NAIDOC week: unlock water and Indigenous People

NAIDOC week with the ANMM via the Virtual Classroom. Image: ANMM.

NAIDOC week with the ANMM via the Virtual Classroom. Image: ANMM.

A virtual excursion suitable for students in Years 3 to 6

To celebrate NAIDOC week, Indigenous Programs Manager Donna Carstens and special guest Uncle Terry will discuss the cultural significance of water to Indigenous people.

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My Special Place – School students meet Saltwater Visions

One of the education programs for primary and junior high school students at the Australian National Maritime Museum is called ‘My Special Place’. This Visual Arts program focuses on the artist’s use of cultural and personal symbols to communicate a sense of place.

Students with teacher guide in gallery with Indigenous barks and artworks

Students in the museum’s Eora gallery during the My special place schools program

While the Saltwater Visions NAIDOC week display of ten bark paintings from the museum’s Saltwater Collection is on display in the Tasman Light Gallery, the museum’s teacher guides take groups of students and begin their session by sitting them down in front of the barks. Continue reading

A week away, working in the UK

Over the last week of February I travelled to the UK as part of my work at the museum, where my first appointment was to attend the meeting of the International Congress of Maritime Museums’ (ICMM) International Historic and Traditional Ships panel. I have been a member of this panel since it was brought together in 2011, and the broad aim is to be an advocate on behalf of historic and traditional ships in relation to their various survey and regulation issues, including both operational and static craft.  We met in Greenwich, hosted by Martyn Heighton from National Historic Ships UK, which manages a register similar to our Australian Register of Historic Vessels (ARHV)  and works from the National Maritime Museum (NMM). In practical terms we were there to coordinate progress from the two working parties, and as Convener of Working Party Two I had a detailed report to present, with discussion and further actions to move forward with. Continue reading

Canoes and culture at Saltwater Freshwater for Australia Day

On Friday 25 January David Payne and I made our way north to Taree from Sydney. With one of David’s derivative plywood nardan (or derrka) strapped to the roof, and sheets of stringy bark in the boot of the car, we were on our way to the Saltwater Freshwater Festival on the banks of the Manning River on the mid north coast of New South Wales.

The festival is held every year along a river or on the coast at a centre within the 10 local Aboriginal Land Council areas grouped in the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance. This festival, the fourth, was held in Taree after the 2012 event was washed out by the floods.

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Saltwater Freshwater CEO Alison Page accepting a nawi model made in the workshop with David Payne (L) and Daina Fletcher (R).

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Object of the Week : Kunmatj (small dilly bag)

Object of the Week: Kunmatjs

Kunmatjs are dilly bags from the Northern Territory used for carrying small fish such as catfish. They are a common item across many Indigenous groups in the Northern Territory and known by a number of different names depending on their region of origin. This bag is painted with red ochre and decorated with painted images of catfish in white clay. Traditionally dilly bags were left unadorned but artist Lena Yarinkura has decorated this kunmatji to express her local Aboriginal culture. Lena Yarinkura is an artist from south central Arnhem Land who works with fibres, barks, bronze and aluminium. Her works cover ceremonial regalia, baskets, bark paintings and sculptures. She has exhibited locally, nationally and internationally since 1987.


Kunmatjs, ANMM Collection

Dilly bags are traditional bags used for gathering food and could be hung around the neck in order to leave the hands free. They are typically woven out of natural fibres including grasses, animal tendons and reeds. Depending on the region of their origin, these bags have a variety of names and are produced from different materials. They are typically left undecorated without paint when used for their traditional purpose of gathering food. Today they also serve an artistic purpose and are often painted with images such as catfish.

Pandanus is a common material used in Arnhem Land for making baskets, bags and traps. The plant grows in Queensland, the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia in damp environments near creeks and waterways. The top leaves of the plant are collected, stripped and dried in preparation to be woven into traditional objects such as baskets, mats, fishing nets and sculptures.

