That's the Spirit: Christopher "Burra" McHughes - Brewarrina
Christopher “Burra” McHughes is barely into his 20s, but he’s already an accomplished photographer, a seasoned “firie” and a shining example for young people in the communities he serves as a founding member of the NSW Rural Fire Service’s first Indigenous State Mitigation crews in Brewarrina and Bourke. A Ngemba Gamilaraay man, Burra is dedicated not only to his Aboriginal heritage, but to the community as a whole and to strengthening bonds between traditional and modern cultures. That’s the Spirit’s JEN COWLEY spent time with Burra on the banks of his beloved Barwon River.
Jen: Everyone knows you as “Burra”, how did that come about?
Burra: I don’t know, really. It was a nickname either my grandmother or uncle gave to me when I was a little baby, but that’s what everyone calls me.
One of my grandmothers is Ngemba Yuwaalaraay, the other is Murriwarri, and so I identify as a Murriwarri Ngemba Yuwaalaraay man. Here at Brewarrina is the junction of a number of different nations – there were seven tribes that would gather on the river which was a meeting place. The tribes would come in to trade – they would trade weapons for food or food for weapons and so on.
Jen: Your heritage is an important part of your identity, but you’ve also been involved with the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) for a long time now haven’t you?
Burra: Yes - since about Year 10 or 11, so eight or nine years now. I volunteered for a fair few years and now I am in the (paid) role as a crew leader with the state mitigation. Bre and Bourke are the first towns in NSW to have Indigenous State Mitigations crews (ISM) (Ed’s note: All-indigenous RFS firefighting crews whose job includes protecting sacred sites, caring for country and fighting remote fires.)
Hopefully we can evolve more ISM crews around the state. The spotlight is on Bre and Bourke because we’re the first, so as other towns and communities come on board we would be their mentors so they’ve got someone to talk to or to ring up and say, “How did you do this and what did you do around that…”
Christopher "Burra" McHughes, Brewarrina NSW
Jen: The work that you do in the community is not just around fires – tell me about some of the other stuff you do with the ISM?
Burra: We partner with NSW Fire and Rescue to make sure all households have working smoke alarms – we do a program which is called AIDER – Assist and Inform Disabled and Elderly Residents. It’s a service to reduce bushfire hazards – we can take away tall grasses from around their homes, remove sticks and leaves from gutters, do the mowing and slashing and take all that away, so we help reduce the risk of fire.
Jen: So that has not only a good fire mitigation outcome, but also helps the aged and infirm in the community and helps keep Brewarrina looking good and safe.
Burra: Exactly. We can also help the blokes working for the shire – if we see them working flat out, we can go and ask if they need a hand. One day, for instance, some trees fell down and the council bloke was busy with a chainsaw trying to cut down three or four trees. I went over and asked if he wanted a hand and helped him with cutting up the branches and taking them away in the truck.
We also go into schools and have a yarn to kids, not only about the dangers of fires but what happens around starting fires, controlling fires and putting out fires. Those are the three important things and we also talk about how they can join the RFS by coming up through the grass roots way like I did. I’d like to see an easier way for mobs out this way to come up through the fire brigade. Being part of the brigade as a volunteer is not just about pride at helping fight fires, it’s about showing respect. It teaches kids and gets them ready for the workforce.
There are so many skills you can learn – it’s not just about fighting fires. Firefighting can lead you to other career paths like communications or assisting the ambulance service, you might want to be a paramedic or join the police force, and being a volunteer firefighter can help lead you to that.
I’d really like to see the Rural Fire Service create more roles behind the scenes (for Aboriginal people). For instance, if international firefighters come over, one of our elders could give them a smoking ceremony and welcome them, that’s what I would really like to see. Welcome them into Australia with a smoking ceremony or even welcome to country.
Christopher "Burra" McHughes, Brewarrina NSW
Jen: Do you enjoy setting an example for other young people and kids in your community?
Burra: I don’t see myself as role model, although a lot of kids and community see me that way. I don’t need to put that cap on. People always see me with that cap on even though I don’t see it on myself.
There are some unfortunate pathways for young Aboriginal people, but I’ve always embraced the good opportunities that have been there for me. I’ve never hesitated to go and try a challenge and I always bring that work ethic to the table.
Jen: Who is your greatest influence – who were your own role models?
Burra: My dad was the main one and a couple of other people have inspired me to just get out and give everyone a hand. I’ve always been taught to give anyone hand – I don’t care if you’re in the dumps, I’ll help anyone who needs help.
Jen: Why do you love where you live and what does your connection to Brewarrina mean to you?
Burra: The thing that touches me is every time I go away for deployments or go for visits, I always have a yarn to people. When I say I’m from Brewarrina they say they’ve heard it’s a bad place. I tell them, no, it’s not a bad place – it’s just what the media chucks out at the time or what this person heard from that person who has never been to Brewarrina.
It’s a good town. Everyone knows everyone, which is special. You get in and you do your thing; you have a yarn to people and people yarn back to you.
I would like to see more happening in Brewarrina in terms of employment opportunities. When I was growing up I was really lucky to start employment at the age of 12 or 13 at the local newsagency so that is where my work ethic came from. I was really lucky gaining that employment there. I had all that experience before I turned 18 and left school – I learned a work ethic and all the respect that goes with it, I had that before I left school and started on a working life.
Jen: What do you think are some of the misconceptions about Brewarrina? You’ve mentioned that people think it’s a bad place – what would you like people to know about your life in Brewarrina?
