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Caring for River Country

The First Nations peoples of the Murray–Daring Basin were never wanderers in an untouched natural wilderness. Rather, they have always taken an active role in environmental management, shaping and caring for the land that sustains them. This relationship is both practical and spiritual, born of a unique world view.

Year 10 Geography ACHGK072, ACHGK071


By the end of this resource, you will:

  • Understand how First Nations peoples have traditionally managed the river environment in the Murray–Darling Basin.
  • Appreciate the differing environmental world views of Indigneous and non-Indigenous people and what the implications were for them and their environment.
  • Understand the custodial responsibility of First Nations peoples in the Murray–Darling Basin.
  • Have a written project sheet documenting your learning.

How to use this resource

  1. Download and print the project sheet that accompanies this resource.
  2. In small groups, work sequentially through this webpage, with text in teal showing where there is a project sheet component.
  3. Teachers: facilitate this process by allocating groups to topics in Section 2, and bringing the groups together for their 1-minute presentations.


The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) pays respect to the Traditional Owners and their Nations of the Murray–Darling Basin. We acknowledge their deep cultural, social, environmental, spiritual and economic connection to their lands and waters.

The MDBA also recognises the importance of respecting and protecting Indigenous knowledge. We thank those who trust to share their cultural knowledge with us and ensure that every effort has been made to respect Traditional Owners’ rights, using only that information for which free prior and informed consent has been given.

We welcome feedback and comments at

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students should be warned that the videos and publications used in this resource contain images of deceased persons which may cause sadness or distress.

1: Our ‘River Country’

Read the story below then begin at question 1 on your project sheet.

Major Sumner

In 2010, an Elder of the Ngarrindjeri, Major Sumner, watched as his land degraded to the point of no return. The decade-long ‘Millennium drought’ – perhaps the worst on record – had led to severe declines in the health of the rivers and surrounding lands in the Murray–Darling Basin. These rivers hold a profound spiritual significance in First Nations culture, as a place to gather to bathe, drink, eat, hunt and heal. He decided it was time for Traditional Owners to act.

This problem was too big for any community or any First Nation to face alone. For Major Sumner, an answer was to be found in an ancient First Nations ceremonial practice that had not been seen for hundreds of years. Called Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin (‘River Country Spirit Ceremony’), it would bring together the Kooma from southern Queensland, Nyemba from north-western New South Wales, and Ngarrindjeri from the lakes, the lower River Murray and the Coorong in South Australia to reignite the spirit of the river.

The Ringbalin took place over weeks and thousands of miles, from Queensland to the Murray mouth in South Australia. It involved ceremonies, dances, stories, and passing on the knowledge of the river country and how to care for it. As Major Sumner said, ‘They want to learn our stories, our dances, our creation stories; everything about this land that they don't know.’

As the Ringbalin continued, the weather began to change. Although the drought had to end sooner or later, for many who looked on as the dancers made their way towards the Murray mouth, the life-giving rains and floods that soon followed seemed like a gift from the Ancestors.

Worksheet question 1: Recording what you know and learn
  • How might ‘River Country’ be important to Aboriginal peoples?
  • What sort of effects might poor river and wetlands health have on these places’ Traditional Owners?

You may want to return to this worksheet section and add additional points as you learn more in the next section.

2: A ‘traditional management strategy’

Watch River Country Spirit Ceremony:

Worksheet question 2:

What was the ‘traditional management plan’ described by Tom Trevorrow?

Case studies

Worksheet question 3:

Prepare a 1-minute presentation on one of the six topics below (the topic may be allocated by your teacher).

In your presentation, consider:

  • What is the significance of the site for Traditional Owners?
  • How did First Nations people traditionally care for the site?
  • How have these traditions influenced the way the site is managed now?
Worksheet question 4:

As other groups present to the class, fill out the table on the project sheet.

3. Merging spirit and science

This section investigates how First Nations' perspectives were incorporated into a specific environmental management plan: the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.

Context: The same ‘Millennium drought’ that prompted Major Sumner to begin the Ringbalin also spurred Australian governments into action. To ensure that communities, agriculture, and the environment all had enough water, and that the highly variable flows in the rivers were managed sustainably, a single, coherent plan for managing the Basin’s water was needed. The Water Act 2007 (Cth) mandated the creation of a new Murray–Darling Basin Plan, which became law in 2012. This new Basin Plan would incorporate recognition of the ways Traditional Owners use water in the Basin, including for traditional cultural/ceremonial purposes.

Refresher: What is the Basin Plan?

Worksheet question 5:

Think: how might it be challenging to create a water management plan that accounts for traditional cultural/ceremonial water uses?

Worksheet question 6:
‘Can the way in which non-Aboriginal water managers and participating groups tend to categorise values into use and non-use, for example, be amenable to Indigenous world-views and underlying values that see far less division between land and water, do not polarise humans and nature, nor privilege the role of detached, objective scientific knowledge and constructions of nature?’
Sue Jackson, ‘Recognition of Indigenous interests in Australian water resource management, with particular reference to environmental flow assessment’ Geography Compass, 2/3, (2008) pp. 874–98.

How could we paraphrase this quote? Do you think it is accurate?

As a group, discuss some ways you could ensure First Nations perspectives and priorities were factored into a water management plan.

Focus: the Murray–Darling Basin Plan

We're going to see how the MDBA did this in reality. Your group might split up and allocate a member to each of the following (A, B, and C):

A: Community consultation

Source: A Yarn on the River (eBook)

A Yarn on the River was written in 2012 when the draft Basin Plan was undergoing consultation. It describes what this consultation process looked like, and what some of the early responses were.

Worksheet question 7:

How were ‘Traditional Owners’ included in the planning process?

What do First Nations people want water managers to consider when thinking about how water should be shared and used?

B: ‘Cultural flows’

Source: National Cultural Flows website.

Worksheet question 8:

What do you understand cultural flows to mean and why are they important?

C: The Aboriginal Waterways Assessment (AWA) program

Source: Aboriginal Waterways Assessment

Worksheet question 9:

What is the purpose of the AWA program?

What are the 3 components to help people decide the values/health of the waterway from an First Nations perspective?

Follow-up activity ideas

Design your own assessment tool

Think of all the ways your school uses water. Now imagine all water users had to be prioritised – how would you go about this? Design and test your method.

Discover local knowledge

Who are the Traditional Owners in your area? Invite an Elder to speak to the class about some of the ways they have traditionally used and managed the environment.

What season is it?

The First Nations groups throughout the Basin used different seasons to Europeans. Examine an Aboriginal seasonal calendar near your area and discuss: what season are you in now? What actions are associated with this time? Here's an example.

Hear a Dreaming story

Dreaming stories play a significant role in First Nation life and spirituality. Some of the most celebrated Dreaming stories are those describing how the River Murray came to be, including the Bangarang story and the story of Ponde, the River Creator.

Research a First Nation

Who are the Traditional Owners in your area? Sketch the borders of their country on a map. Learn some words, local bush foods, or aspects of traditional culture and land.

Essay question

Tom Trevorrow explained in the River Country Spirit Ceremony video that "we had a perfect management plan" – the essence of which was "don’t be greedy, don’t take any more than you need, and respect everything around you." Evaluate Trevorrow’s claim based on what you’ve learned.

Updated: 15 Nov 2021