Bark Canoe building at Bents Basin –a NPWS Sydney Aboriginal Community Cultural Gathering

At the invitation of Dean Kelly, National Parks and Wildlife Service Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer I was invited to attend their Sydney Aboriginal Community Cultural Gathering at Bents Basin near Bringelly, NSW, 16-19 May. I was there to facilitate a canoe building activity as part of the Saturday cultural activities. Last year I went out for an afternoon with senior curator Daina Fletcher where we made a large model nawi, but this year Dean and I set out sights higher, and achieved the goal, but not without significant help in the lead-up.

Bark canoe, ANMM image by David Payne

Bark canoe, ANMM image by David Payne


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A place, a philosophy and a practical experience – a passage by water in Dharawal country

Model making in the foreground while passing through Dharawal country

Model making in the foreground while passing through Dharawal country.
Photo: David Payne, ANMM

On Saturday 15th March, an eco-tour organized by Mary Jacobs from Sutherland Shire Reconciliation on the waters inshore of of Djeebahn (Jibbon, the headland at Port Hacking) was the background for a rare opportunity to learn much more than just Indigenous names, locations and history. It was a journey into another people’s country and their connections to the land, to the sea and a way of life. Continue reading

Day Two: Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft

Bark canoe on water at Nawi opening ceremony.

It is very difficult to sum up in a short post all of the ideas, discussions and presentations that  we have seen today, the last day of the Nawi conference on Indigenous watercraft here at the museum. The second day of Nawi was kicked off with a presentation by Ian McNiven, Thomas Chandler and Michael Lim. Their project consists of virtual 3D modelling of Torres Strait canoes.

Australian National Maritime Museum curator, David Payne, displayed the painstaking work he has done to map canoe distribution across Australia. From rolled-bark canoes in Tasmania, to the sheet-bark yuki style used in the Murrumbidgee area, David demonstrated the breadth of his research and passion for nawi.

Bryce Barker spoke after morning tea and talked of early references in literature of Aboriginal watercraft that used words such as ‘crude’, ‘primitive’ and ‘simplicity’. David went on to disprove this however, with his talk on the complex ways in which watercraft was used along the tropical north Queensland coast. He also noted, importantly, that Aboriginal people were voyaging to the Percy Islands at least 2800 years ago making this is some of the earliest use of watercraft in human history.

Therese Chelepy-Roberts of the Queensland Museum presented on a project to build a traditional ‘walpa’ craft in conjunction with the community of Mornington Island. Therese noted at the conclusion of her talk that this conference, this gathering, was ‘bringing back the memories of the old people’ and helping to revive and thus preserve traditional practices.

Tony Brown of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery talked of this institution’s small collection of canoes and the problem of provenance. Tony posed an interesting question – how to classify a canoe that is the outcome of a community project. Is it an artefact? A replica? Or perhaps a prop?

These were questions that were also addressed by Moya Smith of the WA Museum. Moya noted through her experience working with Indigenous communities, that items generated during projects to revive cultural traditions are not considered replicas by their creators, as the knowledge and the significance are still part of an old but living and growing culture.

Key messages from today included: the importance of supporting community initiatives designed to display Indigenous culture and bringing Aboriginal art and traditions to communities to bridge cross-cultural divides. School student Georgette Rose provided inspiring words to which the audience erupted in cheers and applause: ‘My pop once told me, “Girls can do anything and don’t let anyone ever tell you they can’t”.’ Fred Kelly also noted the importance of educating Aboriginal boys about respect and instilling ‘knowledge and cultural protocols’ that will ensure the survival of Aboriginal culture for many years to come.

There has been almost too much to contain in a two-day conference – and certainly too much for a short blog post. Hopefully this event will be the catalyst for further collaborative research and a wider promotion of this important historical topic.

Penny Hyde and Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistants

Saltwater Boatmen – Meet Keith Vincent Smith

Keith Vincent Smith

As the museum’s conference, Nawi – exploring Australia’s indigenous watercraft nears, we will be turning your attention to the fascinating array of speakers who will be presenting on the 31 May and 1 June. Previously, I wrote about the story of Gnung-a Gnung-a, the first Aboriginal to sail across the seas to America. I enjoyed delving into part of the history of first contact and early European settlement, and Dr Keith Vincent Smith’s talk in the first session will be a welcome addition to what is shaping up to be a diverse program of events.

