Who should own the Tarkine?

Speech given by Dr Ian McFarlane to the

Arthur Pieman Conservation Area Management Committee Forum.



I would first like to point out that I am not from Circular Head but from Table Cape. However, I firmly believe that whatever is decided regarding the future management and direction of the Arthur Pieman area should be developed with the active participation of the people who live here, and not be imposed or influenced by outside bodies with their own vested interests. I have been asked to speak here simply because of my understanding of the Aboriginal connections to this place. I have researched the Aboriginal History of North West Tasmania for over 20 years now, received my Doctorate as a result of those studies, written two books on the subject and lectured in Aboriginal History at UTAS for a number of years.

However, I am not here to give you a lecture on Tasmanian Aboriginal History I just want to touch on one subject only, one that keeps coming up in relation to the area now commonly known as the Tarkine. That is the often repeated claim that the area should somehow be ‘handed back to the original custodians’, a claim always made with no associated evidence regarding who exactly is making that claim of having ancestral links to the Tarkiner. There is little doubt, that a coalition of three groups are mostly responsible for promoting this claim, and they work very closely together, that is The Greens Party, The Bob Brown Foundation and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation or the TAC. I have watched the former two groups gradually shift their position on the Tarkine as their relationship with the TAC grew stronger. They moved from a position of simply wanting to preserve the area for future generations as pristine wilderness, to the more recent priority of transferring the area’s status to one of TAC ownership. To quote from the Advocate’s report on the Greens State Conference of September 2019: “Members supported a motion from former national leader Dr Bob Brown for the Aboriginal affairs policy to be amended to include returning the Tarkine to the Aboriginal community. “This is not about its environmental status, it’s about ownership,” Dr Brown said. Immediately on the release of the current Arthur Pieman Report, Bob Brown was quick out of the blocks to publicly establish his connection and support of the TAC. “Congratulations to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community for winning the long fight to keep off-road vehicles from despoiling this rich Aboriginal coast of takayna / Tarkine”. (and if there were any doubts about who he meant when referring to the Aboriginal Community, he closed with) “Thank you Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre for your dedication and courage”.

So, who is claiming traditional ownership of this area? who is claiming to be descended from the original custodians? in short, who is claiming to be descended from the Tarkiner. Well in all my years of research, and believe me I have looked, I have never come across any evidence at all of the possibility of even one of those people ever surviving let alone having descendants. The last Tarkiner I have on record was Mathinna who had a Tarkiner mother called Wong.er.neep, while her father was Towterer a Ninene man from the South West, she died in an accident at Oyster Cove on the 1st September 1852. So when the Bob Brown Foundation began making the claim that they had some descendants of the ‘original custodians’ to hand the land back to, they were asked who was making the claim and to provide evidence. Of course, there was no reply and we are still waiting.

The key to all of this is the commonly repeated phrase ” hand back”, now land can only be handed back to someone if they actually owned it in the first place. If this is not the case, then we are not talking about an issue of ‘traditional ownership’ but one of alienating land on the basis of race, a very different situation to that which takes place on the mainland, or indeed anywhere else in the World at this present time. Also, I cannot understand why any Government of whatever political persuasion, could even contemplate the dividing up of a community on racial grounds, creating permanent social and political divisions, a fractured society, and a mess to be handed down for future generations to sort out. The TAC have been desperate to try to establish some sort of link and connection to this area of Tasmania. One of their more macabre activities has been the burying of returned Aboriginal remains along the West Coast after giving them false idenitities to justify the action. The first that I am aware of is that of William Lanne or King Billy as he was known. His name last appeared in our local news when one of the Greens candidates proposed changing the name of the Electorate from Braddon to that of Lanney, on the basis that, and I quote from the Advocate:  “His story began here in North-West Tasmania, and given this was his homeland what better way to honour him?”   However, he was not from this area and if either he, or the TAC (which he is a member of), had bothered to consult the Hobart Mercury Friday 5 March 1866, they would have found the following death notice The “last man”, whose death has led us to enter upon this present notice, was name Billy LANNE, or as he was sometimes erroneously called, William Lanney. He was born at the Coal River about the year 1829…

In 1991, Edinburgh University returned some Aboriginal remains to Tasmania and the TAC claimed one of the skulls was that of William Lanne, even though the University denied that was the case and undertook forensic investigation to prove that it wasn’t. However, the TAC persisted with the unfounded claim, and Greg Lehman then a member of the TAC publicly announced:
“The Aboriginal community today after a very very long campaign succeeded in obtaining the return of Lanne’s skull from Edinburgh and his remains were buried in his tribal land.”

Which means somewhere along the West Coast an unidentified person’s skull lies buried complete with a false identity. The second case that I am aware involves another skull returned to Tasmania, this time from Berlin in 2014. This was a female skull donated by Adolphus Schayer a naturalist who worked for many years with the VDL Co out at Woolnorth, as well as travelling throughout Tasmania visiting fellow Naturalists in Hobart and Launceston. Again there was no identity attached to this skull, so the TAC decided that as Schayer worked up here that is where the skull came from. They seized on the identity of a young Robbins Island woman called Naungarrika who was murdered there in 1830, without mentioning the fact that her death was a result of a domestic dispute with a jealous Aborigine from Preminghana. There were no Europeans present at all. Schayer himself, didn’t arrive at Circular Head until July 1831, over 12 months after the incident was reported, so how exactly was he supposed to have obtained her skull? I am not sure of the fate of this particular person’s skull, but a Newspaper at the time reported: “The Aboriginal community will decide how to belatedly farewell Nungarrika, but it is likely to be in her own country. Ms Langford says the ceremony will be private”. So we probably have another unknown person’s remains buried somewhere in the North West, again complete with a false identity.

The irony in all of this, is that most of those pretending to have links to the Tarkiner in the TAC are descendants of Mannarlargenna. He was a North East Chieftain who actively assisted George Augustus Robinson in dispossessing the Tarkiner and others in the North West of their tribal lands. To give just one example, in 1833, when Mannalargenna was helping Robinson along with armed convicts, to capture and exile some Tarkiner people on the West Coast. Robinson wrote in his journal 22/7/1833: “Mannalargenna motioned them and pushed some to induce them to hurry out. I saw they did not like this interference of his and I desired him not to touch them – Mannalargenna could not speak their language”. Their elderly Tarkiner chieftain Wyne, while trying to protect his people attempted to break Mannalargenna’s spear over his head – sadly one of his last actions as he was shortly to die in captivity 9 days later in Macquarie Harbour, then just 11 days after his death his wife Naydip joined him. Now, I am not being judgmental as far as Mannalargenna is concerned, he was not from this place, he spoke an entirely different language and had his own reasons and motives for his actions. But, it is a bit rich for his descendants to claim some sort of connection and ownership of the lands of the people that their ancestor had actively helped dispossess and exile.

In short, is very clear to me that the TAC have no historical or cultural links to the North West People or to their lands, and in my opinion have no entitlement to involvement in any consultative process involving this region. To return to my original point, in the absence of any traditional owners, the logical people to be involved in this process should be those who were born, live and work here, those that make up this community which includes of course, the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation members who are here and are actively supporting this meeting today.



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