ningher canoe

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

The Sharing of Fire

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Dry lightning strike. Image by Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

 

Mannalargenna said that the two men in the sky first gave the natives fire, that they stood all around. Woorady said Parpeder gave fire to the Brune natives. Journal of G. A. Robinson, 28 December, 1831

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“If they only had fire,” said Prometheus to himself, “they could at least warm themselves and cook their food; and after a while they could learn to make tools and build themselves houses. Without fire, they are worse off than the beasts. ”Then he went boldly to Jupiter and begged him to give fire to men, that so they might have a little comfort through the long, dreary months of winter. “Not a spark will I give,” said Jupiter. “No, indeed! Why, if men had fire they might become strong and wise like ourselves, and after a while they would drive us out of our kingdom. From ‘The Story of Prometheus‘, James Baldwin, 1923

There are a great many myths about Tasmanian Aboriginal people. It is strange that the most widespread of these myths – that we are gone – still persists in the minds of Australians, when so much of our continuing culture can be seen by those who care to look.

Another myth is still hotly debated by anthropologists, historians and others who try to tell our story. Many scientists such as Rhys Jones, Jared Diamond and Tim Flannery asserted or repeated the myth that Tasmanian Aboriginal people did not know how to make fire. More scholarly research easily sweeps away their suppositions. But scientific hear-say is not the most bizarre use of such ignorance. Creationists have used this as evidence of the Great Biblical Flood, marking us as degenerate; while campaigners against Aboriginal Rights have disparaged the richness of Aboriginal culture to argue that our ancestors should not have been accorded even the most basic of human rights in the face of invasion and dispossession. Keith Windschuttle used this myth to suggest that we were more primitive than Neanderthals!

Aboriginal fire-making in Tasmania had been recorded as early as 1773 by several French and British explorers. A range of techniques were used to make fire – to keep fire burning – and to transport fire while walking or travelling in canoes. But fire is not just an elemental force in Tasmanian Aboriginal culture. It carries powerful stories.

The ningher canoe will bring fire to Dark Mofo in 2014 in the same way that Prometheus brought fire from Olympus to give to mortal men in the stories of Greek mythology. These legends are older than history. And they are stories that unite human culture with a deep shared history. Like the tale of Prometheus, traditional Tasmanian stories tell of powerful gods from the sky who brought fire to our world. Our stories are no different than those at the foundation of Western civilisation. In fact, Tasmanian stories are older than the Greek versions by tens of thousands of years.

 

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When Europeans first began to occupy Tasmania, their ignorance of fire was soon clear. The native grasslands of the Midlands looked like a perfect run for sheep. They did not realise that this was pasture created by the use of fire. Our ancestors had ‘farmed’ kangaroo for a thousand generations – burning the old grass to generate fresh growth, and to keep the scrub from overgrowing the vegetation most enjoyed by mobs of kangaroo that would be regularly harvested for meat and fur.

Today fire is feared in Tasmania. No longer a tool, it is a threatening reminder that modern ways of living on our island are not in accord with the life of the landscape. Authorities try to banish fire from ecosystems that have grown up with burning as an everyday part of life since our ancestors arrived here over forty thousand years ago.

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Fire Danger. Image courtesy of  Greg Lehman

The ningher canoe will bring together the elemental and cultural forces of Tasmania. Bark and reeds grown from earth will be borne on the waters of the Derwent River to become a ceremonial fire for the City of Hobart. The Canoe-makers have crafted a canoe and tended a fire to dry, shape and warm. They will bring embers to be fueled by winter winds into a great Solstice fire at Salamanca Place. This fire will blaze for the Dark Mofo festival and for all those who join the celebration – in the hope that ignorance of Tasmania’s deep culture will be burned away – that we will be united in our shared stories – and most importantly, that our ways of living on this island will no longer be fueled by ignorance and greed. The spirit of wisdom and sharing; call it Prometheus or Parpeder, will be there – as part of the ningher story.

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ningher fire drying reeds for canoe-making. Image courtesy of Fi Hamilton.

 

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Author: tawatja

cultural history and heritage researcher, Tasmania

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