A calligraphy pen on an Aboriginal mission site?

There has been a little interest in this image below and so I thought a brief post was worthwhile to give it the context it deserves. Full credits for the image go to Amy Della-Sale, who is working towards completing her archaeology Masters Thesis at Flinders University on the post-contact histories of Indigenous people in a colonial frontier setting in Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia.

Caligraphic Pen, Weipa Presbyterian Mission ca. 1898-1932
Close up of the nib of a caligraphic pen found on the former Weipa mission site. Date reads: 'June 15.86'. Photo by Masters in Archaeology Student Amy Della-Sale

The full image of the pen is below however I much prefer Amy’s photo since it brings out a critical detail: the date. The scale is approximately 1 cm across the nib from top to bottom.

I have next to no knowledge of 19th century calligraphic pens however this one is interesting because of its context. It was found in an Aboriginal settlement or ‘village’ area (as it is referred to in historic documents) at the margin of a Presbyterian Mission site near Weipa that I’ve been working on for a few years now. If the date on the pen is correct (June 15 1886) then it pre-dates the mission site (1898-1932) and looking at the images now I wonder whether it is silver plated (if there are any readers with expertise in this area I’d love to hear from you!).

I suspect the dates don’t match up because like many Aboriginal missions in Australia, the Weipa mission sometimes received donations of money and goods from organisations or individuals in large cities to the south (often Presbyterian congregations). My view is that this pen may have been part of one of those packages, donated by a well-to-do Church-goer in Melbourne or Brisbane and mailed to the local Mission Superintendent along with other items such as children’s dolls, clothing and toys before being given to a local Aboriginal person. The historical evidence suggests that exchanges such as these were usually loaded with social meaning and intent; for example, it may have been part of a range of incentives used to encourage a particular person to comply to missionary norms and expectations in a context where the desire was to shape and modify their social, ideological and material worlds.

Calligraphic Pen, Weipa Mission
Full image of calligraphic pen located on the Weipa Presbyterian Mission site, 1898-1932

We discovered the pen eroding out of a low earth mound site (5 m diameter, 0.8 m high) and this was one of around eight mounds that we recorded adjacent to the remains of small cottages, arranged in two neat rows. Most of the artefacts we identified (glass, metal, ceramics, marine shell, stone artefacts) appear to cluster around these mounds, rather than in or near the cottages, however we’re still unclear as to what the mounds were used for: ie., camping/sleeping, cooking or rubbish disposal? During our most recent field work (2011) we created a detailed plan of all of the buildings, mounds, depressions, surface artefacts and so on, with excavations to come in the future. I’m in the process of creating our final site plans as well as doing some spatial analysis on artefact distributions in order to understand whether certain artefact types more frequently occur near cottages, mounds and so on, a technique that I’ve written about elsewhere.

The photo was taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T3i with a 10-20 mm Sigma macro lens. I’ve never owned or used a macro lens before this field trip, but what a difference they make to field photography! They’re brilliant for artefact photography, particularly capturing fine details such as this. They also enable a great deal more creativity with their limited depth of field. A creative eye helps, though; I don’t really have such an eye which is why it’s great to take creative students along (thanks Amy!).

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Weipa fieldwork wrap, part 1

I’ve just returned from a month long research trip at Weipa where we were working to complete a plan of an early 20th Century Presbyterian mission site that I’ve been working on for the past few years. It was one of the most enjoyable research trips I’ve run in quite some time in no small part due to a great team of students who participated in the work and who suffered the relatively basic living arrangements with good humour and enthusiasm throughout. The work was undertaken in collaboration with Anhatangaith people, who I’ve been working with for a few years now and whose country includes the site of the former mission at an area known as Waypandan.

