Cultural Artefact: The Palawa Voice
How might Aboriginal identity manifest itself in Palawa people, when we have been officially pronounced as extinct? What is the nature of Tasmanian Aboriginal knowledge, and how can we consider it within our new Western paradigmatic setting? The process of colonisation resulted in gross dispossession, disempowerment and disruption to traditional Aboriginal culture, making it sometimes difficult for observers to recognise the expression of that culture in a contemporary setting, or understand why Tasmanian Aboriginal communities struggled since European invasion to reassert our identity rather than succumb to forces that sought to assimilate us. One of the terms Tasmanian Aboriginal people used when referring to themselves was 'Palawa'. This was the name of the 'first man', who was created from the kangaroo by a creation spirit.
Little has been written about the way Palawa people see the world. GA Robinson's journals provided some idea of Aboriginal perspectives, when he recorded that different tribes claimed various tree species as 'theirs and call them countrymen'. Aboriginal languages provide evidence for the complex interrelation of people and landscape, with words for hill, mountain and the like clearly metaphorical in origin, and bearing associations with words for spear, head, and other body parts. Aboriginal cultural landscape was constructed in a 'sacred geography' where distinctions between the living and non-living are less real than in the West.
The kangaroo is a metaphor for Palawa identity in Tasmania. Aboriginal people knew the animal as Tarner, a creation spirit and ancestor of Parlevar, the 'first man'. Through kinship obligations, the kangaroo bound Aboriginal people to the land and gave us a mythical identity as descendants of a creation spirit. The notable Aboriginal 'clever-man' Woorady told how the kangaroo was an ancestor, transformed into Parlevar (Palawa) by the creation spirit Moinee. Before this transformation, Palawa had no knee joints and could not sit down. The spirit Droemerdeener broke his legs and cut off his tail, giving him a place to stay and live. As well as creating Parlevar, Moinee 'cut the ground and made the rivers, cut the land and made the islands'. The kangaroo was also active in creation; Woorady said that the Tarner made the Lymeenne, lagoons.
The kangaroo featured in the totems of individuals, tribal songs and dances. Its ecological requirements motivated traditional fire-based land management practices, whereby Aborigines maintained the country so it was favourable to the kangaroo. The kangaroo required elaborate ceremony for hunting, killing and eating. The hunt was a family event, accompanied by song, and followed by celebration, elaborate song, dance and story-telling.
The kangaroo was also essential to the survival of the first British beach-heads. In early years, European crops failed and livestock did not prosper. The British hunted kangaroo for food, and Aborigines defended it, not just as a food source, but as they would their own kin. The British failed to establish a partnership with natural resources such as the kangaroo, but exploited these when they needed them, then disregarded them when they lost their commodity value. The kangaroo afforded the British not a place in nature, but a place for capitalism in the colony. Other native foods and technologies were treated in this way, at the same time as Aborigines were alienated from a land with which they had the most intimate of connections. This threatened their culture and identity. Aboriginal people were transformed; no longer noble savages, we became denigrated as the enemy of prosperity and, at the conclusion of government-sanctioned genocidal practices, pronounced extinct. Yet, like the kangaroo, Aboriginal communities did survive, albeit changed.
A seven-year campaign of resistance, the Black War, ensued in the 1820s. This left the kangaroo behind as a central figure. The escalation of conflict was about the expansion of real estate and the viability of British capitalism, as expressed by a unanimous resolution of a 'fearful urban élite' at a public meeting at Hobart in 1830: 'That the atrocious character of the Aborigines… renders the life of the settler insecure and operates as a most serious drawback to emigration to this country, and consequently to its commerce and prosperity'.
