The Schools Reconciliation Challenge, run by Reconciliation NSW, is an annual competition across New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Now in its 14th year, the competition asks students to create themed artworks or stories inspired by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, peoples and history.

In 2022, upward of 13,000 students and teachers used the online teaching resources, with over 650 students from across 82 registered schools submitting art and writing entries to the challenge.

The finalist artworks included in the 2022 exhibition showcase students’ visions for reconciliation in Australia. By engaging with the 2022 theme ‘From River to Sea: Our Island Home’, schools and students explored and celebrated the knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their relationships with water.

Top image credit: 'Gaawaa' © Ace Maston. International Grammar School Sydney.

Water has been the lifeblood for First Nations people who, for over 60,000 years, have lived on this vast and arid continent. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their relationship with water goes far beyond that of just physical survival; it is deeply embedded in identity, connections spirituality and ways of life as First Nations people.

In 2022, water extremes experienced by communities across NSW highlight the need for everyone to better understand and learn from First People’s land and water management practices, which have allowed their survival on the driest inhabited continent on Earth for millennia.

First Nations peoples’ view of Country encompasses the land as well as the waters that flow in and around it. One’s identity is deeply embedded in the Country they are from. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people often identify as being Saltwater or Freshwater people. Saltwater people are from sea Country along the coastlines and off the mainland, and Freshwater people from areas near inland water sources.

Through the sharing of Dreaming stories, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have developed a deep spiritual connection to Country. Teaching lessons by sharing stories has established lore on how water and Country is to be used, managed and cared for. Knowledge about how to locate water, and which water sources were suitable for bathing, fishing, leisure and ceremony safeguarded access to quality drinking water. This has allowed First Nations peoples to survive on the driest inhabited continent on Earth for millennia.

Reading the environment and observing seasonal changes, rainfall, tides and river levels and how this impacts flora, fauna and other natural resources has allowed First Nations peoples to live in harmony with the environment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples fish, hunt and collect resources, taking only what is needed and leaving enough behind to sustain supplies and maintain the delicate balance of the ecosystems in and around the water.

Historically, trade has also been an important aspect of life for First Nations people, and the water has provided many opportunities for that. Not only was water a way to travel from place to place but it also allowed for the development of fishing technologies and aquaculture systems, providing food for the local mob as well as an opportunity to trade these food supplies with other nations.

Finalists from the 2022 Schools Reconciliation Challenge

Writing finalists

Primary School category

They moved swiftly, across the night

Spears in their hands

Turning left and right

All throughout their lands

The country they once owned

Taken from them without warning

From which was never atoned

And since, we've caused global warming

All the tears involved

So much pain and heartbreak

That hasn't been resolved

Thev continued to take and take.

The men with brown boots

That destroyed their happy nation

Separated them from their family

Creating the stolen generation

Now we know their story

We understand it was wrong

This land their pride and glory

To which they have always belonged

This is their culture. their family

They continue to be proud

We should continue to be sorry

Equals we vowed

From river to sea

Our island home

Acceptance is key

We share together, our home.

We now come together

Their culture shall expand

Always was, always will be

Aboriginal land.

Author: Iris Hirst
School: Ellison Public School
Category: Primary school writing

Author's statement: This poem means that no matter how much we once denied it, some terrible things occurred. The hurt still remains and we can't ignore what happened. Although we can not undo our history, we can make up for it. We need to acknowledge the ancient and unbroken connection Aboriginal people have with this land.

“Come on boys get off those stupid things!”

“Ahhh fine,” we said as we came thundering down the stairs.

2 hours later, we are in the middle of bushland. As we walk, all we see is the forever ending lush forest going for miles and miles. I feel the rough rocks and the dried-up leaves brush across my bare feet as we walk along the ridged track. It starts to get windy like a tornado forming right in front of fearful eyes. Worries start to kick in. Are we still going to get home?

As we walk into the forest, we start to feel drops of rain sprinkle down on us. Drip drop, drip drop. We start to move a little quicker. Out of nowhere, Boom! The huge eucalyptus tree falls straight in front of us. We are stuck! The path is blocked. How are we going to get home now?

