Tag Archives: Indigenous

Rock art vandalised

One morning I read the devastating news that paintings, made by aboriginals before white settlement (Tasmania began to be settled by Europeans in 1803), in a rock shelter near the Derwent River had been vandalised. The images were made by the Big River people, also known as the teen toomele menennye and the cave is considered a sacred site for aboriginal people.

Such caves are unknown among the general public, they are not advertised or signposted, there are no roads to them, and their location cannot be discovered in books.  This shelter is located on private property so that casual walkers are unlikely to have access.

To give some sort of perspective about the number of people who would know about aboriginal sites along the Derwent, inland Tasmania’s country is mostly either under primary production, forest plantations or related to electricity generation. Agricultural properties change hands over time and so it is reasonable to suggest that knowledge of any special sites would be shared across more people than the current owners and property managers.  Caves on Hydro Tasmanian property would be known to a few employees. Nevertheless, outside the aboriginal community, the pool of people who know their whereabouts would be small.  So when I learned of this tragedy I wondered why and who defiled the paintings.

I find it interesting that within a month of Hydro Tasmania releasing a newsletter mentioning the rock shelter, without giving a location, the vandalism was discovered. I wonder if there is a connection between that article and the damage; whether a reader of that newsletter who knew the rock shelter shared information about the site with someone who did not value the cultural history of our indigenous people. If you have more information please talk to Tasmania Police.

Here are some of the media stories:

The Mercury  

The ABC 

The Smithsonian Magazine

Religious wildernesses

I remember childhood Bible stories referred to the Wilderness. These days I find it interesting to consider most if not all religions link with the concept of the wilderness. Laura Feldt covered this topic in “Wilderness in Mythology and Religion”: ‘Wilderness is one of the most abiding creations in the history of religions.’ Her book ‘addresses the need for cross-cultural anthropological and history of religions analyses by offering in-depth case studies of the use and functions of wilderness spaces in a diverse range of contexts including, but not limited to, ancient Greece, early Christian asceticism, Old Norse religion, the shamanism-Buddhism encounter in Mongolia, contemporary paganism, and wilderness spirituality in the US.’

In her 2014 article ‘Religions need wilderness’, Kathleen Braden wrote “The three monotheistic religions based on a common root – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have an expression of nature and wilderness as places that allow perception of God’s sovereignty. … Wilderness is a territory (both on land and sea) where one encounters God, and it is not always an easy geography. For the ancient Israelites, it may be a place of repentance coupled with renewal. When the Israelites leave Egypt and displease God, they must wander in hostile lands before reaching a promised place. Abraham casts the slave woman, Hagar, into the wilderness, but she is saved by God, who renews her spirit and gives her a vision that she will build a great nation. Similarly, in the New Testament, the gospel of Mark begins with John the Baptist proclaiming God in the wilderness, foretelling the Christ who is to come, and calling for, again, repentance. Jesus has his own time in the wilderness being tested and honed for his ministry. For believing Muslims, creation is a gift from God and a sign of God’s grace. Similar to Judaic and Christian traditions, in Islam, nature reflects the dominion of God, not the hubris of human control. For these three monotheistic faiths that began in the Middle East, groups of believers through history have set themselves apart in monastic communities, often seeking out the wild places in self-imposed exile to allow the voice of God to be understood more clearly.

In other religions, nature and the sacred helps bring humanity into a right relationship with creation. Baha’i traditions hold that nature reflects the perfection of God and thus, sacred spaces help create a sense of harmony, transformation, and wholeness. In Hinduism and Jainism, nature reflects the abundance that the earth provides and also reminds us of the wholeness of humanity with all other life forms: there should be no barriers or separation.

Likewise, Buddhism suggests that nothing that exists is in isolation, but the sacred can lead us to understand the interdependence of all living things and help us express compassion for creation. Some sects of Buddhism also have, like the desert Christian communities, an ascetic tradition, adherents who must be removed from the material world. Their spiritual quests may be best realized in wilderness.

Religions or traditions with cultural hearths further east in Asia – Shintoism, Confucianism, Daoism – also have expressions of harmony and continuity with nature, but perhaps more in a cosmological view, although places, such as sacred stands of trees with shrines in Shintoism, may be manifest of the need to have a holy place of contemplation and refreshment.

Finally, Indigenous religious traditions are so varied and numerous that outlining them in a short essay might risk stereotyping these faiths. But in many regions, Indigenous spiritual traditions connect the wild with a worldview that interweaves humanity with nature in an unbroken relationship. Whether the shamanistic traditions of Central Asia, Native American religions of North and South America, pre-Christian European practices, animistic faiths of the African continent, or contemporary paganism, none are devoid of practices and stories related to the human relationship with nature. 