This kunmatj is representative of Indigenous weaving techniques and functional carrying equipment used in the Northern Territory. It is a common utilitarian object used by men and women when hunting and gathering food. Today these functional items are also produced for artistic purposes.

Day One: Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft

Shoalhaven canoe project

Shoalhaven canoe project presentation with Steve Russell, Noel Lonesborough and Jim Wallis

At the close of a fantastic first day of the Nawi conference here at the Australian National Maritime Museum, we thought we would share some impressions and snippets from the event.

While there are a wide variety of people, ways of teaching, storytelling and of sharing information here at this event, there are some vital common threads emerging through the presentations of our speakers.

Alison Page, Executive Officer of the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance, opened today’s proceedings with a heartfelt speech about the importance of a revival of traditional cultural practices. She articulated that the passing on of knowledge and traditions to the next generation is what provides them with identity, strength, confidence and a sense of their place in the world.

During morning tea John Moriarty gave an inspiring talk, as photographs of his childhood were projected onto the wall behind him. John spoke of how he was taken from his family and his home as a child, but that he treasures the early years of his life spent in the bush, learning traditional practices such as canoe building that gave him a sense of identity as an Aboriginal person. He too reiterated the importance of passing this knowledge through the generations before it is lost.

Aboriginal artist, Jonathan Jones, discussed the centrality of traditional watercraft within his artwork and how it translates beyond two-dimensional works, and into the realm of sculpture. He plans to travel down the Murrumbidgee River to learn more about watercraft and the surrounding culture and lands.

Daryl Wesley’s presentation brought an archaeological perspective to the conference with his examination of maritime images in the rock art of Arnhem Land. He also provided some information on the different chronological frameworks used to assist in dating such as changes of style in the art and – of all things – beeswax!

As an example of intergenerational knowledge sharing in action, Cameron Cope and Steaphan Paton presented on their arts collaboration ‘Boorun’s Canoe’. This project followed Steaphan and his family as his grandfather taught them the traditional art of building a canoe. Steaphan stressed the importance of the canoe as transport, as a way of life and as an icon in the origin story of the Gunaikurnai people. The passing of this heritage from one generation to the next continues the past into the future, so that the story never ends. Revitalising, reawakening and renewing.

Some of the bark canoes used on the harbour on Wednesday night

Some of the bark canoes used on the harbour on Wednesday night

Canoe making presentations dominated the third session and the day closed off with a canoe making demonstration and a dinner on the rooftop terrace of Pyrmont Bridge Hotel.

For more information on these talks, and the many other fantastic speakers who attended the first day please see our website.

Nicole Cama and Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistants

Boorun’s Canoe

Who was Boorun?

Boorun was a pelican, the first of the Gunnai/Kurnai people who came to Gippsland. When Boorun first travelled to the area, he carried with him a bark canoe. As he walked, Boorun heard a tapping sound coming from his canoe. At the deep water inlets, Boorun stopped and turning over his canoe he discovered, much to his surprise, that there was a woman in it. She was Tuk, the musk duck and she became his wife and mother of the Gunnai/Kurnai people.

Indigenous artist Steaphan Paton

Indigenous artist Steaphan Paton

Boorun’s Canoe is the title of an indigenous cultural arts collaboration by artist Steaphan Paton, his grandfather Uncle Albert Mullet and photographic artist Cameron Cope.

The project tells the story of Gunai/Kurnai elder Uncle Albert Mullet as he teaches his grandson Steaphan Paton and other young men in his family how to build a traditional bark canoe. The project captures the canoe’s creation through to its successful floating by Steaphan and his family, and in doing so highlights the importance of transferring intergenerational knowledge and the preservation of cultural traditions and pride.

Boorun the Pelican, our Gunai ancestor, came to Gippsland carrying a bark canoe on his head. Canoes are part of our story of who we are and where we come from. I want to respect my ancestors by continuing the tradition of canoe-making and safeguard it for future generations.  Aboriginal Artist Steaphan Paton.

