was adopted by Aborigines after earning her trust by catching a python.

Discover the diversity and its people – a snapshot with Denise

May 2021


Denise was "adopted" by Aborigines after she was threatened with prosecution for catching a snake at the request of an elder. As age is relative, she is simply a wise woman in Aboriginal culture. This proud grandmother Denise lives on twenty acres of bushland with her husband and three dogs. A passionate biologist, environmental consultant, author, and tour guide, she also advises television producers on culture and wildlife. In both lines of work, she brings people closer to the cultural and natural richness of the Northern Territory. She also has a PhD (on American birdwatchers) and writes papers and sometimes lectures.)

What were your first encounters with biology?

I spent a few years of my childhood in the Riverland, a rural area in South Australia. As a shy child, I felt more comfortable around wildlife than people. I was fortunate to have an Aboriginal friend, Mrs Knight who took me on long walks through the bush and taught me a lot about nature. I was also a bookworm. My parents taught me to read before I was three and gave me a set of adult encyclopaedias when I was four. There I read a lot about animals, including their ecology, physiology and taxonomy (classification).


Was this time very decisive or formative for your future?

Two events in my childhood were very formative for me.

Mrs Knight was a key figure. Although I was still a child, she treated me as an equal. She taught me to perceive nature and its wildlife on an equal footing as well and to treat it accordingly. She, along with others, influenced the way I reared my children and encouraged me to look at other ways of education. This was helpful when Kunwinjku, Aborigines from Western Arnhem Land, asked me to help them start a little tourism project.  

The second experience was no less formative.

As a small child waiting for the school bus, I was often bullied by some boys. One day they hit me with the handle of an axe.  That afternoon, I walked home from the bus stop crying. Suddenly I felt something in my back. I thought it was the boys, but when I turned around, I saw a big black bull standing behind me. For the second time that day I thought I was going to die. But he just wanted me to scratch him between the horns which I did. I then put my arm over his neck, and we walked the rest of the way home together.

When the boys saw this, they could not believe their eyes. From then on, they left me alone. I taught myself self-defence and never again did a boy hit me.


Why were you adopted by the Aborigines?

In 1983 when I was an alderman on Darwin City Council. I wanted to represent the interests of the Aboriginal people in my ward.  To test my resolve the president of the Reserve Mrs Thompson, asked me to catch her a snake, to which I agreed. After wading for some hours in a lagoon that was home to at least one large crocodile I caught a water python (strangler snake).  But the Aboriginal women’s attitude towards me really changed when I was threatened with prosecution because I had caught a protected species.  They then saw me as a victim and to protect me Mrs Thompson adopted me, saying that now I was “black” I could hunt wildlife legally.


So, you are a very brave woman?

Personally, I wouldn't call myself brave. I am a lateral thinker and have often been in desperate situations that required quick thinking and action. Since I did a lot of research alone in nature, I often encountered potentially dangerous wildlife.  Often, I had to sneak up on one very big bull standing beside my tent and jump up and yell to scare him away.

Even before I was an alderman, I was aware of how the police dealt with Aboriginal people, and I began to intervene.  On one occasion an officer threatened me.  That was scary.  Kunwinjku relatives often ask me to mediate when there is trouble and many years ago elders named me "Lawungkurr", after an ancestral woman still respected for her mediation skills.   I am also known as “old lady”, a term meaning “wise lady”.


What were the biggest challenges in your new family?

I fitted in quickly, so I had few problems. Of course, I first had to learn which people I could talk to and which I couldn't (e.g. men I call "brothers-in-law").

It was a challenge when older women, my adopted sisters, decided to separate my now ex-husband and me with "magic". They thought he was "not good enough" for me. On meeting Michael, I sent his photo all over Arnhem Land and invited my sisters to meet him.  They later described him as "the best man, black or white in Arnhem Land"! 

One of my "Dreamings" is estuarine crocodile. If I am attacked by this animal, I can only politely ask it to leave me and my companions alone.  That is a challenge!  "Dreaming animals" must be treated with respect and love.

But one of my biggest challenges has been trying to change western attitudes towards Kunwinjku, particularly of the police. But many ordinary Australians also treat Aboriginal people as if they are ignorant which I find sad. My relatives speak several languages and have amazing bush and social skills. They are educated people.

The Kunwinjku Aborigines are my family. We love, understand, trust and accept each other.  Moreover, they enrich the wider society. I will never stop trying to help them for everyone’s sake.


What can we learn from the Aborigines?

There is much that we can learn from each other. 

For example, as toddlers Kunwinjku begin to learn parenting and teaching skills, patience, and self-regulation; these children are known as “little” “mummies and daddies”.  Such roles help them become competent parents and responsible members in the community.  


An example: My son Rowan became Ngaba ('little daddy') to his tribal brother's newborn son when he was only three years old.  Expected to help raise this little boy, this experience changed his behaviour for the better.

The words of Colin Turnbull, a British anthropologist who worked in Africa, come to my mind. For hunter-gatherer peoples, he wrote, integrity, kindness, charity, and tolerance are "not virtues" but "necessities for survival".  That is what I found.  But also, I learned that Kunwinjku are also consummate diplomats in times of trouble. 

These are essential skills that we all need particularly in this time of covid.


You are also an author, tell me more about your books.

The book "Birds of Australia's Top End" took me over 20 years to produce, mainly because of the artwork. It was the first Australian bird book to use a local Aboriginal language.  My autobiography, “Quiet Snake Dreaming”, I finished within five years. I write because I want to inform people by producing publications they like to read. As well I really enjoy writing. Let's protect nature, protect ourselves, our children and future generations.


What makes you happy, what makes you sad?

It saddens me that I spend so much time battling weeds such as the monstrous gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus), a weed imported from Africa to feed cattle.

This grass which grows over four metres in height is crowding out native flora and fauna in the Northern Territory’s Top End.  And it fuels dangerous fire.  It makes me happy that I have found a way to control the weed without glyphosate-based herbicides, and to learn that nature can recover once the grass is removed.

Unfortunately, gamba is now out of control in much of the Top End.  Furthermore, few people are interested in my safe method of removing it.


But my family makes me very happy as does living in the bush.  And I’ve just learned that Kunwinjku are now returning to their country, Baby Dreaming, where they will be safe.