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Documentary film explores significance of Aboriginal entrepreneurship in Victoria during colonial times

A preview of a film about some First Nations people who survived the massacres and become servants to the people who stole their land. Their knowledge of the waterways on 'country' and their will to live, forced them into situations that allowed the invaders to survive and trade during the early colonisation.

 

First Nations people using Canoes used to transport settlers on the Loddon
Image: This illustration depicts a scene of transportation during early settlement in New South Wales in 1883.
(Supplied: Culture Victoria)

Larissa Romensky ABC Central Victoria

Two Ballarat film makers are exploring the vital role Aboriginal transport played in the Victorian economy.

Seeing the Land from an Aboriginal Canoe is a documentary film made by Lucinda Horrocks and Jary Nemo which explores the significant contribution of the stringybark canoe.

The filmmakers were inspired by historian, Associate Professor in Aboriginal Studies Dr David 'Fred' Cahir, who specialises in forgotten Indigenous history.

"It was really an entrepreneurial opportunity for Aboriginal people in a time when there wasn't a lot of opportunity for them."
Lucinda Horrocks, filmmaker

 

Pin It was common practice during colonisation in the 18th century that a few healthy young men and women 'survived' the massacres to become servants and sex slaves to the people who stole their land - and more often than not 'vanished into thin air' when not needed anymore. SU

They were particularly drawn to his research into the stringybark canoe and its role in Victoria's waterways.

In the film, Dr Cahir said most Aboriginal history was about violence and massacres, and not the Aboriginal contribution.

"We've placed this veil over Aboriginal entrepreneurship and Aboriginal inventiveness," he said.

Ms Horrocks said the Aboriginal people made a significant contribution to the early economy of Victoria in the 1800s, with canoes being used as transport.

"There weren't any bridges across rivers — rivers flooded and Europeans and new migrants to Victoria didn't often know how to swim," she said.

"So, they relied on Aboriginal people's technology, Aboriginal people's know-how, and their navigational skills to actually get from one point of the river to the other."

Before colonisation, the Loddon River was lived on and managed by the Dja Dja Wurrung and Wemba Wemba-speaking peoples.
Image: Before colonisation, the Loddon River was lived on and managed by the Dja Dja Wurrung and Wemba Wemba-speaking peoples.
(Supplied: Culture Victoria)

The canoes were used to transport goods and people, including surveyors and explorers, stock, feed and food.

There was even a story of a piano being carted across a river.

"It was really an entrepreneurial opportunity for Aboriginal people in a time when there wasn't a lot of opportunity for them," Ms Horrocks said.

She said Aboriginal people learnt and found ways to adapt and flourish, particularly during the gold rush period in Victorian history, an opportune time to make money.

"Aboriginal people would just set up shop with a bark canoe at convenient crossing points and they would charge a fee to cross," she said.

Significant contribution by 'nation builders'

In the film, Dr Cahir referred to Aboriginal people as "nation builders", saying they contributed significantly to Australia's development.

"They really helped settle the newcomers in the new land; they contributed in many ways and that contribution hasn't really been recognised," he said.

In a really crucial way Aboriginal people were part of the foundation and the mapping out of Victoria as we know it today.
Lucinda Horrocks, filmmaker

Aboriginal elder Bryon Powell went further and said in the film that the Victorian gold rush was dependent upon Aboriginal people assisting with transport.

"If it wasn't for my family, my old people, the gold rush probably would not have happened and the miners would not have survived," Mr Powell said.

"They had to use Aboriginal people to ferry goods across the river."

Ms Horrocks said it was not just the use of canoes that proved vital to supply goods across the river in the gold rush period.

She said Aboriginal people also possessed extensive knowledge of the environment in terms of navigation and how to construct shelter.

"They knew how to manage the landscape in times of disaster," Ms Horrocks said.

"Often in times of flood, fire and famine, that was when Aboriginal people really made a difference for the newcomers."

In the film, Dja Dja Wurrung elder Rick Nelson said Aboriginal people's contribution made the difference between whether a settlement was created or not.

"In a really crucial way, Aboriginal people were part of the foundation and the mapping out of Victoria as we know it today," Ms Horrocks said.

Seeing the Land from an Aboriginal Canoe will be screened at the CLIFF Film Festival in Castlemaine this weekend.

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Below is a trailer for a film about pardoned convicts settling on stolen land during the invasion in New South Wales - This was made into a series and was televised by the ABC in 2015 - Keep an eye out for the 'repeat' in the future - it's really a 'must see'.