The Power of Country

10 November 2020

Every year, NAIDOC Week celebrates the culture, history and achievements of Aboriginal people. In Tasmania, we are surrounded by the influence of this living culture. Our landscape was changed and managed by Aboriginal people for 40,000 years and still bears the signs if you know what to look for.


As Australia’s largest water manager and one of our state’s largest land managers, Hydro Tasmania understands the need for responsible stewardship of this history and heritage. The landscapes we manage contain artefacts, quarries, rock shelters, art and many culturally significant places.


Aboriginal people occupied every region of Tasmania, even the rugged Western interior during the last ice age, whose end some 10-12,000 years ago caused sea levels to rise and for Tasmania to be separated from mainland Australia. Evidence of a thriving culture both before and after this change can be found in every part of Tasmania, including the islands of Bass Strait and even Maatsuyker Island.


Tasmania’s lakes and rivers were a source of life, providing both sustenance and trading routes. The mountains and valleys that now capture and channel water for our hydro power are rich in Aboriginal tradition and meaning. The forests and grasslands were shaped to create living spaces and hunting grounds using traditional burning practices, which modern Tasmania is still learning to appreciate.


It is often assumed that many of the place names associated with Hydro Tasmania are traditional Aboriginal names, but this is not the case. Unfortunately, the place names familiar to Tasmanians – like Tarraleah, Poatina or Waddamana – are adaptations of poorly understood Aboriginal words. This is common throughout Australia, where many place names purported to be Aboriginal are the result of Europeans inexpertly recording or misunderstanding Aboriginal language, or applying terms based on a European assessment of an area’s character, like ‘cold water’, ‘cavern’ or using the name of a local chief. Most likely, these words would not have had any traditional cultural meaning as Aboriginal place names.


Precious few records exist of Tasmania’s first languages and most of those were compiled by Europeans with little understanding of what they were hearing. There is one barely legible wax cylinder recording of Fanny Cochrane Smith from Flinders Island, who was thought to be one of the last fluent speakers of Aboriginal language in Tasmania, which can be heard on YouTube.


In the early years of the 1800s, it was observed that some Aboriginal people spoke several languages to facilitate trade, seasonal movements and other interactions between groups, and there may have been up to 16 different spoken languages in Tasmania alone. Sadly most of these languages have been lost, however, through careful cross-referencing of surviving records, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has reconstructed palawa kani, based on the word lists from the north-eastern and eastern Tasmanian languages. This is the source for some of the names currently proposed for consideration under the State Government's Aboriginal and Dual Naming Policy.


As a result, two features of Hydro Tasmania’s hydropower system now have Aboriginal names: yingina / Great Lake and kanamaluka / River Tamar.


In 2020, 185 years since the Proclamation of Governor Burke first justified British colonisation of the southern continent by declaring it terra nullius, meaning nobody’s land, the theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week is of Australia as Aboriginal land, with the slogan ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’.


Hydro development in Tasmania has inundated Aboriginal landscapes, waterways and places of cultural importance, and our ongoing operations can continue to impact heritage values. Hydro Tasmania acts in accordance with state and national legislation on managing heritage impacts, but this is only the first step in a process of responsible and cooperative stewardship of Country and resources. Hydro Tasmania must also undertake its operations with consideration and respect for Aboriginal people, past and present, and their culture.


Hydro Tasmania cannot change its history, but we can work to understand, respect and preserve the history and heritage of the land’s traditional owners for the benefit of present and future generations.



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