We began our trip by flying from Adelaide to Townsville and from here two of my students (Amy Della-Sale and  Claire Keating) and I drove the ~1200 km or so north to Weipa. We visited the Quinkan Cultural Centre in Laura, which I’ve not previously visited, and we were impressed by the quality of the displays illustrating aspects of the history of the region. The displays focus on contemporary Aboriginal cultural practices, land tenure and management, the history of the cattle industry and on the unique environments in the region, characterised by broad dissected sandstone plateaus and an abundance of distinctive rock art. My only concern with the centre was that although Aboriginal people feature prominently in the display, I found it a little disconcerting that the historical themes surrounding the violence associated with colonisation of this region were entirely absent. Furthermore, the centre lacked any significant detail on the pre-colonial Aboriginal history of the region which is a real shame because it is one of the few locations in Australia where there has been enough research across the region to be able to develop wide ranging and detailed interpretive materials that actually say something substantive about long-term Aboriginal histories. Despite that, it’s well worth a visit and one of these years I’ll make sure to stop long enough to enjoy one of the many rock art tours that you can join here in Laura. We did visit one well known gallery at Split Rock which is an easy 1 hr self guided walk through some quite spectacular country and that gave me a brief chance to test out my new Canon T3I.

Escarpment edge at Split Rock Art site, near Laura

That night we camped further north on the Archer River which is about 200 kms south of Weipa. Archer River is, in my view, the beginning of western Cape York as not far from here the rather broken and rocky ranges that run along eastern and central Cape York Peninsula give way to low open rolling hills and plains, low plateaus and wide expanses of mostly undisturbed tall open woodland.

Archer River Crossing, ~200km south of Weipa

Eventually we arrived in Weipa.  The whole basis of the research trip was to camp near the original mission site in order to minimise the number of times we needed to drive the fairly slow and rough track back into Weipa itself. Establishing a field camp for a trip of this length does require a little planning and so we spent a few nights staying with the tourists in a public camping ground in Weipa so that we could catch up with Aboriginal community members and carry out some preliminary trips out to the mission site at Waypandan. During these trips we cleaned up the living area for the the kids and elderly people who would be coming out to stay with us, started planning our survey work and dug our pit toilet.

Cleaning up with fire in preparation for field surveys
Cleaning up with fire in preparation for field surveys

We were happy to see that the area around our camp site had been recently burned and the creeks that we would need to rely on for water were clean and flowing strongly after a long wet season.  Over the course of a day towards the end of our first week away we moved the equipment, available community members and ourselves out to the camp site and were fairly well set up and ready to begin work.

For the first weekend we had about 13 community members staying with us including five young children which was unexpected and a great deal of fun. Kids have an amazing ability to lift the overall atmosphere in a camp and to impart a good deal of energy to those around them. One of the highlights of the trip for me was our first foray from the camp site down to the mission site (about 1 km) with several of the younger community members and a trail of kids behind us pointing out wallabies, animal tracks and other things that grabbed their attention.  It was also a good chance for me to think through a field survey strategy and to familiarise myself with parts of the mission site that I hadn’t visited for six or more years.

Grass tree on the mission site
Grass tree on the mission site (photo by Amy Della-Sale)

Over the course of the next two weeks we systematically surveyed the mission site and extended my site plan from 2008 to encompass the majority of the original mission landscape. Towards the end of our third week away I decided to shift our camp back into town at rather short notice due to a death in the community, but we were fine to continue our work at Waypandan via day trips from town. I’ll write more about the archaeology in a separate post later in the week.

We had our fair share of problems but fortunately no one was seriously hurt. We had serious mechanical issues with one vehicle – a Jeep Wrangler – which was off the road for two weeks and a this was a great loss to us as it limited the number of people we could transport out to the site. There were also a few close encounters wildlife ranging from the obligatory wasps,  ants, rats and snakes through to the  more concerning encounters with wild pigs and crocodiles. On the whole though it was a very positive trip: bracing swims in the chilly creek in the early evenings; johnny cakes and teatree smoked fish for dinner; the early morning chorus of birds; sharing the camp site with dozens of wallabies as well as the fresh air and glorious weather.