Steaphan Paton, Uncle Albert Mullet and Cameron Cope will be among the speakers presenting at the conference Nawi : Exploring Australia’s Indigenous Watercraft which begins at the Australian National Maritime Museum during Reconciliation Week and runs from 30 May to 1 June. The conference will look at First Australians’ long and continued connections with watercraft. Some highlights will be artist talks and hands-on canoe making workshops.

The conference commences on Wednesday evening when a number of bark canoes from around the country, lit by traditional fires, will make their way from the museum’s wharves into Darling Harbour. You can still register to come along and participate in this conference, and hear the full story of Boorun’s Canoe.

Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistant

Building bark canoe models with Alexandria Park School

Models are a great way to engage people about a subject and we used them to explore Indigenous watercraft at Alexandria Park Community School on Wednesday 23 May with about ten primary school children. It was mixed group, mostly Indigenous boys, and they were a bundle of energy. Judithe Hall and I went from the museum. Auntie Deb and Thea were there to keep an eye on things. We started quietly with just a strip of coloured paper each and two paper clips.

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David Payne shows the students how to make canoe models from paper

A fold on the centreline and a clip at the first end held it secure. The corners of the other end are then folded in to the middle, then brought together as a fold on the centreline and clipped. After less than 5 minutes we had canoes, in fact more than 10 canoes! We had made miniature paper versions of the derrka or nardan featured in the well-known movie 10 Canoes.   I then showed the group a drawing of the canoe, the geese they hunted using the canoe and then the famous Donald Thomson image from the late 1930s of the 10 canoes in the Arafura Swamp. So we lined up our canoes on two bits of green cardboard and recreated that scene as a little diorama, complete with coloured canoes!

Plasticine was next, and everyone was rolling out mangrove logs in a variety of colours so we could form two kalwa rafts from the Kimberley region. One was made in red, yellow and black Aboriginal colours. Kids raced outside to get twigs to make spears, and things started moving quickly. The rest of the plasticine was rolled together in a vibrant mixture of colours to form a tree trunk, and then passed around as each person hollowed a bit out until we had a dugout formed. Another twig became the mast, and a square of coloured paper became the sail, sticky-taped on.

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Bark canoe models made by the students

Eager to do more, it was time to use natural materials. Small bits of stringy bark were used for the real nawi and soaked overnight to be more pliable. Deft fingers folded and squashed together ends, rubber bands secured them, then little twigs went in to hold the sides apart. String ties made from strips of bark were lashed around the ends to cover the rubber bands and another eight canoes were on the table!

Next- another raft- a walpo from Mornington Island and one boy took charge – arranging the twigs, using rubber bands to hold the ends and cutting paperbark for a seat.

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David shows the students how to build an outrigger model

Time for the big one, a double outrigger form Torres Strait!  I had pre-cut the hulls from cardboard tube and cross beams from dowel. Another boy could see the plan already and started to feed the dowels through the holes in the main hull as they were meant to go. The rest helped tape the outrigger hulls on and put feathers in the back for the decoration they carried. Then we were done!

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The group proudly display their models at the end of the workshop

With a few minutes to go the proud kids posed with their models for photos. They wrote a short sentence or two about the fun they had that morning and then off to lunch.

“Today we made canoes and spears and I thought it was a good experience and my favourite canoe was the outrigger.”

“It was very fun but the most fun of all was when outrigger and we want to make paint..”

“We had fun and made spears and boats. We had fun making them.”

“Today we had to make a canoe and a raft. It was so fun.”

“I love making canoes. The one I liked the most is outrigger. I learnt that aboriginals made different kinds of canoes.”

“I like making canoes out of bark off the tree.”

This joyful collection of models will be on display during the Nawi- exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft conference next week.

David Payne
Curator, Register of Historic Vessels

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Two students proudly display their model bark canoe

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

Workshop on model watercraft

Flinders University, 29/30 March 2012

I am recently back from coastal Port Noarlunga on the Onkaparinga River south of Adelaide, where I held a two day workshop building models of Australian Indigenous watercraft.

