The island of Tasmania lies off the southern coast of Australia, divided from it by the Bass Strait: 125 miles of ocean that has come and gone with the ice ages. A few hundred miles from the Antarctic, the island teeters on the edge of the known world, making it a natural choice for the British colonizers who established a penal colony there in the early 19th century. Of course, the island had a history, a name and a people before white men came to give it their own. The nearly forgotten echoes of this time before drew me in. I traveled to this island in December, rang in the new year a few days after arriving and returned home in March with a thesis beginning to form.
Tasmania, despite its bottom-of-the-world mystique, felt comfortably familiar. The roads in the suburb of Sandy Bay, where I resided, were narrow and gently sloped over the hills that bowed into the shores of the Derwent River. Nearing the crest of one of the rolling streets, the sea breeze would sweep up to meet me, carrying with it a wave of cold air. The city lies in the shadow of Mount Wellington, often capped with snow when the seaside is warm. The houses are low and softly-colored, aged well by the sea air and crisp sunlight. The city is over two hundred years old, much of it originally constructed by convicts. Stone churches, cobbled streets, and white-washed walls glowed in the winter sun.
I lived for over two months with the Edwards family and their rotating cast of offspring that buzzed in and out of the house, as well as their four cats and numerous chickens and ducks in the backyard. I read, wrote and rested in a small room at the back of the house, waking up every morning at seven to feed and change the water for the birds in the yard. On special mornings, I would reach beneath one of the speckled hens, a motion that requires at least the illusion of competence to keep the chicken calm. There I’d find a warm egg—my breakfast.
Before settling into Hobart (the capital of Tasmania), we traveled around the island in two cars that were packed full with coolers, tents and empty soda cans. The land seemed to change with every mile. Stubbly cow pastures burned golden in the late afternoon sun and flowed into thick grasslands which sprouted up into green canopies and high valley walls. No larger than Ireland or West Virginia, Tasmania’s size belies a profundity that draws you in until you forget that the world extends beyond its shores. Trees stand like titans, gripping the earth down to the hot core. Rivulets carve shaded cracks that wind on forever and evade the cartographer’s eye.
Mt. William National Park lies at the far northeast corner of the island. The sand curves around, hugging the edge of the water like an infinitely long white highway. The wind had picked up since our arrival that morning and clouds were roaring across the sky, exploding against the fierce blue. Our teacher, Nels, was just ahead, leaning over the dark, sand-blown body of a penguin. His hand moved down to it, lifting one of the wings and letting it drop. Every few minutes we would see a bird that had died at sea and had been tossed up to the sand by a wave, and every time Nels would walk towards it and kneel as if saying goodbye.
“Just over this dune.” Nels had looked up and was pointing ahead at a great mound of sand, crowned with the pale gold bunches of beach grass that grew where the sand met the dark clay of the island. “We’re nearly there.”
I had first breathed Tasmanian air less than two weeks ago. Some say it is the purest air on the entire planet. A night wind rushed down my collar and up my sleeves and reminded me that the ocean was closer and wilder here than in Sydney. I could almost hear the waves, crashing and churning the air with icy, Antarctic heaves that gave this island its cooler climate. Tasmania was the last verdant outpost before the deserts of Antarctica. Our cab that night wove through the dark hills, softly pushing the night aside with its blue headlights as it went. “It feels like Vermont,” my friend Michael said.
I had known, without really knowing, what I would study here. It chose me more than I imagined it would. On a whim, I had walked to a bookstore the day before I left home and bought a book about pre-Columbian America. I was tired of the same stories of conquest and spice trades and breast-plated Christians. I was sure that my country had a history before it was white, but no one ever talked about it. Every chapter I finished in those long, airborne hours crept into my brain and curled up, tucked so neatly I would hardly notice them until nearly two weeks later. I was about to be caught in the spell of history, and for once, it wasn’t written by the victor, but by the vanquished.
I had my sandals off now and I began to press my toes into the sand faster, climbing the gentle slope towards the dune. Nels was just a few feet ahead and my classmates Cassandra and Jay walked just beyond. We were right up against the dune now, about to turn into the valley behind it, sheltered from the wind and the sea spray. In front of us, coating the narrow way ahead as if bubbling up from the sand, lay a pool of bleached white shells. I bent to pick one up. It was smooth and burning white like bone. Up ahead, I heard Jay gasp and Nels let out a low hum of appreciation. I took three more steps and there I was. The dune rose up like a wall in front of me, at least forty feet tall. Ribbons of white shell traced across the face of the dune. “This is it.” Nels turned towards me, his hands on his hips and his grin beginning to spread, “We’re at the midden.”
The question of a thesis topic worked its way around the circle. What would I devote the next nine weeks to? Before I had an answer, I felt my hand rise up and all eyes turned towards me. I cleared my throat and began. Slowly, but with purpose, one idea after another opened up. The sentences fell out, uncurling like new ferns. My topic: the Aboriginals. I wanted to know everything: What songs did they sing to the half-moon? What roots would they squeeze for water? How did they hunt, how did they move, what did they love and where are they now? I sank back in the seat and the question moved to the next raised hand.
