Forest bathing


On a recent trip to Japan I was able to observe and experience the process of forest bathing up close.

In 1982, the Japanese first used the term Shinrin Yoku to describe the practice of forest bathing. It means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ and has been seen ever since as an antidote to the workaholic nature of the Japanese people. They also have a word for this – Koroshi ‘death from overworking’.

What the Japanese have articulated and the Indigenous people of the world have observed as an integral part of their lives for thousands of years, is now being recognised and validated by western science.

A few years ago I discussed the phenomenon with Dr Michael YellowBird, a Native American academic and member of the three affiliated tribes. He believes all humans are predisposed to what he terms ‘environmental monogamy’. A process whereby we have a release of chemicals in the brain that have a positive effect when we are in nature.

Western science now tells us what happens are changes in the pre-frontal cortex (the executive function in the brain which manages the input of complex information, memory, problem solving, logic, reasoning etc) which is dialled down when we are in natural environments including the forest, sea and other natural open spaces. Mood changes, stress levels are lowered and we find renewed energy levels.

As the pace of urban life steadily increases and we are bombarded with technology, the simplicity of our natural environments have much to teach us.


Ainu Mosir 'Land of the human beings' - Japan's first people

An Ainu woman's lip tattoo is a rite of passage into adulthood.

An Ainu woman's lip tattoo is a rite of passage into adulthood.

The contemporary view of Japan is that it is among the world’s most homogenous societies with a strong sense of national identity and little or no ethic and cultural diversity. It has a very small percentage of foreign residents.

Ten years ago, following the 2007 United Nations declaration of rights for Indigenous people, Japan’s government officially recognised its first people - the Ainu – for the first time.

The Ainu have called the northern part of Hokkaido their homeland for over 30,000 years when it is thought that they crossed a land bridge from eastern Russia. Ainu Mosir literally means ‘the homeland of the people’ or ‘the land of the human beings’

First contact came with the Wajin or ethic Japanese who occupied the mainland island of Honshu in the 13th century.

Today there are an estimated 20,000 Ainu people.

Sakhalin Ainu men, photographed by  Bronisław Piłsudski

Sakhalin Ainu men, photographed by Bronisław Piłsudski

They have an oral tradition, their spiritual beliefs are centred around the worship of nature and the notion that everything has a spirit or god within. They are hunter gatherers and their traditional language is on the verge of extinction with an estimated 15 to 100 speakers.

Among the unique aspects of their culture is the place of the bear in their belief system as the sacred animal. Their appearance is distinctly different from other Japanese people. The men grow long beards and do not shave and the women have facial tattoos. There are also distinct physical differences in their body shape and facial features.

An Ainu leader circa 1880

An Ainu leader circa 1880

The Ainu culture, beliefs and lifeways share so many similarities with Indigenous people from other parts of the world. The recent recognition of their unique place in the Japanese identity may save the culture from extinction and will finally allow their identity to be promoted and shared with the rest of the world.

White blindfold or black armband ?

All cultures have a deep need to try and understand and interpret the past. While western cultures have tended to document past events in written form, Indigenous cultures share an oral or storytelling tradition in the way they interpret their history. Naturally, there is much debate about which form of interpretation is more accurate, reliable and valid.

In Australia, when we consider the historical experiences of Indigenous people since colonisation, this has led to wildly divergent views on both sides. Some of these views have been loosely termed the ‘white blindfold’, where there is a general denial of frontier violence against Aboriginal people because of a lack of documentation about such things as genocide, massacres, and the intent of government policy which denied Aboriginal people basic human rights and led to what we term the stolen generations.

The counter view may be termed the ‘black armband’ view of history which is characterised by the acknowledgement of colonial dispossession and cultural genocide. This view is characterised by admission of racism and imperialism and mourning, grieving and shame for the plight of Aboriginal people as their lands and lifeways were challenged and destroyed in the making of post-colonial Australia.

Both of these views of Australia’s recent history post 1788 deeply question the foundations of our nation’s identity and how we see our past. Today we have much to celebrate about our nation but we must also accept there are many wrongs to be acknowledged when it comes to our treatment of Indigenous people. It is what McKenna (1997) calls the fragmentation of our grand narrative.

