Building Indigenous Tree Canoes in Thungutti Country

A few years ago, I was invited to Bellbrook Mission on Thungutti land to document an indigenous cultural exchange.

Over two days, tribal elders worked together to build a bark canoe from scratch using traditional methods—something that hadn’t been attempted in many generations. The technique was passed on to a bunch of eager boys to help restore pride in culture, and I was the only white fella allowed to attend.

I felt privileged because I grew up knowing little about Aboriginal Australia. In school, we learnt about rainbow serpents, corroborees and boomerangs, while the horrendous crimes against our First People (including, in Tasmania, genocide) were skimmed over. My first experience of living among aboriginals was in Broome where there was a white pub and a black pub, and casual racism wasn’t casual at all. So it was confronting to learn the Thungutti story, which is the story of so many indigenous Australians.

Thungutti Country lies in green hills west of Kempsey. Its people are part of a larger language group called Dunghutti whose traditional lands extend across the Macleay Valley to the Northern Tablelands. Dunghutti hunter-gatherers roamed this region for at least 4000 years, up until white settlers began expanding north from Sydney. In 1835, the Dunghutti were rounded up and confined to just 40 hectares of land. They resisted for many years and were massacred in droves. Their way of life was brutally ended.

Today, many Dunghutti descendants still live on the missions they were forced onto by the Aboriginal Protection Board. It’s explained to me that culture and language were banned on the mission and that some children were forcibly removed and encouraged to grow up white. Where culture and language survived it did so in secret and what remains today is highly valued because of its scarcity. In recent times there have been efforts to preserve culture, including teaching Dunghutti language and culture camps like the one I was permitted to attend.

The elders get to work. The right tree is selected and then a 12-foot rectangle hacked into it with an axe. After it’s carefully removed, it’s soaked over-night in the local creek so it becomes malleable. The next day it’s scraped clean, carefully bent into shape, and stitched together with twine made from a local shrub. The kids enjoy the process but are way more excited about making spears. We finish up in the river, spearing fish and chucking rocks, while the canoe is left to dry.    

There’s talk that something similar might work as a tourist venture. Folks interested in Australia’s Indigenous heritage would learn how to make a canoe, throw a spear or build a fish trap. They’d listen to the Uncles and Aunties and learn first-hand about the oldest continuous culture on earth and how it managed to survive against great odds. I hope it takes off.   

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