The rain is now bucketing down. We start to sprint in the opposite direction of the huge eucalyptus tree. We need to find the river home.

As we get to our river it is not what we remembered. All I see is rivers colliding over each other like an entanglement of grape vines. The river has lost its calm presence into something unrecognisable. It is now overflowing with fierce dark force ready to swallow us whole. We are doomed.

In terror we run as fast as we could, but it was too late. I have fallen into the arms of the abominable river. My two brothers were screaming my name. The monstrous river pushed me harder and harder beneath the water’s surface. Panic starts to kick in as I try desperately to fight off the river. I feel like I’m in a washing machine on high-speed churning and churning, waiting for it to be over.

Through the misty air, I see a huge waterfall in the near distance. My heart is pounding, and I know I cannot escape. I paddle as hard as I could against the current, but it was no use. The waterfall was getting closer and closer. This is the end of me. I close my eyes and pray. I felt a tug on my shirt.

“What is that?” I say to myself.

A familiar voice starts to grow louder and louder. I slowly open my eyes and I see my loving grandmother holding me by the T-shirt. The last thing I remembered hearing was “you’re home now”.

Author: Fredrick Hancock
School: Manly Vale Public School
Category: Primary school writing

Author's statement: My story is based around three boys who do not respect the environment. Whilst learning the hard way, they get stuck in a flood. They need to remember how to get home by using the river they were once told through story telling. First Nations peoples' cared for this land and told stories to communicate their knowledge. They have a spiritual connection to the water and I wanted that to be portrayed in my writing piece.

Water is flowing through our hands,

Shared between us across our lands.

From river to sea, we can all just be,

One family on our island home.

Water gives us food to eat,

Like crabs and fish, and crocodile meat!

From river to sea, it is the key,

One family on our island home.

Water can help us to grow as friends,

As we help to conserve it to the end.

From river to sea, we are one and free,

One family on our island home.

Author: Jacob George
School: Newington College Wyvern House
Category: Primary school writing

Author's statement: I wrote mainly about water because it is the connection between everything. It connects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, the foreigners who came here, all of us who live here now, the land and nature. Water gives us life. We should try to live together peacefully and happily.

“Mum where do I put my trash?”, a small child said.

"Just throw it in the ocean", the mum said.

As the child goes to throw the rubbish into the still water, she felt heartbroken. The water was the bluest water you would have ever seen. It was clear, clean and visible to all the coral and marine life. Forced by her mother, she felt compelled to litter and that’s what she did.

As the rubbish starts to sink down to the bottom of the ocean, something gets caught unexpectedly. Two bright green reptiles that were searching for food. Too slow to swim away, the turtles were stuck. They didn’t know how to escape.

1 hour had gone past and they were still imprisoned. They started to wiggle their hard shell back and forth but were still trapped. They started to lose hope and knew they were going to die.

From the distance they could see a dark blue object swimming towards them. Their hearts start to beat as fast as a cheetah. They start to wriggle for their life. As the creature comes closer and closer, they realise that it’s their friend Bob the blue whale. They were both relieved and hope started to kick in.

Bob had a great idea. With his mighty force and will power, he used his forehead to push the rubbish off his friends. The rubbish hit the sea floor, making the sand rise from the ocean floor.

When Bob and the two turtles were swimming, they noticed a little girl crying. To make her feel better, Bob jumped out of the water with his two turtle friends to show her that they were safe and well.

The next day, the little girl called the council about people throwing their rubbish into our oceans and harming our marine animals. It wasn’t long after that until ocean sweepers were hired to clean the seas and signs were placed everywhere saying “littering is not permitted”.

Author: Antwan Rhodes
School: Manly Vale Public School
Category: Primary school writing

Author's statement: I wrote this story because when the Europeans invaded Australia, they did not care about our oceans and animals. I wanted that to be visible in my writing. First Nations peoples are spiritually connected to this land and they made sure it was always protected.

I am the lifeblood of this nation,

Having prevailed since the time of creation,

Like warm blood pulsing through a vein, I connect the Indigenous peoples on this vast plain.

