Traditional Hunting, Fishing and Gathering in Australia

882. Traditional Hunting and the Law. Traditional Aborigines have been regarded as the sole surviving representatives of hunters and gatherers in Oceania.[1459] Bush food continues to form part of the diet of many Aboriginal people outside urban areas. But traditional hunting and fishing activities are not concerned only with subsistence. The close relationship between economic activities and the law has often been described. Sackett suggests that for Aboriginal people at Wiluna:

Hunting ties the past to the present, but is not simply a survival of some prior subsistence gambit … Most importantly it is an aspect of the law. As such it offers a venue through which certain men can and do display concern for the belief system … Just like ritual, hunting affords men the opportunity of making claims regarding their position and right to authority in the group … To hunt, then, is, as with ritual participation, to follow the Law, demonstrate its great potency, and guarantee its continuance.[1460]

It was the law, in the full customary sense, that linked the use of land and sea with the spiritual maintenance of that land and sea through ritual.[1461] Rituals to maintain the land and replenish the food supply were thus an important part of traditional life.[1462] Altman says of the Gunwinggu:

Many of the rites performed at rituals, particularly at the currently prevalent Gunabibi ritual cult, involve the enactment of totemic dances that are explicitly linked to a concern with the reproduction of certain animal species … At ceremonies men share esoteric knowledge about animals’ secret names, subsection terms and kinship categories. This male ritual concern has a secular corollary in the maintenance of the men’s hunting economy: for it seems reasonable to argue that were links not conceptualised between the increase elements of ceremonies and the exploitation of game, then ceremonial focuses would have altered. When game is fat, healthy and abundant, men often state explicitly that this was proof of powerful bisnis (ceremony).[1463]

883. Management of Natural Resources. As an aspect of this care and responsibility for land Aborigines were careful to regulate the use of its natural resources. For example, according to TGH Strehlow the important ceremonial places of the Aranda had:

a sacred cave or tree storehouse for the local sacred objects and consequently its immediate environs constituted a prohibited area, whose edge was generally about a mile (or even more) from the sacred cave. Within these sacred precincts all hunting and food gathering was forbidden. Even wounded animals could not be pursued into this forbidden zone which would be entered only for ceremonial purposes.[1464]

As Maddock points out, these rules forbidding hunting near ceremonial sites in effect created game sanctuaries, and it was not only barren land and waters that were regulated in this manner:

The main waterhole of Japalpa remained a game reserve for fish, ducks, and all kinds of water birds, and so did the banks of the Finke along the first two miles of ponds at Irbmangkara. Again many of the finest waterholes in the Macdonnell Ranges provided inviolable sanctuaries for kangaroos, emus, and native animals of every kind.[1465]

Anthropologists cite examples of traditional conservation practices, including trees germinated in coastal regions being transplanted close to inland camp sites,[1466] of yams being replanted,[1467] the rotation of fishing areas[1468] and the controlled use of fire.[1469] Evidence given during the Jawoyn Land Claim indicated that the return of Aboriginal people to their land had enabled conservation practices to be resumed.[1470]

884. Customary Rules and Prescriptions. Strict rules governed not only the taking of certain species but also the consumption and distribution of food.[1471] A person’s age, status and sex had a bearing on his right to take certain species. At Mornington Island, the Commission was told that the community wished to continue to punish people for breaches of the following laws relating to food taboos:

  • a person cannot eat an animal, fruit or vegetable if it is their own totem;

  • pregnant women and young women must eat the right food as directed by the elders.[1472]

Athol Chase provides the following example:

[I]n parts of Cape York dugongs could be approached, killed and eaten only by older initiated men. For women, youths and children even to be in contact with water which had dugong grease floating on it meant that they would become very ill. People. in these categories could not even touch equipment to be used in hunting dugongs for fear that illness and misfortune would result.[1473]

Defined rules for the distribution of food were important for the building of reciprocal obligations. RM Berndt comments that:

The field of economics … is not concerned only with obtaining food. It must be seen in reference to a network of obligations, of reciprocal relations, either indirect or direct, and involving intangible as well as tangible commodities, services as well as goods. It must be seen, too, in terms of persons of both sexes doing things for others according to the ‘rules’, and for social as well as personal reasons, with expectations of some kind of a return always in mind. Even within the immediate sphere of food collection, it was never simply that women obtained one kind of thing, men another; even if it were so, religious elements must also be taken into account … In one way or another, it was men and women in co-operation who formed the basis of traditional economic systems.[1474]

885. Continued Importance of Traditional Hunting, Gathering and Fishing Rights. Aborigines have had to adapt to change and outside influence, including the payment of welfare benefits in cash and the introduction of rations and store-bought food. Nonetheless, especially in more remote areas, hunting, foraging and fishing continue to be of economic and ritual importance, despite the impact of commercial interests.[1475] In many cases hunting and fishing practices have incorporated new materials. Nylon fishing nets may have replaced those made of bush fibre, fencing wire may be converted into hooks for fishing spears, guns may very often replace spears, aluminium dinghies are used instead of dugouts, crowbars as digging sticks and car springs as adzes. Yet wooden digging sticks, traditional fishnets and traps, spears, harpoons and natural products such as bloodwood leaves for poisoning fish are still used.[1476] Aborigines have become accustomed to newly introduced species in their diet.[1477] More fundamentally, material aspirations and internal conflicts (e.g. between young and old) have placed pressures on traditional values such as sharing. Changes to the traditional economy, for example the introduction of shop bought foods, have resulted in fundamental shifts in the economic and social roles of men and women.[1478]