Mangroves at sunset, Embley River
Mangroves at sunset, Embley River at Waypandan

I’m planning a shorter trip back in September or October this year. The weather will not be as nice as in July, however any day spent in the tropics is far better than one spent in more southerly climes. We have quite a lot more work to do and the Traditional Owners are building an outstation near the mission site which will provide us with a good base from which to work and hopefully the access tracks will be improved as well. Frankly, I’m looking forward to getting back up there already.

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Into the field…

In several days my small research team and I will be beginning the long drive from Townsville to Weipa where we’ll be based for a month long research trip investigating the history, archaeology and cultural significance of a former Aboriginal mission site.

This is a community based project that Anhatangaith Elders requested that we undertake about 5 years ago. We’ve been working on it only when we’ve had funding and time and this trip will be the first field trip since 2008 when we mapped out the mission site and produced the site plan below. This is just a quick screen grab from my GIS but illustrates the layout of the site.

Preliminary plan of the mission site

We’re doing the research in order to understand the history of Aboriginal people at the mission site. Historic records from the area are far from abundant, in part because prior to World War Two Weipa was very remote and accessed only by sea: so visitors were infrequent. Furthermore, as is often the case, the historic records are written by non-Indigenous people and focussed on the lives of missionaries.

The main aim of the trip is to complete full documentation of the surface record at the site. We’re not excavating, principally because we don’t need to in order to address the research questions we’re pursuing. The surface record at the site is very rich, with many high density artefact deposits including glass, ceramic, stone arteacts, marine shell metal items and so on. These are found around well preserved features such as fences, building remains, retaining walls, earthen mounds, quarries and historic vegetation such as well established mango and tamarind trees.

The second purpose of the trip is to find new sites in areas well away from the main mission site. Research on other mission sites in Australia suggests that Aboriginal people were often very mobile, regularly travelling well away from the mission to collect food, visit family and for ceremony. To fully understand the history of the Aboriginal community associated with the site we therefore need to identify and document places away from the mission that they visited or used. In this regard, we’re attempting to sample the entire catchment of the creek that the mission was established on. We’ve dived it into landscape units based on proximity to water, vegetation types and landforms. The image below is a screengrab from the GIS that highlights the coarse landscape units we’re sampling.

Landscape classification for surveying the mission site and surrounds

I’ll try to get some posts up whilst we are away, but given that we’re camping in a non phone/no net area using petrol generators my access to the web will be quite limited. I’ve purchased a new EOS600D camera with some very fine macro and wide angle lenses, so hopefully we should have some good imagery!

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Fieldwork beckons

I’m glad to report that after a seven month stint here in Adelaide I’m finally able to get back up to north Queensland to do some fieldwork. Teaching and University life is wonderful, however I do not recall a time in the past ten years where I have not had a field trip for seven months. So this is long overdue and I’m very much looking forward to the trip.

This is a quick 10 day trip to Weipa on western Cape York. It is not what most would consider to be archaeological fieldwork but instead a community liaison trip with anthropologist Dr Darlene McNaughton, who is also my partner. We’re both tying up some loose ends on the Alngith Heritage Project and laying the groundwork for a 4-6 week field trip to a place known as Waypa in June-July with the Anhatangaith people.

Ground Orchid, Weipa

The Alngith work is nearing completion. For the past two years we have been working with Alngith elders using a range of methods (oral history, archaeology, historical research) to identify places of cultural significance on their country, which is the western portion of the Weipa Peninsula. We’ve compiled information about 300 or so places and in this trip our focus is on checking that we’ve ‘got it right’, particularly for story places. It’s easy to think about these places as points on a map however one of the exciting things we’ve been able to document are some of the linkages between these places and the movement of ancestral beings (animals) through Alngith country. It’s not appropriate to go into detail, however it’s been a tremendously enjoyable and worthwhile project and it’ll be interesting to see the responses of Alngith elders when we throw up a draft ‘map’ of their country onto a projector. There will be quite a few visits to key places as well as some survey work that I need to finish off as well.