For millennia there has been harmony,

As they studied me observantly,

Hunting, bathing, fishing and trading,

Seasons, tides and rainfall, even newcomers, meanwhile, navigating.

From winding rivers to raging seas across this island home,

The Australian newcomers now earnestly strive to atone,

For past mistakes and injustice galore,

For meaningful reconciliation, and to restore.

So let us celebrate our shared identity,

And work towards a balanced destiny,

I am the lifeblood of this great nation,

I am water, and I have prevailed since the dawn of creation.

Author: Kiran George
School: Newington College Wyvern House
Category: Primary school writing

Author's statement: In this poem I have tried to demonstrate that the Indigenous peoples of Australia showed great reliance and reverence towards water and their natural surroundings. They have observed the water for many thousands of years and have gained great knowledge about how to manage, locate and care for water. First Nations peoples have a great connection to water, which brings them balance. The water is part of their identity. Water is the lifeblood of Indigenous Australian nations and connects all Indigenous Australians.

“I hear the whispers from ancient times. I hear the stories swim by,” the River said to the Sea. “I’ve been here from the beginning of time, from when the Rainbow Serpent created me”

“I collect them, the stories of Dreamtime and creation,” the grateful Ocean replied. “I’ve seen the First People gather, in their sacred places, for thousands and thousands of tides”

I am the sacred protector of the first nation peoples. Many ancestors are near the flowing water,” said the River.

“I’ve seen you offer water, red ochre, fish and much more. But our culture the Europeans still didn’t consider, now did they, River?”

“Captain Arthur Phillip arrived in 1788,” the Sea cried.

“He proved not to be our best mate,” the regretful River replied.

“The Captain in blue brought disease, items and food we never knew.”

“Aboriginal people were not used to this food. They are used to possums and roo.”

“Some tales I’ve heard are past mistakes, the children got taken from their tents”

“Mother’s were crying while their culture was dying, for 60 years they came and went”.

“I hear the people gathering on the Sydney Harbor Bridge,” the Sea said to the River

“A message of acknowledgement and respect they were trying to deliver.”

“People screamed and shouted as they started to walk.”

“I loved to see the people showing their love and support.”

“I hear the word ‘sorry’ carried by the wind and commemorated with respect, once every year”.

“Sorry Day encourages us to reflect on the indigenous people being betrayed, and this we hold dear”.

We've heard the river talk to the sea for many, many years. Whispers along the riverbanks and tears we’ve shed in fear. Our commitment lies with respect towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our Reconciliation journey continues towards a greater future that’s unknown but grown. From River to Sea: Our Island Home.

Authors: Tomasi Tate, Tobias Burke, Harper West and Priya Singh
School: Eglinton Public School
Category: Primary school writing

Authors' statement: Our writing group decided to write a poem where the River speaks to the Sea to demonstrate the connection of the River and the Sea. Our poem illustrates the importance of the river to First Nations peoples. We researched and then described six of Australia's significant events of the past, to show our country's reconciliation journey. We finished our writing with our hopes of a brighter future for unity and healing as a country.

The Wiradjuri tribe lives near Melbourne and Canberra in Australia. Wiradjuri people have inhabited modern-day Australia for over 60,000 years. Kirra, the tribe leader’s daughter,is very confident and extremely brave. She has short brown hair that shines in the sun which matched her eyes. Kirra is an adventurous person who is always willing to seek newopportunities to find new places. However, her father Coen, the tribe’s leader, was thecomplete opposite. He feared for Kirra’s safety which meant that no one in the tribe was allowed to go anywhere.

“Now, everyone listen up. We have no fresh water or food, so we have to go on a longadventure to get all of the food and water,” demanded Coen. The tribe always uses the river as a map to find their way to and from home. The tribe entered the bright, rich and vibrantbushland to search for food and water but something was wrong. The river was gone.

When the tribe had gathered all their delicious food and water, they decided to follow the river back to the huts.

“What happened to our crystal-clear river streams?” Kirra asked getting worried.

“There-there gone!” Coen said panicking.