Much Tasmanian history has been pityingly patronising and belittling, almost exclusively non-Aboriginal in origin, and distant from the Palawa experience. What has been recorded of, or written by Palawa, has been mostly about the struggle against colonialism - a successful one in terms of survival. Contemporary discussion of the survival of a traditional Palawa narrative has been restricted to a few works by authors such as Jim Everett and Karen Brown, which look beyond politics into the dimensions of spirituality. The cost of two centuries of struggle has been savage de-culturation, a massive fracture in the continuity of Woorady's mythology with the experience of contemporary life. While Palawa skills such as necklace-making and muttonbirding survived, and family-based oral histories continue to form the basis of Palawa unity, knowledge of ceremony and mythology has been diminished.
Tasmanian authorities attempted to use the death of a woman named Truganini to assert the extinction of Palawa. Items produced after Truganini's death in 1876 are neither recognised by law as being made by Aborigines, nor considered worthy of protection. Heavily qualified criteria for recognition remain major obstacles for the small, dispersed, Tasmanian Aboriginal groups, characteristic of those who have suffered the most from colonisation.
Aboriginal writers remain a minority voice in Indigenous studies, but the contribution of new meanings and the reiteration of traditional knowledge make the emerging Aboriginal narrative essential for transformation of culture and survival of communities. Indigenous people in Tasmania have sought to educate non-Aboriginal people, with great improvements in the treatment of Palawa history in schools, though little of this was written by Palawa. Palawa writer and activist Jim Everett, the first Aboriginal Writer in Residence at the University of Tasmania, argued that Australians 'need to know us, the Indigenous people of this land. They need to understand that we are not the aliens. Aboriginal students want knowledge that provides a strengthening of Aboriginality and developmental themes for the future'.
Delegitimisation of colonial controls commenced with the founding in 1971 of the Aboriginal Information Service (later the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre), which established a reconstructive agenda for the Palawa population. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council was formed in 1989 to further assert Palawa control of land and heritage. For Palawa, the assertion of Tasmanian Aboriginality was the first step in dismantling alienation and reasserting power - and decolonising Palawa identity. The TAC was set up in Launceston and Hobart, and despite poor facilities, 'everything started to rise from there' as leaders asserted: 'Be proud of your colour'.
Taking control of history through academic research is one way Tasmanian Aborigines can escape the confines of historically constructed identities which alienated and disempowered us. Partisan research has been successful in finding a new 'imaginable' context for Palawa identity in Tasmania. This context emancipates Palawa from a history of oppression by empowering the community with 'more room for action'.
The expressions of Native voices in research are about describing how we see our place in the world. For Palawa the 'world' is substantially Tasmania, which is considered home. Palawa identity is predicated on this. Palawa identity also has a supernatural origin, referring to the powers of animals, plants, rivers, mountains, spirits and ancestors, which often blur into one another. But caution is required in applying Aboriginal knowledge outside its communities. It can be seen as a commodity, to be researched and subsumed into the capitalist project. Aboriginal autonomy is essential, so Palawa people can express our knowledge and history through our own research.
Seeking self-determination through co-management of land is widespread among Indigenous people, although success is limited by factors such as the establishment of capitalism, the commodification of Indigenous culture and the subsuming of difference. Unity with nature is a characteristic of Indigenous ontologies throughout the world. This can provide solutions to land management issues, as there is not the separation from nature that dominates Western thought. The relationship of Tasmanian Aborigines with the land occurs in the sense of what we do, what we see and what we believe. Revelation of creation myths welds us to a sacred landscape in Tasmania which is profoundly home. This is why we say that 'the land owns us'. Involving the Palawa community in management of land provides an opportunity for us to discern new meanings in the land, that can supplement the scientific approaches of Western land managers. The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service is providing increased opportunities for Palawa participation in management of national parks. Tasmanian Aborigines desire re-empowerment in land management and are prepared to explore co-management with non-Aboriginal agencies, to continue relationships with land that has not been despoiled by Western exploitation - much of which exists in national parks.
It is not certain that co-management can guarantee Aborigines an adequate range of self-determined outcomes, but some promising models exist. Many Palawa are now more aware of creation stories and can construe new meanings in a contemporary setting - providing for the reappearance of Tarner in a sacred landscape of Palawa knowledge and identity, and rich with possibility.