What is a custodian?

There are many opinions and views about this, yet as a word with historical definition it is written to mean as “relating to or of the nature of custody or guardianship”. Another aspect of the etymology speaks of a custodian as being short for a Janitor!  

Here in this writing I am speaking in terms of people standing as Custodians of a living environment with its bio-diverse tapestry. Included in this however, is also the diversity of living creatures in themselves living innately as guardians in custody of this Planet called Earth! I will speak more to this in another piece of writing, but for now I will share this…

Earlier this year I called upon my cousin Blayne Welsh to join me in creating some Earth Art for the Melbourne Didgeridoo Festival. As two people who are related, we have slowly formed a friendship and care for each other over the years. We did not grow up together, yet we both put effort into igniting our connection into a relationship to reveal our closeness through blood, country and spirit. Now, we are family and know each other as such. In earlier years,our relatedness was just something we were aware of, now it is felt and nurtured. We guard it with respect.

In this posting you will read through Blayne’s perspective, his experience of our creating together the earth art piece. You will see through his eyes, I will follow this with a piece I wrote for a book that a local Historical Society are putting together about the History of Dangar Island. It is called “A millennial of Custodianship – a living history”. 

My cousin and I share a great respect for one another’s way of expressing and we value the beauty of time and time again, arriving at the same heart felt knowing from our seemingly differing view points!

May you all enjoy the reading!

Blayne & myself sitting within the art piece “Custodians” 

“Custodians” not just a word completed Earth art piece

I am Blayne Welsh, a Wailwan man. My grandmother was Beatrice Welsh and my father is Wayne Welsh, a Stolen man. I grew up on Worimi and Awabakal country and I now find myself being watched over by the elders of the Kulin Nation, namely the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung nations.

But I represent the three I’s: Indigenous, Immigrant and Invader. This is not a concept I came up with, this came to me by the way of the voice of Shawn Wilson, the author of Research Is Ceremony and a strong Indigenous voice in the settler’s academia. The three I’s were given to him by a person he only identifies as “Wombat”. But he does identify her, as he identifies all of those people who have a relationship with his research and their ways of knowing, doing and being. He does so in appropriate context and thus I am comfortable with the knowledge.

This is why I identify myself, who I am, where I am from, where I’ve received this knowledge and who the person transmitting this knowledge received it from. Now I share this concept with you as I feel comfortable that I have been been responsible with my relational authority over this simple phrase, which deeply defines myself as well.

Relatedness, relationality and it’s connected relational authority is not something a settler easily understands. Or perhaps we can talk about “pre and post-industrialised societies” but I really don’t want to. That starts us down the path of ranking culture, instead of respecting it. Let us just sit with Indigenous and Non-Indigenous for now. This terminology is also a perfect opportunity to explain relatedness. I am not here to state my perspective sits above yours, nor does yours sit above mine. Both are valid and represent how you relate to the entirety of the cosmos around you, how I relate to the cosmos around me and how those two unique relationships with the cosmos relate to one another.


In beginning Custodians, we and my cousin, Rachel Shields started from a position of established relationality. I am abundantly aware she is also the same as me (Our parents were twins, which makes this part easily) however Rachel remained far more connected to community and the environment then I had to opportunity to do. She has travelled and sat with people and places far more than I have and brings a significantly community oriented Indigenous perspective to our relationship. In contrast, I was strongly raised in the dominant system, our eurocentric patriarchal cisgendered heteronormative neurotypical white male system to be exact. Rachel and I relate to one another, we share our perspectives and our art and through this act, we elevate each other’s consciousness of and understanding of this relationship..

So Custodians. It started with that word. Then it became our world in the centre of the work. Each person who looks at it comes with a different perspective. One might say it’s a distorted mercutorial projection, another will say Australia is to big and Uluru is out of scale. Another might agree but call it “Ayers Rock”. A person from Indonesia will clearly see the problems with Sumatra and Kalimantan but be just proud that it appears at all. An American might say it’s wonderful we eliminated the Pacific as they love showing how close our nations are. A child might just say he’s bored.

Depending on your worldview you might see certain ideas listed above as being correct and others not. You might just find them all interesting and have no opinion which in itself is an opinion. As an Indigenous person, looking from the perspective of relationality, they’re all valid ideas. As an indigenous researcher, our job would not be to study each and pick a winner, but to, with deep respect, listen to the different ideas then share and translate them between all involved in an appropriate manner, in order to assist all towards achieving a higher understanding of both the work but also (and more importantly) our relationship to the work and to one another. Then the knowledge becomes shared and we are all empowered.

Outside the “World”, a material symbol that we all can find deep connection with in our own way, darkness of the void then a ring of Indigenous cultural colours (Red, Yellow and Black) containing it. This felt like it was myself and Rachel stating to the observer our Relational Authority. Stating our identity so that the work can be seen as an Indigenous perspective on the world. It also marks the liminal space between the perceived, empirical world of the five senses and the intuitive broader reality, that extra-intellectual understanding of the Cosmos and, more importantly, the knowledge of all things being related without the need to understand how. Basically the border between the Dreaming and the Waking.

