Nigel Damsay Gellar is one of Arnhem Land’s finest — a distinguished Denizen of the Deep North who has defied the sad statistics of indigenous male mortality to be still hard at work as senior ranger with Warddeken Land Management Limited as he approaches his 65th birthday. His record of leading a team of much younger rangers by example earned him the Commonwealth Government’s inaugural Kevin McLeod mentoring award in 2013. Last week he returned from Namibia after his second trip to Africa sharing the story of Warddeken’s success in controlling wildfire and greenhouse gas emissions by the application of indigenous traditions. This fire management tradition now incorporates use of helicopters, satellite imagery and 4WD drive vehicles while delivering strategies perfected over 50,000 years. Some years ago Nigel gave a presentation on his life story entitled “Growing up with two cultures”. Here’s an abbreviated version.
“I was born in the bush at at a place called Dandandanggal, just outside of the community that used to be called Beswick Station but now its known by its Aboriginal name of Wugularr. The year I was born was 1950. My father and mother and the rest of the family came down to Dandanggal for ceremony to join with other people from our area who had come to Beswick to work for the station. My father wasn’t a cattle man, he was a ceremony man.
“My Mum and Dad didn’t really know white people that time. They grew up living a traditional life in the bush on their country. But white people had been around my country before my dad was born. I didn’t know this story until just recently but it turns out that in about 1890, that’s 114 years ago some white people tried to start a station up on the Arafura swamp near Ramingining, not far from my country.
“They didn’t ask permission and when our people started killing their cattle they started killing our people. There were big fights and a lot of people got killed. This was in my grandfathers time, before my dad was born.
“My dad died when I was just a baby, only about two months old. In my culture we would say people sung my father to death. He just got sick and died but we believe he was killed by what white people call sorcery. He was a top person for ceremony side and maybe people were jealous and that’s why they killed him.
“As I grew up at Wugularr and Barunga I went to school and eventually went on to finish high school in Darwin. As a young fella I took a liking to Aussie Rules Football and even though I was the shortest bloke on the field I did pretty well with Wanderers team — the main team that Aboriginal people in Darwin followed.
“Later in life I worked as a research assistant with CSIRO scientists at Kapalga Research Station. I worked at Maningrida learning to fix trucks and tractors and later spent some years as a Ranger at Kakadu National Park. I followed up later working as a tourist guide with an Aboriginal tourism business at Manyallaluk, near Katherine.
“Then one day my old mate Freddy Nadjamerrek got in touch and asked me to come out to join him and his dad Lofty Bardayal Nadjamereek setting up a community on their country and starting up Warddeken Land Management.
“That was back in the early 2000s and I’ve been back in the bush working as a senior ranger every since. I’m happy to see these young fellas learning to be rangers and using the knowledge and traditions from two cultures. Must be I’ve got a few more working years left .”
Photos — Top: Nigel and his team of Warddeken Rangers in 2008. Photo courtesy of David Hancock Below: Nigel and Freddy together with Lofty 10 years ago, soon after Nigel arrived at Kabulwarnamyo.