Burra: It’s a great place to grow up. We went swimming in the river, and spent time at the pool, playing in the park and playing like any normal kids do. I’d love to see towns do an exchange with children – so kids from the city could come to Brewarrina and kids from here could go and see the city communities to show each other what it’s like in their communities. It would be good for city kids to experience Brewarrina through an adventure so when they grow up they can say yeah I’ve been to Brewarrina for a week when I was younger and it was really fun.
Because now you hear stuff about Brewarrina: one person heard from that person who heard from another person that it’s a very bad place. And I say, “Why is it a bad place? Have you ever been there?” And often, they haven’t even been here. So I say, “Well come out and spend at least a couple of hours to just sit down and have a yarn with someone from Brewarrina.”
Jen: You’ve had a passion for photography since you were just a young fella – how has your photography helped to tell that story of Brewarrina and what has it done for you personally?
Burra: Personally, I’ve shot above where I’d thought I’d be with my photography skills. Our federal member (of parliament) even had one of my photos in his Christmas calendar. I just love taking photos and showing people a bit about Brewarrina and all the beauty there is to see out here. If you take just a couple of hours to relax out here you would see that. I take the time to take photos of the scenes that not many other people would take the time to stop and look at. I take photos of the night sky, the river, the fish traps, which are one of the oldest man made structures in the world and not many people know that.
Jen: Being a local you see it with different eyes so you can tell a different story to help explain to visitors the beauty of Brewarrina.
Burra: That’s right. My grandmother had grown up on the mission and my dad was one of the last kids born on the mission. So I have that connection, I know the stories of Brewarrina – the fish traps, the missions and the Hospital Creek massacre (Ed’s Note: In 1859, an estimated 400 Aboriginal people were shot and killed near Brewarrina as a result of conflict with white settlers.)
Jen: You’ve managed to straddle two worlds – you embrace your Aboriginal culture as well as the whitefella’s way. Does that help you with serving your community?
Burra: I have a sense of my own identity, even though Aboriginal law is different to the normal nowadays, whitefella law – it’s completely different. I’d like to keep more of the old law way but, you know, the new law says you have to follow it. But I still feel as connected to my culture as I always have. Every time I go up to my grandfather at Goodooga I always sit down and get a bit more knowledge from him. I also get a lot of knowledge from my grandmother who lives in another town. I really want to sit down and video record her, cause she is coming to the age now where that knowledge might be lost soon. Aboriginal people are not likely to get over a certain age. I really need to sit down with her more and get more knowledge before it dies with her.
Jen: How important is Aboriginal culture for Brewarrina’s identity as a whole?
Burra: We still have something that is very special to us which is the fish traps, that’s what keeps our culture strong is that connection through the story of the fish traps, as well as the stories from our mission and the story of the Hospital Creek massacre. Those sites and those stories, we hold that strongly to our hearts and no one can take that out of us. Our family, our mob keeps us thriving, keeps us connected.
That connection to Aboriginal culture is really valuable for Brewarrina.
When we had an Aboriginal funeral recently, all the shops down the main street closed their doors and people stood out the front while the funeral went past. The town joined in the sorry business. The community all came together. That’s something we do, we come together at social events as well – like things at the RSL club, or the markets, or Australia Day at the pool. We all come together and mix in.
We have our own identities, but at the end of the day we all pretty much get along together.
Christopher "Burra" McHughes, Brewarrina NSW
Jen: Why do you think it is important to help in your community?
Burra: I like to give back to the people in my community. If there are no people like me it would be pretty hard for the RFS to try to connect to the community.
I will put it this way: Aboriginal people can sometimes be against the police and fire brigade because, with the fire brigade at least, they don’t really know what the fire brigade does. Once an Aboriginal person breaks that barrier down, it’s alright for them – they don’t really want a non-Aboriginal person going on country and driving over the land without the knowledge of cutting this tree or that tree for instance, like a scar tree or something. The community is more comfortable if they know there’s an Aboriginal person there. I reckon we should have more Aboriginal people on the fire brigade to identify those things and work as a bridge with the community.
Jen: Do you see that as part of your responsibility – to help to bridge a gap there between whitefella and blackfella worlds?
Burra: Yes, exactly. I see it all the time. It used to be that the main people who were in the fire brigade was the white male aged 30 and older. Some of those older people didn’t know how to connect with the younger people. Now if I go away or get deployed somewhere and I see kids playing in the park I’ll pull up for 5-10 minutes and go and kick the football around with them, something to break down that barrier fence that’s between the two worlds and create a chain link instead.
I’ve been part of that chain and I want to keep it up and make it stronger and have more indigenous kids involved because they’re the next elders. I want to bring them along and teach them that they can be part of both worlds – they can have have an identity with Aboriginal culture but still be a part of the main stream.
Every morning I put my work shirt on but at the end of the day I’m an Aboriginal boy at heart. I put the work uniform on and I represent the service but I’m also here to represent the community. They know that if they need a hand with anything they won’t hesitate to ring, whereas five or ten years ago if something happened to them they wouldn’t really ring unless it was really urgent, especially the elders. I really noticed if they’re sick they will try to just deal with it – now we’ve built up the trust so we’ve got them to speak up. I’ve become a face they can trust. A link.
Like I said, I just try to do the best I can for my community and I’d love to do more for other communities to get their trust with emergency services.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.