Sponsored by Flinders University and coordinated by lecturer Jennifer McKinnon, I worked with 10 archaeology and maritime archaeology students, exploring the construction of different types of watercraft at scale and using this to discuss the background of the craft, plus the many aspects of indigenous  culture that are expressed through their diverse variety of canoes and rafts.

Participants of model building workshop in backyard

This was a workshop with a few differences; it was outside the classroom in a backyard, it was hands-on, it had fire, there were scones and Arnott’s assorted biscuits,  and there were no handouts or notes to take home.

One the key concepts of  Indigenous  watercraft construction was that the knowledge of their design and construction was handed on by word of mouth and demonstration, so I kept to that process, and the students took home the information in their heads and in their models.

We started sitting in a circle and talking about the background to the craft, the loss of the ‘canoe culture’ that once existed on many waterways, the diversity of craft around the country, and how I had got involved in all of this. Then we went to work using the samples of bark that Keryn Walshe, from South Australian Museum, had been able to source some days beforehand. Each model type began with me demonstrating the construction method then everyone had a go themselves.

Two workshop participants building model bark canoe

The process worked – watching, listening and questioning. The students took in the ideas and quickly produced models, sometimes taking them apart and improving them at a second go.   Throughout the two days we learnt about using materials in sympathy with what they could do, and we learnt about using and adapting what was around us too, seeking plants and parts of them from our backyard and kerbside surroundings to make ties, ropes, caulking and support structure.   We put them over a fire to dry them out and singe off the loose fibres,  used the spikes off Phoenix palm fronds as needles, saved twigs and branches form the fire wood pile to build rafts, all the time  sharing ideas and results.

Seven model bark canoes

As the workshop drew to a close we had five different types represented;   nawi or tied-bark canoes from south-east Australian coast, derrkas from Arnhem Land made famous by 10 Canoes, a walba raft from Mornington island, a rolled bark canoe from Tasmania, and a ‘shopping trolley’ type of towed raft based on an example I had seen in the National Museum of Australia’s collection.  We also had ideas forming for the next time- more model types, maybe larger ones too, and additional materials that could be useful.

Workshop participants with model bark canoes

To wrap up the two days I did a lecture in the city on Friday evening about the Australian Register of Historic Vessels ending with its focus on Indigenous watercraft and the forthcoming Nawi conference. Hope to see you all there!

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

Nawi news: Display of historic images

From Wednesday 4 April the full exhibition of Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous Watercraft will be opened for viewing in the lead up to the conference on indigenous watercraft in late May. The exhibition features Saltwater Freshwater bark paintings, technical drawings of a raft and a dugout canoe, and historic images from a 1929 mining company visit to Cockatoo and Koolan islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago off the Kimberley coast in WA.

The images on display are sourced from a photo album acquired by the museum several years ago at an auction in the United Sates. Considered important for the images of Aboriginal people it held, the album was compiled by an Australian mining company during a series of mining survey expeditions to the Kimberley in 1929 and 1930. The company photographed potential iron ore deposits – for which the Kimberley have since become renowned – and carefully placed the photographs into an album, with handwritten labels.

But the photographers lens quickly turned from the rocky outcrops of ore to the local people who were guiding them. Most of the album is taken up with shots of Dambimangari and Mayala people. Like many European Australians in Australia’s north and west in the early 20th century, the photographer was obviously fascinated with the traditional lifestyles of Aboriginal people.

Two kalwas loaded for a sea journey

The album is full of images of people hunting, fishing, and catching turtle and dugong. Importantly for the Nawi conference, there are several photographs of people in canoes and rafts. With the permission of the Traditional Owners of Cockatoo and Koolan islands, these images of watercraft will be on public display for the first time.

Nawi conference registrations now open

We are thrilled to announce that delegate registrations for the conference Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft are now open. If you register before 31 March, you will receive the early bird rate.

