1301.6 - Tasmanian Year Book, 2000  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 22/04/2004   
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Feature Article - Palawa Story

Contributed by Patsy Cameron

At the 1996 Census, there were 13,873 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in Tasmania. The present day Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) population is predominantly descended from a small number of women who were stolen by, or traded to, white sealers in the early 1800s. Apart from this official population, there are believed to be some other families who have descended from unions between Aboriginal women and non-Aboriginal men who lived in isolated rural districts of Tasmania. Official records establish that there are three recognisable community groups, which constitute large families, making up Palawa society today:

  • original families born in the Bass Strait islands;
  • families of Dalrymple Johnson who was born in the islands and later lived on the North West coast; and
  • the families of Fanny Cocheran-Smith who lived in the Channel district, south of Hobart.

The Palawa ancestors practised rich, dynamic and diverse cultures spanning 35,000 years, or 2,000 generations; their unique heritage testifies to cultural continuity that is among the oldest living cultures on earth. The ancient origins of the Palawa date from the beginnings of the last Ice Age, in an environment that was freezing cold, dry, with icebergs floating up the coastline and glaciers occupying the highlands. During this time, Palawa peoples were living in the most southerly place of any humans on earth. As they moved into Tasmania across the Bassian Plain, they followed the hunting grounds camping in caves and rock shelters, and fishing, hunting and collecting a rich variety of food resources across the Tasmanian landscape.

As the sea levels rose with climatic warming at the end of the Ice Age, and the ocean intruded into Bass Strait, Palawa people were isolated from the mainland of Australia and the rest of humanity for over 10,000 years, until Tasmania was invaded by the British in 1803.

Palawa people today are recapturing their past, and strengthening their identity, through the revival of cultural traditions such as language projects, funerary practices, material culture, ceremonial activities and dance, and land management practises. Many cultural traditions have been handed down and reinforced through the generations, especially those from the Bass Strait islands, including stringing shells, mutton birding, language, spiritual beliefs and stories, taboos, land management, maintaining kinship lines and obligations, knowledge of bush foods and medicine, ocean navigation, reading the seasons and forecasting weather patterns.

Palawa people are very strong in their identity with the land. Since the early 1800s, the people have petitioned the Governor for the return of land and mutton bird islands, access to cultural resources on the land and sea, and the protection of burial sites and human remains. The return of 12 significant places under the Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 (Tas.) testifies to the State Government’s real commitment to recognising the relationship between Aboriginal people and the land, and to redressing their dispossession of lands and displacement, since the invasion.

These areas of land comprise: mutton bird rookeries of Big Dog, Babel, Chapell, Badger, Steep Head Islands; historic places, such as an area on Cape Barren Island, Risdon Cove (the site of the first massacre of Aboriginal people in Tasmania); Oyster Cove (a condemned penal station where the 47 surviving people were sent after the Wybalenna ‘death camp experiment’); and archaeologically significant caves (Ballawinne, Kutikina and Wargata Mina) in the south west and Preminghana, north of Marrawah on the North West coast.

In May 1999, Wybalenna, on Flinders Island, was also returned to the Palawa people. This place, although historically tragic, is considered by many Aboriginal people as a most spiritually sacred area and includes the chapel and burial ground. Wybalenna was a place of attempted social, cultural and spiritual genocide in the 1830s and 1840s. It is a place where about 200 ancestors of Palawa people are interred, far from their lands on mainland Tasmania. They died from broken hearts, broken promises, disease and neglect. With the return of this land, their spiritual resting place will be cared for and will be a place of remembrance and healing for the Palawa communities today.

There are a number of Aboriginal organisations that have been established throughout the State over the past two decades. These organisations provide many services and programs for the communities, which are specific to the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal people, including areas such as health and housing, justice, youth, child care, arts and crafts, education, employment, elderly, culture, business and resource management.

It is of paramount importance that these programs and services are funded through, and delivered by, Aboriginal organisations as past practices of ‘mainstreaming’ through other agencies have failed Aboriginal people. Aboriginal organisations are located in major urban centres of Hobart, Launceston, Burnie and Devonport, and rural areas of Deloraine, Cygnet, Queenstown, Smithton, Flinders Island and Cape Barren Island.

Palawa people are very proud of their unique heritage and celebrate their cultural, social and spiritual survival through artistic expressions, cultural festivals, family traditions and kinship networks. There are many talented female and male artists who work in a variety of mediums including ceramics, textiles, painting, photography, natural fibres, sculpture and drawing.

There are also a growing number of performers, writers, poets and playwrights located throughout this State and mainland Australia. Cultural festivals are planned annually at Oyster Cove, south of Hobart, in January and Wybalenna, on Flinders Island, during January/February. Family traditions include seasonal muttonbirding activities, camping out, collecting ‘bush tucker’ and medicinal remedies, visits to significant places, story telling, visiting families and reinforcing kinship networks.