River stories from pre-colonial Perth

Following the high of the Stormwater WA conference Hydropolis 2015, which included a welcome from Wadjuk Nyoongar Elder Noel Nunnup, we were inspired to follow the water story given by Noel and wanted to share some more Nyoongar Perth water stories with you.

The stories below are extracted from the following papers, Indigenous history of the Swan and Canning Rivers (compiled and presented by Debra Hughes-Hallett, 2010) and Rivers of Emotion:Derbarl Yerrigan and Djarlgarro Beelier / the Swan and Canning Rivers (edited by Susan Broomhall and Gina Pickering, National Trust, 2012).

Sacred Waugal


Shane Pickett Waagle – Rainbow Serpent, 1983

The Swan and Canning Rivers and their tributaries hold great significance to the Nyoongar people as being created by, and sacred to, the rainbow serpent ‘Waugal’, a dreamtime spirit taking the form of a giant snake. Elders taught Nyoongar people that the Waugal created creeks, waterholes, lakes and valleys on its journey to the ocean. It emerged at Mount Eliza (the current site of the water reservoir near Fraser’s restaurant in King’s Park) and in making its way to the sea, created the Swan River. Mount Eliza and the area in which parliament house now stands were named ‘Ga‐ra‐katta’, the site sacred to the Waugal. The strong connection with ‘Nidga Boodja’ (this land), is still significant to Aboriginal people who are the traditional caretakers of the land.

Nyoongar’s close connection with the rivers and surrounding areas forms the basis for much of their culture, spirituality, and identity. For Nyoongar people, access to freshwater, and the resources provided by the land and rivers, was central to their survival. Aboriginal people’s connection to the land is so strong that sustaining the health of their culture depends on the maintenance of our rivers and wetlands and surrounding lands.



Frederick Garling, View from Mount Eliza, 1827

“The Whadjuk Nyoongar people shaped and changed the landscape in rhythm of the Seasons over many thousands of years. The managed landscapes surrounding the River were created by the Whadjuk Nyoongar through regular burning over millennia.”  E W Landor wrote in 1827 the ‘whole country of the middle and upper Swan resembles a vast English park’. These managed landscapes were attractive to early English explorers who used the term ‘park-like’ to describe them.

Lifestyle along the rivers

Geological formation Mosman Park. Credit Gina Pickering

The estuaries offered easy access to prolific marine life, for the Aboriginal people who were not seafarers and had no form of water transport and the lakes and estuaries provided a habitat for numerous aquatic birds. In traditional times, the Nyoongar fishermen would crush shellfish into a pulp and sprinkle it into the water to attract fish. The men would wait in the water and spear any fish that were drawn in. In the autumn, when smaller fish would approach the shores in prolific proportions, the Nyoongar would surround them keeping them in the shallow until the tide dropped, at which point they were easily speared. If the water was too deep and the fish were not stranded the women and children would make a simple fish pen, by pushing gathered bushes into the sand. The fish could then be contained and easily speared. In autumn and early winter, salmon were in abundance and many would be speared as the dolphins chased them into the shallow waters. The Nyoongar did not use nets, rather they wove bushes and sticks into a wicker fence. Often the Nyoongar would also light fires on the beaches, where the shallow waters and white sand would make it possible to see the fish still in the water, and easier to catch. This is how cobbler was speared in the Swan River.

Personal Reflections

Point Walter

Point Walter

“Yes, very important in our stories. That’s where, in the story that we call the ‘carer’s of everything’, which was creation time. The great spirit woman walked past and she had long white hair and one of the strands broke and floated down and its now that white sand bar that you see”. – Noel Nannup

Looking toward Applecross from Manning

“This is the Raffles tower, Dad used to bring it [the boat] in here, literally…this water here used to be as blue as the water between here and Rottnest Island…over the years, the water has just gone like this”. – Glenn Pearson

kings park

Kings Park – Cooya

“Well you see King’s Park here is a frog … Kings Park is called Cooya, that’s the frog … its part of my totem. My totem is the frog, aunties say Cooya, Cooya … That’s the nose of the frog and towards Subiaco is the back of the frog.” – Trevor Walley.

Water for thought:

What are the traces of these long-ago actions as we experience the Rivers today?

“Our rivers have seen many changes in how we value and manage them, from the pre-colonial Nyoongar inhabitants and their beliefs and traditions to colonial settlement and a philosophy towards development and commercialisation. Today support for the conservation of our river system is no longer partitioned by cultural barriers, and the Nyoongar and Caucasian communities are just two cultures amongst many who now call Perth home. If we, the population of Perth, expect that it is our right to reap the rewards our environment provides (land, water, plants and animals) then we must accept as equally hasty our overarching responsibility to do the right thing by an environment which provides so completely – not the most viable or the easiest, but the right thing. Ultimately we are united through our common responsibility.” – Ezra Jacobs-Smith, Wadjuk Nyoongar.