National Gathering of Indigenous watercraft custodians


…by Michael Bennett

The Nawi Symposium, the second National Gathering of Indigenous watercraft custodians and cultural practitioners, was held at the National Maritime Museum on 9 November. Over 70 traditional owners, researchers and community supporters gathered to hear a range of presentations about the history of Indigenous watercraft use and current projects to reinvigorate maritime and riverine traditions.

One theme of the symposium investigated the travails faced by traditional owners in obtaining recognition of traditional water rights via the Western legal system. Djambawa Marawili AM, Ceremonial leader of the Madarrpa clan on north-east Arnhem Land, spoke about the Blue Mud Bay native title claim, one of the first applications to have sea rights recognised. Lauren Butterly, a law lecturer at UNSW, spoke about the development of the Northern Territory Land Rights legislation. Prime Minister Whitlam’s original concept recognised sea rights, but the legislation passed by the Federal Parliament under Prime Minister Fraser did not contain this provision.

I spoke about the recent Yaegl native title consent determination¹, the first to recognise sea rights in NSW. Yaegl people, whose traditional country includes land and waters along the lower Clarence River below Maclean, were given native title recognition over land and riverine waters in June 2015. The seaward extent of their claim remained unresolved; Yaegl people were required to submit further evidence to demonstrate connection. My role was to identify and assess documentary sources containing information about the use of marine resources by Yaegl people from the point of first contact through to the present.

Archaeological evidence clearly demonstrated the use of marine resources by Yaegl people – middens along the coast, for example, contain the remains of fish commonly found offshore. There are accounts of Yaegl people demonstrating their spiritual connection to the sea by standing on the shore and calling in the dolphins to help with fishing. My anthropology colleagues have collected stories of the Dirrungan, an old witch woman who created the Clarence River and was turned into a stone reef at the mouth. Yaegl people were particularly concerned to see this reef protected.

The State and Commonwealth governments reviewed the evidence and agreed to recognise native title sea rights for 200 metres from the low-water mark along the claim boundary from Woody Head to Wooli, with a larger buffer zone around the Dirrungan reef. The determination will mean that Yaegl people can access and obtain resources from this area for any purpose that is not commercial. Over 300 Yaegl people assembled at Pilot Hill at Yamba in late August to hear the determination announced in a special sitting of the Federal Court. The relief and delight on the faces of the claimants was plain to see.

A future Nawi Symposium is planned for 2020, possibly outside of Sydney. I look forward to the opportunity of attending and finding out more about the myriad of maritime traditions practiced by Indigenous people from throughout Australia. I would like to express my thanks to Stephen Gapps and the National Maritime Museum for the opportunity to speak.[1] A consent determination is where native title is recognised via agreement between the claimants and the NSW and Commonwealth governments, rather than via litigation.

  1.  A consent determination is where native title is recognised via agreement between the claimants and the NSW and Commonwealth governments, rather than via litigation.



The National Maritime Museum has an exhibition acknowledging the story of the Yolŋu people of northeast Arnhem Land and their fight for recognition of Indigenous Sea Rights and the Blue Mud Bay Legal Case.  Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country runs until February 2019.

[Image: NITV News–The Yaegl People, of the north coast of New South Wales, have had their traditional sea rights recognised in an historic Federal Court ruling.

Camden History Notes


…this post introduces PHA NSW and ACT member, Ian Willis’ blog, Camden History Notes. Camden is a town southwest of Sydney, situated on land belonging to the Dharawal (Tharawal) people.

Ian’s blog presents stories about the district’s people, its history, heritage and traditions. He draws on the memories and experiences of local families, local identities, community organisations and local institutions.

The Camden story has links to other parts of the world. It is part of the movement of peoples, ideas, technologies and institutions across national boundaries. This is illustrated by Ian’s recent post on the blog about the future of local newspapers. Prompted by a question in his local ‘rag’, the Oran Park Gazette, about the future of the community newspaper, Ian considers the value of recording local news not only for current residents but also historians.

Media historian Rod Kirkpatrick maintains that community newspapers have survived because of their closeness to their community, their reflections of a community’s values, and their contribution to cohesion, welfare and progress. In a similar vein, Louise Prowse, whose historical writing has focussed on rural Australia, argues that the local newspaper is central to the life of country towns because it underpins social capital, values local history and gives the community a voice.

To read more about the past and future of local newspapers, and Ian’s profiles of his local rags, go to

The Catch: The Story of Australian fishing


Anna Clark introduces her new book.

As a kid I used to go down to the beach after dinner and watch my grandfather, dad and uncle spinning off the rocks or bait-fishing in the estuary. When I wanted to learn, they had me casting lures across the paddocks before I was set loose on the rocks.

Now, I go there with my kids and we catch flathead and luderick, trevally and whiting. A mask and snorkel reveal more beauties below the water as flounder, octopus and leather jacket hide in the weeds. Rays cover themselves with sand and pretend they’re not there. Sometimes a rogue kingfish or salmon makes it up the estuary and onto the fire if we’re lucky.

We like to think of it as our little piece of paradise but it isn’t of course. The banks peel back to reveal deep, full middens. Shells and fish bones are scattered through the sandy soil like hundreds and thousands. Countless generations have been here before, camping in this protected cove. Like us, they grabbed a feed of oysters or mussels off the rocks, picked crabs out of their holes, and fished for bream, whiting and flatties.