This first major conference exploring the watercraft of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will bring together people from all over Australia to share their knowledge, skills and stories. Over two days, we will explore Australia’s Indigenous watercraft through talks, demonstrations, performances and workshops.

We’ve added a few of the conference highlights on our website, so head on over and check it out. More information will be added as the program is finalised – it’s sure to be a fantastic few days!

Group photo of canoe builders

Recent canoe building workshop in Ulladulla, NSW

Conference dates

Wednesday 30 May
Evening welcome function

Thursday 31 May – Friday 1 June
Conference program

Conference location

Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

Delegate fees

Early bird (before 31 March) $220
Concession rate $165
Full rate $275

You can register for the conference online now.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Object of the Week: Gnung-a Gnung-a’s story – the first Aboriginal Australian to visit America

Engraving of Gnung-a Gnung-a by Nicolas-Martin Petit in 1807

You may have heard of Bennelong, the famous Aboriginal man who befriended Governor Arthur Phillip and accompanied him to England in 1792. Fewer people, however, have heard of Gnung-a Gnung-a Mur-re-mur-gan, who became the first Aboriginal Australian in written history to visit America in 1793. His story has been reconstructed from written records from Judge-Advocate David Collins whose work, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, provides snippets of information about the voyage of HMS Daedalus across the North Pacific to America.

According to the records, Gnung-a Gnung-a was sent by Lieutenant-Governor Major Francis Grose to sail on the expedition, ‘for the purpose of acquiring our language.’ Lieutenant Hanson was instructed to ‘by no means’ ‘leave him at Nookta, but, if he survived the voyage, to bring him back safe to his friends and countrymen.’ Collins described his own insights regarding Gnung-a Gnung-a’s character, claiming that, ‘he was a man of a more gentle disposition than most of his associates’ and willingly accepted the voyage. On the 1 July 1793, Gnung-a Gnung-a boarded HMS Daedalus, leaving behind his young pregnant wife Warreeweer, sister of Bennelong, ‘of whom he always appeared extremely fond’.

Although not much is reported about Gnung-a Gnung-a’s time on the voyage, there are some intriguing accounts of his visit to Hawaii. Collins describes the high esteem Gnung-a Gnung-a held amongst his sailing companions as he ‘conducted himself with the greatest propriety…readily complying with whatever was required of him.’ During Gnung-a Gnung-a’s stay, the Hawaiian King Kamehameha offered to purchase him, ‘making splendid offers to Mr. Hanson, of canoes, warlike instruments, and other curiosities….’ Gnung-a Gnung-a refused the offer as he was anxious to return to New South Wales.

A few months later, on 3 April 1794, HMS Daedalus returned to Port Jackson. Gnung-a Gnung-a disembarked, appearing in ‘English dress, and very clean’, to find a large reception of his people waiting to greet him. Amongst the crowd was his wife, who was ‘in the possession of another native, a very fine young fellow, who since his coming among us had gone by the name of Wyatt.’ Collins dramatically captures the moments after their encounter:

‘The husband and the gallant eyed each other with indignant sullenness, while the poor wife (who had recently been delivered of a female child) appeared terrified, and as if she knew not which to cling to as her protector, but expecting that she should be the sufferer, whether ascertained to belong to her former or present master.’

Gnung-a Gnung-a performed ritual revenge by throwing a spear and wounding his rival. He emerged the victor with Warreeweer claimed as the ‘prize’, despite later reports of Gnung-a Gnung-a being ‘seen traversing the country in search of another wife.’

