The rebirth of Tasmanian indigenous culture

The rebirth of Tasmanian indigenous culture
The wukalina Walk is a guided hike along the Bay of Fires coast that introduces palawa culture to travellers (Credit: Andrew Bain)

Although many people believe that this ancient culture and people were lost, recent years have seen a seismic shift in recognition for indigenous Tasmanians.

Among the sand dunes that line Tasmania’s north-east coast, a campfire burns. Carleeta Thomas stands beside the fire, tending the muttonbird that cooks in the flames, surrounded by a series of wooden sleeping pods dotted through the scrub.

The oily muttonbird, or short-tailed shearwater, has been a traditional palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) food for as long as anyone knows, and these sleeping pods have been designed to replicate palawa huts found on Tasmania’s west coast.

Today, they’re an immersive piece of the wukalina Walk, a guided hike along the larapuna/Bay of Fires coast that is the first tourism business owned and operated by the palawa community. They’re an expression of an ancient culture and people that even someone as young as 21-year-old Thomas, wukalina Walk’s head guide, has often been told was dead.

“When I went to high school, there were still people that were saying ‘I swear Truganini was the last Tasmanian Aboriginal’,” she said. “I didn’t really know how to respond to that. I knew I was Aboriginal.”

The myth that Bruny Island woman Truganini was the last Aboriginal Tasmanian has persisted since her death in 1876, less than 80 years after Tasmania was settled by Europeans. In those early decades, palawa suffered a series of atrocities, from being forced into missions by the state’s so-called Chief Protector of Aborginals, George Augustus Robinson, to be “civilised and Christianised”, to the Black Line of 1830, when settlers formed a moving human chain across the island to try to capture the remaining Aboriginal population. The settlers were outsmarted: only two palawa were reported as captured.

The treatment of the palawa has been described as a genocide, though the lineage survived, with some palawa women taken to Bass Strait islands off the north coast of Tasmania by British and American sealers.

This is an excerpt from an article by Andrew Bain, originally published BBC Travel.

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