It isn’t just history that foils my fantasy that this place is mine alone. Out on the lake, oyster leases fill the tidal flats and commercial fishers set their nets across the small channels. In the holidays, day-trippers drop their boats in at the local ramp and troll or drift by as we sit under the shade. But we all contribute to the pressures on this spot. Waves from boats increase erosion on the banks, the nets decimate prime breeding fish, and our presence cuts into the stocks of everything else. Yet we love to fish, and we love eating the catch, so we keep coming back.

These are our fishing places and they hold our stories. They’re sites of memory and history, as families pass on techniques and generations of keen observation, as well as fishy tales of amazing catches and near misses. They’re also sites of conflict and contest—of battles between recreational and commercial fishing, of demands for regulation and the fickle pressures of catch numbers and market prices.

It’s estimated that around 3.5 million Australians fish recreationally. The commercial and recreational fishing industries account for billions dollars annually. And here’s the real ‘catch’: a constant pressure on fish stocks comes from our appetite to hunt and consume them.

Australia’s waters were overfished for over a century. Partly those practices were based on scientific and ecological ignorance. There were plenty of fish in the sea—until there weren’t anymore.

Other industrial pressures further tested the resilience of the ocean and its fisheries: the dumping of rubbish and sewerage, nitrogenous run-off from fertilizers, industrial pollution and dredging have all adversely impacted fish habitats and populations. Changing water temperatures and acidification associated with climate change will put further stresses on the marine environment.

Fisheries management responded to declining stocks, introducing wide-ranging legislation across the recreational and commercial sectors. But they’re in an unenviable position, essentially forced to make contemporary laws in response to fishing practices a century old.

Everyone wants to keep fishing, but our right to do that also presents critical challenges for future management of fisheries: namely, is conservation everybody’s business? And if so, just how will it work?

The joy of being outdoors, of fishing by ourselves or with our families can’t be measured. Neither can the lives and livelihoods of those who fish for a living. But fish stocks can be. And as long as we are compelled to fish, those questions about sustainability will continue to be asked.

The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia (National Library of Australia, 2017) charts the history of fishing, from the first known accounts of Indigenous fishing and early European encounters with Australia’s waters to the latest fishing fads.

Shaping Aboriginal History


Emma Dortins reports on the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal History journal founded in 1977.

On Friday 27 October, a birthday celebration was held at the Australian National University (ANU), where  Aboriginal History was born and has been based ever since. Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder, Matilda House, welcomed us to Country. Several founding editorial board members were in attendance, including Niel Gunson and Bob Reece. Many more were honoured, including anthropologist and editor of the journal from 1977 to 1982, Diane Barwick, who passed away in 1986, and archaeologist and prehistorian Isabel McBryde who was on early editorial boards and contributed much energy to the periodical.

Lyndall Ryan, who contributed to the inaugural issue of the journal along with linguist Luise Hercus and anthropologists Jeremy Beckett and W E H Stanner, gave a pithy analysis of this first issue. It embodied gender parity among its authors, unusual in 1977, especially in the history field; in several areas it brought the analysis of the past right up to the present; and it mapped out a large diamond of areas of study, encompassing the eastern half of Australia from the Torres Strait to Tasmania.

Reflecting on the history of the journal, Ann McGrath reviewed a sample of the editorial board lists across forty years. This revealed equal numbers of men and women on the board, and its interdisciplinary nature with historians, linguists, anthropologists and archaeologists often represented.

Looking ahead to this anniversary, Bain Attwood wrote an article about the history of the journal for Issue 36 (January 2013), which discusses the reciprocal shaping of Aboriginal History and the emerging field of Aboriginal history itself. Last Friday he emphasised how contingent the beginnings of the journal were. Its inception was controversial. Sir Paul Hasluck felt that developing a field of Aboriginal history studies would erode the assimilation of Aboriginal people into Australian history, society and culture, that he had worked so hard to ensure. Campbell Macknight, on the other hand, explained on Friday that he had been concerned at the time that Aboriginal history not be ghettoised – instead he was ambitious for knowledge about Australia’s Aboriginal past to ‘scale the fortress of Australian history’. But the founding team at ANU and their supporters were committed to the importance of Aboriginal history as a field – and their vision for this field is clearly set out in Attwood’s article.

The ANU event included several roundtable discussions about the present and potential future directions for the journal. Independent film-maker and Kamilaroi/Uralarai woman Frances Peters-Little spoke passionately about how important it is that Aboriginal people continue to have opportunities to record and reflect on their histories, alongside the preoccupation with culture and cultural continuities that has partly emerged from the native title system and discourse. She also emphasised how significant music, film, arts practices and theatre are for Aboriginal people making their histories. She urged the journal to maintain a focus on these areas.

I was asked to talk briefly about possible future directions for the journal in a round-table with Shino Konishi from the University of Western Australia, who was editor and co-editor of five issues of the journal, and Gaye Sculthorpe from the British Museum. I suggested that a closer focus on the history of the past 40 years would be productive. These decades have been a a formative period for the field of Aboriginal history, seeing the revival of Aboriginal people’s own history work and history sharing; and the emergence of organisations as well as governance and legal systems that continue to shape history-making. Continuing in the journal’s tradition of interdisciplinary work, such attention should reflect on the interaction of these threads.