The way history is recorded is often deeply flawed, whether written or oral is not just the documenting of events but in how these events are interpreted. Historiography – the methods historians use to report on a particular subject, the sources they use, the theoretical perspectives and their knowledge gathering techniques can contain deep biases. This means that in recording history, the past, even the recent past, remains a mystery. Whether we believe we view the past through a white blindfold or with a black armband is probably not relevant. It is how history shapes the present and our future that matters most.

Maybe it is time to view history differently.

The Iroquois seven generations principle applies perfectly to Australia’s current relationship to our Aboriginal people. Everything we do should be done to honour the three generations past, respect the present generation and in creating a better place for the three generations to come.

McKenna. M (1997), Different perspectives on black armband history, Research paper 5, Politics and Public Administration Group, Parliament of Australia


Life at the edge of the world

There are many places on this planet which test the absolute limits of human tolerance. The unifying experience of the peoples who call these places home is their Indigeneity. In the frozen artic: Inuktitiut cultures of Nunavik; the Eskimo Aleut of Siberia and Alaska; and, the Inuit of Greenland. In the searing deserts: the Bedouin of the Arabian peninsula; the Tuareg and Berbers of the Sahara; and, the Pintupi, Pitjantjatjara and Dieri of Australia’s western deserts.  

Life of Bedouin in Jordan 12.jpeg

At altitude: the Aymara highlanders living in the Andean Altiplano in South America; the Indigenous peoples of the Tibetan Plateau in Asia who live over 4,000 metres above sea level; and, the Amhara or Abyssinians who make their home at the highest elevations of the Ethiopian Highlands in East Africa.

Unlike most the world’s 370 million Indigenous population these people have not been pushed to their country’s geographic margins by colonisation. None of these places have ever been the target of colonisation and the inhabitants of these landscapes have lived there successfully and in tune with the forbidding environment for many thousands of years.

There is much debate about what exactly motivated prehistoric people to migrate to these remote and challenging places and for life to be sustained there. What is clear is that they have adapted both physiologically and culturally and despite the extremes, have much in common between their cultures and lifeways.

Life on the Tibetan plateau

Life on the Tibetan plateau

Most practice a nomadic existence because of the scarcity of food and natural resources and rely upon and revere the animals and plant life who share their worlds. They are all oral cultures and have deep and rich artistic traditions as diverse as poetry, song, dance, drawing and carving. They also have special celestial connections and the mysteries of space hold special meaning for all.

Dominant cultures in recent centuries have destroyed the lives and traditions of so many Indigenous groups. However, it is those who we find in environments at the very edge of human tolerances who have been able to preserve their lifeways, remaining largely untouched and providing an important alternative perspective in our world.

Poles apart

We often think about the Arctic and Antarctic regions as similar and while these polar edges of the planet have some similarities in terms of climate and geology, they could not be more different in so many other ways. They are literally poles apart.

The Arctic region has a series of ethnically diverse and well established Indigenous or Circumpolar cultures. An estimated 4 million people live in the Artic region and 13 million in the broader circumpolar area. An estimated 10% are Indigenous and comprise around 40 different ethnic groups spanning places like Russia, Northern Europe, Canada, Greenland and Alaska.

These peoples face common threats to their culture and traditional lifeways via globalisation and shifts in the effects of climate. They have traditionally relied on subsistence lifestyles centred around activities such as reindeer herding, hunting and fishing.

In contrast, the continent of the Antarctic was completely uninhabited by people throughout recorded history. It is the fifth largest continent on earth with twice the land area of Australia, the Antarctic has the highest average elevation of any continent and it is the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth.

It is the only place on earth with no evidence of an Indigenous population. First colonised in the late 19th century, it hosts a varying population of between 1,000 and 4,000 people who form a multinational scientific community.

The Antarctic is one of Australia’s near neighbours but to Australian people it remains probably one of the least understood places on earth. One of the reasons for this lack of engagement and enduring mystery may be the lack of an identifiable culture and people.

For me this highlights the important link of people and place. The place of Indigenous cultures in defining our geography with the rhythms of their lives and culture cannot be underestimated. Antarctica has none of this and the lack of an Indigenous people and culture means its history and sense of place seems sadly undefined.

The seven generations principle

Debate about the future of our world often centres around issues such as climate change, population growth in cities, food and water sustainability. We often hear reference to the legacy we will leave for future generations, however, our society tends not to evolve in most other ways with this in mind. Indigenous cultures around the world have placed this principle alongside the respect for what has come before as central to their thinking about the world they live in. In Native American culture this is often referred to as the ‘seven generations’.

