DHANI Gilbert, 19, has been caring for the land from a young age. Growing up on Ngunnawal country in Canberra, the Wiradjuri woman’s favourite childhood memory is of bush walks with her family around Mount Ainslie.
It’s here where she first learnt to identify native flowers and seeds and it’s here where she learnt the importance of caring for country.
“My parents made connecting to country a constant in everything I did and so, ever since I was a baby, I spent a lot of time out in nature, learning about the land and how to care for it,” Ms Gilbert says.
“I am blessed to have had that because it has influenced where I have gone in life and what I’m doing.”
As winner of the 2021 National Young Landcare Leadership Award, Ms Gilbert intends to use the recognition to help promote caring for country methods passed on by her parents.
“Growing up I was surrounded by caring-for-country practices that were taught to me by my parents and my community, things like cultural burning, seed collection, native-vegetation restoration and weed-eradication work,” Ms Gilbert says.
An aspiring field ecologist, she joined ACT Landcare in 2019.
The national award recognises her work as a community educator at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary and for her participation in promoting Landcare practices such as weed eradication and cultural burning.
In the aftermath of the 2019-2020 bushfires, Ms Gilbert says conversations changed about how we look at First Nations’ ways of caring for country.
She says there’s now more interest from the community about cultural burning and how it can help.
“Fire hazard reduction burns can affect animals, soils and plant life but First Nations’ cultural burns start in one spot and spread out slowly allowing native animals time to escape,” Ms Gilbert says.
“I’ve been to cultural burns where one day you’ll burn grass then and the next day when you come back there’s green shoots popping out.
“Conversations are starting to happen around how we can integrate First Nations’ methods of looking after the landscape.”
Currently in her second year studying a double degree in science and environment and sustainability at the Australian National University, Ms Gilbert is also passionate about encouraging Canberrans to appreciate their local landscape.
“Canberra has incredible plant species that we should be more aware of and engage with more,” she says.
“Even though we are lucky to be the bush capital, I don’t think we engage with our landscape enough to understand the absolute value of the plants we have there.
“We have amazing grasses like kangaroo grass which is hearty but can be used to make grains and then there’s old man weed, it’s a medicinal plant.
“Once we start noticing what’s around us we become engaged and aware about country.”
Apart from her work in cultural education and ecology, Ms Gilbert is also passionate about promoting the rights and recognition of First Nations’ peoples.
The granddaughter of the late Aboriginal activist and tent embassy organiser Kevin Gilbert, she says it saddens her that basic rights for indigenous people still go unmet.
“Unfortunately for First Nations’ people in this country, the work my pop and dad did hasn’t achieved change in some areas. We are still having the same conversations around First Nations’ peoples having basic rights like not dying in custody,” Ms Gilbert says.
“Whilst the next generation picks up where the old people left off and takes it further, we are still fighting the same fights as our old people because we haven’t seen a shift.”
Ms Gilbert is also completing a graduate certificate in Wiradjuri Culture and Heritage from Charles Sturt University and was recently named the 2021 ACT Young Woman of the Year.
“I also teach weaving to young girls,” Ms Gilbert says.
“When I was in Year 12, I set up a weaving circle for high-school girls to come and have a yarn, learn to weave and to build community.”
Despite her hectic schedule, Ms Gilbert insists she’s just a normal 19-year-old.
“I’m really just like any other young person,” she says.
“I love hanging out with my friends, going on walks and crashing out on the couch watching Netflix.”
The Red Hill Bush Regenerators also picked up a gong at the National Landcare Awards, winning the Landcare Community Group Award for their 30-plus years of work restoring the native bushland ecology of the Red Hill Nature Reserve.
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