A group of Aboriginal people on the south coast of NSW are reviving some of the traditional crops and farming practices which would have characterised the pre-colonial Australian landscape.
The Gurandgi Munjie Food Company (from Yuin country) have had great success cultivating native fruits and vegetables as well as harvesting tubers from yam daisies over the last five years. They have also begun harvesting crops of Kangaroo Grass and Panicum Decompositum, both perrenial grains. They began as volunteers and have recently had success with two crowdfunding campaigns to expand their operations into a commercial enterprise.
“[We seek] to provide permanent employment and training for young Aboriginal people and to supply healthy products to Australia from plants adapted to Australian conditions”
These plants were staple crops which fed the large populations of Aboriginal Australians who cultivated them and which are inherently well-suited to local conditions. This is in stark contrast to the food crops brought over from Europe which currently dominate our agriculture and supermarket shelves and require significant irrigation and often artificial fertilisers and pesticides to maintain on Australian soils.
Perrenial grains have very large root structures which help them survive in poor soil with little water. They also eliminate the need for the land to be ploughed so soil doesn’t become compacted and less diesel and labour is needed. They also sequester carbon year on year and prevent soil erosion and salination.
Author Bruce Pascoe, who has Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin Indigenous heritage, helped to start the project and would like to see it growing enough Kangaroo Grass and Panicum Decompositum to grind into grain and sell as bread flour. He also points out that Aboriginal Australians were probably the first people to bake bread, as evidenced by grindstones at Cuddie Springs in northern New South Wales that have been dated as being around 30,000 years old.
Pascoe’s book Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident has sparked a wave of interest in traditional Australian crops and a new understanding of the complexity of pre-colonial Australian society.
As Max Allen pointed out in his profile of the project for Gourmet Traveller Magazine, these are not novelty bush foods but, “everyday foods that were once widely grown and eaten in those parts of the country where most Australians now live.
Aboriginal writer and Indigenous Affairs editor for ABC News, Stan Grant, questions the ‘received wisdom’ that Aboriginal Australians are downtrodden in a recent article.
Whilst acknowledging the history of ‘injustice and segregation’ and the accompanying disadvantage that Aboriginal Australians face on their way to success, Grant points out that ‘identity framed around misery can become a self-fulfilling prophecy’.
Instead, Grant encourages us all to wake up to the reality of the swathes of successful indigenous Australians who populate all aspects of Australian life.
Grant’s experience at the recent conference organised by Supply Nation highlighted this, as he found himself in a room full of highly successful Aboriginal people such as Kyle Vander Kuyp and Mark Ella, many of whom are millionaires and each of whom has earned their success through hard work and determination.
Grant would have us take notice of and celebrate the success of the vast number of Aboriginal people who have engaged with white Australia on their own terms, in order that we move away from the dominant stereotype of Aboriginal people as ‘demoralised, disadvantaged people’.
“The Indigenous middle class is growing. Indigenous people are on our television screens, on our stages and our sporting fields.
We don’t tell this story often enough. We don’t even yet have a language for Aboriginal success.”
Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson speaks of the double-edged sword of ‘soft racism’ from the white population, in the form of low expectations, and potential hostility from Aboriginal peers in the face of success. He counters this with examples of Aboriginal people who don’t pay attention to either narrative.
Grant also points out the importance of acknowledging the ‘alternate history’ of Aboriginals who engaged with white colonists, not as victims, but with dignity and success. He highlights the economic boom after World War II and the wave of ‘Aboriginal economic migrants’ who fought to find work and housing and schooling for their children, and their grandchildren, who are now graduating university in droves.
Read more ~ Aboriginal success stories
The area of national park which takes up most of Queensland’s Fraser Island has been re-named K’gari (pronounced ‘gurri’) in honour of the local Butchulla creation story.
The Butchulla were granted native title over Fraser Island in 2014 and have incorporated their three laws into new signs which advertise the new name at the island’s three barge landings.
The rest of the the Great Sandy National Park on the mainland south of the island, will not have a name change.
Elder and Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation director Ms Bird emphasises the importance of this first step in the name change and the new signage:
“It’s important because everyone, especially the Butchulla people, when they go over there and they step onto K’gari, Fraser Island, and see our signs, they will know that this is our country.”
