Charmaine protects Aboriginal cultural heritage at Lake Tyers

Charmaine Sellings (Cert IV Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management, 2014) started Australia’s first all-female Indigenous fire crew 21 years ago. Today, she and her crew are the backbone of the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust, protecting community and Country.

The first lessons Charmaine Sellings (La Trobe University Distinguished Alumni Award, 2020) learnt about protecting cultural heritage came from her Elders in the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust community.

‘My grandmother taught me a lot. Around here, you’ve got a lot of significant places. You’ve got midden sites, you’ve got scatters and you’ve got a lot of scar trees. We try to preserve them,’ Charmaine says.

The Trust spans 4,000 acres of coastal bushland and waterways in East Gippsland, Victoria and has been self-governed since 1971. Yet threats to the area’s cultural heritage continue.

‘Some campers come here and don’t understand what ground they’re walking on. Other people sneak into our bush not knowing what scar trees they’re cutting down,’ Charmaine says.

‘Another impact is floods – due to the sand bar not opening for a couple of years, the water got pretty high here, so now we’ve got exposed midden sites, which are very hard to protect without the right funding. And during fires, you’ve got to make sure the fire trucks go around [the sites].’

Keeping community and cultural heritage safe during bushfires

In 2000, after a spate of deliberately lit fires in the area, Charmaine started the Lake Tyers Country Fire Authority (CFA) brigade. Today she and her team are the only all-Indigenous crew in the CFA.

Back then, they were also the CFA's only all-female crew. Their bright yellow outfits earned them the nickname ‘Banana Women’.

Together, Charmaine and her crew have helped save lives and property for over two decades, most notably during the catastrophic bushfires on Black Saturday (2009) and throughout Black Summer (2019-20). Just as importantly, they’ve also helped preserved cultural heritage.

Charmaine describes how she once put herself in a fire truck’s path to stop it destroying a significant site.

‘I actually stood in front of one of the trucks and said, ‘No, you go around!’ So, they had no choice. Then I explained to them that in that one site, there’s 179 artefacts that we don’t want demolished.’

‘Like a family’: studying Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management at La Trobe

Alongside her role in the CFA, Charmaine developed her cultural heritage knowledge as a Parks Victoria employee. She worked with an archaeologist from Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, recording artefacts at different cultural sites. Afterwards, Parks Victoria signed her up for La Trobe’s Certificate IV in Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management.

The course’s structure means students learn in the field through intensive study. Charmaine remembers a standout trip to Ned’s Corner, a place on the Murray River in northwest Victoria, where she uncovered her passion for anthropology.

‘The anthropology really got me right in there. You do test pits where you might uncover a leg bone, which might be human or kangaroo. You have to determine the difference between them. The human hasn’t got the large muscle attachment to the bone, whereas the kangaroo has.’

The best thing about the course, she says, were the relationships she formed with La Trobe staff and students.

‘The staff were inspirational. During the course I had half a year of sickness, but they made sure I finished the rest of the training. And the students looked out for one another. We were all part of a family.’

Passing on knowledge to the next generation

As a grandmother of three and a notoriously hard worker, Charmaine is a respected woman in the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust. Improving life for the people in her community keeps her motivated, and busy.

‘I love working. When we first started the Lake Tyers CFA brigade 21 years ago, I was the captain. Now I’m the team leader, I’m a ranger, and I do a lot of the cultural heritage work as well. I also do a bit of voluntary work for the RSPCA, and I work on Koori Courts. I’ve been a medical driver too, and I got the Ambulance Victoria first responders started up out here,’ she says.

But Charmaine is already looking further ahead. These days, she’s focused on inspiring the next generation to preserve the area’s remarkable cultural heritage.

‘We've got a new ranger called Jahmahla who’s started learning a bit from me. We’ve been working together with an archaeologist on scatters and test pits. Jahmahla’s getting right into it now. She’s really keen to learn more, and she’s actually going to do the Cultural Heritage Cert IV at La Trobe too,’ she says.

‘It feels good, because then we’re teaching the younger generation. That’s my ultimate hope.’