Aboriginal, Australia, Dryland Irrigation, environment, geography, history, indigenous

In the land where the crow flies backwards

S.S. Nile on the bed of the Darling River south of Bourke, NSW, during a drought. The image was taken by the journalist C. E. W. Bean for the Sydney Morning Herald, circa 1909, (Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons, object no. 00017014).

This isn’t a long post just a footnote about the Darling River, it picks up on my post about the Darling River in March 2018.

I’m prompted to revisit this issue by a well-researched article, Shipwrecked at Brewarrina: Drought reveals historic Wandering Jew paddle steamer, from Jessie Davies.

Jessie’s article is about the Barwon River at Brewarrina and the remains of an important feature of European river history

For urban readers, the Murray Darling Basin Authority says this about the Barwon-Darling River system:

The Barwon–Darling river system is in north-western New South Wales. It takes in the Barwon River, from upstream of Mungindi at the confluence of the Macintyre and Weir rivers, to where the Barwon meets the Culgoa River. At this point the river channel becomes the Darling River and the Barwon–Darling system extends downstream to the Menindee Lakes.

In her article, Davies only makes brief reference to Indigenous occupance along the river system, yet this is an ancient presence. She observes, in reference to the wreck of the Wandering Jew, “Now, its rusted iron body lies for all to see in the river’s muddy waters just above the town’s iconic Aboriginal fish traps.”

Indigenous Occupance

Davies’ passing reference reminds me that the story of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers is quite a remarkable one.  Paul Dutton, whom I follow on twitter, also drew attention to the antiquity and success of Indigenous settlement along Australia’s inland rivers, in a recent Tweet.

People learned to live with the irregularities of the continent’s climate and didn’t only survive but prospered. The Brewarrina region of NSW is home to Ngemba, Ualarai, Murrawarri and Wailwan people. Today they are custodians of an intricate series of stone fish traps across the Barwon River.

Fish traps at Brewarrina

This complex array of linked weirs and ponds extends for 500 metres along the river. There is flexibility in the design allowing people to adapt the system to varying levels of river flow. People use their extensive knowledge of different fish species and the variations in flow to ensure suitable catches.

This is just one story of sustainable environmental adaptation and management that was such a feature of Indigenous occupance.

Bill Gammage, in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, provides numerous examples of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers of Australia. I won’t cite many but just draw attention to the book. I consider this work essential reading for every non-Indigenous Australian.

Rules of Indigenous management

Gammage explains that three rules directed all management of Australia before 1788:

  • Ensure that all life flourishes
  • Make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable
  • Think universal, act local

The fish traps at Brewarrina are just one example of the principle that applied to the whole continent.

Brewarrina fish traps

The fish traps are known as Baiame’s Ngunnhu [pronounced By-ah-mee’s noon-oo]by the Ngemba people. These are arguably the oldest known human constructions. Apparently constructed on a large riffle, they were first described by a European in 1848 by William Colburn Mayne, the Commissioner of Crown Lands. Gammage references Mayne’s description:

In a broad but shallow part of . . . where there are numerous rocks, the Aborigines have formed several enclosures or Pens, if I may use the word, into which the fish are carried, or as it were decoyed by the current, are there retained. To form these must have been a work of no trifling labour, and no slight degree of ingenuity and skill must have been exercised in their construction, as I was informed by men who have passed several years in the vicinity, that not even the heaviest floods displace the stones forming these enclosures. The Aborigines catch immense quantities of fish in these and are also enabled to destroy great numbers of fishing Birds of various kinds that are attracted to them by their prey thus imprisoned; and from these two sources the Tribes in that locality derive a considerable portion of their subsistence.

Gammage also reports from another source which explains that in addition to the major stone traps, “Several hundred successively smaller traps caught dray loads of fish.”

Chris Graham the publisher and editor of New Matilda, and former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine, wrote further in this for his February 2019 article, OUTBACK TOUR: Australia Has One Of The Oldest Human-Made Structures On Earth. Meh?

He observes that:

Despite Aboriginal people being banished from Brewarrina, and shuffled multiple times between missions in western and far western NSW, the custodians of Baiame’s Ngunnhu stubbornly continued to tend to their fish traps, and preserve them for future generations.

This continued into the 1970s, when the NSW Government decided to dam the Barwon with a weir, to provide water for irrigation for the few dozen farmers in the region. They built it right at the head of the fish traps, creating a pool upstream that sometimes stretches, in wetter times, for over 100 kilometres.