We all sat, spread across the wide seats of the train, as it rocked and sped up through the foothills of the Blue Mountains. I turned to look out the window and I saw past my reflection, past the houses and clotheslines that rushed by, past the rows of orchards. I saw lean, dark men, their hair in thick bunches, carrying burning sticks and loping over the grassy hills. They faded in and out like shadows in the sun. There was more to this country than was shown on the surface. An enduring history was running, like an underground river, strong but muffled by cement and noise. I tried to dig down.
That deep river ran behind the midden, sheltered from the wind. They had lived here. They had gathered and cooked in this very spot and dropped, all around us, the shells their hands had cracked and scraped clean. Shells coated the floor of the valley, bedded in the stiff mud and swimming in the sands as if they had been dropped there a few weeks ago and not a few hundred years ago.
There was no fence, no entrance fee, not even a sign, but here it was, a genuine piece of history. Without the trappings I had come to expect in historical sites, without directions about where to look and what to think, it felt so real and secret, as if our gasps were the first this sand valley had heard in centuries. I could see their dark ghosts, huddled by fires, running to the water, leaning against the shady side of dunes with shellfish, pried open, in their hands. Their history had endured here, tucked back from the beach and not betrayed by signs so that the deep springs could well up and show the careful observer how the world has nearly always been. I was entranced.
I imagined a child, a small girl perhaps, chasing the waves back and forth while her mother and father watch from the side of the dune. They look out past the waves to the dark islands and tell stories about them. They sing songs about their creation and the girl runs up to join them. The sun is low and their bellies full with shellfish gathered along the rocky shore. The father puts his hand on his daughter’s head to hold her near him and together they gaze out to the island that white men would call Flinders, the island that would become the little girl’s last home before she is buried in its rocky soil.
If only for her sake, I thought. If only because to be forgotten is a fate far worse than death and she should not have to suffer both so cruelly. I felt, like the sucking tug before a wave, the change that was all around me. I saw white sails breach the horizon for the first time. I felt the crunch of leather and brass on these old sands. I heard war cries and musket bursts and crying in the night in ten different languages. The deep river sank back, paved over by generations of ignorance and power-lust. Some truth flowed there, deep and dark and nearly forgotten. I could never pull it back to the surface, but if I could only get close enough, I might dip my hand in and understand.
Thus, I became absorbed in the Aborigines of Tasmania. I felt the power exerted by the group’s 40,000–year legacy and wanted to find out where that group was today. Opinions flew fast and tempers often flared when this subject was broached among Tasmanians, so I could be sure there would be no lack of data. Aside from an appreciation of the intricacies of both ancient and modern Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, I learned a great deal about group dynamics in general.
I learned how groups maintain boundaries, how identity is asserted and how membership criteria are formed. All of these seemingly esoteric pieces are instrumental in evaluating the status and the prospects of the Tasmanian Aborigines. What I found was a defiant will to assert identity despite a long-standing public denial of that identity. I found that identity is determined primarily by choice, an alignment of a personal and shared history. I also found a white Tasmania largely inoculated by myth and stereotype, but, contrary to all the accounts I read, there are Aborigines in Tasmania. They were not exterminated.
Tasmanian Aborigines are a people with a history in three parts. In pre-colonial times, they were a nomadic, hunter-gatherer people that inhabited the island in small, scattered tribes. After colonization and the decimation of most mainland Aborigines, the Aboriginal women and their white, male captors populated the islands of the Bass Strait and passed on the Aboriginal bloodline and way of life. Today, self-professed Aborigines are everywhere in Tasmania.
Historically, colonial government arbitrarily set the standard for Aboriginality by means of a blood quantum, using it as a tool for further oppression and racial discrimination. Generations later, the definition was expanded to include self-selection and community recognition, moving to a more liberal view of identity. Threatened by this influx of new members, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Council tightened membership criteria in a bid to consolidate and secure their power in the Aboriginal community. Today, with more people self-identifying and a high incidence of mixed marriages, Aboriginality is starting to include a much wider spectrum of socioeconomic classes.
Tasmanian Aborigines take great pride in the three major cultural traditions that have survived, namely basketweaving, muttonbird hunting and shell necklace-making. These function as badges of membership and as visible distinguishers from the white majority. Aborigines have recently begun to use language as a means of teaching and asserting identity. While present knowledge of the traditional languages is limited, the goal of this project is to substitute native words for English ones, to subtly affect the worldview of the speakers and integrate Aboriginal identity more firmly into their lives. Exercising sovereignty over land rights and human remains forces the white public to recognize the existence of Aborigines. Finally, identity is powerfully stated and broadcast through visual art and poetry in which notable similarities can be found to other indigenous traditions.
Becoming Aboriginal in the state’s eyes is a process all its own, with required documentation and a review process. Becoming Aboriginal on the personal level does not mean that a new person emerges or that a false mask is donned, but rather that a subtle reorganization of priorities occurs to publicly position the individual closer to their heritage. Aboriginals never left Tasmania but their public presence was vehemently discouraged for many generations. Today, while the struggles are numerous, this ancient ethnicity employs cultural tools of assertion to make their identity known and proclaim their unbroken legacy.
From Aleph Volume 6