News Songlines to soar for science and country

A unique collaboration between Geoscience Australia and a Ngambri-Wiradjuri firefighter is launching two Aboriginal totems into the sky.

Last updated:18 June 2024

"Growing up, learning about the environment was the same as learning about myself," says Reuben House, a 26-year-old Ngambri-Wiradjuri man and firefighter with ACT Fire and Rescue.

"Your Country — and how you care for it — is your identity. When I'm painting, I'm trying to pass on my knowledge about the Ngambri (or 'Kamberri') Country around Canberra, its songlines, explaining the beliefs and laws of my tribe to the rest of Australia."

The artist has created two pieces for the Digital Earth Australia program, depicting an Eagle and a Crow — two significant totems for the Ngambri people. The birds are shown soaring over the mountains and waterways of the ACT.

"The local Ngambri tribe were split into two groups," House explains: "the Eagle (Mallian) clan and the Crow (Yukumbruuk) clan, and all other totems of the region fell under these two groups."

People believed that Eagle-man and Crow-man lived at either ends of the Brindabella mountains. Because of kinship systems, the two clans were forbidden to intermarry.

"The Eagle and the Crow meant a lot to the people at the time," House adds. "The paintings share storylines about how the birds watch over the land and the clan."

Applying art to satellite science

"It was just a creative moment," says Dr Mark Broomhall, Chief Remote Pilot with the Digital Earth Australia program, of the idea that sparked Reuben's commission to paint his Eagle and Crow.

"This year we welcomed a new drone into our fleet of remotely piloted aircraft — a Noa-H6. This is the apex predator of drones.

"We thought we'd like to give the new drone a name and we wanted to find a local name for the wedge-tailed eagle. Thanks to Reuben and the Ngambri community, the Noa is now named Mallian, and the others are named Budyan, meaning 'bird' in general."

The drones fly optical sensory equipment over otherwise inaccessible landscapes for the DEA Analysis-Ready Data team. The data they capture is used to validate information received from satellites in orbit against what can be observed on the ground — ensuring the accuracy of digital maps of land cover, coastal erosion, deforestation, waterbodies, floods and bushfires.

"Whose job is it to care for Country?" asks House. "It's the job of all Australians. That's what NAIDOC Week is all about; bringing together as many diverse ideas and ways of thinking about the land as possible. Science and songlines and identity — it's all important. When I paint my animals, like the Eagle and the Crow, I show their inner organs and workings as well as what's on the outside. Every part matters."

As an artist and representative of the Ngambri community, Reuben House follows in the footsteps of his grandmother, esteemed community leader Dr Aunty Matilda House, his father, local Ngambri Custodian Paul House who has supported Geoscience Australia as it delivers on its Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan, and his uncles.

"Seeing my artwork on the drones, in my style, telling our stories and doing the work of geoscience is unreal," House says. "I hope my nan will be proud."

Did you know?

The word 'Canberra' is derived from the name of our ancestral group, our people and Country, the Ngambri — or 'Kamberri'.

Geoscience Australia is grateful to all members of the House family and Ngambri community who have contributed to this project for NAIDOC Week 2021. We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and community. We pay our respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their cultures and to Elders past, present and emerging.