ningher canoe

The story behind building a traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal canoe – Dark Mofo 2014

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What Makes Us

What makes Tasmanian Aborigines persist with the ‘Old Ways’? Language is spoken, and shell necklaces, kelp water carriers and grass baskets are made to practise our identity and culture.

One of the things that keeps our cultural practices alive is a deep knowing that the idea of modern progress is worth nothing unless it is balanced with the wisdom of tradition and the knowledge of culture. The First Nations of Tasmania were swept from their country in the name of development just two lifetimes ago. The past lives with us – makes us. Our families are the survivors of Tasmania’s Black War. This is who we are.

To breath life into the Old Ways is not just to re-claim them; it is to unleash our spirit upon the modern world – knowing that when we do this, we give life to our ancestors. They breathe with our lungs, and speak with our voice. They guide our hands.

When Brendan (Buck) Brown, Sheldon Thomas, Tony Burgess and Shayne Hughes created tuylini, the stringy bark canoe for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2007, it was the first full-sized canoe made by Tasmanian Aboriginal hands since our people were exiled to Flinders Island in 1832.


Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia. Charles Alexandre Lesueur, 1778-1846.

Canoes like this were recorded by Nicholas Baudin’s expedition to Van Diemen’s Land in 1802. One of his artists sketched these canoes being used in Great Oyster Bay. There has not been a public exhibition of Tasmanian maritime technology in action since that time. In 2014, Dark Mofo changes all that.

We have called this project ningher – a word for ‘canoe’ recorded by both the French expeditions (neunga/nenga), and later English records. As ningher voyages from the site of its creation at MONA to Sullivan’s Cove, it will carry the makers to a place of ceremony that will be presented in palawa kani, the Tasmanian Aboriginal language of today. Ancestral stories, knowledge and spirit converge with contemporary language and culture. Tradition, survival, innovation. This is the richness of Tasmania’s deep history.


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ningher country

ningher comes out of country

wherever there is paperbark, reeds and water

ningher waits.

Without water they would not be made.

Culture that draws them out of the bush

always for a journey. Each unique.

Hands that shape, bend, tie.

ningher is formed from country

ningher is country.



Images courtesy of Greg Lehman


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The Flow of Culture


image courtesy of Monissa Whiteley

Where does it begin? Culture I mean. Somewhere in the past? Does it come from history? Is it made in the past and somehow handed on to us? We live in a world that is supposed to be passing us by – every minute – every second. Makes you feel a little desperate doesn’t it.

But what if this was all nonsense? What if the past and the present, and the future for that matter, all exist together. In a world like that, culture comes from a place called now. It is made of what we do – how we live our lives, what we believe and what has meaning for us. This is the place that ningher comes from. We call it Aboriginal Tasmania. It’s a place where the past is not dead and gone, but lives inside our hearts and minds – in our very DNA. When you walk on country with someone like Master Canoe-maker Brendon (Buck) Brown, or Community Artist Jamie Everett, you’re not looking for culture – you’re already in it.

Ask either one of them where their ability to master the complicated process of crafting a ningher (paperbark), or tuylini (stringybark) canoe according to the ancient traditions of their ancestors , and they are likely to stare deep into your eyes and bring their fist to their chest with the words “…from in here mate.” This is the Tasmanian Aboriginal culture of today.


Image courtesy of Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Commencing on 20 June, 2014, the ningher voyage will be the first on Hobart’s famous River Derwent by Aboriginal canoe for over 180 years. Share the journey as Buck and Jamie commence the making of ningher – a paperbark canoe that brings the maritime technology and history of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture to the 2014 Dark Mofo Festival. From the gathering of raw materials from across the island, to the painstaking tie-ing together of bundles of bark and reed with hand made string, and finally the historic journey along the river from MONA to Waterman’s Dock in Sullivan’s Cove, you can be a part of this celebration of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and story-telling. Keep an eye on this blog and our facebook page as the story unfolds.