The Great Law of the five nations of the Iroquois confederacy has three central ideas: peace; equity; and justice, referred to as ‘the power of the good minds’. It is a constitution and form of government that has endured for hundreds of years and still exists for the Iroquois people to this day. The reference to seven generations is part of this law.

The seven generations principle can mean different things and be interpreted in different ways. It is a concept that urges the current generation of humans to live and work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. It may have originated with the Great Law of the Iroquois - which urges that consideration be given to decisions, based on the impact seven generations ahead. Essentially it is a recognition and honouring of those who have come before and a respect for the world which will be inherited by future generations. This can also be interpreted as seven generations back and forward, three generations back and three forward and this current one in the middle. Or seven generations back or seven generations forward.



Between Australia and North America is the vast Pacific Ocean, containing half of the world’s free water with more surface area than all of the land masses combined. The ocean is home to just 0.03% of the world’s population. There are some of the greatest concentrations of Indigenous cultures who together speak one quarter of the world’s languages, despite suffering the ravages of European colonisation over the past two hundred years.

The 100,000 year old Diamond Head crater on Oahu.

The 100,000 year old Diamond Head crater on Oahu.

Hawaii sits at the edge of this vast ocean expanse as the northern tip of Polynesia. It is the most isolated island archipelago on earth. Archaeological evidence suggests the earliest human habitation of the islands occurred around 300CE, making it one of the last places on earth to be discovered by humans, and native Hawaiian culture to be the youngest Indigenous culture. Hawaiians have strong traditions of voyaging and deep connections to the sea. I will save that for a later post.

The current population of 1.4 million contains approximately 10% of native Hawaiians. Native Hawaiians are under-represented in white-collar professions and over-represented in service-oriented, low-status jobs. It is estimated that up to 30% of native Hawaiians are functionally illiterate.

Cultural factors have severely limited the educational success of Indigenous Hawaiians. There have been some positive developments in recent decades in an attempt to restore some balance. The 1978 constitutional amendment established Hawaiian as an official language. Hawaiian studies is now a subject in schools and a language immersion project introduced in the late 1980s combined Indigenous and traditional ways of learning.

The great contradiction is that to succeed in western education they are seen to be adopting western values and rejecting traditional Hawaiian culture.


Last contact ?

“Four wheels scare the cockatoos

From Kintore East to Yuendemu

The western desert lives and breathes

In forty five degrees”

(Midnight Oil, ‘Beds are Burning’ 1987)

Midnight Oil may not have been the first, but they are arguably the best Australian musicians to champion the cause of Aboriginal land rights. This song and the haunting ‘Dead Heart’ inspired me to trace some of the lyrics, which led me to the amazing story of the Pintupi nine.

While the first contact between Australia’s Indigenous people and the European colonisers is well documented, what is little known is the story of what was possibly the last contact. On October 13 1984, nine people walked out of the Gibson desert (near the WA and NT border) and effectively abandoned their traditional nomadic desert lifestyle. They were celebrated at the time by anthropologists and government officials as ‘the lost tribe’. They were in fact the last Aboriginal clan with direct memory of pre-contact Aboriginal culture dating back 40,000 years. And they collided with the twentieth century.

The clan who became known as the Pintupi nine.

The clan who became known as the Pintupi nine.

Their leader had perished after eating spoiled food from a can he found near an abandoned mining site. The remaining clan members had subsequently decided to try and find their other relatives and that journey ultimately led them into the modern world.

While the world they encountered wasn’t as hostile and confronting as the contact those first people must have experienced centuries before, it would change them forever. Most of the group while still alive today have been ravaged by the effects of a diet high in sugar and saturated fat that was so different to what they had known. Evaluated as having perfect health at the time of first contact, today they are afflicted with diabetes and heart disease. Some have died, one returned to the desert and remarkably, three have become successful artists.


The culture and language revitalisation currently going on in Alaska masks the very real and continuing challenges for its Indigenous people

Alaska is currently experiencing an extensive cultural and language revitalisation movement, which is evident in schools, government and in the media. Traditional place names are being recognised across the State, a prominent example being the official acknowledgement in August 2015 of Denali (Alaska and North America’s highest and best known mountain), which was previously known as Mt McKinley.

Denali, the highest mountain in the mainland United States.

