History of the Murdoch University campus

Australia always has been and always will be Aboriginal land. Australian Indigenous people are one of the oldest known cultures in the world, with evidence of Aboriginal communities dating back two thousand generations.

Though over the years our university campus has changed physically, the stories and significance of the land, boodjar, lives on as a rich, central part of Indigenous Australian culture. We celebrate the land our university campus sits on within the Whadjuk section of Noongar Boodjar.

To ensure we keep the history of our campus known, respected and alive, we look to the traditional custodians of the land – Noongar and Whadjuk Elders – to share their stories with us.

The Rainbow Serpent and the significance of water

In Aboriginal Australian mythology, the most well-known aboriginal story is the Rainbow Serpent, known by many different names in aboriginal sub-cultures, but known as Waakal to the Noongar people.

The Noongar people believe that the Rainbow Serpent, Waakal, is our Creator. Waakal created the fresh waterways such as the river, bilya, swamps/lakes, pinjar, and waterholes, ngamma. To this day, Noongar people believe Waakal maintains all the freshwater bodies and without them we would have no water.

Noongar people also consider place as a combination of place, plant and animal and are considered even more significant because of the way water sources attract animal and plant life.

To keep these significant areas undisturbed, including making sure animals aren’t scared away for hunting, Noongar people lived away from water sources on their traditional land, but nearby enough so they could easily access the water and its resources when they needed to.

With the system of lakes and wetlands adjoining our campus, the campus site and surrounding areas were of great significance to the Whadjuk people. The site was used to camp on, it had Dreaming Tracks (walkways used to get from one site to another) and places of men’s and women’s business. 

Men’s places and women’s places

In Aboriginal Australian culture it is customary for women’s and men’s business to be kept separate, allowing for women’s and men’s expertise to flourish and be kept sacred as equal parts of society.

On the Murdoch University campus site, there are both women’s and men’s places. To understand both, we are lucky enough to be guided by Aboriginal Elders who make up part of the Murdoch University community.

Dr Richard Walley

Dr Richard Walley OAM is a Noongar man who was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Murdoch University in 2006 for his contribution to the study of Aboriginal culture and customs.

Dr Walley began visiting what is now known as the Murdoch University Campus when he was a young boy. 

He knew the land as a connection point for many activities, which he compares to how Western societies understand a town.

“Activities that occur in places like these are varied. They range from a place of food, a place of storytelling, a place of education, a place of ceremony.

“Like you’d go into a town, there’s a town hall, there’s a civic centre where people have meetings, there’s a church, a residential place, a place where you get your groceries.”

Marie Taylor

The Murdoch campus is the traditional land of Elder Marie Taylor’s Grandmother, and she spent much of her youth visiting and holidaying to the site.

As the bushland would regenerate with seasonal fires, part of the women’s business would include gathering food after a fire.

“They would come behind the fire and collect all the cooked animals for a feed.” There were also places on the campus where women would get together and pass their knowledge to a younger generation.

Although many things have changed since then, the practice of teaching and knowledge sharing has remained. When Marie was asked to write a course at Murdoch University, the first Aboriginal language course to be taught at any university in Australia, she went on a walk in the bush on campus to think it over.  

While walking, she found a traditional fire stick, and immediately felt the guidance of her ancestors.

“It was like the bush was telling me ‘nothing has changed’… to experience something like that it blew me away. I’d never thought about teaching my language and culture to university students, but I felt like on that day I was given permission.”

A significance continuing for 2,000 generations

For students, staff and other members of the Murdoch Community, we are blessed with the opportunity to experience much of the campus site in its natural state, as it has existed for thousands of years. Our campus is the second largest university campus in Australia, but unlike many other university campuses, we’ve preserved the natural bushland environment as a key feature for all to enjoy.

After coming to this site as a child, returning as a Murdoch staff member and teacher, and now guiding the university as an Elder, the campus site has continued significance for Marie Taylor and her community.

“It’s one of the luckiest universities… Murdoch has this ancient beauty of the land and the landscape that the teaching and the buildings are nestled in.”

Dr Walley believes the environment is another teacher contributing to our students’ education.

“When you are walking around this campus, do not take it for granted, that the trees, the plants, the animals … they are there as reminders, educators and contributors to a culture which has connected one to people, place, plant and animal for some 2,000 generations.”

Learn more about how Murdoch University honours the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
Posted on:

8 Sep 2020

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