While the sacred does not have to be wilderness, wild places must be sacred. Religion needs wilderness. Whether we call this hunger an expression of God’s sovereignty or evidence of the union of all living things or connection with ancestors and a world of spirits, religion requires the wild – the not-us – to show a crucial interrelationship. The threats to wilderness, therefore, also pose a danger to the heart of humanity’s most treasured faith doctrines.”

As an atheist I don’t believe a God or other deities exist, whatever name is given by any religion. However, I am happy to be playful with one ancient Greek god who came out of retirement to meet me. A recent comment by my sister about the danger of snakes when I walk in the Tasmanian bush (all Tasmanian snakes inject their venom poisonously), reminded me of my meeting with Zeus last year. While walking in the visitor-less grounds of one of his temples located in Dion, northern eastern Greece, he and I surprised each other. Zeus has the ability to transform himself and appear as a snake. There he was basking in the sun near the end of the path I was following. Having welcomed me, he slipped away quickly.  I felt very safe then, as I will do when walking along the Derwent River. Besides, Tasmania’s Mt Olympus overlooks Lake St Clair on its western flank, and we all know Zeus’s home is Mt Olympus, albeit the one in Greece. I suspect Zeus will look out for me in some form, and make sure I reach Lake St Clair.

Despite not believing in a God, I do believe in the personally transformative power of the bush, wilderness, forests, whatever you may call those bunches of trees and natural collections of flora and fauna.

When with friends I have talked about walking, particularly in the bush, as a meditative practice. Sometimes the impact of the bush and its flora and fauna is so great that a well of great happiness is tapped – as evidenced, for example, by my bursting into song as described in an earlier post . At the end of any walk, words such as reinvigorated, revitalised, relaxed, uplifted, satisfied and at peace always come to mind. In addition, the power of the bush allows me to put the rest of life and living into perspective. Nature and its forces are so much stronger and more beautiful than any one of us, and it is a delight to be reminded of this in such profound ways. The rich rare world out there, rather than any religious connection, draws me to our wilderness.

Wilderness – what is it?

The word ‘wilderness’ has different meanings depending on context. Dictionaries offer a range of similar meanings:

  • An uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. Neglected or abandoned.  A large area of land that has never been developed or used for growing crops because it is difficult to live there. (Oxford)
  • An unsettled, uncultivated region, especially a large tract of land that has not been significantly affected by human activities. A barren or desolate area; a wasteland. Something characterised by bewildering vastness, perilousness, or unchecked profusion. (The Free Dictionary)
  • A wild, uncultivated region, usually where humans do not live. Any desolate tract or area. (WordReference.com)
  • A tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings. An area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community. An empty or pathless area or region. (Mirriam Webster dictionary)

From Old English used in the 13th century, the word ‘wilderness’ is derived from wild dēor ‘wild deer’, wilddēoren ‘wild beasts’, and from wildēornes, ‘land inhabited only by wild animals’. From Middle English, wildern is ‘wild’.

Reflecting on these varying definitions, I realise some of the meanings ring true particularly in relation to the land along the Derwent River between Lake Catagunya and Derwent Bridge (I anticipate this part of the River will take at least 8 days to walk, over three stages).

Lake Catagunya to Derwent Bridge

The sides of the River will be uncultivated and uninhabited. Its dense forest, littered with generations of massive tree falls, will make some sections relatively inhospitable.  The only markers of human kind will be parts where old growth logging has or is occurring, and where the infrastructure associated with dam construction across the Derwent River has occurred and is being maintained.  The area will not be barren, desolate (although I might feel desolate when penetrating some of the denser bush hour after hour), and it is not neglected, abandoned nor a wasteland.  This wilderness will be rich with flourishing flora and fauna, have profound connections with the original indigenous population pre-European settlement of Van Diemen’s Land, hold a social history with the settlers who moved inland in the 1800s and 1900s, and include an occasional contemporary history with photographers, tourists and fishermen.

The United States of America has proclaimed special legislation. ‘The Wilderness Act bans all kinds of motors, roads, and permanent structures from large tracts of American territory. It provides a legal definition of wilderness, as land that’s “untrammelled by man” with a “primeval character and influence”.’  You can read more at this site.  What is the Australian situation?