Denali, the highest mountain in the mainland United States.

 The historical experience of the colonisation process is markedly different in Alaska than elsewhere in the United States. The often violent conflict that characterises the colonisation process did not happen in Alaska. The remote and isolated nature of the inhabitation of the state probably accounts for this. The discovery of oil, gold and other natural resources happened throughout the 20th century and had a profound impact on the lives of the Indigenous peoples. This process changed Alaska dramatically and probably permanently with the discovery of North America's largest oil field at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Coast in 1967. The access the outside world demanded to these resources stripped the management rights of the Indigenous peoples to hunt and fish on their own tribal lands.

Alaska has been occupied by Indigenous peoples for over 10,000 years. It was colonised by Europeans in the 18th century and ultimately purchased by the United States from Russia in 1867, becoming the 49th state in the union in 1959. 15% of the population of approximately 700,000 are Indigenous (US census, 2010).

 According to the Alaskan Native Language Centre, there are still 20 Indigenous languages being used in Alaska and approximately 5.2% of the population speak one of those languages. A Bill was signed in 2014 declaring these as official languages.

 Four of the 20 Indigenous languages are spoken by the Eskimo. The term Eskimo is still used extensively in Alaska but in Canada it has been replaced by Inuit and is considered a derogatory term.

An Inupiat family.

An Inupiat family.

 The indigenous peoples of Alaska include Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and a number of Northern Athabaskan cultures. They are often defined by their language groups. The Indigenous people of Alaska are more closely related in culture and lifeways to the First Nations and Inuit peoples of Canada and the Indigenous people of Eastern Siberia than the Indigenous tribes of the contiguous United States. Alaskan Natives are enrolled in federally recognised Alaska Native tribal entities, who in turn belong to Alaska Native Regional Corporations, who administer land and financial claims.

 The 1971 Native Claims Settlement Act overrides the sovereignty of the Indigenous Alaskans to their lands and extinguishes native land rights claims. This legislation created 12 Native regional economic development corporations. Critics argue that it hastened cultural genocide as Native stockholders sold land to outside corporations who have levelled forests and extracted minerals and oil. Conversely, supporters of the system argue that it has provided economic benefits for indigenous peoples that outweigh these consequences.

Alaska Natives have a lack of rights and independence compared to Native Americans and their lives and societies are impacted primarily by a range of federal laws. The various tribes effectively have no economic base and as a consequence are very dependent on welfare. Regrettably, the Indigenous population faces the same disparities across areas such as health, crime, education and social welfare that plague other Indigenous peoples in the western world.



Aboriginal cultural groups in Australia

Australia’s contrasting geography has created very different contexts for the dispositions and culture of its Aboriginal people. You may have heard references to saltwater or freshwater people. There are also other finer distinctions within these groups, referred to as desert, spinifex or rainforest according to the ecological environment of the tribe or clan.

Saltwater country

The sea is integral to Aboriginal concepts of country and identity. It incorporates spiritual beings and sacred sites that are fundamental to Aboriginal understandings of creation, ceremony and religion. It represents a continuum between Aboriginal culture in the distant past and contemporary coastal Aboriginal societies. All of these aspects of the relationship between Aboriginal people and the sea are reflected in the Aboriginal English terms ‘sea country’ and ‘saltwater country’. Saltwater people express their relationship to sea country in many forms, including art, dance, music and stories.

There has always been considerable diversity between the cultures of the hundreds of Aboriginal groups around Australia’s coasts. There are also many common factors that reflected the relationship of Aboriginal people to the sea. The fundamental social unit around most of coastal Australia was the extended family or ‘clan’. Clan membership was typically inherited from one’s father, but in some parts of Australia, clan membership was passed down through the maternal or matrilineal line.

For coastal clans their country always included the adjoining estuaries, beaches, coastal waters and ocean. Groups of clans speaking a common language formed a wider social group, sharing ceremonies, belief systems, technologies and subsistence strategies.

Like the land, saltwater country contained evidence of the Dreamtime events by which all geographic features, animals, plants and people were created. It contained sacred sites, often related to these creation events, and it contained tracks, or Songlines along which mythological beings travelled during the Dreamtime.