The second project is a continuation of the Weipa mission project that was funded by AIATSIS back in 2007. The Indigenous Heritage Program have provided additional funds to finish site documentation work which we plan to complete in June-July. I expect we’ll only manage a one day trip to the site, probably by boat, and the purpose of this will be to get a good photographic record of the place during the early wet season. The big priority though is to catch up with the Anhatangaith elders and discuss with them the project and how they want to go about it in terms of logistics and timing. The major field trip is some way off yet, however I’ve often found that in order to do ‘capital A’ archaeology, one needs to first do the ‘capital C’ consultation and community liaison. That’s not to say that the latter ends when the former begins; but that it’s good to begin the conversation about the project well before the fieldwork plans are set in stone, which I’ve blogged about recently.

I’ll try and get a few blog posts and photos up while we’re up there, so stay tuned!

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The underbelly of an archaeology fieldschool

In June-July next year I am running an Indigenous archaeology fieldschool for students enrolled at Flinders University (see About.com’s post on fieldschools if you’re not sure what they are). It’s quite a daunting task, particularly since I’ve not organised a field school before, and I’m yet to entirely decide on what this particular project will entail, where it will be held or what kinds of activities I can throw at students to help them to develop their skills doing Indigenous archaeology. One thing is clear though: I want to ensure it’s a realistic example of what ‘doing’ Indigenous archaeology involves.

The best way to provide a realistic experience for students is to incorporate the fieldschool into an actual research project. This has worked quite successfully for other Flinders Archaeology staff in recent years and has the potential to benefit the research project by increasing the amount of work (survey, recording, etc) that can be conducted on what are usually slim research budgets. Although I have a few options for research projects that I can tie to fieldschools, at this stage I’m leaning towards running the fieldschool at a place known as Waypa, which is part of Anhatangaith country, near Weipa on western Cape York. The reason? We have funding for an ongoing project here,  a great relationship with community members and there is an absolute stack of work to do on this site. Moreover, it’s an extremely important place for the local community and I’ve long been of the view that the area is of at least State level cultural significance, if not National level. I have a few other potential locations for fieldschools, however nowhere else do the stars align so neatly: community need, relationships and funding. It also happens to be a very interesting place, which I’ve blogged about previously.


View Waypa Indigenous Archaeology Fieldschool 2011 in a larger map

The logistics of remote fieldwork are always daunting, however I’ve been involved in a few fieldschools over the years and have also organised quite a number of field projects involving volunteers, Indigenous community members and so on. So dealing with remote fieldwork logistics is not my primary worry. Rather, I’m concerned about the potential problems that could emerge by taking a group of students to Waypa, particularly with regard to maintaining the health and safety of all involved as well as ensuring that the project doesn’t impact negatively upon the community.

Taking students ‘bush’ is always a concern, and for good reason. I’ve had students drive vehicles into trees and creeks,  they’ve fallen into creeks crawling with crocodiles, have been scared witless by snakes and on occasion have even gone down with heat stroke and numerous other minor maladies. Chosen carefully, small groups of one or two people are easy to manage, however in this  case I’m planning for around 8-10 students, a small fieldschool in comparison to some, but any more than this and the logistics become more and more difficult particularly for food, accommodation, transport, etc. Furthermore, as I explain below, there will likely be just as many Traditional Owners involved in the project and I expect that 15-20 people camping in the bush for two weeks might not be a picnic in the park. In theory, personal safety of participants is a manageable risk. Students are usually sensible, there will be a few people around with appropriate first aid training and (worse case scenario) it’s only a 1.5 hour rough drive to a hospital. It’s also (by law) a ‘dry’ area which means that there will be no alcohol involved. Archaeology students, alcohol and remote fieldwork are, in my view, not a wise combination and I suspect this takes out a major risk factor.

