Our People, Our Land, Our History, Our Culture: An Excerpt from takayna
So, I have been asked to write my story, my connection to country and my feelings regarding the country into which I was born, takayna. I’m not much of a writer. I tell stories in my own way and share my culture in ways I hope helps others understand; not just understand me but understand the strong spirit of this country and of my people. I tell stories so easily when I’m on country and feel a sense of fulfilment when I do, a sense of upholding my cultural responsibility and ensuring a strong future for my children. So, sitting here in front of this computer with keyboard carefully balanced on my lap, it is now just occurring to me how difficult this will be. It is foreign for me to tell my stories without my feet on the ground, without my people to take on the story and make it a part of theirs. My purpose in telling this story, and indeed the method of telling this story, are much harder for me to achieve.
I was born on the northwest coast of Tasmania. My mother, my three older brothers and I all moved out of the region while I was still very young, but not before I had captured some memories of place and community. I recall gathering as a young child with other Aboriginal community members and travelling what seemed to be a long distance in a very slow and crowded bus. When we arrived at our destination I still recall the smell of the ocean and the sound of the waves, yet all I could see was bush and one long winding, white, rocky road. A few more vehicles arrived with lots more people. I remember one of the women saying to me, “You’re Marlene’s girl, you can’t half tell!” She was referring to how similar I looked to my mother. I was too young and too shy to respond, but I remember feeling a sense of belonging, being a part of a group of people who knew who I was and feeling like I was supposed to be there. All I remember about the rest of this was climbing the dunes and seeing the vast ocean that seemed to roll on forever.
It was not until years later when I returned to this place that I realised I had been a part of a very significant and important ceremony on that day, many years before. It was a ceremony for the reburial of one of our ancestors. These were the remains of an ancestor whom my community had brought home; remains that had been stolen, denied the journey of passing from this country back to mother earth and into the spirit world. Standing here again as an adult, remembering this day, I realise how significant it was; it took my breath away, made me silent. I knelt down to touch the sand and reminded myself this was part of my journey, one of the ways in which I had formed a strong understanding of the importance of connecting with country, and that it was now a part of my own story.
Since then I have walked much of takayna and spent much time in the traditional lands of the northwest tribes. I have studied the landscape and learnt to look across it with cultural eyes. This way of seeing the landscape has taught me much about the old people, my ancestors. It has shown me a picture of the way they lived, the way they journeyed and the way they died. Walking the coast, I feel a great sense of connection to the ocean, with the roar of the waves beating constantly and the sound of water running, stripping itself from the beach back into the ocean. I see the abundance of bull kelp stretching for miles down the beach, a traditional resource shimmering and ripe for the taking. Remembering how the women would collect this and how we still collect it today, forever studying the mass of kelp in order to find the best piece and wishing I did not have so far to travel, for if not, I would have certainly taken it with me.
Walking through this country it is not hard to see the ways of our old people; hut depressions forming villages surrounded by middens, stone tools, ochre and fire hearths all captured in the one landscape. I can sit in these places and know I am sitting in the same places as those who have shared the same deep spiritual connection, the same appreciation and sense of belonging. I sit in this place and feel I am seeing the same home they once looked at and I feel an uninterrupted connection to both my people and my country.
takayna, like no other place, can still show me this picture. It’s still all here, and the connection is still vibrant and strong. The landscape shows me the story and gives me the ability to share this story with my children and with others from my community. takayna provides me with the tools to continue the unbroken cultural connection, to share cultural knowledge and to become part of the story for the future. Every part of the landscape shows me and tells me different chapters of the story of time and of life. The grass plains behind the dunes show me a way of understanding how to manage the land, how to manipulate the environment that is best for all. The burning of country in a cultural way provided food for everyone, from the birds which fed on the seeds of the new grasses, to the trungana/tara (male and female kangaroo) which feast in its plains; it shows me where our people hunted to feed their families. The burnt-off grass plains also show me the way, how to move through the land following the same pathways as those who have walked this country before us.
When I wander through the dunes I am aware of the importance of this country. I have taken part in many reburials since my first visit so many years ago. I have lit fires to help with ceremony and placed ochre on my skin to show my respect for my culture and my people. As I walk through the middens I find myself studying the many bones from past meals eaten here, looking for the res of the fire pits by finding layers of charcoal and ash. These layers don’t just tell me this was a place of cooking and eating a meal, but a place where stories were shared, lessons were taught and life was lived. They represent a continuation of culture and generations of knowledge. Looking further around the middens I find stone tools, some that were used for sharpening spears, some for skinning animals and other tools showing multiple uses. Hammer stones and even bone needle points are all reminders that this landscape, as wild and raw as it seems to some, is actually a home. It is a living portal to what once was a way of life, a way that has changed but not left and is not forgotten, just lived in a different way today.