The clan members had a kin relationship to the important marine animals, plants, tides and currents. Most Aboriginal people with marine clan estates were coastal mainland dwellers. However, many lived exclusively or periodically on offshore islands, particularly off the Queensland, Northern Territory and Kimberly coasts. These island dwellers were particularly dependent on the subsistence resources of the sea and they maintained control of large marine estates radiating out from their island homes (National Oceans Office, 2004).

Desert country

Cultural differences between groups of Aboriginal people in Australia have evolved against the variations in the landscape. This system of major rivers and watercourses divides the continent of Australia into fifteen distinct areas.

The Western Desert cultural area extends over much of the interior of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and borders the Great Australian Bight to the south. The most significant common cultural feature of Aboriginal people living in the Western Desert area is the strategy used to exploit scarce water resources. After substantial rain, the populations disperse to the least reliable, short-lived water sources, far out in the plains.

The environmental differences which affect the way people obtain food and water also have a marked influence on the whole culture. As desert people have needed to travel to find available food and water, they have developed tools and weapons with multiple uses so that few need to be carried. Temporary shelter is built to be used briefly before being abandoned, so it is flexible and easy to construct.

Rainforest country

Prior to European settlement, the wet tropics rainforests in the north east of the continent were one of the most populated areas of Australia, and the only area where Aboriginal people of Australia lived permanently in the rainforest.

The rainforest environment provided everything - spirituality, identity, social order, shelter, food and medicine. Aboriginal people also had an excellent economic system in place that involved the bartering of resources among different tribal groups. The coastal lowlands were particularly productive and could sustain a relatively large population.  A rich array of plants and animals provided a steady food source as they travelled seasonally throughout the area.


My Fulbright experience

The Indian Ladder Trail: Thacher Park Albany, New York State. The location where Henry Hudson first traded with the Iriquois people.

The Indian Ladder Trail: Thacher Park Albany, New York State. The location where Henry Hudson first traded with the Iriquois people.


“Take only memories - leave nothing but footprints”

— Chief Seattle (Sealth) 1854

Western, non-Indigenous ontology and epistemologies dominate and underpin all of our knowledge, education and research processes. If we are to support Indigenous cultures in reclaiming their identity, values and traditions, the challenge is to find ways to incorporate and value their knowledges in education and career development - at all levels - by all educational institutions and organisations.

I have just returned to Australia after spending the latter half of 2015 in the United States as part of a Fulbright professional scholarship. This investigation focussed on an understanding of the core principles, values and techniques in education and career development processes that have been most successful for Native American people. I was able to make contact with tribal charter schools, universities, tribal colleges, government, the corporate sector and a range of leading Native American professional bodies.

I found that through the deeper exploration of ‘both ways’ or ‘two-ways’ learning, we can begin to better serve Indigenous people as adult learners in the western sense via the Indigenous and non-Indigenous domains that are compatible. We can do this by indigenising curriculum - finding appropriate entry points in any educational or learning experience where Indigenous knowledge or values can be shared by extension or additional perspectives. This might involve digital stories; examining and discussing cultural artifacts, field visits, stories from elders or even in approaches such as circle seating during classroom discussions.

What also emerged in this research is the need for ‘bridge people’, who can assist Indigenous people in navigating the education and career processes to achieve outcomes that align with their values and beliefs. One area where this is particularly challenging is in obtaining credit or recognition in western education programs for what we call informal learning experiences. For Indigenous people this might be volunteer work, community building, acquisition of traditional knowledge and even entrepreneurship. Some Indigenous people need the flexibility of an applied degree that leads to employment opportunities and not necessarily an academic pathway.

By examining the concept and process of circular thinking and comparing it to the linear thinking and planning that is the predominant mode of western institutions, we can see why Indigenous people find education and career in the western sense so challenging. We can also see how the philosophical approach of circular thinking can be integrated and blended to provide a more identifiable pathway for Indigenous people, and also a more enlightened and multi-dimensional learning experience for non-Indigenous people.

Circular thinking is a complex subject area and has many definitions and contexts. It is a world that moves and changes and is not reliant on facts or western science to explain how things are, will be or came to be. It is universe of flux chaos, with an orientation that examines multiple perspectives and time in the western sense is not a factor in driving one’s actions. It is a world where everything is related and connected in perpetual multi-dynamic harmony.

The circular approach to career means it is just one facet of life and it doesn’t define an Indigenous person in the same way that it can define the lives and identity of non-Indigenous people. There is a career planning context in the Indigenous sense. Elders advise young Native Americans to have a purpose; to identify their gifts and then to amplify them. This occurs via formal rituals such as ‘vision quest’ or more informally through guidance and mentoring.

