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Phil retires from National Parks

Philip Sullivan said he discovered the foundation of culture working with National Parks. PHOTO TWH

When Phil Sullivan retired from the National Parks and Wildlife Service last Friday, he closed a chapter lasting 26 years, and is ready to begin a new one.

While he may no longer wear the uniform of the NPWS, he will proudly carry on the work he began as its first Aboriginal field officer, sharing the culture and traditions of his people.

‘Uncle Phil’ as he is widely known, is a respected elder and community member in the Bourke district community and has made contributions to the town beyond his role with national parks.

But he said it was the job that had helped shape his beliefs in the importance of identity – knowing where you came from, who you belonged to, and what your purpose was.

Phil began his career at the NPWS in 1996 and said he got the job through persistence.

“My friend Steve Wolter was the manager for the Bourke NPWS at the time and told me there was no job open, but I kept going in every day for a week until he finally gave me a job as the designated Aboriginal field officer,” Phil said.

“I learnt on the job and had people guide me, but I had been involved in the social side of the culture before then.

“I learnt about the foundation of our culture - the sites and the stories, protecting Aboriginal sites of significance across Bourke, Brewarrina, Cobar, Nyngan and Brewarrina shires.

“It involved identifying scarred trees, burial sites, and places of significance, and you are doing that by touching base with four or five different language groups and up to ten different nations.

“You have to understand their protocols and being a good communicator is your number one strategy.

“It was privilege to communicate in their own language and culture and then to work with farmers and property owners. It goes back to meeting people where they are and communicating with them in their space.

“I’ve been roused on a few times for not doing it properly,” he said.

Phil Sullivan was born in Brewarrina and lived on the mission there until it closed in the late 1960s. His mother brought her family to Bourke where Phil spent the rest of his childhood. He found work labouring, cotton chipping, as a youth worker and on the roads for the Bourke Shire.

He was the first Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer in Australia, a role he performed for four years with NSW Police until he took up the position with National Parks in 1996.

“Bourke is a community within a nation, as is Brewarrina, Weilmoringle and Enngonia and those places have taught me about the importance of identity,” he said.

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