In the Butchulla people’s creation story, K’gari was a spirit princess who helped to create what is now known as Hervey Bay. Believing that land to be the most beautiful place ever created, K’gari asked to stay there and was transformed into the island, where she remains to this day.
Ms Bird continues her 30 year campaign to re-name the island as a whole. Although the Government designated K’gari as an ‘alternative name’ in 2011, many of the area’s traditional landowners would like to see the name given equal status with Fraser island, as has happened at Uluru/Ayer’s Rock.
A former vegetable farmer from Victoria has renovated a derelict outback pub with the aim of turning it into a community hub for local Aboriginal people. Andrew Stacey particularly wants to provide meaning and purpose for local youth by creating a place for all ages to meet, display their artwork and, he hopes, a whole lot more.
Mr Stacey decided to buy the Queens Head Hotel in Wilcannia and turn it into a community arts facility after chatting to locals to understand what their needs were and how they could best be met. He believes that an arts facility is a good ‘front’ for many other things that the town needs, such as advocacy, assistance and mentoring and education. He also hopes that the facility will act as a kind of ‘shopfront’ for visitors to the town.
Aboriginal locals are enthusiastic about the project, which was launched recently with a community art exhibition including the names of every local Aboriginal family.
“It’s going to be something that won’t fail … because to me it’s like a gathering place. Somewhere for people to go and sit, and meet up, and talk about issues in the town.”
Said Colleen Wilson, who attended the launch.
Stacey, who is also an artist, is happy to have been able to solidify his connection with the town, which he has felt very strongly since his first visit in 2016, describing it as ‘vivid and alive and warm and welcoming’.
“This was a great public house of drinking, and it’s a matter of great pride to see it converted to a public house of healing.”
From the magpie geese to the mighty Barramundi and even a few crocodiles, the rehabilitation of a wetland adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef has also brought with it recognition for the traditional owners who bought back their land.
Mungalla Aboriginal Business Corporation recently won the 2016 Minister’s Award for Leadership in Sustainability as part of the Queensland Premier’s Awards. They were also finalists in the prestigious Banksia Sustainability Awards.
They’ve been responsible for restoring the Mungalla wetland, a vital ecosystem near Ingham, north of Townsville, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef and a nursery for reef fish.
When the Nywaigi people bought Mungalla Station in 1999, they knew their battle to truly reclaim and restore the land was only just beginning.
Around one quarter of the 880 hectare station is covered by wetlands, but these wetlands were choked by invasive weeds such as water hyacinth, hymenachne and aleman grass. The waters were so starved of oxygen that they were nearly barren of fish and bird life.
It wasn’t always this way. Older members of the Nywaigi people could recall when the wetlands were so full of life that the sky was black with magpie geese. The wetlands also hold great cultural value to the Nywaigi, but when Mungulla became a cattle station in the 1940s, an earth wall was built which blocked tidal flows into the wetlands and which turned them into freshwater which allowed for ponded pastures for the cattle.
CSIRO landscape ecologist Brett Abbott and hydrological modeller Fazlul Karim said their hydrological modelling suggested that removing the earth wall ~ called a bund ~ would allow the salt water to reach around 500 metres inland on a high tide, while research by a masters student working with the team also showed that salt water immersion was likely to kill many of the weeds.
So the wall came down, and the results stunned everyone involved.
The magpie geese have returned, along with nearly 280 other species of native bird. The waters are now home to at least nine species of fish, and serve as nursery grounds for some commercially and recreationally important reef fish such as barramundi and mangrove jack.
The flourishing wetlands have also attracted tourists, and there are plans for an elevated walkway through the wetlands that would help to bring in tourist dollars to be reinvested into ongoing rehabilitation efforts.
Jacob Cassady, director of the Mungalla Aboriginal Business Corporation that now owns the station, also stresses the importance of raising awareness not just about the coastal wetlands, but about the health of the Great Barrier Reef in general.
It’s possibly the first time that a bund has been removed to rehabilitate a wetland, despite the fact that there are well over a thousand similar barriers up and down the Great Barrier Reef coastline.
“Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef is under significant bleaching, and that should be alarming, every Australian should be alarmed,” he says. “Have they forgotten that this is one of the seven wonders of the natural world and we just take what we’ve got in our backyard for granted?
“The wetland that we’re working in has a traditional story, and to restore the balance in that wetland is significantly important to the traditional owners,” he says. “When we had our workshops, one of the traditional owners said ‘healthy country, healthy people’.”
A Scottish explorer credited as one of the founding fathers of Australia is set to have his name wiped from the map after his bloody past came to light. Angus McMillan ~ born on Skye in 1810 ~ has been celebrated with plaques, cairns and even comic strips after founding the harbour that went on to be Port Albert in South Australia.
As a tribute to his pioneering spirit the country’s most southerly electoral district ~ McMillan ~ was named after him. But now it has come to light that he massacred Aboriginal communities to the brink of extinction in a bid to seize more land for his fellow Scottish sheep farmers. His most notorious massacre occurred in 1843, when he led the slaughter of between 80 and 200 aboriginal men, women and children as revenge for the death of a single white settler.
Australian electoral authorities are now reviewing the ward’s name after activists have expressed outrage that it is named after a man known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”.
Evan Ekin-Smith of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has said a name change will be considered at the earliest opportunity. He also said that AEC guidelines clearly indicate that naming a district after a man known for mass murder is not appropriate. In fact, they state the complete opposite: “Divisions should be named after deceased Australians who have rendered outstanding service to their country.”
Russell Broadbent ~ the Liberal MP who represents McMillan ~ has been at the front of the drive to rename the district. He expressed hope that constituents would come forward to make their opinions known on the renaming. He said: “The renaming of an electorate resides with the AEC, which welcomes submissions from the general public on the matter.”
Pauline Durnin ~ a community campaigner ~ said: “I think we need to recall that when this constituency was named in 1940, Aboriginals were not included as citizens of Australia, nor had the right to vote. “I would like to see the McMillan electorate renamed in favour of the Gunaikurnai people.” The Gunaikurnai are the Aboriginal people who have lived in the district for some 20,000 years.
Photography by David Rayside
Edinburgh-based writer Cal Flyn ~ who discovered that McMillan was her great-great-great uncle in 2011 ~ also welcomed the move. Ms Flyn has written a book about her ancestor and his legacy and said: “It seems the wheels of progress turn slowly, but I’m glad to hear that the concern of Gippsland’s Aboriginal community are finally being heard.”
“Changing a name cannot change the past, but it is a symbol perhaps that the wilful blindness shown towards the darker seams of colonial history is coming to an end.”
~ Cal Flyn
Ms Flyn travelled to Australia to research her book Thicker than Water and discovered that on McMillan’s arrival in 1840 there were 2,000 Aboriginals in the area. By 1857 only 96 remained.
Professor Ted Cowan, a historian at the University of Glasgow, described McMillan’s actions as a “scar” on the reputation of Scots in Australia.
In spite of his diminishing reputation, McMillan is still celebrated in some areas. A community centre in Sale, Victoria, honours him with a sculpture featuring a thistle in representation of his Scottish roots, and a saddlebag containing human skulls, which he kept as grim trophies of his exploits.
What began as a bold experiment ~ handing over control of two national parks in New South Wales to traditional Aboriginal owners a decade ago ~ is today being hailed as a landmark act of reconciliation.
In 2006 the NSW Government formally handed back Gulaga and Biamanga National Parks on the far south coast to the Yuin people, because of the significant cultural sites they contain and the living links to local Indigenous groups.
Gulaga, which was previously formally known as Mount Dromedary, is an imposing 823-metre mountain rising near the coastal town of Narooma. Biamanga National Park includes Mumbulla Mountain, further south in the Bega valley.
To the Yuin people, Gulaga is known as the Mother Mountain, and has always been a woman’s place. It includes sacred sites where Aboriginal women would retreat for storytelling, ceremony and childbirth.
Meanwhile Mumbulla was a traditional men’s mountain, and contains initiation sites where boys would become men of the Yuin tribe.
The Board of Management Chair for Gulaga, Iris White, said the park was a “beautiful” and “spiritual” place.
