Language is so fundamental to identity. I was 45 years old before I learned my first word in the language of my grandmother Francis McGee-Little. The word was Dhungala. This is the name for the river which flows through the land of the tribes collectively known as Yorta Yorta. More recently it has been called the Murray, but for the Yorta Yorta, Dhungala has been a source of life and renewal for two thousand generations.

Learning this first word was a deeply significant moment for me. It was almost like hearing the ancient voices of my ancestors renewing the thread of continuous knowledge which had only so recently been broken.

Deborah Cheetham Deborah Cheetham. Photo © Wayne Quilliam

When I created my opera Pecan Summer, which deals intimately with the recent history of the Yorta Yorta people, it only made sense to begin with the creation of the river Dhungala. In this dreaming we meet three main characters. Biami, the creator, Gomuka, a woman ancient and wise, and Dunatpan – the giant mythical snake. Biami sends Gomuka down from the mountain into a dry and barren landscape. Behind Gomuka follows Dunatpan. Together they carve...