A party of Yolŋu men, standing in shallow bark canoes, are using poles to push through the waters of the Arnhem wetlands in Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006), a tale of seasonal hunting of magpie geese eggs. Set in a timeless present, and commissioned by the Yolŋu community, the film is a visionary recuperation of traditional Yolŋu life suffused with stories of law and the Dreaming. Throughout, laughter and camaraderie accompany the stages of the hunt, from the stripping and fire seasoning of the bark to the final cook-up of the geese eggs.
Ostensibly a narrative about the means of procurement of a traditional food source, at a deeper level the film is about the revival of cultural knowledge, strengthening community and supporting wellness of being. Nonetheless, the film is a reconstruction of the practices of a lifestyle that no longer fully exists. It’s a position familiar to many First Nations People, and it comes as no surprise that at the time of the making of the film, the annual goose egg hunt had ceased, and that the inspiration had come from a 1930s photograph of ten men in canoes by the anthropologist David Thompson.
Indeed Thompson’s more than 4,000 surviving glass negatives supplemented the memories of those elders who still retained sufficient knowledge to enable the canoe making, while the cast of local Yolŋu, all of whom could be considered global citizens (with SUVs, mobile phones and the internet), were keen to recuperate more cultural knowledge before the last of their elders faded out. Increasingly, as the mega corporations, in combination with the monocultures of agribusiness, continue to degrade the quality of food, land, water and health through the failures of the twentieth century Green Revolution (for example, the pesticides like glycophosphate killing off many of the world’s insects, including bees) the revival of First Nations culture has implications for improving overall planetary health and wellbeing.
In the recent corroborees of Yaama Ngunna Baaka down the troubled Baaka (Darling River), and at Wagga Wagga, where corroborees hadn’t been performed for more than 150 years, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike were warmly embraced to come together as stories of the quandong (wild peach), the emu, the honey, the fish and the turtle and others were danced to recall that, in the days prior to colonisation, these were lands of plenty. In multiple iterations two powerful messages resonated throughout the corroborees: “we are all in this together—welcome everyone” and “this river is my mother—without it I am nothing.”
Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri artist, Jonathon Jones, is among those only too fully aware of how much is slipping away, with species extinction rife alongside loss of Indigenous languages and knowledge. He, too, celebrates the former bounty of the land and the rivers in the pre-colonial past, foregrounding the Wiradjuri word for abundance, “bunha-bunhanga” in the title of his most recent exhibition, Bunha-bunhanga: Aboriginal Agriculture in the South-East.
Staged across two venues of Adelaide’s Santos Museum of Economic Botany and the colonial rooms of the Art Gallery of South Australia in collaboration with Barkandji researcher Zena Cumpston and colonial historians, elder Uncle Bruce Pascoe (Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian peoples), author of Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident (2014), and Bill Gammage, author of The Biggest Estate: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011), the exhibition, in a large part, pays homage to murnong, otherwise known as yam daisy, a once abundant foodstuff widespread in south‑eastern Australia and apparently so delicious that the livestock of the early pastoralists nearly grazed it into extinction in the first few years of colonisation.
Speaking at the Cementa Futurelands 2 conference in Kandos in 2016, Pascoe described cakes made from yam daisy flour as the best he had ever tasted, and he is currently working towards its revival as a sustainable crop. To this end, the recuperation of the yam daisy, in the wake of its historical near-disappearance, very much shapes the exhibition, making it an imaginary project in which visitors are asked to conjure its distinctive fields from a set of stage props and historical cues. The plant’s physical absence is supplemented by Jones’ bronze cast of its tuberous roots exhibited in a cabinet alongside colonial notebooks and Indigenous agricultural implements. The sky blue commissioned wallpaper is the dominant framing device with images of the yam daisy’s small yellow flowers blazoned across the room, such that the gallery becomes, in effect, a surrogate field of the crop.
Even so, the overall effect for the gallery-goer is a sense of loss and absence, as if the major party of concern has long ago left the room. Given its rapid and near extinction, evidence of the yam daisy’s existence is scantly supplied in the exhibition, with Uncle Bruce Pascoe suggesting that the yellow patch in the top left hand side of von Guérard’s small painting, Cattle Muster (Cutting out the Cattle, Kangatong) (1856) is most likely yam daisy, as is the crop referenced in the title of a pale pencil sketch of two figures with digging sticks, Women Harvesting Yam (1835, Wathaurong Country), in the notebook of John Helder Wedge. Nonetheless, the scale of its pre-contact production can be imagined from Thomas Mitchell’s journal entry of coming across vast fields of yam daisy stretching as far as the horizon in western Victoria.
Not far from the Art Gallery of South Australia, in the nearby botanical gardens, the yam daisy motif also graces the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, with the spectral form of its silhouette stamped in assertive black ink over pages of colonial newsprint that also function as a kind of wallpaper. This serves to frame other Indigenous crops—the grain specimens exhibited underneath in the museum’s display cases. These include seed heads of kangaroo grass, meadow rice grass, native millet and wheat grass, all documented with the dates of their collection from the 1830s.
In the centre, Jones’s theatrical sculpture of three grinding stones functions as a massive prop loudly celebrating the recent discovery of the world’s oldest grinding stones at Cuddie Creek, in 2016, near Brewarrina, the site of the famous fish traps predating the pyramids by some thousands of years (and believed to be the oldest human-made structures on earth). At 30,000 years old, the Cuddie Creek grindstones are also older than their Egyptian counterparts (some mere 17,000 years old), making Aboriginal Australians the world’s first-known seed grinders and bakers. The discovery of these ancient grindstones significantly revisions our appraisal of the agricultural practices of Australia’s pre-contact past, prior to the lie of terra nullius, which in denying Indigenous nations an agriculture was used to further deny their ownership of the land.