Now a National Heritage Place.

The Baiame’s Ngunnhu are now registered as a National Heritage Place. In the citation, the Australian Government acknowledges that:

The Ngemba people of Brewarrina used their advanced knowledge of river hydrology and fish ecology to trap and catch large numbers of freshwater fish. The unusual and innovative fish traps, known as Ngunnhu, are still visible in the Darling River, and have strong social, cultural and spiritual association for Aboriginal people with connections to the area.

The National Heritage listing goes on to explain that, the Ngemba people are custodians of the fishery, but maintenance and use of the traps were shared nations in the area, including the Morowari, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Barabinja, Ualarai, and Kamilaroi.

Baiame allocated particular traps to each family group and made them responsible for their use and maintenance. Neighbouring tribes were invited to the fish traps to join corroborees, initiation ceremonies, and meetings for trade and barter.

Lessons for contemporary Australia

Intensive irrigation farming, particularly cotton, is wildly out of accord with the environmental limits and with the practices adopted by Indigenous Australians. Their approaches were not merely sustainable, but they delivered certainty and abundance. We have a lot of learning to do.

I’m reminded of the line in the song, ‘The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards’. Though the version I first heard was recorded by the late Gary Shearston, it was written by Dougie. I’m pleased I’ve found the original from Dougie Young.

The White Man took this country from me, he’s been fighting for it ever since.

Douglas Gary Young (1933-1991), was Aboriginal songwriter and singer, was born on 30 August 1933 at East Mitchell, Queensland, he was the sixth child of Queensland-born parents Frank Young, white labourer, and his wife Olive Kathleen, née McCarthy, a Gurnu woman. Read more about Dougie here in Indigenous Australia

Aboriginal, Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia, Malaysia, religion, Singapore, sociology, Thailand, travel, Vietnam

A sampler of ‘Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia & the #Pacific’

Here is an overview of my book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia & the Pacific with a selection of images reflecting aspects of the stories that unfold in its pages.

Both paperback and kindle versions of the book are available through Amazon.

Further background on my book is also available on it’s website.

Aboriginal, Australia, environment, geography, history, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea

Can Australia ever have sovereign borders? We never really have and the porosity is ancient.

A simple Google search reveals that as an adjective sovereign means ‘possessing supreme or ultimate power. These words are also offered as synonyms: supreme, absolute, unlimited, unrestricted, unrestrained, unbounded, boundless, infinite, ultimate, total, unconditional, full, utter, paramount.

Powerful as the invocation of sovereign might be the simple answer to the question ‘Can Australia Ever Have Sovereign Borders?’ is no. Yet in the land that is girt by the myth of the sovereign border has the power of reality. While we Australians might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.

In the face of this simplicity, I offer a very simple post. It’s pitched at secondary school level.

The ice age
During the Ice Age the seas between Indonesia and Australia were lower and also narrower than now. At this time Australia was actually connected to the land masses of West Papua and Papua New Guinea. Theoretically it would have been possible to walk between present day Darwin and Merauke in about three weeks.

Australia, West Papua and Papua New Guinea formed a continent that geographers call Sahul. The rest of Indonesia, west of Lombok, on the other side of the Wallace line, with its tigers, rhinos and elephants is part of Sunda and is closely allied with the rest of Asia. Eastern Indonesia has strong and unmistakable biogeographic links with Australia.

New Guinea including West Papua was originally a northern peninsula of Australia. Both areas have largely Australian fauna and flora. Egg-laying mannals such as echidnas, marsupials such as kangaroos and cuscus, birds like bower birds, cockatoos and birds of paradise, and reptiles such as skinks and side-necked tortoises are common.  Amongst the plants lillipilli, eucalypts and melaleuca, are all testimony to ancient links with Australia. There is even a close relative of the Huon Pine growing in the mountains of West Papua and some of the indigenous Melanesian people of West Papua have recently claimed to have seen an animal resembling the Thylacine inhabiting mountainous areas.

The Settlement of Australia
Whenever settlement began movement must have been through the archipelago to the north. It probably began around 70,000 years before the present.

The Dingo
About 4 000 years ago the Dingo appeared in Australia. The Dingo resembles the Ajag (anjing hutan) which originates on mainland Asia and Sunda. It probably migrated into Sahul, perhaps with help from people. It was probably brought to Australia by people. It is likely these people came from Indonesia or Nusantara as it was called in former times.

