Learning about Adelaid’s original custodians

A map showing the areas in and around Adelaide that were inhabited by local nations of Aboriginal people before foreign settlers arrived. – Pictures by THOMAS HUKAHU

IT is advisable that whenever you visit a foreign state or country, try to learn about the indigenous people of that land.
It has been my belief for decades that you will not truly appreciate that state or country if you do not get to know the original custodians of that place.
And, it is likely that the indigenous people would not be living in the centre of the capital city, you may have to move into the outer suburbs or boundaries of states to interact with them and learn about their life on the land before outside influence disrupted their way of living.

Indigenous and international cultural exchange programme
Some months before the end of 2020, I was informed by a newsfeed from the University of Adelaide that a cultural exchange programme would be hosted and if students were interested they should register for it.
I was one of the first ones to sign up for the inaugural event, knowing that I had to interact with some of the local Kaurna (pronounced Gana) people, the original custodians of the Adelaide Plains, that land which the city and its suburbs sit on.
Sure, I see many Kaurna folks around the place in the city and often respond with a “hi” or a nod when they greet me.
Now though, it was time to speak with them and ask them some academic questions, to obtain more information about the Kaurna people.

Starting the day with a welcome
At 9.30 am on Jan 21, more than 20 students gathered at the Kaurna Learning Circle located at the northern end of the university’s North Terrace campus.
The students comprised postgraduate and undergraduate students from different countries, some of whom were international peer mentors as well as a team of indigenous students.
We were all welcomed by local Kaurna elder Uncle Rod O’Brien at the circle and then led off to the lawns nearby for a smoking ceremony.
Since I don’t smoke, I was wondering what the ceremony would involve.
Another elder, Uncle Fred Agius, and his young relative Alex had small vessels filled with special leaves or other parts of plants burning in them and causing thick smoke to rise.
The students were asked to stand in a circle and face the two who were in the middle.
“We will cause this smoke to remove all the negativity and bad stuff away from you,” Agius said.
And he and Alex moved in and out of the circle and blew the rising smoke onto students.
Then something struck me.
One of my uncles did the same thing to us in the village almost 40 years ago when we were kids.
He would use leaves from the tulip tree or other leaves with fragrance to burn and produce the smoke and direct that at us.
He said that was to get rid of some bad stuff, including the malaria and other tropical diseases, we were frequently afflicted with when we moved to the village in the late 1970s.
Afterwards, when discussing the Kaurna ceremony, most students said this was completely new to them.
I said, we in New Guinea, had similar practices.
A Chinese postgraduate student said Chinese people use incense and that has some spiritual significance.
I said I had a theory that smoke from some of those special plant parts may actually have therapeutic effects and cause the human body to react in such a way that the organs in the body may benefit from that.
Of course, that is just a theory and needs further research to validate that.

To the local cultural centre
At about 11am, we all boarded a bus and travelled down south, actually south-east.
Our destination was the Living Kaurna Cultural Centre in the City of Marion, a suburb about 8km from the Adelaide CBD.
We moved around the small interior of the centre and saw items as well as maps and pictures on walls that told the story of the local people there.
Then we were divided into two groups for two different activities.
Our group started with a weaving exercise where two aunties taught us to make a wall decoration item out of long dried leaves (possibly from water plants).
It was an interesting time learning a traditional craft as well as chatting with the two aunties about their lives as indigenous women here in South Australia.

Uncle Thomas Buzzacott talking about an important stone at the Living Kaurna Cultural Centre grounds in Adelaide.

The dream walk
After a small lunch, the other group came to do weaving while my group went to do what they did earlier, go for a walk around the lawns of the centre with Uncle Thomas Buzzacott.
That area is known as the Warriparinga Wetlands and Sturt River passes through it.
We were told that this was an important camping and meeting place for the Kaurna people.
We learned that there were over 30 different Aboriginal groups living in South Australia when the first western settlers arrived.
Furthermore, in the whole of Australia there were 500 different nations of Aboriginal people.
Buzzacott is not a Kaurna local but his knowledge of Kaurna and other Aboriginal people groups was enough to help us learn interesting things about how the local people lived in here before the first European settlers arrived.
Buzzacott started his story session by telling us about Tjilbruke, a local Kaurna figure, who lived thousands of years ago.
Tjilbruke was a teacher and lawmaker for this nation.
However, when his nephew was killed for killing an emu that was not his, Tjilbruke took his body and travelled south, all the time weeping.
In short, his tears formed the water holes and creeks in these parts.
This legend is referred to as the Dreaming Story of the Land.

Other interesting stories
There are two that I think are interesting to share, stories that were more than just legends.
The first is about how a hunter usually hunted kangaroos.
Buzzacott said the hunter in the old days was a very smart man and developed his skills over time.
To hunt a kangaroo, he needs a small boomerang, a big one and his spears.
If he knows that a kangaroo is nearby, the hunter has to carefully manoeuvre around the animal so that he is always downwind.
“The kangaroo can smell a man from a mile away,” Buzzacott reminded us.
When he thinks all is well, the hunter will rub the small boomerang under his armpit and then shoot it upwind.
The kangaroo would then sense the scent of the man from the boomerang from upwind and may start moving in the opposite direction, as towards the hunter.
The hunter will carefully move towards it and then use the bigger boomerang to hit it.
When it is on the ground, the hunter will then use his spears to kill the marsupial.
Buzzacott’s other story that arrested my attention was when he showed us a special stone, which he said was used by locals as a tool.
“It is a volcanic rock,” he said.
The first thought that came to my mind was: Where did this rock come from?
From basic PNG school science and geology, we know that continent Australia is seismically inactive.
So, where did this rock come from?
The local people here must have traded with people from other nations who may have obtained it from other people groups from over the seas.
As we were ending our walk, I approached Buzzacott and said: “I have a theory. I think that volcanic rock came from New Guinea.”
He acknowledged my words, as in the theory did not sound too irrational.
With more research, we may know the origin of that rock.

It was a great time
Those stories ended a very interesting day of learning about the Kaurna people as well as other Aboriginal groups and their general way of life then and now.
And as said at the start of the article, whenever you visit a new state or country, take the time to learn about the indigenous people who were the first custodians.
You cannot truly appreciate the place if you do not learn about the first people who settled in that area.

  • Thomas Hukahu is an Australia Awards students in Adelaide.


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