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Community re-establishing long lost skills

March/April 2019

Noel Webster, Aboriginal Community Support Officer

Dan Morgan preparing a canoe

When it comes to building boats—specifically tied-bark canoes—Kioloa on the south coast of NSW was the place to be last week.

Thanks to NSW Department of Primary Industries Marine Parks and South East Local Land Services, around 50 local Aboriginal men and youth had the opportunity to undertake a two-day workshop, hosted by the Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council, to learn the lost art of canoe making.

Local Elders Uncle Tom Butler and Uncle Paul Carriage generously shared their knowledge and experience building a full-size tied-bark canoe.

The first job was to locate three stringy bark trees and peel off the bark, the bark removal can only be undertaken when the trees are holding moisture, luckily for us it rained that morning.

Then followed the difficult and laborious process of scraping off loose exterior bark to get to the firm, tightly-woven fibres that lay beneath and which give the tied-bark canoe its strength and form. Once this was achieved the ends of the bark sheets were warmed on an open fire. This was to encourage greater flexibility for folding and so the sheets could be tied at the ends with ‘wet strips of bark lashed together’—the final step.

The workshop was hard work and called for close attention to detail across the two days—a challenge in anyone’s book but thoroughly rewarding. ‘

And at the end of the two days the workshop produced three authentically-built tied-bark canoes—a tremendous feat which the men and youth hope will ‘re-establish a vital piece of Aboriginal culture that has been missing for a number of generations’

The Uncles explained that the techniques used have been lost for about 150 years. In the 19th century local tribes used canoes in local lakes and estuaries as well as off the Ulladulla coast when seas were calm. Made from local stringy bark the canoes could be up to six metres long. Women fished out of them using hooks and line made from bark string or hair.

It is heartening that through the Marine Estate Management Strategy 2018 - 2020, a rich cultural tradition has been revived and now can be passed on.


Noel Webster

Canoe being prepared The Canoe takes shape