A primer on Tasmania’s Aboriginal Heritage

Ya Pulingina (Hello, Welcome)

the Geographies of Emergence, Divergence, and Convergence the theme for IAG2019 speaks to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the all the countries across this great continent of what has now been called Australia, a name coined by English explorer Mathew Flinders.

Aboriginal Australians have the oldest continuous culture on the Earth, which so far extends back 65,000 (potentially 80,000) years in Kakadu with recent reports suggesting that the clock might wind back as far as 110,000 – 130,000 years for a site at Moyjil in southeast Victoria…

The relationship between Aboriginal people and the land, sea, and sky (Country) is unique. Over millennia, Aboriginal custodians have nurtured practices of care and renewal that have shaped the flora, fauna and landscapes of this remarkable island continent.

According to Deborah Bird Rose in Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscapes and Wilderness (1996, p.6), Country “…is a place that gives and receives life…it is lived in and lived with.…People talk about Country in the same way they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy. Country is not a generalised or undifferentiated type of place…country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind, and spirit…”.

Tasmanian Aboriginal people, like all Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, have an affinity for Country that speaks to their rich cultural heritage and traditions (see: https://www.theorb.tas.gov.au). Tasmanian Aboriginal People have handed down stories, traditions, practices, language and detailed knowledge about human-environment interrelationships.

The story of Tasmanian Aboriginal people is one of resilience and tenacity…

Tasmanian Aboriginal people are the only known people to have lived and survived on the edge of two ice ages having lived on their land which they carefully and sustainably managed for 35,000 years or more, and for 20,000 of these years as the worlds southern most peoples (TWWHA Synthesis Report).

These ice ages were times when higher altitudes and the central plateau of Tasmania were covered in ice, with relentless icy cold winds driven up from Antarctica and the great Southern Ocean. It is during these periods that Tasmanian Aboriginal people occupied, celebrated and survived in areas such as the beautiful and rugged southwest of Tasmania, an area that is home to creation stories, rich and abundant in sea and land based food as evidenced by vast and extensive living areas (middens) and occupied cave sites with rare and important hand stencilling that tell stories and connect todays Tasmanian Aboriginal people with their past. With global warming and receding ice marking the end of the last ice age some 10,000 years ago, waters flooded the great Bassian Plain and Tasmania once again became separated from mainland Australia and Tasmania Aboriginal peoples were isolated. But despite this isolation, they continued to live and survive in harmony and sustainably with Country until the dawn of European exploration and exploitation.

European exploration and their ‘discovery’ of these attractively managed landscapes brought death. First it came by stealth in the form of disease such as smallpox and the common flu for which Aboriginal people had no resistance too and was usually fatal, and then it came in the form of the European musket by people who were well versed in the art of warfare. The first recorded killing(s) in Tasmania if not Australia, occurred in North Bay on 7 March 1772 by French explorers led by Marion de Fresne in North Bay (adjacent Marion Bay), in the same waters that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman had anchored some 130 years earlier and 6 years before the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’ on 26 January 1788. It is somewhat ironic that de Fresne and 24 of his crew met the same fate in New Zealand 3 months later on 12 June 1772 when they had an encounter with the local mob over there.

Early colonial history of Tasmania, much like the whole of Australia, is punctured by acts of genocide and murder, rape, exile and dispossession of lands and waters. The ghoulish act of body mutilation and souveniring of body parts to satisfy the feverishly increasing thirst of the medical and scientific communities increased as they fought each other to secure specimens from the last of Tasmania’s last Old People, as documented in Stefan Petrow’s paper The Last Man: The mutilation of William Lanne in 1869 and its aftermath.  To this day many of Australia’s Aboriginal people remain locked up overseas in these institutions as the struggle to repatriate them back home continues.

Tasmanian Aboriginal people are the only people on the planet to have faced such extreme attempts at complete annihilation and extinction, whether by intent or complete and utter ignorance. It is a great fete and testament of our forebears who did their upmost to try and kept us safe from government policy and attitudes of the day. Our story is one of oppression, resilience, truth telling, and fighting for equity as we move forward together as a State and (new) country. As the State which has had the greatest impact on its Aboriginal people, Tasmania was the last State to amend its Constitution to recognise its Aboriginal people as having survived beyond the passing of Truganini in 1876.

Today’s Tasmanian Aboriginal people are fiercely proud of their heritage, history, and revival of traditional cultural practices. There are a number of major events held annually on the Aboriginal calendar such as Mannalargenna Remembrance Day WeekendPutalina Festival, and Preminghana Weekend as well as a myriad of smaller family/local community events. These have seen a re-vitalisation of traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural practices and customs, many that are being continued or awakened from a deep sleep over the past couple hundred years

As part of your visit to IAG2019, you may consider a visit to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery  (Hobart) or Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Launceston – new exhibition) to learn more about Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

For some further information:

Wulika (Goodbye)

Rob Anders
Aboriginal Education and Strategy Officer
Geography and Spatial Sciences
University of Tasmania

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