Career in the Indigenous sense also means different things to men and women who have had very defined traditional roles in Native American communities. Accordingly, the careers they pursue today tend to follow those defined paths and gender expectations. Given the core value of support for community, careers in service roles such as education, health and social welfare appear to align most closely with Indigenous values.

I’m looking forward to turning these ideas into action and I welcome the opportunity to partner with educators and HR professionals who have an interest in better education and career outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

I would like to extend my thanks to the Australian American Fulbright Commission and the University at Albany for providing me with this life-changing opportunity. If you would like to know more or receive a copy of my report please contact me at:


P: + 61 438 237 011

Why Australia Day should also be Indigenous Peoples' Day

Last year I spent several months in the United States researching Native American cultures. I was there for Columbus day in October. It is intended as a celebration of the anniversary of Christopher Columbus arrival and the ‘discovery’ of America. To say Columbus discovered a place which was already home to 500 distinct tribal groups and over a million people is now surely an outdated concept.

Americans have been slowly rejecting this notion for a few decades now and Columbus Day has declined in popularity as a result. The parades that used to be a feature were often blocked by demonstrations from Native Americans in the 1990’s haven’t happened in most cities for many years.

The counter to Columbus day, which has rapidly gained momentum across the country (nine major cities were added in 2015), is the official move to also declare the day Indigenous Peoples day. In some States it is also referred to as Native American Day or American Indian Day.

For most Americans, the celebration of national pride and culture has shifted to Independence Day - the 4th of July.

It might be time for Australia to consider officially declaring the 26 January as our Indigenous peoples' day alongside Australia Day and acknowledging the 500 distinct tribal groups and estimated 500,000 people who called this land home for tens of thousands of years, before the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century.

I am not Aboriginal but I certainly understand the feelings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people who reject the celebration of the loss of their sovereign rights, their land, their languages, their families and culture. I am a proud Australian but I’m not proud of the way this country was taken and the way Aboriginal people have been treated. It might be time to reconsider what Australia day means to all of us.

What's in a name - sometimes a lot.

Like Australia, the United States has a very sports oriented culture and an important part of that culture is the team name and mascot. In the U.S. I have noticed many of the major teams have adopted mascots and team names which relate to Native American culture.

You have the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks and the most controversial of all, the NFL’s Washington Redskins. This one has been the subject of ongoing legal action as the term ‘Redskin’ is highly offensive and derogatory to Native American people.

The exact origins of the term are contested but to many Native Americans the term refers to the paying of a bounty for Indians and the ‘redskin’ was their bloody red scalp. It is interesting to observe the movement to address these names and it is estimated that 400 teams in U.S. high schools use the mascot of an Indian; 100 use brave; 74 warrior and 56 redskin. Native American people who oppose the mascots cite a violation of their intellectual property rights and see them as a misrepresentation of their culture. Those who want to use them say the intent is to honour the culture and that the mascots represent qualities such as strength, aggression and pride.

Where we differ in Australia is an almost complete absence of references to Aboriginal people and culture in our sporting teams in either name or mascot, at any level. There are a couple of teams who use the boomerang as a mascot but little other reference is made. 

Dharug - the Sydney language

The Dharug language is 5,000 years old. It was the first Aboriginal language heard by the European colonisers when they arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788. Dharug is the voice of the original inhabitants of the current Sydney metropolitan area in New South Wales.

Aboriginal language map of Sydney and coastal NSW, Horton (1996)

Aboriginal language map of Sydney and coastal NSW, Horton (1996)

Indigenous languages were oral languages and nothing was written down, so correct spelling is variable and explains why there are several word variations for Dharug which is also known as Dharak and Darag.

Dharug is the source of many words which have made their way into common usage today such as corroboree, koala, dingo, cooee, waratah and woomera. A wide range of place names and street names throughout the Sydney metropolitan area are derived from Dharug. These include: Kogarah, Mulgoa, Dural, Winmalee, Parramatta, Cammeray and Wahroonga.

Lieutenant William Dawes was an officer of the First Fleet. He is credited as the first major source of information about the Dharug language. Dawes was principally known as an astronomer and surveyor, however, he developed strong bonds with the Aboriginal people he encountered and an interest in orthography.  Dawes didn’t just record word lists but actively recorded conversations and the meanings of words in the Dharug language.