Coming some thirty years after Mabo these archaeological finds consolidate the broader application of the decision, including the Barkinji native title claim to the lands along the Baaka (Darling River), which took twenty years to achieve from 1997 to 2017. The archaeological evidence confirms that the region would have been a flourishing food bowl, rich in grain and fish, and should strengthen current arguments for restoring Indigenous water rights, otherwise known as cultural flows, along the dying Darling River.
The region has not only been badly mismanaged through colonisation (overgrazing native crops and impacting soils once so soft the horses of the pastoralists sank into the ground up to their fetlocks), but has more recently been hampered by water theft, water trading (by non-land-owning investment corporations backed by banks) and over-allocation of water entitlements through the botched Murray-Darling Basin Plan contributing to the overall degradation. The mass fish kills earlier this year evidence the crisis. So dire is the situation that the residents of the Darling River towns of Menindee and Wilcannia now survive on donations of bottled water where there was once abundance.
The staging of the sculptural grinding stones at the Santos Museum of Economic Botany offers a counter‑vision for the region as a more prosperous one drawn from the past. The location is already something of a coup, designed to promote economic as well as historical reflections on the stones’ significance. Furthermore, their installation in the midst of specimens of Indigenous grain crops contributes to the political case for revival of a broader Indigenous agricultural heritage.
Along with the yam daisy, once so prevalent in western Victoria, Bruce Pascoe has argued a compelling case for the reintroduction of aboriginal grain crops: the perennial Indigenous varieties do well in the drier conditions of their natural habitat where European grains have failed to thrive, and, an added benefit, are water misers. Another advantage in the accelerating climate emergency is that, once planted, the soil doesn’t have to be turned over every year, therefore retaining more carbon in the soil and reducing emissions.
Recently at Lake Mungo, local Barkinji, Mutti Mutti and Latchi Latchi people made native millet bread that hadn’t been baked for two hundred years, and at a Time Out Talk, Pascoe predicted of his revivalist mission that “within three years we’ll be eating breads made with fifty per cent Indigenous flour.” Already chefs Pasi Petänen at Rootstock Wine and Food Festival in Sydney and Ben Shewry of Melbourne’s Attica restaurant have been serving nutty tasting bread containing gluten-free kangaroo grass and native millet flours.
The grains were grown by Pascoe and his Gurandji Munjie collective in east Gippsland, Victoria and the south coast of NSW. Together with yam daisy (also successfully revived by Pascoe’s collective in two varieties, a sweeter one eaten raw in salads, and a more earthly tasting tuber for baking) these and other seed crops like wattle were once staple foodstuffs of the traditional diet, eaten daily, and supplemented by a wide variety of seasonal protein sources.
Colonists recorded seeing hundred-pound bags of grains, stored in stitched bags of kangaroo skin (Charles Coxen, 1836), and sheaves of native millet (panicum decompositum), drying out ready for threshing, lining miles of fields (Thomas Mitchell, 1832). One of Mitchell’s most notable journal entries (1845) gives thanks to a South Australian Aboriginal community of some four hundred people who saved them from certain starvation on a dry clay pan by offering the “genuine hospitality” of “large troughs of water” and a meal of roast duck and cake.
Exhibited under the umbrella of Adelaide’s Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, Bunha-bunhanga was Jones’ second project of agricultural recuperation, extending the dialogue he commenced with Barrangal dyara (skin and bones), the 32nd Kaldor Project (2016), for which he planted a whole field of kangaroo grass in Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens. With the voice of Stan Grant Senior whispering in Wiradjuri through the field, this was the first significant colonial garden to be replanted by Jones and an important project in raising awareness of Indigenous horticultural knowledge that challenged Eurocentric models of interpretation, that since the eighteenth century have relegated many native plants to specimens of botanical discovery rather than acknowledging them as foodstuffs of the local inhabitants. Mitchell, for example, had feigned ignorance of the mysterious purpose behind the cutting of grasses and binding them into sheaves, even though he correctly identified the species as a variant of the British grain of millet in 1835.
Despite the welcome fact that terms like food‑led reconciliation are gaining broader currency, the dreadful irony is that, given the ravages and savagery of colonisation, Indigenous artists and researchers, like Jones and Pascoe, indeed whole communities, like the peoples of Ramingining working alongside filmmaker de Heer, have had to turn to the records of colonial archives in order to recuperate their food heritage. Pascoe’s own remarkable journey of reintroducing the yam daisy began with an eight dollar, second-hand copy of Mitchell.
- ^ Max Allen, “Did Australia Invent Bread?”, Gourmet Traveller, April 2016: https://www.gourmettraveller.com.au/news/food-news/did-australia-invent-bread-2708.
- ^ Alecia Wood, “The Gurandji Munjie groups is revitalizing crops once cultivated by Aboriginal Australians, baking new breads with forgotten flours.” 6 October 2016: https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2016/10/06/were-indigenous-australians-worlds-first-bakers.
Ann Finegan is a writer, educator and is a former co-director and co-founder of Cementa Contemporary Arts Festival, Kandos. She recently participated as a researcher and volunteer with Yaama Ngunna Baaka, a series of corroborees from Walgett to Menindee (28 September – 2 October 2019), co-created by Bruce Shillingsworth and Jenny Brown.
Bunha-bunhanga: Aboriginal Agriculture in the South-East curated by Jonathan Jones with additional research by Zena Cumpston is on exhibition at the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Garden and Art Gallery of South Australia to 27 January 2020.