Seeing the Land from an Aboriginal Canoe ...
Seeing the Land from an Aboriginal Canoe, documentary film, Jary Nemo (director), Lucinda Horrocks and Jary Nemo (producers), Wind & Sky Productions, 2015.Contributors
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On the rivers of remote Victoria, 19th century European settlers depended on Aboriginal navigators and canoe builders to transport goods, stock and people.
The Aboriginal bark canoe was a technology in demand in regional Victoria in the 1800s. Explorers and drovers, gold miners and settlers used Aboriginal ferrying services and boat building services to conduct trade and transport. Stories abound of trade, canoeing, and heroic rescues on rivers such as the Murray, Goulburn, Campaspe, Ovens and Loddon, shedding light on the generosity, resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Indigenous inhabitants and of the trading relationships formed between Aboriginal people and European colonists. Indeed it could be argued that the waterways skills of Aboriginal Australians were integral to the early economic viability of Victoria.
This short documentary film explores the little known contribution Aboriginal people made in colonial times by guiding people and stock across the river systems of Victoria. It features interviews with the historian Associate Professor Fred Cahir and Traditional Owners Uncle Bryon Powell, Jamie Lowe and Rick Nelson.
Associate Professor Fred Cahir: Up until 1860, 1870, so the first very formative years of Victoria, in particular and this is inclusive of all of Australia that transport was vital. The land down under, the continent forgotten.
And people had to get their goods to the international markets.
Very often the way to travel throughout places such as Victoria which has an extensive river system and creek system was by canoe.
What sparked my interest was looking through 19th century records and seeing how much involvement Aboriginal people had in ordinary everyday Australian lifestyles and how much they contributed was immense and it sparked almost an anger in me that why weren’t we told these great stories.
Uncle Bryon Powell: If you have a look at the history of settlement in this country, always in the background you will see, or know of, Aboriginal people that supported those settlers.
One of the best stories is about the gold rush in the 1850s, and how, if it wasn't for my family, my old people, the gold rush probably wouldn't have happened, and the miners wouldn't have survived.
Down here, in their quest to get to the Western Plains, had to use Aboriginal people to ferry their goods across the river. But not only that, it was places like the Werribee, they used old fords and fish traps to cross the Werribee.
Fred Cahir: We know the general stories of the massacres, the violence, how they were done to and we weren’t told the stories, certainly in my schooling and certainly not in the books anymore, still, the stories of how Aboriginal people contributed to the nation that we are, that they were nation builders and people at that time recognised it as such.
The stringy bark canoe which is common to this part of Australia, it’s specially selected, there are places where, as I understand it as a White historian, where people had specific roles that they were excelled in making stringy bark canoes.
Jamie Lowe: Within any community, there's people, you've got your mechanics and you've got your butchers and whatnot. It was no different within our community.
We had people with the skills and the knowledge to keep the community running. Whether that be hunting and gathering, making tools, making canoes.
Fred Cahir: There’s quite a bit of ingenuity in literally making of a... literally making a stringy bark canoe from a living tree in a very quick period of time which was usually it was required now.
Rick Nelson: We have got instances where people used their bark canoes to go out on the swamps and get duck eggs and things like that. Even on the swamps and the rivers, people used their canoes to get food and stuff. It wasn't really the bark though. We know bark gets water-logged and actually sinks. There's a little layer of wood just under the bark, that protects the heartwood of the tree, and that's what they're after. It's called the cambium, it's a thin layer of wood under the bark.
Fred Cahir: We know that they were very, very large. We have historic accounts of up to 12, 14, 15 people being ferried, entire families and their dogs and all their goods travelling along the major river systems of Australia.
Rick Nelson: Aboriginal people and culture they tend to share stuff a lot. If they went out hunting, they shared the catch. The elders would get the good cuts of meat and et cetera, and they were more of a sharing society. So if someone come along and was stuck on one side of the river and said to the Koori fellow down there, "Can you help me get across the river?" He wouldn't say, "Bugger off." He'd probably say, "Of course yes I'll help you." They were more of a sharing society.
Fred Cahir: We tend to get it’s I suppose what I’d call a myopic glimpse in that it is largely through White historian eyes of looking through White records, so it’s not a true view, if you like, of an Aboriginal perspective. But we certainly do get their voices come out through the pages of the White colonists. Those voices are usually ones of almost always ones of entrepreneurial skill. They literally would congregate around the crossing points. The Aboriginal people had set prices to convey the goods and a set price for how many people they would take across.
Fred Cahir: Usually my favourite stories are about White people being rescued by Aboriginal people, I like that idea of the heroic. It’s so celebrated in Australia, the volunteerism that is such a strong characteristic.
For instance, an Aboriginal fellow with his canoe and the Gundagai Floods that rescued in one of the major floods that Australia has ever experienced in the 19th century. I think they lost count at 24 people, plucking them literally off the rooftops. They faced imminent death.
He and his clan and his family had been colonised and their land stripped away from them and despised and ignored by White people, yet when the moment called, he got in his canoe of his own accord, not paid by anybody and went and plucked people, one by one, at great peril to his own life, in swirling flood waters, and then in a typically Australian way, walked off the stage, didn’t wait for accolades, job done.
Rick Nelson: Look it gives me a bit of a high sense of admiration and to think that the Indigenous people were out there, helping the early settlers and helping the people who overrun their lands.
Fred Cahir: Yet we’ve placed this veil over this window of Aboriginal entrepreneurship, Aboriginal inventiveness.
Bryon Powell: That's shown in the story. It's shown that we did care about people, we did have those values of respecting people, and valuing them. Even though it wasn't returned.
Jamie Lowe: Knowledge is power, it's a bit of cliché but knowledge is power and every day you kind of learn a little bit more. If someone is listening to this conversation, this is just one little snap shot of one story, Aboriginal bark canoes and hopefully for them, if someone's listening to this, it gives them an appetite for more knowledge within in this space.
Rick Nelson: There's probably a whole book of these stories out there, that some that we still haven't found and some we have and some we need to explore a bit more, so it will probably go beyond my lifetime. I think probably kids that I talk to will take this role on and will still be researching when they're young adults. If I can help get that started, I'll be a happy old man.