Lieutenant William Dawes (1762-1836). Drawing by Rod Blackford, date unknown. Commonwealth of Australia, Bureau of Meteorology

Lieutenant William Dawes (1762-1836). Drawing by Rod Blackford, date unknown. Commonwealth of Australia, Bureau of Meteorology

Eva Webb who died in 1970, was reportedly the last traditional Dharug speaker. Eva Webb’s grandson Richard Green has spent many years reclaiming the language for present generations. Over the past decade he has worked with the NSW Board of Studies to align the Dharug language with the languages studies syllabus. He began teaching Dharug at Chifley College in Western Sydney in 2007. At that time 23 per cent of students at the school were Aboriginal. He started with 10 students. By 2010 his program was expanded to an additional school, Doonside Technical High, and had more than 60 students including men and women attending his classes.

Green describes himself as a ‘songman’ and uses repetition and song to teach the language. His version of the language differs slightly from the original dialect and requires what Green terms ‘language engineering’, borrowing words and phrases from similar dialects and adding new words and modern context.


Austlang (2008), Australian Indigenous languages database, viewed 3 September 2015,

Dawes, W. (1790-91). Vocabulary of the language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney. (Native and English), by Dawes. London: School of Oriental and African Studies. Manuscript, Marsden Collection 41645b.

Dharug Daland (2011), University of NSW, viewed 3 September 2015,

Frawley W, (2004),   International Encyclopedia of linguistics, Oxford University Press.

Green R , (2010) Reclamation process for Dharug in Sydney using song, inJ Hobson, K.Lowe, S Poetsch & M Walsh, Re-awakening languages: Theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages, Sydney University Press.

Heimans F (2009), The changing shire – a Dhurug perspective,

Steele J (2005) The aboriginal language of Sydney: a partial reconstruction of the indigenous language of Sydney based on the notebooks of William Dawes of 1790-91, informed by other records of the Sydney and surrounding languages to c.1905, Thesis (MA)--Macquarie University (Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy. Warawara - Dept. of Indigenous Studies), 2005

Troy, J (1994). The Sydney Language. Canberra: Panther.


Sydney's oldest tree ?

A forest of Turpentine-Ironbark trees once populated the ridge which runs adjacent to Glebe Point Road in Glebe NSW. Today only one tree remains and it is claimed to be Sydney’s oldest tree outside the Botanical Gardens. The tree bears a distinctive scar, cut with a stone axe by the original owners of the land where St Johns Anglican Church now stands. The bark which has been removed was probably used as a shield or coolamon (a container to carry water, fruit or nuts).

Scarred trees such as this are an important artefact of Aboriginal culture once present in what are now highly urbanised areas. They stand as a visual reminder of the landscape before clearance and colonisation and they must be preserved.

A field manual for scarred trees has been developed by the NSW Government and can be found here:


Ray Minniecon from the Babana Aboriginal Men's Group and the scarred tree ministries, pictured with the tree in Glebe.

Ray Minniecon from the Babana Aboriginal Men's Group and the scarred tree ministries, pictured with the tree in Glebe.

Into the void

Take only memories - leave nothing but footprints
— Chief Seattle 1854

The largest city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States is named for the Native American Chief Seattle, also known as Sealth or Si’ahl (1786- 1866).  A visionary leader of the Duwamish tribe he is remembered for his dignified and noble defences of ecology and advocacy for Native American land rights. He worked with the colonisers to negotiate the best possible outcomes for his tribe in the face of the rapid sweep of population to the Pacific North following the onset of the maritime fur trade.

Sealth is reported to have made a profound impact on the colonisers of his country in his native Lushootseed language during a public address with the State Governor in 1854. There is also controversy over the translation of a letter he wrote to the U.S. President a year later. Although his exact words may have been diluted in translation his message on behalf of his people calling for restraint and respect for the land is clear.

In 1993, Sealth’s vision was captured by one of Seattle’s seminal grunge bands Soundgarden who covered Black Sabbath’s song “into the void”, replacing the original lyrics with Sealth’s words.