The tribe was lost in the bush for the first time. In order to go back home, they needed a plan. The tribe slowly started to doubt themselves getting even more uptight by the second. Though on the other hand, Kirra was building up an excitement for an adventure to find home.

The tribe continues to go searching for a water source for months but on the way, they lose a few of their tribe mates which was a devastating tragedy. Not even a tiny water stream was found. The whole tribe couldn’t take it anymore, they slowly but surely started to cravefood and water. They were still lost in the bush land with no way out, but Kirra had a feeling that the tribe would be able to find their way home.

“Dad, dad I can see a huge brick wall up ahead!” Kirra shouted.

“I can see it too, let’s go!” Coen yelled.

The tribe raced towards the massive brick wall.

“Let’s break down this wall!” the tribe shouted in sync. The tribe started to smash the wall down with all their might. Crack! The wall had been destroyed and out came tonnes of watergushing out. The water gushed out traveling in a straight direction. The tribe decided to follow the water and hope that it will lead back to their home.

“Why did the river stream stop?” asked Coen.

“Oh, I know… We are home!” Kirra cheered excitedly.

As the tribe stepped through the forest leaves, they could hear the birds chirping. They could see their huts in front of them. The Wiradjuri tribe were saved by the rivers!

Author: Alice Larbey
School: Manly Vale Public School
Category: Primary school writing

Author's statement: I have published this text which is set in Australia. The story is about an Aboriginal tribe that uses the river streams as a map to move around their local area. This shows that water isn't just used for drinking but it also shows the connection First Nations peoples have to the land they live on. I wanted to highlight how important water was and still is to all Aboriginal people in a creative writing piece.

High School category

My father has shared with me tales of Indigenous peoples, telling me the first Indigenous people to walk the Noosa land, where my family lives, were called the Gubbi Gubbi people. My father gave me a speed boat last month for me to explore our oceans and surrounding land. It came with two paddles and an emergency kit just in case I got into a difficult situation. I decided to spend my weekend and use the perfect sunny day to go fishing on my new boat and explore the ocean and land of the Gubbi Gubbi People.

As I sailed out into the ocean, I stopped to do some fishing. As I was fishing, I was thinking of the Indigenous people that were here before us and what they would have used to hunt for their fish and how well they would have known these waters. I wanted to stretch my legs and go for a little walk on an island close by, so I started sailing towards it. As I approached the island, I stepped off my boat and secured it. The sun was gleaming into my eyes as I began walking in the hot, loose sand. While I was walking, I realised my water bottle did not have a single drop of water, I was thirsty. My mouth became as dry as a desert when I suddenly heard the noise of flowing water close by. I was eager to follow this sound of flowing water and so I did. With much excitement it led me to a magnificent waterfall with a big fresh waterhole, I was amazed. Once I caught my breath, I ran down as fast as I could and as soon as I reached the waterhole, I took a huge gulp of fresh water. My body was instantly refreshed.

I could see a cave behind the waterfall and as I walked into this cave, I could see amazing Aboriginal paintings on the walls. The paintings were of the Gubbi Gubbi people drinking from this waterhole and a creek leading to the ocean. I decided to follow the freshwater creek that led to the ocean as seen in the painting. As I walked along the creek bed I looked up to the sky and thought of all the great things Indigenous people have taught us, their hunting skills, their knowledge of what is in our waters, the food we eat and survival.

As I got to the end of the creek bed where I could see the freshwater meet and come together with the salt water of the ocean. I stopped and thought, here the fresh water from the waterhole and creek is meeting the salty water of the ocean. They are all mixed in together, like us people. We are all different, but we come together and unite as one just like fresh and saltwater.

Author: Sabah Jackson
School: Orana Steiner School
Category: High school writing

Author's statement: Writing this story gave me the feeling of how thankful we are to the Indigenous peoples who first walked this great land discovering all its beauty and its dangers. I have a love for the water, going on adventures and being outdoors and if it was not for their great lessons on hunting, nature and our waters we would not have the knowledge we have today.