Ajag (Cuon alpinus)
Ajag (Cuon alpinus)

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7c/Cuon.alpinus-cut.jpg

The Baiini Story
The Yirrkala people of Arnhem Land tell of a people called the Baiini who came from the north. They are said to have arrived in sailing ships as families, long before European settlement in Australia.

The Baiini built houses of stone and timber on the shore line. They planted rice which they called luda. As well as this, the Baiini wove brightly coloured cloth called jalajal and wore colourful sarongs.

It is said that the Baiini finally left Australia sailing back over the sea to the north, leaving behind their rice lands. Today a kind of grass grows on these lands; it is used as food by the Aboriginal people.

The stories of the Baiini were passed on by word of mouth. It is difficult to know whether these stories are mythology or not.

Sailings ships and monsoon winds
When people developed sailing canoes, and later sailing ships, travel by sea became possible. This probably made contact between Indonesia and Australia easier. The north west monsoons helps sailing ships travel from Indonesia to Australia. When the winds reverse direction, at the beginning of the south east monsoon, the return journey to Indonesia is possible.

The earliest recorded contact
Makassan, Bajo and Buginese fishermen regularly sailed into northern Australian waters from at least 1650. These voyages probably began during the time of the Makassan kingdom of Gowa. The Makassan and Buginese sailors called Arnhem Land, Marege, and they called the north western parts of Australia, Kayu Jawa.

Unlike the legendary Baiini the Makassans, Bajo and Buginese brought no families with them. They voyaged in fleets of 30 to 60 praus, each boat had up to 30 men on board. Their objective was to fish for trepang which they smoked. Then they carried the trepang back to Sulawesi from where it was exported to China.

Fishing fleets “fished three areas: the Northern Territory coast from Cape Don to the Gulf of Carpentaria; parts of the Kimberley coast of Western Australia from Cape Londonderry to Cape Leveque and perhaps further south towards Port Hedland; and the offshore reefs and islands in the Timor Sea.” See, Natasha Stacey, ‘Boats to Burn – Bajo Fishing Activity in the Australian Fishing Zone. Ch.4 pp58 ANU Press 2007

Their voyages were timed so that they arrived on the north coast of Australia in December which was the beginning of the wet season. They returned home in March or April at the end of the wet season.

The trepang fisherman built temporary houses, dug wells and planted tamarind trees. The groves of tamarind trees which they planted exist today.

Aboriginal people, like the Yolgnu, worked for the trepang fishermen, learning their language, adopting the habit of tobacco smoking, painting pictures of perau, learning their dances and borrowing some of their stories.

Some people went with the fishermen on their return voyage to Sulawesi, returning with the next monsoon, some remained in Sulawesi.

The influence of the Macassans, Bajo and Bugis, in particular, can still be seen today in the language and customs of the people.

Listen to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu.


For a more scholarly account of the pre-European settlerment of the north and the Macassan voyages read ‘Turning The Map Upside Down’ by Regina Ganter

Trade with Australia’s European settlers
When food supplies dwindled and the colony of New South Wales faced starvation the first ship to bring relief was the Waaksamheyd, in 1790. It brought supplies from Batavia (Jakarta), including 171 barrels of beef, 172 barrels of pork, 39 barrels of flour, 4,500 kilograms of sugar and 31,000 kilograms of rice.

Traditional fishing today
Traditional Indonesian fishermen continue to visit Australian waters. They fish around the reefs and islands between Australia and Indonesia. Although these are now Australian waters traditional Indonesian fishermen are granted fishing rights. In return for fishing rights they must use traditional sailing boats and traditional fishing techniques.

Ashmore reef is a group of three small islands. It is a National Nature Reserve, administered by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service. No fishing is permitted in the reserve, but fishermen are permitted to land on West island to obtain water. The reef was known to Macassan, Bajo, Bugis and Rotenese before it became part of Australia.

Australia's Environmentally Sensitive Maritime Border
Australia’s Maritime Border

Natasha Stacey writes that “During a visit to Kupang in 1803, Flinders obtained information linking Macassan trepang fishing activity to ‘a dry shoal lying to the south of Rottee [Rote]’ (probably Ashmore Reef) and met a number of Macassans on the coast of northern Australia in the same year (Flinders 1814: 257). 2 Since Ashmore Reef has a supply of fresh water and a sheltered lagoon, it has long been an important ‘staging post’ for Indonesian perahu on their voyages further south to other islands and reefs (Fox 1998: 117). Matthew Flinders learned of the existence of Ashmore Reef in Kupang.” op cit page 59

Aboriginal, Australia, education, environment, geography, history

Belonging places

Recently I posted this short clip of what I thought were Cockatoos, on Facebook. Then I was sitting over lunch with some friends visiting from Indonesia when they flew overhead in a cacophony of sound.