All things are bound together - all things connect (Chief Seattle 1854)

All things are bound together - all things connect (Chief Seattle 1854)

To read a transcript of Chief Seattle's letter, visit:

To read a transcript of his speech, visit:

Cultural mentoring

Cultural mentoring works on the same principles as ‘reverse mentoring’ or ‘mentoring up’ which has been popularised in the corporate sector where experienced or older executives are paired with and mentored by younger employees on topics such as technology, social media and current trends. The notion is that while the executive is well versed in the business, the younger staffer can enlighten them on current trends and stimulate their creative thinking. Reverse-mentoring is seen as a way to engage older employees in areas that are often second nature to 20-something employees, whose lives have been more deeply integrated with computers and the Web.

Mentoring Simon has been a two way experience for me. He has taught me a great deal about Aboriginal culture and identity.

Mentoring Simon has been a two way experience for me. He has taught me a great deal about Aboriginal culture and identity.

In the case of cultural mentoring, organisations might engage Indigenous elders and community leaders to mentor executives about Aboriginal culture. They share first hand cultural experiences and knowledge, as it relates to organisational and community engagement with Aboriginal people. It can also work slightly differently within an organisation where suitable Aboriginal employees are used to mentor executives along the same lines as the ‘reverse mentoring’ model above.


A cultural outsider's view of Country

We are all immigrants in this country. Except the first people.

Most of us love this country, have a love of country and of place but country means something else entirely to Aboriginal people.

I grew up in Port Stephens on the mid-north coast of NSW. For me it is the special place. The smell of the ocean, the green landscape that frames the inner harbour, the whiteness of the fine grained sand. I have lived in Sydney’s inner city for the past twenty five years and that also has a special sense of place for me. Whenever I am away I think about the parklands, the hum of the traffic the bustle of the people….

Soldiers Point, Port Stephens NSW.

Soldiers Point, Port Stephens NSW.

But Indigenous people all over the world have a deeper relationship with their country. A relationship I will never fully experience and barely understand. For Aboriginal people in the far north of the country it is Kujika – songlines from the earth, meditations. They ‘speak to country’ as kin and sense the spirits of their ancestors in country. They see the mountains, the sea, the flora and fauna as kin. Country to Aboriginal people means a spiritual connection to land, evolving from the stories of the creation of people who live on that land. Aboriginal people believe the creator ancestors put Indigenous people on earth to look after the land. The ongoing maintenance of the land, of country, is essential to their health and their identity.

Language and identity

Your native language is your life.

Language is a living, breathing organism which defines cultures. It expresses a relationship with the natural environment. It is a cultural artefact.

Multi-linguism gives us more ways to look at the world, to think and understand, it improves abstract thinking, attention spans and focus.

Of the 7,000 known languages in the world just 6% are spoken by 94% of the world’s people. At the other end of the spectrum there are 133 languages spoken by just 10 people or less.

The three dominant languages are:

Mandarin (845 million speakers)

Spanish (329 million speakers)

English (328 million speakers)

China is now the world’s largest English speaking country. The greatest threat to language is globalisation and an English speaking mania which is sweeping the globe because of its promise of success and employment. 

Australia has 245 distinct language groups, 212 of which are Indigenous languages.

When a language is lost it has a profound impact on people’s identity, cultural values and self-worth. Our history of colonisation has produced a graveyard of languages. 

In the colonising of Australia, the Aboriginal people and the Europeans used a hybrid dialogue to communicate. From the beginning of the 20th century in some remote communities, this pidgin dialect became the mother tongue and a creole (Kriol) language which is an Aboriginal dialect of English, is now spoken by Aboriginal people throughout the Northern Territory.


Source: Lewis M (eds) (2015) Ethnologue:languages of the world, Dallas, SIL International.



Defining Indigeneity

There are 370 million indigenous people who represent 5% of the world’s population, according to the United Nations report State of the world’s Indigenous peoples (2009).


That report notes that there is no formal accepted definition of indigeneity.

Definitions of Indigeneity and Aboriginality are complex and challenging for government and even among Aboriginal people themselves. In Australia, there is a trend in government to use the term Indigenous, however, some Aboriginal people prefer to be referred to as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, as the term Indigenous can refer to any first peoples anywhere in the world

What we can say is that Indigeneity links people to place, as cultural rights don’t expire and can’t be taken away. A common thread also exists among all Indigenous cultures in the collective responses the people have to one another and the importance of community and co-operation. This contrasts with the Western European world view which prizes individual success and achievement, resulting in security for the successful and leaves those at the margins often in the care of the State.