Canoes light up on the harbour

Across the country – at Blackwattle Bay in Sydney, on the Murray River and on the north and south coast of New South Wales – nawi (canoes in the Sydney language) are under construction. They are being prepared in order to converge on Tumbulong or Darling Harbour, Sydney, for the opening of the conference Nawi – exploring Australia’s indigenous watercraft, hosted by the museum.

Just after sunset on Wednesday 30 May, the conference will officially open with a special event on the harbour. Gubbi Gubbi performers from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and Sydney koori kids from the Tribal Warrior Indigenous Youth Mentoring Program will begin the event by lighting small fires which will then be taken to canoes and out into the harbour.

The event will evoke what the Gadigal and Wangal people who lived around Tumbulong had  done for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans in Sydney in 1788. These early colonists remarked how the harbour was always dotted with the lights of fires aboard canoes – mostly paddled by Aboriginal women who were the main fishers on the harbour waters.

The small fires – used by day and night – were carefully placed on rocks, clay or seaweed in the canoes. As Watkin Tench observed in 1788 ‘a canoe is seldom seen without a fire in it, to dress the fish by as soon as caught’.

Detail from Tupaia’s drawing of Aboriginal people paddling bark canoes, probably in Botany Bay, from the British Library.

The canoeists of the south-eastern coastline type of tied-bark canoes will use goinnia or narowang  – small paddles also made of bark. They were depicted as being used one in each hand – a style particular to Sydney and the south eastern NSW region. One good example of the use of these paddles can be seen in a drawing by Tupaia – the Tahitian who travelled with Cook’s Endeavour along Australia’s eastern coast in 1770.

As historian Keith Vincent Smith has shown, bark canoes were still used occasionally on Sydney Harbour into the mid-nineteenth century by the few Aboriginal people who had survived invasion and colonisation in Sydney.

The Nawi – exploring Australia’s indigenous watercraft conference runs over 2 days from 31 May to 1 June and will bring together canoe-makers, academics, museum workers and community members from all over Australia to discuss and debate the long maritime history of Australia’s First Peoples.

Gubbi Gubbi fire-making. Courtesy Gubbi Gubbi Dance Troop.

At the opening event on Wednesday 30th May, Gubbi Gubbi dancers will bring their yuar warrai  or song and dance and there will be canoes on the waters of Tumbulong for the first time in many years.

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