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Indigenous History of the Swan and Canning Rivers

The following information comes from the works of Daniel de Gand1 and research by Debra Hughes-Hallett2. For the full list of references download the document 'Indigenous History of the Swan Canning Rivers' on the right hand side of this page.

The Swan and Canning rivers, which stretch and snake their way for 280 kilometres from Wickepin to the deep blue of the Indian Ocean in Fremantle, represent an important slice of West Australian history.

Today, the rivers and immediate landscapes parade Western Australia’s urban wealth and abundant activity. But long before Dutch navigator Willem de Vlamingh named the Swan River in 1697, the land was roamed and cherished by myriad Noongar tribes.

Unlike the Europeans, who were somewhat blind to the beauty and abundance of their surroundings, Noongars felt an inherent connection to the land. They were divided into groups and given territories to hunt and gather, and using their in-depth knowledge of the land - largely attributed to the creation of six seasons - they enjoyed a wealthy life of sustenance. The untouched waters of the lakes and estuaries provided plentiful supplies of fish and market days or ‘mandjar’ allowed for the bartering of a variety of goods.

 Noongar seasons
Noongar seasons (Department of Conservation and Land Management)

The Waugal

As important as the land was for sustaining the Noongar communities, their dependence and interconnectedness with the rivers and the surrounding landscape was much more than physical - the land and water were intrinsically linked to the very existence of the Noongars, like a life force that created their identities and was ultimately central to their survival.

Pervading the everyday lives of the Noongars was their relationship with the Swan River and its surrounds – being of spiritual significance, giving a sense of ownership and identity with their surroundings.

The strong connection to the Swan and Canning rivers is largely attested by the Waugal - a powerful serpent-like dreamtime spirit who watched over the law and punished transgressors. Noongars believe the Waugal created the rivers, waterholes, lakes, valleys and landforms on its journey from inland West Australia to the ocean.

A number of important Waugal sites are known along the Swan River (e.g. the spring at the base of Mount Eliza), and along some of its tributaries (e.g. Bennett Brook).

One of the most significant of the Waugal sites on the Swan River occurs at Rocky Bay (Garangup), just to the northwest of Fremantle. It is here that the Waugal is believed to have crawled into the limestone cliffs to sleep after causing a great flood that submerged the land between Rottnest Island (Wadjimup) and the coast (Walyalup). There is still a large limestone cave at Rocky Bay which has a central pillar supporting the roof. The Waugal is said to have curled around this central pillar while sleeping. This cave was used by lime burners from 1890 to 1914.

The Waugal also created seven undulating hills (named the seven sisters by early settlers) before tunnelling underneath the limestone cliffs at Rocky Bay and out to the Indian Ocean. These hills represented a gateway to the spirits of the dead, which, following the route of the Waugal, passed down the river, through the depths under Garangup (Rocky Bay) and on to rest at Wadjimup. Buckland Hill is now the only remaining one of these original seven hills.

Despite the significant changes to the landscape, the strong connection with the land is still significant to many Noongars.

'Our spirits are in the trees and the hills and the rocks and the animals. When you’re born you come from the land and when you die your spirit goes back to the land. The spirit ancestors from the dreaming gave us this law. This is our heritage. It doesn’t change. ' (Whinmar, 1996, as cited in Department of Education and Training, 2008)

1 "Anthropological Guide for the Discussion of a Community Engagement Plan for the Nyungar People Affiliated to the Canning and the Swan River Systems", Daniel de Gand.

2 "Indigenous History of the Swan and Canning Rivers", Debra Hughes-Hallett.


Indigenous History of the Swan and Canning Rivers (1.8 MB)

Various works compiled and presented by Debra Hughes-Hallett.

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