The energy the Yuin people have harnessed from Gulaga mountain took a very practical form when they successfully lobbied the NSW Government for traditional ownership back in 2006. Biamanga Board chair Paul Stewart said it was the culmination of decades of struggle for legal recognition of Indigenous links to their land.
“I’m just so happy to put something back,” Mr Stewart said. “Something 10 years ago that we used to drive past and say to our kids, ‘that’s ours’ … now we have got the chance to manage it.”
Traditional ownership of the national parks areas means they are managed in very different ways to other parks. For instance, a recently released Plan of Management allows Indigenous owners to close the parks to public access for cultural purposes such as initiation rites. It also allows for the possibility of traditional fire management and hunting on site.
National Parks area manager Preston Cope said those land uses required a rethink for their agency. “There are a lot of native bush tucker foods around this park,” Mr Cope said. “In a normal park, it would be illegal to collect plant material, but in this park if you’re an Aboriginal owner and you get permission from the board, then you can come and do that. “Guns cannot be used ~ they have to use traditional methods for hunting.”
Under the joint management arrangement, decisions about the running of the parks are made by the two boards, and implemented by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. “One of [the board’s] aspirations is for developing tourism on the park,” Mr Cope said. “If we were managing the park without Aboriginal owners involved, it would be a much more straight-forward business. We have to have everybody in agreeance with how the cultural heritage will be interpreted, and to do that, requires a fair bit of work that we wouldn’t normally do.”
However, all parties agree that traditional ownership of the two sacred mountains has led to a cultural revival, especially for young people who are now learning their culture.
An average of one child in every classroom goes to school or bed hungry nearly every day, while one in five say this happens sometimes, a study of Australian children shows.
The Australian Child Wellbeing Project (ACWP) found that a large minority of young people self-identify as being in groups that are marginalised and at risk of poor outcomes both through childhood, and as they develop towards adulthood. The study shows how contexts matter, and how outcomes in one area of young people’s lives are often linked to outcomes in other areas.
The survey of more than 5,400 children in schools across Australia also showed one in 10 children missed school at least once a week and one in six said they had been bullied.
The ACWP findings are described as unique, filling a knowledge gap about child wellbeing in Australia, with potential to influence government policy and cross-sector collaboration on issues of child and youth wellbeing
The lead researcher, Flinders University’s Associate Professor Gerry Redmond, said the Australian Child Wellbeing Project findings showed that for many children “life is pretty tough”.
“One young person in five reported going to school or bed hungry at least sometimes, and were also more likely to miss school frequently,” Professor Redmond said.”What we really want to bring out with this is how hunger is linked with a whole load of other issues that impact seriously on a young person’s wellbeing,” he told 666 ABC Canberra.
“Hunger itself is a big wellbeing issue but it’s also linked to other issues that policy markers are also very concerned about ~ such as engagement at school, missing school all together and bullying. Young people who go hungry are more likely to experience these other issues and problems.”
Professor Redmond said the two-year study began in 2012 and was the largest of its kind in Australia, in which young people were the informants. He said the survey focused on the “middle years” between early childhood and adolescence, when children were aged between 8 to 14. Professor Redmond said the study did not focus on a particular area, or demographic, but did find that if young people were marginalised, or were economically disadvantaged, they were “missing out on opportunities that should be available to all young people”
“Support [also] makes a big difference,” he said. “If you feel like you’re supported by your teachers, if you feel like you’ve got a large network around you, then regardless of your economic circumstances, you tend to assess your life as better than if you don’t have these things. Where they have support networks they can draw on… they tend to perform better in school and be more motivated in school.”
- Australian Child Wellbeing Project
- Understanding School Bullying
- Poverty, Disadvantage and Social Exclusion (2013) | NATSEM
- Australian Child Wellbeing Project: Family matters most to kids in 2016 | The Daily Telegraph
- Aussie students the more stressed than rest, according to Child Wellbeing Project report | The Courier Mail
Starfish acknowledges the first peoples and traditional owners of the land that we live and work on in Australia and all around the world. We pay our respects to their ancestors and Elders ~ past, present and future. Starfish is committed to honouring and respecting first peoples’ unique cultural and spiritual relationships to the land, waters and seas, and their rich contributions to our communities and society-at-large.