In December 1795, another ritual revenge battle is recorded to have taken place in Sydney between Gnung-a Gnung-a and the great warrior and leader of the Bidjigal people, Pemulwuy. According to Collins, Gnung-a Gnung-a received a barbed spear in ‘his loins close by the vertebrae of the back’. English surgeons later declared that they could not dislodge the spear and so Gnung-a Gnung-a, ‘determined to trust to nature’, left the hospital and was seen for ‘several weeks’ after ‘walking about with the spear unmoved’. Further to these accounts, Collins claims that Warreeweer ‘had fixed her teeth in the wound and drawn it out’. Although Gnung-a Gnung-a recovered, ‘which gave general satisfaction, as he was much esteemed by every white man who knew him…for his personal bravery’, the incident left him with an injury which plagued him for the rest of his life.

View of Sydney from Bennelong Point, as it would have appeared in Gnung-a Gnung-a's time

On 12 January 1809, Gnung-a Gnung-a was found dead behind the Dry Store (present day Sirius Park in Bridge Street, Sydney). The exact cause of his death is unknown, however, the Sydney Gazette described Gnung-a Gnung-a, referring to the injuries inflicted by Pemulwuy years earlier and his general character:

‘The deceased was to us well known, for his lameness…He was not less remarkable however for the docility of his temper, and the high estimation in which he was universally held among the native tribes:- he had extended to many an orphan a fostering hand, and, as his own children, provided for their infant wants….’

Apart from a small number of written accounts, all that survives of Gnung-a Gnung-a is a coloured drawing attributed to convict artist Thomas Watling and the engraving featured here, which was created by French artist Nicolas-Martin Petit in Sydney in 1802. From the little information we can gain from these accounts, what emerges is a fascinating story of dramatic encounters and adventure. Gnung-a Gnung-a’s story and Collins’ observations shed light on relations between Aboriginal Australians and Europeans at such a crucial moment in Australia’s colonial history. These stories bring Petit’s portrait to life in a way that demonstrates how prominent Gnung-a Gnung-a was during the period of early settlement – a figure held in high regard by both Aboriginal Australians and Europeans alike.


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.

Bark canoe workshop, Ulladulla – Part 2

Sunday, 22 January

The day started with bright sunshine, another fire, renewed energy and good ideas. One idea included thinning down the middle of the third bark sheet, as this was the area that was hardest to fold. Another idea was to dismantle canoe number one, reduce its width, cut off the daggy end and start it again.  While we waited for the fire to heat up and then settle down, Tom went down the road to cut some blueberry ash branches for the beams we would need later on.

Heating up the bark with potatoes in fire

Sheet number three went on the fire and started to heat up, while Paul started lunch preparations by popping foil wrapped potatoes underneath the sheet of bark! The folds went well this time as we reheated and folded the ends of the first sheet again. We were now getting the results we wanted – tight vertical sets of folds, neatly pegged and bound, with longer strips of bark making the binding easier. The process was working.

The physical nature of the work builds a healthy appetite and plenty of potatoes were cooked, and then consumed as the morning went into lunch.

Left: folding corners Right: completed canoe 

The last thing to do was to secure and strengthen the middle of the canoes with cross branches and bark ties, pulling it all together.  The re-formed canoe number one looked a bit thin on the sides, so we decided to add branches that would form gunwales, a feature not widely reported on this type of canoe. Most records suggest they had some cross beams or frames only, but at least one or two reports observed canoes where the sides had been strengthened in this way.

We cut down the blueberry ash branches that had been de-barked by Tom, and tied them into place with smaller bark strips. We tried different ways of sewing the bark through the bark sides and tying the various parts into place. Two hulls were completed over the afternoon before it was time to tidy up, take a group photo and call it a day. 

Group photo of canoe builders 

The desired outcomes were achieved. First and foremost we had learnt and improved with every step we took. We had also gained invaluable experience with the material. We began to recognise its qualities and how to take advantage of them.  There was great satisfaction all round by being part of this process, and realising how much had been learnt and could be passed on.

Finally we had three boats, one for each of the three groups who participated. Three boats that we hope will encourage more and help re-establish a vital piece of Indigenous culture that has been missing for a number of generations. 

David Payne
Curator, Historic Vessel Register

Read: Bark canoe workshop, Ulladulla – Part 2