Keith is an independent historian and curator, whose expertise includes ethnology and the history of the Eora, the Indigenous clans of the Sydney coastal area. His talk will feature the first illustrations produced of Aboriginal watercraft at Botany Bay and cover some of the earliest moments of contact between the British and Aboriginal peoples, who had greeted the foreigners on board their nawi or stringy bark canoes.

Keith curated the exhibition, Mari Nawi – Aboriginal Odysseys 1790-1850, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney in 2010. He described this exhibition as a ‘journey across time, place and cultures.’ Already, preparations for the conference have achieved exactly that, with nawi building being undertaken on the shores of Sydney Harbour. Next week, on 30 May, past and present will come together and canoes will light up Darling Harbour marking the beginning of the conference, but more importantly, it will symbolise an Indigenous cultural tradition that began thousands of years ago.

Have a look at the program of events and register online today.

Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant

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. http://www.gubbigubbidance.com/

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.

Collecting bark for more canoes

Monday, 30 April and I am on a mission to collect bark for more Indigenous canoe projects, this time it will be working with Tribal Warrior Association’s Youth Mentor Group. Getting bark is not a simple ‘go to the shop’ process – it needs permission, planning, and manpower. Paul Carriage Cultural Liaison Officer from Forests NSW (FNSW) and a member of the Ulladulla Local Aboriginal land Council helped provide all three of these things. It needs timing too – its best with wet ground that keeps the trees moist so the bark will lift, this came courtesy of El Nino and the rain we have had over the past months. And it needs a day on the road and in the bush. Meeting Paul mid-morning I followed him into the Boyne State Forest about 10 minutes north of Batemans Bay, cruising along the dirt road and pulling off to let the logging trucks through.

Felling a tree

Dave Mills from FNSW was there with his truck, ready to fell and haul out the logs we would need, and Paul’s organisation had rounded up a team of helpers from MogoLALC, including Elder Uncle Tom Butler. For me it was chance to catch up with Paul, Dave, Uncle Tom, James and Cameron who had been there for the Ulladulla workshop, but there was not much time to socialise after Dave felled the first yellow stringy bark and brought out a four metre long trunk to a clearing down the track.

Stripping bark from tree

Safety first as Paul noted the rules, and then cut a slit down the bark on the trunk. Next Paul showed us how to pound the bark with the back of an axe. This made the bark spring off the hard, woody interior, and if the timing is right and the tree is moist, it comes off with relatively ease. For us we were in luck, each big hit saw a patch lift, you could feel and see it bounce up, and tapping it gave a hollow sound, so we knew where it needed an extra hit. We took turns pounding the bark, easing it off then rolling the log to get to the underside and pound away again. A long pinch bar helped prise it back gently, and helped roll the heavy log.

Stripping bark from tree

After 10 minutes of heavy axe work and two people working together, we rolled the log out of the bark. This was going much better than anticipated as some of Paul’s previous experience had been measured in hours. Dave felled three more trees, and we had the barks off almost as quickly. The Mogo team laid their barks out and went straight into peeling off the loose exterior bark that would not be needed on the canoe hull. Meanwhile I rolled up the two I had helped pound off and we strapped them to a frame I had tied to the roof racks. I also collected saplings for branches needed to support the sides, tied them on, and then taped a red shopping bag onto the overhanging limbs.

Loading bark onto back of truck

By 2 pm we had cleared out and I was on the Princess Highway heading north, sore but satisfied and looking forward to a coffee in Berry!  Soon there should be canoes….. Keep watching this space.

Bark rolls on top of car

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

Bark canoe takes a ride

David Payne (our resident bark canoe expert) received a few strange looks driving into work today with this bark canoe strapped to the top of his car!

Bark canoe atop a car

The canoe was made by James Dodd for an exhibition at the State Library of NSW some time ago and was given to David by James. The bark was sourced from Batemans Bay, so it’s only fitting that the canoe is returned to its place of origin, this being the reason it has been brought to the museum today.

Through David’s work on the Nawi indigenous watercraft conference, he has been talking with people all around Australia, including contacts in Batemans Bay, who are more than happy to take this particular craft off his hands for the Batemans Bay community to enjoy. The canoe is due to be picked up this afternoon and transported down the NSW south coast… so keep an eye out if you happen to be travelling that way!

Registrations for the conference Nawi  – Exploring Australia’s indigenous watercraft will be open soon. We’ll keep you in the loop via this blog or you can sign up to the Nawi enewsletter for alerts about registrations and conference developments.