“Get that whitefella out of your head” Theresa says as we walk. This is a quote she likes to use to ask people to think from a different perspective. She is asking us to imagine what it would be like to live here as we walk from Temma to Darty’s Corner. This strip of coastline forms part of the Western Tasmanian Aboriginal Cultural Landscape, an area that was once home to people who lived in semi-permanent villages, the ocean their greatest resource. Today a rich array of artefacts, middens and hut depressions tell the story of their lives here.
Theresa is a Pakana woman, from the north east coast of Tasmania. She tells us how, after European settlers arrived, Tasmanian Aboriginal life and culture was changed forever. Theresa works to put Tasmanian Aboriginal culture back together again through knowledge and experience. She works with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in the palawa kani Language Retrieval Program, researching and analysing to rebuild language.
As we walk we look at the landscape. Theresa says that it may seem inhospitable, but it's not, people lived here for thousands of years. The jagged rocks provide a breakwater for calmer shallows. I try to picture the women diving for abalone and warina (werriner) here. Small creeks weave through the dense scrub and I wonder if families bunkered down in their huts here. We find small chips of spongolite that stone tools were made of and I imagine families trekking the land to trade for this rare commodity.
We reach a midden and Theresa calls it a living place, a place where people laughed and cried, scolded their children, ate, danced, washed. I can see she is moved by this and I come to realise that perhaps she sees reworking that connection to land is as integral for rebuilding culture as is the physical evidence. That intangible connection to land and the old people gives her the strength to keep on. Theresa talks of a new version of her culture being different but no less authentic than that of the past. The past may be gone but of course culture lives on in today’s Tasmanian Aboriginals.
We come up onto the rise of the point, Darty’s Corner, to see a massive sand dune midden ahead. From the distance you can see the shells, a huge area perhaps 30 meters across. Just at that moment two quad bikes appear on the beach below and pass us. Theresa is distraught. We walk up to the midden to look. There are tire tracks right through it, breaking the delicate, weathered shells and bones. It is hard to believe that there is still debate over allowing off road vehicles onto the takayna/Tarkine coast. That anyone would feel entitled to damage this physical connection to a culture almost lost.
There is a heaviness in the air as we look over the exposed artefacts. We find an old seal jaw that a woman may have clubbed with a rock to feed her family. It is pockmarked by time, fast crumbling. I can't help but admire Theresa’s tenacity and am grateful she is here to bring some life back into this place.
Images: Kelly Slater