ningher canoe

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

What Makes Us

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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.


Author: tawatja

cultural history and heritage researcher, Tasmania

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