The Wilderness Society of Aus logo

The Wilderness Society of Australia summarises our state-based rather than national legislation in relation to the wilderness. ‘Dedicated wilderness legislation exists in NSW and SA, which allows the nomination, assessment, declaration and management of wilderness. In other States, such as Victoria, Queensland, WA and the ACT, management of wilderness is provided for under general nature conservation legislation, with varying degrees of usefulness in terms of actually ensuring identification and appropriate protection.’

In Tasmania we have a range of legislation including the most recent Tasmanian Forest Agreement Act that was negotiated to include the requirements of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) – that is, those parts of Tasmania which have been recognised with World Heritage listing for their natural and cultural heritage that is important to the world community.  Tasmania’s Nature Conservation Act talks about biological and geological diversity, and historic sites and provides regulation for our fauna (and strangely it also covers animals which do not live in Tasmania such as dingos and wolves) and flora. The word ‘wilderness’ does not appear.

stock-photo-64271807-walking-boot-and-bike-tread-marks-on-muddy-trail(Image is a free iStock photo)

The land on which I will walk has been walked for thousands of years originally by our indigenous ancestors and more recently by their descendants and European settlers. However, there will be parts on my trek which will not have had many footfalls because of the isolation and the forest density.  Unless there was a purpose such as surveying the Derwent River as part of planning to build dams, sensible people would travel from Lake St Clair towards the coast  via the region around the township of Ouse, or by more hospitable routes. With or without the word ‘wilderness’ being written into our state legislation, much of the inland edges of the Derwent River edge are undoubtedly genuine wilderness.

Golden acacias

In our Tasmanian bush and in the suburbs Spring is evidenced by the budding and blooming of the early flowering native acacias. Last year, I included photographs of a few different varieties of these trees, commonly known as wattles, in various blog posts. Over the weekend during a suburban ramble, I was delighted to come across the early awakenings of a couple of wattle trees.

In my photo below, on the lower left of the image you can see some ‘open’ flower balls. As yet I have not been able to identify this acacia tree: it looked something like an Acacia Riceana otherwise known as the Arching Wattle, but it was not a prickly bush so this means it is another variety of the 950 species of acacias.

 2015-08-08 10.01.54

Wattles have been known and used by Australia’s indigenous population for thousands of years as an excellent food source. According to WildSeed Tasmania  , the Acacia mearnsii ‘Black Wattle’ is one of a number of local wattle trees which have edible seeds suitable for flour production and for medicinal uses of its bark. More information can be read at Bush Tucker Edible Acacias. The Australian Native Food Industry says the edible parts are ‘Seed – the seed is harvested, then roasted and can be ground or sold whole. The flowers (without stalks) can also be used, typically in pancakes, scones and scrambled eggs or omelettes.’ This website also contains information about the nutritional value: wattle seed is a high energy source, contains a wide range of minerals and provides valuable fibre to the diet. The seed pods appear in the first part of the year so, when I am walking along the Derwent in the first three months of 2016, I will remember this readily available food source.

Finding cooked produce containing wattle seed in cafes or restaurants is not unusual. Native Tastes of Australia lists many recipes for mouthwatering cakes, pies, meat dishes and much more.

The scope of my research into Tasmanian aboriginal history

My last post generated lots of interest so this post should clarify my intentions.

Principally, I plan to gather information about the aboriginals who frequented the area along the Derwent River, from the mouth to the source of the River. My research aims to collect and collate reliable and authentic information about the life of the indigenous communities prior to European settlement in Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania.  In so doing, I hope to be able to understand the value of the River to early indigenous peoples, as well as the way the topography influenced their lives.

This study will not consider –

  • interactions with new settlers, convicts or any other non-indigenous person
  • the effect of European settlement on the lives and practices of the indigenous community
  • the history of mainland indigenous peoples

I suspect I may be challenged to present a ‘before and after 1803’ scenario of the situation for aboriginals.  Others have researched and written on this aspect generally although not specifically focused on the Derwent River, and I am seeking a fresh perspective which is not encumbered by conflict with European settlers in early Van Diemen’s Land.

The periods of history about which I want to collect information, are –

  1. before European settlement
  2. at the moment of European settlement in 1803
  3. some years after 1803 to later in the 19th century – this is deliberately loose to allow for non-indigenous people many decades later who have a first-hand experience, to contribute any information they have about any authentic aboriginal practices – but I will only be looking for those indigenous practices which do not seem to have been altered as a result of European settlement.

This quest will occur intermittently because it will compete with the priorities of my other projects and commitments.