The whirling winds, the swirling seas

The pull of the tides, it draws us in

The gift of the sea, a wishing well of wonders

The sacred retreat where our wildlife seek refuge

The heart of our island, where the waterways meet

Yet, without the soul of the island, it is incomplete

The peoples are the missing piece

The caretakers, custodians, curators

Who conserve and care for country

And all of nature's bounty

The wind whispers wisdom as it snakes through the island

If our marine and mammal wildlife can live in harmony

How can we reciprocate national unity across the skies, waterways, and land?

To reconcile our island and mould the future of our country together

Author: Maya Dias
School: Loreto Normanhurst School
Category: High school writing

Author's statement: The 2022 Schools Reconciliation Challenge theme “From River to Sea: Our Island Home” is the fundamental framework for my poetic writing piece which explores the natural beauty and wonders of our island home and uplifting the voices of all Australians to merge our waterways, skies, and land through caring and connecting to Country to find the spirit and heart of our shared home. The 2022 Schools Reconciliation Challenge theme highlights not only the physical worth of water as the lifeblood for First Nations peoples for 65,000 years but the ties to identity, spirituality, lore, Country, and cultural practices which are encompassed in the care for our island country and its sacred waterways. My poetic piece sparks conversation and deep reflection, illuminating the path forward in the journey to reconciliation through a vision to recognise Australia’s shared national identity in the pursuit to learn, embrace and celebrate the knowledge, land management practices and culture embedded in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander care and connection to Country for our island home. My poetic piece sheds light on maintaining gratitude for the gift of our island home and waterways which breathe life and urges all peoples to reciprocate its gestures through actively embodying the role of a caretaker and steward of the environment to heal the wounds of water resource depletion, habitat loss and industrial development and restore our island home to its original condition of health, vibrancy, and biodiversity.

On a sunny morning I decided to take my boat out to explore the ocean around Fraser Island. My father told me the island’s name changed from Fraser Island back to K’gari, the name used by its traditional owners who were the Butchulla people which means the ‘Sea People.’ I jumped into my boat and started to sail off. I could see the amazing ocean; it was like a dream. As I kept sailing, I could see something shining below the shallow water’s surface as I got closer to the island. It was a large colourful rock. The colours were bright, earthly, and so capturing. I reached down into the cold water to grab it and as I got closer I could see Aboriginal artwork on it. Could this be the rock of the Sea People? When I turned the rock over, there was a small picture map painted. As I closely studied it, I could see that it was Fraser Island with a drawing of a native tree. I decided to secure my boat to explore and follow this map drawn by the Sea People.

I secured my boat and began my journey; the map showed the beach with a walking trail leading deep into the island's land. I could see a freshwater creek and walked along it, I hoped it would lead me to the native tree. I stopped to think, why did the Butchulla people draw this map? Was this rock meant to be found? As I walked, I thought of how much Indigenous people have taught us. We would not be walking on this beautiful island, we would not know how to hunt for fish and the importance of our oceans and surrounding land. As I kept walking, I could see in the distance this huge lush green tree, the trunk was so thick and a deep brown colour, it looked exactly like the one painted on the rock but so much bigger. As I approached the tree, it took my breath away; I just stood there feeling its energy, hearing and seeing the leaves blow in the wind and the strong smell of the green leaves and bark. It was at that moment I thought this tree was supposed to be found.

The tree connects us with the Butchulla People, we walk upon the same land they once walked, looking at the same tree that once gave them life. This tree gave them shade, gave them warmth, helped them not to ever get lost and gave them shelter. This tree still gives us the same, as I sit under its big leafy branches giving me the same shade it once gave the Butchulla people, uniting us as one. It is so important for us to continue to protect what the Butchulla people once protected. This rock was meant to be found and this story shared.

Author: Jade Jackson
School: Orana Steiner School
Category: High school writing

Author'sstatement: I have always known that trees give life, they stand tall and strong with other trees and nature. My story is about standing strong and tall together with Indigenous peoples, united as one. I wrote this story to thank them for this land they discovered and for teaching us about all the trees on our land. I thank them for their artwork, for us to learn from and see forever.