Tasmanian Aboriginal culture celebrated with 600 people in North-East

mannalargenna day

About 600 people travelled from across the country – and New Zealand – to be on country together at Musselroe Bay this month. Mannalargenna Day started five years ago as a family gathering put together by Dr Patsy Cameron AO, and has grown to be a vibrant and vital celebration that is all about sharing.

Mannalargenna Day is always a fairly windy affair – it is held at a wind farm, after all.

One year in the beginning, organiser and Aboriginal elder Dr Patsy Cameron AO said, it was also lashed by rain. The hundred-or-so attendees all retreated undercover, and huddled shivering together under a marquee on the very tip of North-Eastern Tasmania.

“We were battered with winds and rain that year,” she laughed. “And that marquee was absolutely alive with conversation.”

Mannalargenna Day 2019 took place under sunshine and blue skies, but the conversation was just as lively.

Five years ago, the event was an extended family gathering of about 60 people. This year, 600 people congregated under the giant spinning turbines of Musselroe Wind Farm.

They came from all sorts of places. A group of three young women in trendy outfits identified themselves as Melburnians; a contingent of about 20 attendees came from Flinders Island; Mandy Quadrio, running the women’s circle, lives in Queensland; and a family from New Zealand were also perusing the various activities on offer. Many came from Hobart – over four hours drive away – or other parts of Tasmania.

All of them came to converge on Musselroe Wind Farm for Mannalargenna Day: the Melythina Tiakana Warrana Aboriginal Corporation’s day of honouring ancestral elder Mannalargenna.

“Several of those families have travelled down for three years in a row, to be on country and to reconnect,” Dr Cameron said. “It’s very rewarding for people, who have a working life and don’t often have the opportunity to experience their culture.”

Mannalargenna Day is named for the ancestral grandfather of many of the people there, and of most Tasmanian Aboriginals alive today. A warrior and leader of the Trawlwoolway people at Tebrikunna, now Cape Portland, Mannalargenna was a respected seer who was said to have powers over the wind.

He was 55 years old when he met George Augustus Robinson at what is now Ansons Bay, after decades of fighting with his people against colonisation. Within five years he had died of pneumonia at a camp for Aboriginal people; his people had all been killed or transported off the island; and the nature of human settlement on Tasmania had changed beyond imagining.

Now, Musselroe Bay is defined by the presence of the smooth, white columns of the wind turbines, evenly spaced along the shoreline like science-fiction forests.

Along with the visitor’s centre, they are just about the only evidence of modern development the eye can see. It is all too easy to imagine the vista without them – and to picture a respected warrior-seer standing, dusted with ochre, among the dunes.

As artist Judith-Rose Thomas said in a panel on the day, it’s the kind of place that feels imbued with a presence beyond that of the physical bodies in attendance.

“[Mannalargenna] is our grandfather, and his spirit is still roaming this land,” she said.

“Have you ever walked through the bush and felt like there was something there: that you’re not alone? That’s because our spirits are in there.

“Look at how beautiful this is. And imagine what it would have been like to be told to leave.”

Tasmanian Aboriginal people have experienced incredible tumult since their land was first invaded in the early 1800s.

Their population was decimated by the Black War. After tens of thousands of years – about 6000 of them completely cut off from mainland Australia – it only took 30 for the English to reduce their numbers to 300 individuals. Those 300 were transported by George Augustus Robinson to Wybalenna on Flinders Island: a prison they were lured to with false promises of an acceptable life and an eventual return to their homes. Almost all died at Wybalenna, and when Aboriginal woman Trugannini died on the mainland in 1876, her passing was reported as the end of the Tasmanian Aborigines.

But in actual fact, the people survived. As Dr Cameron’s book Grease and Ochre explains in detail, this was largely through the Aboriginal women that left Tasmania to live as straitsmen’s wives in the remote Furneaux Islands, as well as some that were abducted to the mainland.

Artist Annie Ellis creates paintings that explore this period in her ancestral history.

A section of her works show dreamy, naked figures dancing in the mist, wearing striking red hats.

These are the Tyerelore: the Aboriginal women who married white men of the Bass Strait, and who developed their own unique culture in the tough conditions of the Furneaux Islands – including the red hats. Dr Cameron explained that it was a way of continuing the practice of wearing red ochre, which was difficult to source on the rocky and windswept islands.

The felt hats were one of the ways the women – daughters of Mannalargenna – were able to stay connected to their millennia-old ancestral traditions, while living with their white husbands on the remote islands between Victoria and Tasmania.

These women led different lives to those in the stories of sealers who bought or kidnapped Aboriginal women. The horrific stories told of the sealers are true, Dr Cameron said. But they do not portray the full range of experience Aboriginal women had in their interactions with white men in the Bass Strait.

“Obviously there were some terrible people doing wicked things in the strait, but our ancestral forefathers considered their wives as being their sweethearts, and cared for them,” she said. “That notion of them being slaves is really belittling of what their life and world looked like.”

Off the coast of Tasmania, these families eked out existences with the resources available to them.

“They got seal skins seasonally, they hunted wallaby and kangaroo, they grew vegetables and raised animals,” Dr Cameron said. “The men would trade in places like Launceston – trading wheat, cabbages, potatoes, these sorts of vegetables. Our grandmothers tended to the muttonbird rookeries, plucking the feathers and drying the meat, and they made shell necklaces to sell.”

It was through these women that the Tasmanian Aboriginal story was able to continue. As much as anything else, Mannalargenna Day is a celebration of that extraordinary twist in what was seen as an inevitable genocide, Dr Cameron said.

The Tyerelore ‘Island Wives’, cut-off from the carnage of mainland Tasmania, secured the future of an entire race of people.

“It’s a remarkable story,” she said. “There’s this story of Tasmania – the tragedy of colonisation – and yet we’ve got this other story that goes with that, of survival. The celebration on the day is all about celebrating our survival, and sharing it.”

On the day, guests ate Cape Barren goose, kangaroo patties, abalone, and sea patties. Children participated in a treasure hunt on the beach; and men’s, women’s, and mixed circles ran throughout. Olympic javelin coach Evan Peacock led a spear-throwing workshop, artists sold their works through a pop-up gallery, and there were smoking and dancing ceremonies.

The spirit of celebrations could perhaps best be summed up by dancer Jarrod Hughes, who briefly addressed the crowd after a comic portrayal of a kangaroo: “We are here to let you guys know that our Aboriginal culture is very much alive,” he roared to a highly appreciative audience.

As he and the other dancers performed, the sun beat down and the wind threw sand along the dunes in sudden skittering surges, exactly as it had done for past 40,000 years.

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