In Townsville, an innovative new project and cultural trail is helping pre-school kids get to grips with the local environment and Indigenous knowledge at the same time.
“We need to be hands-on with it, and not just look at a book,” says Uncle Russell Butler, before pausing for a moment to think. “You take the kids out into a field, and you say: look at this tree here. They’ll remember it. When they come with me, they hear it. I tell ‘em.”
Uncle Russell is an Indigenous Elder; a Bandjin man. And his knowledge of the country, landscape and wildlife of the Bindal and Wulgurukaba people –the Traditional Custodians of what is now known as Townsville, Queensland – is immense.
Good thing, then, that Uncle Russell is dedicating his time and energy to sharing that knowledge with the next generation. For years, he’s worked with local schools and education authorities in and around Townsville to keep the connection to country intact. Now, he’s working with James Cook University’s early learning centres, Unicare and Unicampus, on an innovative new cultural project and Indigenous plant trail.
If you listen to Uncle Russell, he’ll tell you that there’s no better way for kids to learn about nature, about country, than to be immersed in it. And the Indigenous cultural plant trail, which launched officially on 7 November2018, is all about immersion.
The project involved planting some 200 native species around Unicare and Unicampus, as well as the development of a walk-through bush tucker garden. “We’re just making sure they’re all aware of what’s around them, their surroundings,” says Uncle Russell. “We want to connect them to the environment. We need to make sure the knowledge gets passed on.”
Funded in part by a 2018 Customer Grant from Bank Australia, the trail features 52 signs that have been specifically designed to help the children understand the names and specific uses of all of the plants in the bush tucker garden, whether edible, medicinal or otherwise. The hope is that the collection of plants will also encourage more native wildlife to visit the centres, providing even more opportunities for the children to engage with country.
Uncle Russell, the youngest of eight, began gaining knowledge at a young age. “All of my siblings went to work, and I was stuck with all the old people,” he laughs. “But that’s where I got my knowledge – and some of my older siblings don’t have what I got. The old people couldn’t read or write, so I had to absorb what they were saying. I had to listen.”
The trail will ensure over 150 children get to learn about native plants (and their uses) and wildlife, both from the trail and signage itself and the knowledge of Uncle Russell, who’ll stop in for regular sessions.
Adam Connell is Environment Manager at James Cook University and oversees environment management across the university as well as sustainability, and embedding sustainable operations in everything they do. He says the positive feedback on the Indigenous cultural plant trail and bush tucker garden from the teachers has been overwhelming. “The kids have really enjoyed Uncle Russell’s stories,” he says. “And the teachers have said they’ve never seen the kids pay so much attention to anything – in terms of walking around and engaging with the plants and signage.”
For Uncle Russell, the whole project represents a bigger issue – making sure that all Australians, no matter their background or ancestry, have a knowledge and respect for country.
“We’re multicultural now!” he laughs. “They keep preaching that every day. But one day these kids might be land owners. They might buy a patch of land with all this bush food and medicine on it, but if they don’t have any knowledge of the bush, they might buy a bulldozer at the same time and knock it all down. We all need to know about country.”
James Cook University is a Bank Australia customer grant recipient in 2018. Read all about it on the Bank Australia Customer Grant hub.