Melinda Brown shows two-year-old grand-daughter Yasmine the Butterfly Cave Peter Stoop/Newcastle Herald

Aboriginal girls’ place of learning in jeopardy

Phil Cooke

A vital component of the Aboriginal girls’ wellbeing program, Sista Speak, is at risk because of a residential subdivision at West Wallsend in Lake Macquarie.

Sista Speak, run in partnership with schools and communities across NSW, helps Aboriginal girls develop cultural understanding. Formally launched in 2006, it also links students with community groups and local Aboriginal female role models.

Each term, participants engage in a variety of activities with a focus on Aboriginal culture and community connection.

For several years, students participating in Sista Speak in the Newcastle and the Hunter region have visited the Butterfly Cave at West Wallsend to connect with their culture.

The Butterfly Cave was traditionally used by Awabakal women as a place to give birth, bathe and engage in ceremonies. It continues to be an essential part of Awabakal cultural life, valued for its seclusion and as a safe haven hidden by a rock platform above.

The significance of the site was recognised by the NSW government in 2013 when it was declared an Aboriginal Place — the first women’s place to receive such recognition.

Awabakal women are quick to point out that the bushland surrounding the cave is considered equally as important, with the journey to and from the cave used to show Sista Speak girls the abundance of bush food and plants such as bakea that possess medicinal qualities.

Unfortunately, the Appletree Grove Estate being developed by the Roche Group will see urban development encroach to within 20m of the Butterfly Cave, effectively destroying the context of the bush environment and exposing the cave itself to possible damage from construction vibration.

Awabakal women and others are driving a petition on, protesting that only a tiny amount of bushland would remain around the cave. They argue that significance of “place” to Aboriginal people is paramount and this connection does not rely on the presence of artefacts or visible evidence.

The Save the Butterfly Cave petition so far has been signed by more than 30,000 people in Australia and the world.

Sista Speak mentor Anne Andrews notes that the program is vital for Aboriginal girls seeking to explore their culture.

“They love visiting the cave and connecting with the past,” she said. “If the development proceeds and the cave is damaged from construction vibration we will be losing something that’s ancient and irreplaceable. How do you explain that to the kids?”

The petition encourages Roche Group to recognise the value in Aboriginal culture and amend its subdivision plans so that the cave can receive protection in perpetuity.

Phil Cooke teaches at Cessnock Public School and is a member of Federation Executive.