As an Aboriginal person I feel a deep sense of responsibility to protect the stories which remain. To do this I must help protect the landscape, the country that is takayna. Travelling this country and seeing the damage that vehicles have done is soul destroying, it’s devastating; it burdens me with feelings of hopelessness and of failure. I am not the one driving these vehicles and I am not the one blind to the depth of damage that is caused, yet I am the one who is left feeling responsible.
takayna allows me to pass on its story in the same way my ancestors did, in a traditional way because of what is encompassed in this landscape, because of the picture the heritage shows me. Every time an area is impacted it takes a part of this picture from me. These pictures cannot be redrawn; they cannot be rebuilt or replaced. The heritage in this landscape is a part of me. Without it I am not able to tell the story or fulfil my cultural responsibility to teach my children, and therefore every time it is damaged or destroyed so too is a piece of me, a piece of my soul is lost.
The coastline of takayna takes the full force of the winds and swells that gather force on their journey from below 40 degrees south on the east coast of the South American continent. The force and power with which they pound the west coast of lutruwita (Tasmania) is truly awesome. Yet that same coastline is also remarkably fragile. It demonstrates the daunting yet healing power of nature as compared to the outright destruction of foreign technology.
One tyre track can start off erosion; this erosion becomes a water tunnel in the winter and a wind tunnel in the summer. The tunnelling effect brings with it undercutting of embankments and eventually slumping soils and more often middens. This process continues until the midden material is crushed and deflated, lost to the wind and water forever. Some may say one track is a small price to pay for the ability to access the area but for me it is taking away a part of my history, destroying a part of who I am right now and destroying what is vital for the future of telling the full history of this place.
My friends and travelling companions in takayna often have other attachments to our story in this place. Our recent history there holds memories of dispossession and murder. The west coast, and takayna in particular, was the site of the capture of the last remaining free tribespeople as the invading foreigners cleared our lands of our ancestors to make way for their sheep.
The “Conciliator” George Augustus Robinson led expeditions to round up all our ancestors who remained in the area, to be held in prison cells in Launceston and Macquarie Harbour at before being shipped to Wybalenna on Flinders Island. Among these was Nikaminik, whose children with Tanganutara included Adam and Fanny. Their families continue to be a part of Aboriginal community activities in takayna today. All except Fanny eventually died at the camp at putalina/Oyster Cove where grave robbing was rife.
Other leaders of the northwest groups whose sad histories are remembered include the takayna chief Wyne. Wyne’s group of takayna attacked George Augustus Robinson’s party at Arthur River and Robinson owed his survival to his good sense in following Trukanini across the river. Wyne and his people were captured and sent to the convict gaol at Macquarie Harbour where they suffered torture at the hands of the convicts. They died in less than three weeks of their imprisonment. Genocidal massacres and armed expulsion from their traditional territories in return for State payment are the hallmarks of the west coast dispossession.
Other travelling companions delight in identifying, by their Aboriginal names, the seaweeds and stone tools that so liberally populate the beaches. Our languages are being reconstructed tirelessly from the many written sources of early European visitors to the area and the memories of our community. We practice the still-unfamiliar words, proud in our clumsy attempts at reclaiming another aspect of our heritage.
takayna represents the history of our island and of my people in a time much richer and very different from the way we live today. We want to show our future generations what the old way of life looked like, how our ancestors sculpted this landscape and how thousands of years of occupation built a strong cultural society, with a deep appreciation for the environment in which they lived. We want to help others to understand this country. We encourage others to join us and walk with us. For this country to be safe, and for our stories to remain, we need to walk together, we need to see and understand this landscape in a way that protects the heritage. We need to foster a shared sense of responsibility and a shared burden to protect it. The Aboriginal community encourages anyone who wants to share in the value of this unique and beautiful place, anyone who wants to see one of the world’s oldest living cultures and who wants to be a part of the future story to join us in the fight to protect takayna.
This is not just my story, not just a description of my connection to country; this is my people’s history.
I have written this to help provide others with an insight into the deep sense of cultural responsibility shared by Tasmanian Aboriginal people, and our strong desire to continue our culture. I hope it encourages others to help us protect the unique, irreplaceable and beautiful Aboriginal history which is written into the landscape in the form of our heritage places. I hope it helps to protect takayna.
Book available winter 2018
Tell the Tasmanian government to nominate takayna / Tarkine for World Heritage protection
Patagonia is partnering with the Bob Brown Foundation and the Aboriginal community and calling for the Tasmanian Government to nominate the takayna / Tarkine for World Heritage protection.
takayna / Tarkine in northwestern Tasmania is home to one of the last undisturbed tracts of ancient rainforest in the world, and one of the highest concentrations of Aboriginal archaeology in the southern hemisphere. Yet this place is currently threatened by logging and mining. Our new film takayna, weaves together the narratives of activists, a trail running doctor and the Aboriginal community to unpack the complexities of modern conservation and challenge us to consider the importance of our last truly wild places.