Ensuring that the fieldschool benefits community members and doesn’t have any negative repercussions for them is my second major concern and is something that requires a little more forethought. I haven’t yet asked permission to hold the fieldschool at Waypa and nor have I held discussions as to what the key priorities for community members are, but this is entirely due to the fact I’ve been office bound and haven’t had a chance to catch up with anyone since February. Any work in this region requires the full involvement of senior Traditional Owners for one very simple reason: it’s their country.  Traditional Owners usually like to be involved so they can keep an eye on the visitors, as well as for a chance to get out on country. Often, several people are employed to supervise the work and to ensure that visitors to their country are acting appropriately and the work is proceeding satisfactorily. One of the things that I enjoy most about working in this area is that extended families will typically want to come camping as well, which is always fun and usually results in plenty of fresh fish, fruit or other bush treats. More importantly, it means that we can have a ‘conversation’ about the project that includes all involved – including extended family – on a day to day basis. This conversation trickles along during the entire project: over breakfast, during survey or recording work, or over a cup of tea at 3 am in the morning. I think this alone justifies the need to camp with community members and I think everyone gets a lot more out of the process.

As I said though, how this all will pan out for this project is not clear yet, not until I’ve sought permission to carry out the project in January. Indeed, it may not happen at all, so watch this space!

The archaeology at Waypa is spectacular and I’ll post something more about that along with a description of the area soon – perhaps when I’ve spoken to the Traditional Owners. Waypa is the location of a former Presbyterian mission site and so most of the settlement was established on very hard gravel substrates, which means that the archaeology is mostly on the surface. There are also a number of pre-contact (i.e. pre 1881) sites such as shell middens and artefact scatters in the area which for the most part are undiscovered and unrecorded. For this reason, the project will likely be oriented towards planning and carrying out field surveys across very large areas. This is a skill that’s fundamental to doing Indigenous archaeology in Australia.  In reflection though, the other major theme of this fieldschool will relate to working with community members which if anything is the most critical skill archaeologists need in Australia.

In any case, I’ll try and continue to post as this fieldschool comes together. I figure it might be a useful insight into what goes on behind the scenes in terms of planning and undertaking an archaeology fieldschool. So do let me know if you have any questions!

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North Queensland fieldwork projects, 2010-11

Today I’m happy to report I have been successful with two funding applications to carry out fieldwork projects in north Queensland over the next  year or so. The funds – $150,000 in total – have been provided by the Indigenous Heritage Program (IHP) and were announced by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Arts last week. The first project is completely new one for me, and will be carried out with the Muluridji People whose land is near Mareeba, near Cairns in north Queensland. The second is a continuation of earlier work with Anhatangaith people at the site of the former Weipa mission, which I have written about here before.

The  Muluridji Heritage Project will involve working around Mareeba on the upper catchments of the Barron and Mitchell Rivers. The project is a essentially a baseline study of Indigenous cultural heritage places in this poorly investigated area which lies in an area with wet tropical rainforests to the east, and dry open savannah woodland to the west. While my interest is pre-contact archaeological sites, the project takes quite a broad approach to cultural heritage and we’re aiming to identify and record pre-contact archaeological sites, areas of traditional importance and historical places. We expect to start fieldwork by around September this year, with the project to be completed by mid 2011.

Ceramic Dolls Head (scale = 1 cm

The second project involves detailed work at the site of the original Weipa Mission (1892-1932).  The area, known as ’20 Mile’ or ‘Waypenden‘  is part of the lands of the  Anhatangaith people, who are seeking to have the site protected from vandalism, pilfering of artefacts and so on. This project is a continuation of ongoing community history and heritage project that is broadly investigating the experiences of Aboriginal people at Weipa during the ‘mission era’ (1898-1966). I’ve written previously here about how the project initially began, as well as about work at the more recent (post-1932 site) here and here. Upon reflection, I should really be writing more about this project because it is really very interesting, however finding time is sometimes challenging and there are also important ethical issues about disclosing historical or cultural information about the history of the community. We’ll be spending about 6 weeks on the site filling in gaps on what is already quite a detailed GIS database  and acquiring some detailed data on artefact scatters across the mission site for further desktop analysis.

Both projects will generate some good research outcomes as well as good outcomes for the management of Indigenous heritage places. One key element of both projects is the use of Google Earth to present heritage data to community members, and to establish an easy to use database that Indigenous management groups can use. I’m working on another post at the moment in which I will outline in detail just how I plan to do that and may even do a conference paper on this later this year.