Commencing research about the original aboriginal communities living and walking along the Derwent River

In earlier posts, I acknowledged the original aboriginal custodians of the land over which I have walked: refer to https://walkingthederwent.com/2014/08/21/acknowledgement-of-country-to-the-moomairremener-people/, and https://walkingthederwent.com/2014/11/10/the-paredarerme-people-the-original-indigenous-owners-of-the-land-along-the-derwent-river/.

My last blog posting referred to a book telling the story of a walk from the mouth to the source of the Yarra River in Victoria on mainland Australia.  Many steps of the author’s journey were associated with aboriginal stories past and present and this made me wonder what could be learnt here in Tasmania around the Derwent River. The history of aboriginals in Victoria and elsewhere on mainland Australia, is very different to that in the isolated island state of Tasmania.  Around 10,000 years ago, when the sea rose to form Bass Strait, Tasmanian aboriginals were cut off completely from their relatives on the mainland of Australia.

From the 1870s, for the next 100 years, the official Tasmanian government line was that the entire aboriginal population had been exterminated. No full blood descendants of the original indigenous peoples have survived however there is a sizeable minority of population in Tasmania now who proudly declare themselves as descendants from specific aboriginal ancestors.

During these cold winter days, I have started research seeking to understand the lives of indigenous bands and tribes which roamed the land from the mouth to the source of the Derwent River.  My starting point is my belief (which may be found to be incorrect) that, prior to European settlement in Van Diemen’s Land (later renamed Tasmania),

  • indigenous peoples had a significant history with activities, practices, laws, dress, property that are unique as a collection, although individual aspects may be common with mainland indigenous peoples.
  • indigenous peoples had a perfectly functioning tribal family system
  • indigenous peoples had a perfectly functioning interaction system with other tribes
  • indigenous peoples had a perfectly functioning communication system with other tribes
  • indigenous peoples were thriving

Most historians, anthropologists, sociologists, other researchers and various document writers have introduced ‘facts’ and conjecture about the nature and impact of events subsequent to European settlement, and I suspect this has been to the detriment of understanding the original situations of indigenous people.   As a result, I suspect at least some people who identify currently as having Tasmanian indigenous heritage, focus more with the outrages of the past 200 plus years than with the life of their ancestors, pre-European settlement. I wonder whether historians, anthropologists, sociologists, other researchers and various document writers (almost all of whom were original settlers in Van Diemen’s Land, are the descendants of the non-indigenous peoples, or are in some other way, non-indigenous) have presented a clear picture of the nature of the original indigenous peoples without the shadow of events post-settlement in 1803. Considering the political activism of some of the descendants of the original indigenous populations, their attempts to censor studies and dispute evidence, and their destruction of ancient artefacts, it may not be possible to create a clear picture, however I plan to try (and it may take time).

The Comfort of Water – a River Pilgrimage

Maya Ward’s story of walking from the mouth to the source of the Yarra River in Victoria, Australia (The Comfort of Water – a River Pilgrimage, Transit Lounge Publishing, Yarraville, Australia) was published in 2011. Maya Ward says, ‘There were many reasons to start where the river meets the sea. We knew where the sea was, but we didn’t know the location of the source, so we needed to follow the Yarra to find it. We’d start from where we live and what we knew to walk into the unknown.’

The Comfort of Water book cover

This was a continuous walk over three weeks made with a changing collection of friends, backed by a support crew, and with an assortment of accommodation pre-arranged for the end of the each day.  Maya Ward undertook preparation prior to departure to the extent most of the landowners along the length of the River were contacted for permission to walk across their land.

The two main themes of the walk, and therefore the book, were the environment and indigenous practices and history (Birrarung in the Wurundjeri language).  Intertwined, were the author’s personal reflections and philosophy as well as some of her life story in which she seemed devoted to cultural and ecological political activism at a community level.

From time to time, the author offered simple ideas which I found very attractive. For example, ‘I liked the wind – it stopped us talking.’ … ‘A story is like the wind – it comes from a far off place, and we feel for it.  So says the Kalahari Bushmen …’, ‘Grandma knew, I think, of the comfort and the intimacy to be found among trees.’, and ‘The watching is just the start of something.’

I am pleased to have discovered this book because Maya Ward’s approach has made me consider that the history of Tasmanian indigenous peoples has not been evident in my posts during my walk along the Derwent River. In fact, I have been remarkably ignorant of the nature and practices of the original inhabitants prior to European settlement on the edge of Tasmania’s Derwent River in 1803. I am now interested to know more and it occurs to me that blog readers might also be curious.  To rectify this gap in my knowledge, I have set myself a new project (I do like projects) to find out if I can discover information relevant to the Derwent River that is reliable and authentic.