The history of Indigenous bark canoes in Australia – 1966 | RetroFocus

The history of Indigenous bark canoes in Australia – 1966 | RetroFocus


Making and sailing bark boats is popular
with children who picnic on the banks of the Murray. But making and sailing boats
has been common along the Murray for many hundreds of years. To the people who
carved a canoe from this tree, perhaps 150 years ago, it was no game but a basic
necessity for their existence. The necessity for the hunting and fishing
that was their way of life, the only one they knew. Scars such as these are to be
found on many trees surrounding Australia’s waterways and particularly
along Murray. The people are gone the canoes are gone for the many visitors
who come to relax in the quiet beauty that surrounds the Murray there only
remained faint traces that this was the home of so many people less than a
hundred years ago. The scars on healthy trees are all in
various stages of healing. This scar,perhaps 150 years old, was very wide
originally but the bark has gradually grown around over the years and now the
scar would be less than half its original width. The true age of these
scars is in doubt and this is a matter being researched by Mr Robert Edwards
from the Adelaide Museum. The scar could be 250 years old and now it has almost
completely healed. The Aborigines put the bark of the red
gums to other uses too – there are scars of such obvious things as shields and
carrying baskets The useful life of these canoes was from
one to two years. They varied in length from about six feet to over 20 feet as
we can see from the many different size scars on the red gums. Perhaps this one
was a family canoe. Perhaps this one, a sports model for boys There is only one such back canoe in existence today, and that is to be found at the Adelaide
Museum in very good condition. It is 16 feet long, 3 feet wide and an average of
7 inches deep. Towards the bow end on a bed of clay is the remains of a fire. The
bow is ornamented with a knob cut in the bark. This canoe was presented to the
South Australian Museum by Mr D. H. Cudmore of a Avoca station. And with it this
photograph of it being used on the Murray. These canoes were rough, but they
had certain advantages. They drew very little water. They were light to carry and they could go up on mudbanks to pick up shellfish. Often, when the men and women went
fishing, they would put stones on the clay floor of the canoe and keep a fire
burning to cook their fish as they caught them. This simple, rough canoe was sufficient to fill the aborigines needs. It had to be.
In these dry areas where the Murray flows through low rainfall country and
where the red gum lines its banks for mile after mile, it’s very difficult to
see what other type of canoe they could have made. Now one wonders how much
longer will the canoe trees stand. The men who used them have disappeared, many
of the trees have already been destroyed and others are showing signs of age and
decay. Staff from the Adelaide Museum are
attempting to photograph and measure every canoe tree and are arranging with
wood cutters to remove a section from as many trees as possible. Research on these
sections may one day reveal exactly when each canoe was cut and give us another
link in the history of Australian Aborigines. How long ago did the story of canoe
trees begin? When was the first bark canoe cut? This we will probably never
know for even the long-lived red gum couldn’t live long enough to answer that
one. But it must have been a long time ago, because the canoe was used in the
dream time. We know this from the ancient legend of Ngurunderi. In that legend we
learn of the great ancestor, Ngurunderi who chased the Murray cod down
the River Murray in a back canoe. Ngurunderi made camp on two great sand hills at
Mount Misery and having no further use for his canoe, stood on these sand hills
and, lifting it, placed his canoe in the sky, where today it represents the Milky
Way

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