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New paper: Mission-based Indigenous production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission

In 2007 Jane Lydon, Jeremy Ash and I co-convened a conference session at the ‘New Ground’ Australian Archaeology joint conference at the University of Sydney on the archaeology of Indigenous missions and reserves in Australia and the Pacific. A range of papers were presented exploring the contributions of archaeological approaches to the history of missions and reserves,  with case studies including work from the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, Torres Strait, the Gulf of Carpentaria and a series of papers on work throughout south eastern Australia. After the great feedback we received at the conference, we explored publication opportunities and I am (belatedly) glad to report that this collection of papers has recently been published in the March 2010 edition of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology.

One of the key motivations for publishing the papers was to showcase the diverse histories of Indigenous missions in the region, and the equally diverse approaches employed in the investigation of those histories. Lydon and Ash wrote a great introduction to the volume which aptly locates the papers in relation to international debates on missions and the archaeology of cross-cultural interactions, as well as the history of research into Indigenous missions and reserves in Australia and the Pacific.

Darlene McNaughton, Justin Shiner and I wrote a paper that set out to explore the economic contributions of Indigenous people who lived in and near a former Presbyterian mission at Weipa, and the significance of those contributions to both the mission and the health and wellbeing of the mission community. We were most interested in looking at wild food (that is, foods that were gathered and hunted from the bush by Aboriginal people), and we focused upon the case study of culturally modified trees (scarred trees) as well as relevant historical and oral history data. The abstract is below:

Mission-based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932-1966)
Michael Morrison, Darlene McNaughton and Justin Shiner

Previous research on remote nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Indigenous missions in northern and central Australia point to their often tenuous existence and the complex nature of engagements between Christian Missionaries and Indigenous people. This paper explores the contribution and significance of Indigenous production of wild foods in the context of one such settlement located at Weipa on Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. It is premised on the assertion that investigation of the
economies of these often remote settlements has the potential to reveal much about the character of cross-cultural engagements within the context of early mission settlements. Many remote missions had a far from secure economic basis and were sometimes unable to produce the consistent food supplies that were central to their proselytizing efforts. In this paper it is suggested that Indigenous-produced wild foods were of significant importance to the mission on a day-to-day basis in terms of their dietary contribution (particularly in terms of protein sources) and were also important to Indigenous people from a social and cultural perspective. We develop this argument through the case study of culturally modified trees that resulted from the collection of wild honey.

Highlights in the volume for me included the paper by Lydon and Burns on the Ebenezer Mission in Victoria (see also Lydon’s recently published book), Angela Middleton’s comparative paper on Missionization in New Zealand and Australia, and finally, the paper by Birmingham and Wilson comparing the well known Wybalenna Settlement (Tasmania) with  the Killalpaninna Mission (central Australia). We hope to have the volume reviewed in the coming months and I’ll post that once it comes out.

EDIT (26 Mar 2010): Alun Salt has written a great blog post about our paper, which you can read here.

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Mapping cultural landscapes: the Alngith Cultural Heritage Project

Over the past half year or so I have been working on a project documenting the cultural heritage of the Alngith People (pronounced Al-ngit where ‘ng’ is the same as in ‘ping’) , an Aboriginal group whose lands include the Weipa area and surrounds on western Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. It is a fascinating and enjoyable project that has thrown up a number of unique challenges and opportunities in regards to cultural heritage management. The project is funded by the Indigenous Heritage Program via the Malaruch Aboriginal Corporation, representative body for the Alngith group.

(more…)

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History of Indigenous wellbeing at Weipa

I apologise for the slim offerings to be found here on my blog so far this year. By way of explanation (particularly for my regular readers!) I have had a touch of writers block due to an identity crisis regarding the overall purpose of my blog. To my mind, my blogging seems to have drifted a little away from archaeology and more into technology and gadgets which is not at all where I want to to take it. While relevant, I want to make that type of content more of an aside to posts that are principally about archaeology: it is after all supposed to be an archaeology blog. So in this post I thought I should get the ball rolling again, so to speak, by writing about a research project I am working on at Weipa in northern Australia. It will be split up over a few separate posts, with what follows simply serving as something of an introduction to the issues were are exploring.

