scars on my legs from coral breaking. My leg has swollen up and I’ve had to get tetanus shots. I believe that this is happening because it’s too dead.


Because there is not much life in the reefs, it is sad to look at it. I remember ten years ago there was life, many fish were there. I used to fish everywhere, and now I must look for a spot. I basically have to guess where we should fish, and this has affected a lot of my fishing practices.


The reason why I love fishing so much is because my dad taught me how, and his knowledges were always on point. Now my daughter and nieces can’t have the same happiness because the fish have moved.




Lala Gutchen in a light blue t-shirt in the middle of the photo with her daughter who is seven and her mother, Florence Gutchen, Surrounded by Florence Gutchen's extended family on Poruma Island. There are four other Torres Strait Islander women standing all together on the beach with a blue sky and ocean behind them.
Lala Gutchen & Florence Gutchen and Aunties on Poruma Island

 

Gardening is cultural practise

Gardening is important because it is an old part of my tribal people, the Erub Meuram people’s and the other tribes of Erub’s culture, we grow many of the things we eat. I garden with my mum and dad. Both of my parents are still frequent gardeners and I learn through working with them.


All of us we garden together with my daughter and nieces to pass on that cultural practice to them. Three generations do gardening together.

Mainly we do banana gardening. We call bananas Kaba. We have a Kaba Gedub (banana garden) at home, where we have 14 native species of Kaba, and 2 introduced species. We maintain them so that every month we have bananas because they are a normal part of our diet at home.


Bananas are also a main source for our feastings, which are big meals we cook for community at home. People request different types of bananas for different meals. We also use bananas when we cook for important cultural events, such as tombstone openings. 


Other crops we regularly plant include Nuri (sweet potato), Neru (sugar cane), Maniota (cassava), Kud (bush apples), Ero (bell fruit) and different species of Waiwi (mangoes).


For five years we have experienced the worst drought I have seen in my lifetime. The big drought we faced from 2016 – 2020 means the garden struggled badly. We may have the best soil, but water is not good. We had to rely on the minimal rainwater for gardening and use the desalinated water for cooking and in the house.


The desalinated water was not good for gardening because it has salt in it. So, the soil can’t work without fresh rainwater like the farms in the mainland.


I remember in 2017, the garden was struggling. I remember my mum harvested Nuri at that time, because it was the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the first council meeting in the Torres Strait. There was some product, but it was smaller than it should have been.


We couldn’t grow our sugarcane because it’s not sweet without enough rainwater. If we use desalination water it tends to make it more sour when harvested. The Ero (Bell Fruit Tree) should have bright red fruit, but they weren’t producing it. The fruits were all pink and white when they fell off the trees from destructive winds. The Maniapol (pawpaw tree), that we use for healing water, was mostly dead without enough water

.

I think because of climate change these impacts will get worse and I won’t get to practice gardening like my dad did.


I am sad to think that all of our native species could die on us. I am sad about the possibility that all of the practices we are taught about how to look after plants according to the seasons won’t work for kaba, nuri, and maniota.

I think that maybe when I am in my 40s I will just have to go to the shop because we won’t be able to do gardening, the ground will be too dry if we get more drought. I believe in the future, when I’ll be much older like my father in his 60s, my daughter will have to go to the store to get fresh veggies to feed her family. I will have struggle to get there as an old person when traditionally, we could just do it at home. I’m not sure I will be able to practice my gardening and provide for my family in the traditional way like my parents and I do now.

 

Water security

Because of our ongoing problems with drought and water security and maintenance with the dam, we’ve had to put a desalination plant on Erub and now we have to drink desalinated water when we run out of rainwater.


My parents used to drink bore water from the ground, but we don’t have that water hole now, it dried up because of the drought and in dense bush have taken over. We only have one rain tank at home for rainwater that we share with the garden. Due to regulations, we are not allowed to install more than one rainwater tank.


In October 2020 I tapped the rainwater tank and it was down to a quarter. We shouldn’t have that problem and that’s what led us to buying bottles of water. We were only just hanging in there with our water supply and had to ask the Ibis store to order some more water from the mainland. For families without a good income on the island, this is really hard.


If we order water from the mainland, it affects us financially. We shouldn’t have to pay for our water. 

 

Language

Our language has been spoken on Erub Island for since the beginning of time.


Our language is still connected to our land, we still speak as our ancestors have spoken before us.


If the tide takes away my culture, where am I going to practice my language? I can’t do it on someone else’s land.


That land would not be my land, it is someone’s else ancestral land.





The reason why you cannot practice your culture on someone else’s land is because it is forbidden in the Indigenous world. I cannot go to the mainland and fish or sit around a campfire to sing onto my ancestors to come to me on an Aboriginal man’s land.


I am Torres Strait Islander and always will be. So, I am entitled to practice my very own Language and culture only on my own land where my ancestors are and forever will be. But my land will be gone with the water and will disappear.

Then my great grandkids won’t even see it one day.

There is one area on the beach that we call Goleh Goleh Wehkes, which means Black Sand Passage. This area is called that because it is covered in black sand. We used to go there and show the place and tell stories. It is a special icon area for my people as there is nowhere else on the island like it.


Due to the rising sea level and the movement of water, that sand is partially gone. There are just patches of it here and there now. Where there used to be lots of black sand, now there are rocks. The black sands disappearing means  that a part of our language will not make sense when it is spoken. This area might as well be called a normal beach or a rock area.

 

My dad has made a song for that place that he wrote in 2014 and presented it to his Aunty and her Dance Team, and in twenty years-time it will not be there. In a few years, when I try and tell the story and sing the song, I will feel stupid. The stories of the black sands won’t be good stories anymore because there is no evidence. Even now there are only a few children who know the black sands.

In the future if I say, like to my daughter, this is Goleh Goleh Wehkes, she will say, “what Goleh Goleh Wehkes? Where is the black sand?”

I don’t even know where my island will go in the next twenty years. The only thing that is keeping me here is language and culture. I continue to practice on my land, and if the tide takes it away, I can’t go and do it on someone else’s land. My land is getting eaten away because nothing is being put in place to stop the sea levels rising.


We can’t wipe our history. We will just have to keep passing stories and pictures and saying we once were there and now we no more. If you lose your identity, you have nothing. You can be as black as you want but once you lose the connection with the land and stop practicing your language and culture, you have nothing.


We First Nations people, we have rights. Our rights are that we are supposed to stay on our own land and with our own people. We will be refugees from our own Nation.


The land is our mother. It’s our identity.

Before you are born into the world, you got rights, and you got obligations that you must do ‘em - there’s no butts – you have to look after the land. When you are born into the world you look to the mother that you came from. You look to your mother all your life. The land resembles your mother. You don’t want to hurt your mother, destroy your mother.  All through your life you have to look after the land. Would you hurt your mother?


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