Birds in flight from maximos62 on Vimeo.

“Kakatua”, I exclaimed, for my Indonesian friends.

Then my wife Catherine commented.

“I was talking with someone the other day who said they were something else.”

“Yes, come to think of it”, I thought, “I didn’t see any sulphur crests, perhaps they are.”

Now if you ever want to identify an Australian bird quickly then go no futher than The Michael Morcombe eGuide to the Birds of Australia.

As apps go it might seem to be on the expensive side but don’t be deceived by appearances. This is probably the most functional and useful app I have across iPad and iPhone.

Go to http://www.michaelmorcombe.com.au/ for a complete account of the app’s functions.

So in a very short time we were able to identify the vast flock that was circling overhead as being Little Corella. These birds are mostly white with a blue/grey eye ring. When in flight you might notice a sulphur coloured wash on the underwing.

At this point I felt a little silly, not having bothered to do more than make a guess at their identity and then in the rush to use my iMovie app and post on Facebook, calling them Sulphur Crested Cockatoos in the short video.

So now I can make amends.

Meanwhile a good friend and colleague, originally from Palm Island, responded to my Facebook post with these words.

Have you heard them going off like that through the night and 2am in the early morning and daytime too! Distressed I don’t know maybe the fires! Flying low and fast on a daily basis around where we live since Xmas. Yep sometimes it’s unsettling and you feel for them and its been like this for thousands of years. I suppose it’s their flight and Cockatoo belonging place.

She crystalised what I’ve been thinking about our impact on this land for a long time. In this land there are many ancient belonging places but the relentless expansion of agriculture, industry and infrastructure has greatly disturbed the ancient relationships between the land and all living things.

Australia Day Reflections
On this Australia day, I don’t only remember the impact that colonisation has had on the Aboriginal peoples, I also reflect on the impact modern Australia is having on the ancient relationshops that were once both so universal and also so finely tuned to place. Despite the increasing dominance of the technosphere, the relentless advance of ‘progress’, it’s often possible to encounter the ancient fabric of connections where we least expect it.

Aboriginal, Australia, history, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea

A few thoughts on teaching about #Indigenous #Australia

A short while back I started reading The Greatest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia. What a remarkable book this is. Its author, Bill Gammage, systematically deconstructs the convenient myth of Aboriginal backwardness in this excellent history. He accumulates layer upon layer of historical source material, drawn from the casual observations of European explorers and settlers who started to move out into the world’s greatest estate from 1788 onwards.  He also uses observations from earlier European visitors as well.

“Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos” by Joseph Lycett, from the National Library of Australia. Intention to published notified. http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2962715-s20

Amongst the visual resources of early Australia Gammage relies on the work of the work of Joseph Lycett ‘Drawings of Aborigines and scenery, New South Wales‘, ca. 1820. Lycett’s work wasn’t new to me when I encountered it in the book I’d seen it before in various texts. What I’d always found interesting about it was the clear sense of order in the Australian landscape that Lycett chose to conveys. Mistakenly I’d always interpreted that sense of order an artistic imposition of a European way of viewing the late 18th and early 19th century landscape of Colonial Australia. Not till I read Gammage’s work did I begin to understand that Lycett and others were recognising and recording the order of Aboriginal land management.

Gammage use of the term ‘estate’ is purposeful and its also ironic. An estate is area of land, in the European sense of 1788 it was an extensive area of land in the country, usually with a large house, owned by one person, landed gentry or aristocrat. The term also implied management of the land, of a sequence of steps responding to seasons, of certain land having certain purposes or uses that might change through the seasons. It suggests an orderly system for managing the ownership, exchange and inheritance of land implying that appropriate laws were in place and that there was a general acceptance of the rule of law.

Gammage isn’t casual in applying this term to the Australian landscape, at the outset he explains there are three facts on which this book rests:

1. ” . . . about 70% of Australia’s plants need or tolerate fire (ch3).  Knowing which plants welcome fire and when and how much, was critical to managing land.  Plants could then be burnt and not burnt in patterns, so that post fire regeneration could situate and move grazing animals predictably by selectively locating the feed and shelter they prefer.”

2. This meant that grazing “animals could be shepherded in this way because apart from humans they had no serious predators.”