In that space, though there was no thought necessarily behind it, Rachel decided we should draw patterns, reminiscent of the symbols we use to indicate people sitting around a camp. To me, once it was complete, I saw the Elders of the past sitting around a sacred bora beyond our comprehension, watching us and helping us as we walk on the Earth. The idea then was simple to surround that barrier with leaves and rocks, just as my ancestors would have sat in communion with each other, surrounded by the environment, the trees standing as equals to the rocks and the people and, most importantly, the ideas that were being discussed. We all sit in equal relation to every other person, being, object, space and concept in the Cosmos.

That relational equality then came to mind for the next outer ring. Once we’d made the further one the idea came to include the broader community in this work. That “Custodians” as Rachel was saying (And I paraphrase) include all of us, and it’s not just a box to tick, we all need to be involved.

So we made the following ring empty. You aren’t an Elder like the ones in the Bora yet, but you are invited to walk in, look through the trees, over their shoulders and realise you are equally connected to all things and, as such, equally responsible for all things.

That is why concepts like Relatedness and the Indigenous paradigm are not exclusive to Indigenous ways of being, doing and knowing. They encompass all knowledge and seeks not to assert itself as “dominant” but rather assert that there is no dominance in knowledge. Nobody can own it, nobody can “discover” something.

Because knowledge itself comes through establishing a relationship with each other and our ideas, sharing those ideas as equal perspectives on the world based on our relationship with it and reaching an elevated shared understanding of all the relationships that make up the Cosmos.

Blayne Welsh (c) 2018

Millennia of Custodianship – Continual living history

The Land and waters around what is now known as Dangar Island Carry the stories of caring for Country over many thousands of years…

For many thousands of years the entire surrounding landscape of ranges, rivers and islands with all its living inhabitants; was respectfully acknowledged and cared for by the first peoples of this land. The first peoples believe they have been here forever and that they were born of Creation. When born into Country, it was known that you would live by the Lore ensuring right way of being in relation to all things..

In this Country here where we are, the river system coursing through the land with its length and depths and many bends and bays offered the people a living landscape of seasons, with the varying eco systems determining these seasons. While today the river may carry one name and is either recognised as the Hawksbury-Nepan River or the Deerubin (meaning wide deep water), originally there were many names for the many areas of the waters. The names reflected the ever constant change and also held within them information akin to ecological maps.

The first peoples in the area’s lived in accordance to the rhythms offered up by the natural environment; they understood from thousands of years of combined knowing, the ways in which to live with a relational intelligence that maintained the balance between the immediate person and the greater landscape. In essence the first peoples had a cultivated connection that embodied that of biological and ecological science with the added aspect and awareness that with this knowing; they were responsible for taking care of and protecting the living landscape and the spirit of place. In doing so, the people were naturally able to develop abilities of adapting with the seasons and were able to thrive in an ever changing landscape whilst contributing to the balance. This was their natural state of being, to live in accordance to the Lore or way of the land.
Throughout time here, the land had always shaped the people, shaped the languages, the stories, dances and the living song lines.

Every landscape brought about its own people and they in turn reflected the environment. Due to this and the length of the River system, there were a number of clan groups who served as custodians along the Deerabin. The river created both boundaries and corridors for the people as it did for the wildlife also.

These corridors within the river systems brought forward routes of trade and ceremony of which the first peoples engaged as a seasonal practice. The waters also contributed to lines of marriage between clan groups, marriage in itself was a complex system of moieties that ensured genealogies were maintained in a healthy manner and spiritual lore was upheld to the highest degree. Life was always understood as a continuum and the actions of the first people were deeply influenced by this knowing. Totems both for the individual and the clan group reflected the shared responsibility that was upheld in preserving biodiversity and in learning through the ways of each animal in relation to the greater health of all living beings.

The Deerabin and its surrounding landscapes offered up a rich source of food including yams, fruits, green vegetables, differing insects, wild animal game, varying fish, shell fish and grubs. All these foods were native to the environment and everything had its season for harvesting as well as cultivating. Not all foods were eaten at all times, and not all foods were sourced as wild game. The first peoples maintained crops of yams and differing grasses, they also farmed with fire to assist with seasonal supply. The peoples of the tidal river systems worked with the ebb and flow, they managed to trap fish and set nets using nature’s forces to preserve much of their own energies in sustaining themselves. If one knows what they are looking at, many of these areas can be identified throughout the Deerabin. There are also sites that show signs of activity where materials were utilised for making tools, canoes, spears, coolamons, strings, baskets, clay wares and much more. The first peoples were enterprising in their ability to create technologies from raw materials within nature; each area had its qualities of which the local groups crafted what they needed.

Trade was common place, yet as with all things, it too was seasonal. This occurred beyond the boundaries of the river. The first peoples from the many surrounding regions benefitted one another through trade in exchanging goods and having their own economy was a measure of health and balance, yet in a manner that was determined by the greater Lore of life.

There is much to learn and uncover in regards to the deep histories that existed here on Dangar Island before the interruption by colonisation, before other realities were imposed upon this land, the peoples and eco systems. Yet life still exists here and reflects the spirit of the land each and every day. The animals hold that living spirit, the tides and currents hold that living spirit as does the many seasons. The first people’s may not be here in the way they were able to be in those times, yet their spirit is here and descendants of those people may still well be walking that connection.

The way of being and the way of life that was upheld by Lore for all those thousands of years is the reason why beauty still exists here, why life still exists at all. The First peoples held true to Custodianship and lived with responsibility for the greater well being of entire communities and all life.
Rachel Shields ©2018

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