11 May 2014

Kooragang (Ash Island)

One of the highlights of the walk the artists did around the Ash Island area was having the insights of local artist Cherie Johnson.  Cherie is from the Gamilaroi language group, now living in Newcastle and participating as an active member of the local Aboriginal community.

Cherie was able to explain to us how various plants were cultivated, adapted and used for weaving and eating, how fish traps were set and what sort of wildlife would have lived on the island in the time of the Scott sisters.  She pointed out a sea eagle that was flying up and down the river and explained that the sea eagle is the totem animal for the area.  Apart from the insect populations documented by the Scott sisters, the area was a huge breeding ground for animals, fish, whales and birds. Huge crabs, the size of two men's handspans, were regularly caught and eaten. Much of that activity is now gone, and the environment is in need of rehabilitation (Belinda said 'no way you would eat a crab you caught here now').

Cherie also provided information, from contemporary sources, which indicated that at the time of the arrival of the second wave of settlers in the area in the mid-1820s there were at least 4,000 adult indigenous men, indicating a sizeable indigenous population.

It raised questions for us. What happened to these people? Where did they go? Who was the land taken from when AW Scott was given his land grant?

The knowledge that Cherie had about the land, the uses and significance of it and its relationship indicates just how much was lost when the local indigenous people were displaced from their lands. We are all the poorer for it.

The Scott sisters' time on Ash Island was the beginning of several incarnations for the island, including an orange grove grown by their father, and later on dairy farming and industrial uses.  There are almost no original trees left on this island; it would be unrecognizable to the Scott sisters today. Interestingly, the Scott sisters' painstaking documentation of the local flora and fauna, part of the Victorian mania for collecting (and when you think about it, a part of the colonisation process), is now invaluable to the Landcare group that is involved in rehabilitating the island.

It was interesting for me to have Cherie's perspective.  In my work for the last couple of years, I have considered the role of the 'colonisers 'and what the process meant for them, to have a hands-on, on-this-spot glimpse of what it meant to the people at the receiving end, and of course the land, was incredibly illuminating.

No comments:

Post a Comment