Way back in 2005 I was in a meeting with a number of Elders from the Aboriginal community of Napranum (near Weipa). At that stage I was managing an Indigenous land and sea management program, so my role was to liaise with people about land management issues – which almost always came back to heritage management – and obtaining funding to do management oriented projects. Although we were supposed to be discussing weed management issues (a particularly exciting topic I might add), the conversation quickly drifted onto more interesting issues.

The Old Ladies I was meeting with had all grown up in the mission dormitories which, by all accounts, appears to have been a traumatising experience for many. Removed from their families at a very young age they were essentially locked in dormitories at night and were only able to see family on a fairly infrequent basis. Often their only substantive interaction with older kin was during camping trips out bush away from the mission. Along with the need to regularly attend church and school, they were also expected to work which the Presbyterian Mission superintendent considered to be a form of preparation for the practicalities of their adult lives. This meant domestic chores for girls and young women, and gardening and manual tasks for the boys and young men.

During our chat I scribbled down a few quick comments and wish now I had recorded the entire conversation. In particular, in talking about the original mission (which operated from 1898-1932) one of the women stated:

“they were healthier times (at Waypa). Waypandan, that is my mothers land. They ate wallaby, drank Nonda milk, collected ambanum [hairy yam], sugarbag, all those things. We need to tell people about those times”

The quote was quite significant at the time because from earlier work in the area I was well aware of a widely held view at Weipa that bush foods (i.e. bush ‘tucker’) are considered more healthy than store bought foods. This is because many people associate getting bush foods and being on Country with a sense of health and wellbeing. Simply put, being on Country and eating bush food is good for you in all respects: socially, emotionally, physically, spiritually. In my view, the statement was important because it indicated that the Elders saw a link between history, learning about history, wellbeing and health. Looking at it now, I’m not so sure that this quote best demonstrates this point, but it was certainly the idea that I went away with that day. The other idea that those Old Ladies shared with me was that despite all of their bad experiences, people remember the ‘mission days’ as a period of comparative health and happiness compared with today. In short, ‘they were healthier times’ in the sense that health meant more than just physical health as such.

After that meeting it took a further few months of discussions with Elders to develop a research project. We entitled it ‘they were healthier times: indigenous health and wellbeing within the Weipa Presbyterian Mission’. The broader project idea was to look at the history of Indigenous health and wellbeing (defined broadly as emotional, physical, social and spiritual health, after Anderson 1996) from an historical perspective. Simply put, our core question was: what was the nature of Indigenous wellbeing throughout the history of missions in the area and how is this relevent to the community today? The project also explores an important view held by community Elders: that younger people in the community do not ‘know’ the real history of their community, and that learning about this would in fact contribute to improving their wellbeing. This is because they associate a knowledge of history, culture and Country with improved health and wellbeing.

Our evolving project involves recording of oral history, Traditional Knowledge, archaeological surveys around key mission settlements and also work on historical documents. We obtained initial funding from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in 2007 and from the Federal Government’s Indigenous Heritage Program (IHP) in 2008 and began work on the project in early 2008. Since my original conversations with Elders and anthropologist Darlene McNaughton, several other people have become involved in the project including fellow archaeologist Justin Shiner and more recently historian Geoff Wharton.

Our results are preliminary at this stage, with our first concerted period of fieldwork mid 2008. In the next post I shall write about the original Weipa Mission site which operated from 1898-1932 and the results of archaeological and oral historical work we completed there last year. The photograph below was take in the early 1900s at this site.

From Weipa historical photos

 

References:
Anderson, I. 1996. Aboriginal well-being. In C. Grbich (Ed.), Health in Australia: sociological concepts and issues (pp. 57-78). Sydney: Prentice Hall.

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