3. “There was no wilderness.  The Law – an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction – compelled people to care for all their country.  People lived and died to ensure this” (1)

The underlying principles of land management in this greatest of all estates, he condenses this into three basic rules:

  • Ensure that all life flourishes
  • Male plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable
  • Think universal, act local. (op cit 94)

“What plants and animals flourished where related to their management. As in Europe the land was managed at a local level. Detailed local knowledge was crucial. Each family cared for its own ground, and knew not merely which species fire or no fire might affect, but which individual plant and animal, and their totems and Dreaming links. They knew every yard intimately, and knew well the ground of neighbours and clansmen, sharing larger scale management or assuming responsibility for nearby ground if circumstances required.”  (2)

Uncovering Indigenous pasts in the present

This past winter has been a time of reading, research and digital construction for me. After developing a research unit on the Sioux’s survival, last year , I turned my attention to building a short unit on Aboriginal survival. I wanted this to be a learning project that avoided the generic introduction, typical of many school text books, that imposed a homogeneity to the life of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI) history before contact. It was also necessary to ensure that the sections dealing with Contact and Post Contact history were constructed so that students were encouraged to draw on the rich digital resources that are now becoming available. I built both the Sioux and the ATSI units learning units using a template supplied by the NSW Teaching and Learning Exchange (TALE) managed by the NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre

Front page of the learning unit built in PowerPoint

One frequent problem with school texts is their use of the term ‘Dreamtime’, as something that happened back in antiquity that was all ‘done and dusted’ by the time the ‘ Whiteman’ arrived and is now only represented in song and dance. It’s true that some contemporary Aboriginal Australians accept this terminology, but for others  The Dreaming is ongoing just as creation is on going.  It didn’t only happen back then but is still unfolding now. My challenge was to allow my students to experience the Dreaming in this sense.

Several things help in conveying this sense of the presence of Creation, there are probably many but I chose:

I’ve probably said enough about The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia so it’s the other three areas I’d most like to explore.

Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia (MAIA)

I’m not certain just how this work is received by Indigenous Australians, none that I’ve spoken with have been critical of the work, but to date such conversations have been limited to colleagues. Needless to say this work attempts to cover vast subjets.  It need to be explored for one to gain a sense of just how much it attempts. Probably the most important understanding I’ve derived from the book, to date, is the background on The Dreaming, that I’ve already addressed.

The MAIA attributes early attempts to describe The Dreaming to Baldwin Spencer.

Reading through the atlas I learned that the term ‘Dreamtime’ was started by an English anthropologist, Baldwin Spencer.  Dreamtime is Baldwin’s translation of an Arrernte word altyerre which means both ‘time of creation’ and ‘dream’.  From this this limited meaning the idea of the ‘Dreamtime’ was developed. The term is widely used all over Australia by many Indigenous people as well as non-Indigenous people – to refer to the Indigenous time of creation.  However, in many – even most – Indigenous languages, there is no connection between the word for ‘dream’ and the word for ‘creation time’, and some Indigenous people object to the use of ‘Dreamtime’.  Torres Strait Islanders do not use the term.

Geoffrey Gurumul Yunupingu

Alerted to this wider sense of Dreaming I began to listen more intently to the songs of Geoffrey Gurumul Yunupingu. Several things started to emerge when I did this but two were particularly significant for me.  I began to realise that I understood some of his lyrics. While Yolgnu languages are from the Pama-Nyungan family of languages and have connections with other Aboriginal languages there’s also an Austronesian influence in Yolgnu languages. The same influences can be found in Indonesian and in low Balinese for example, a language in which I’ve a small vocabulary. I can’t say whether this influence is from connections with the Macassans and the Bugis alone or whether the connections are more ancient. It seems reasonable to me that this wasn’t the only contact across Manbuynga ga Rulyapa (Arafura Sea).

What I understood amounted to mere words and occasionally fragments that I could guess at, but it focused my attention and caused me to look more deeply into his lyrics. It was then I began to realise that he is often singing about The Dreaming, that for him it is in the present as well as in the past. One song that strongly appealed to me is Baywara. The lyrics of speak for themselves.

Here is an example of his work and extraordinary presence. Djarimirri concerns his own creation “I am a child conceived and carried by Wititj a rainbow child ” Wititj is the Ancestor Rainbow Python.

(1)  Gammage, B. – The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen & Unwin. 2011. pp 1-2 

(2) op cit pp. 3