In Aboriginal Australia before white settlement, women worked constantly and that contribution made them indispensable to their men folk. Rations relieved women of the burden of food — getting but made them primarily someone’s wife and mother. Today women have no security as independent producers but are dependent on social security payments which entail relationships over which they have no control.[1479]

Despite all these changes, it is clear that hunting, gathering and fishing are of continuing importance in the lives of many Aborigines. Airman concludes his analysis of the impact of outside influence on the Gunwinggu of North Australia in the following words:

The hunter-gatherer economy is resilient … but its Achilles’ heel is its vulnerability to the presence of large population concentrations. The eastern Gunwinggu economic system has shown remarkable resilience in adapting to changed circumstances following European colonisation. In previous countless millennia, Gunwinggu had extremely limited external contacts. But in the past twenty to thirty years, they have created an economic system, that incorporates important elements of the traditional cultural and economic systems, yet is enmeshed with a complex set of relations with the alien market economy and welfare State. This situation has been possible because, rather than just responding to changed circumstances, Gunwinggu have created their own economic and social environment, within the structural limitations placed on their lifestyle.[1480]

Not all remote communities have been able to demonstrate the resilience of the Gunwinggu, and the experience has varied enormously. Empirical studies demonstrate this divergence, but also show how traditional hunting and fishing remain important to many Aboriginal groups.[1481] Further studies have documented the nutritional composition of Aboriginal bush foods and have demonstrated that traditional Aborigines continue to use an extraordinarily wide range of plants and fish for different purposes.[1482] In doing so they indicate a considerable depth of knowledge of natural resources.[1483]

886. The Evidence of Land Claims Hearings. Evidence of Aboriginal reliance on bush food is important in land claims under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth). A key feature of the definition of ‘traditional Aboriginal owners’ in s 3(1) of that Act, and one that must be established before the Commissioner can recommend a grant of land under the Act, is the requirement that the ‘local descent group’ must be ‘entitled by Aboriginal tradition to forage as of right over that land’. Referring to this aspect of the definition, the then Aboriginal Land Commissioner (Justice Toohey) found that at Roper Bar:

There was certainly evidence of a wide range of activities falling within such a broad definition. As well as the hunting of kangaroo, bush turkey, goanna, porcupine and the gathering of sugarbag, yams, berries and various fruits, and fishing in the Roper River, there is regular activity on the claim area to seek out materials for artifacts. Coolamons, didgeridoos, boomerangs, woomeras, spears, pipes and stone knives are made by the claimants. Some are decorated and sold through Mimi Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Pty Ltd in Katherine. Others are used in the daily and ritual life of the claimants. One of the places visited in the course of site inspections, Burunngu, was pointed out as a particularly good source of a certain type of pandanus leaf, suitable for making baskets … In the end it is unnecessary for me to decide whether the word ‘forage’ can be given so broad a meaning as to include all these activities. The Act is concerned with entitlement to forage rather than with foraging itself, though the latter may well be the best evidence of the former. There was evidence from witnesses for both estates that people other than the traditional owners of the land may and do come onto that land to fish and search for food.[1484]

Evidence of the importance of traditional fishing has also been brought in applications for sea closures in the Northern Territory.[1485] During the course of the Western Australian Aboriginal Land Inquiry, the Commissioner, P Seaman QC was presented with evidence of the importance of Aboriginal hunting and fishing in Western Australia. He concluded:

It is clear from the hearings that kangaroo hunting is an important part of South West Aboriginal life. I accept that it is more than a recreation, being a significant source of meat for many Aboriginal families, and a significant expression of their feeling for land and culture which they have lost. They might find it much more difficult to establish traditional hunting and fishing rights than Aboriginal people in more remote areas.[1486]

887. Some Quantitative Data. There is little quantitative data that reliably demonstrates the significance of bush foods today. It has been said that the ‘true extent of use/or non-use of bush foods is unknown’.[1487] However three recent detailed studies quantitatively measure the modern significance of bush food.[1488] Altman’s study at Momega Outstation found that bush foods constituted 81% of the protein, and 46% of the kilo calories consumed. In all some 90 faunal species and 80 plant species were taken for food.[1489] Meehan’s detailed study, concentrating primarily on the role of shellfish in the diet of the Anbarra taken over an entire year, produced similar results.[1490] Speaking of these studies Young has stated that:

… the only communities which would show similarly low levels of dependence on purchased foods would be the outstations associated with Yirrkala, Galiwin’ku and Aurukun, and in all cases these contain well under half the total Aboriginal population. In all the other case-study communities — in the Kimberleys, the central desert and the centralised communities of northern regions — store food accounts for most of people’s nutritional intake. While there are no detailed analyses of the exact contributions of purchased foods in such places, it can be assumed that it exceeds 80 percent, and in places well over 90 per cent.[1491]

Another way of assessing the significance of bush food is to quantify its value in monetary terms. After valuing the subsistence food production at Momega Outstation at market replacement value, Altman concluded that:

Quantifying production for use in this way gives a more accurate representation of the Momega outstation economy, for about 64 percent of total cash and imputed income came from subsistence production. In other words quantification of hunting, fishing and gathering activities indicated that subsistence production was the mainstay of the economy. Only 26 percent of total income (but 72 percent of cash income) came from social security payments; and 10 percent of total income (and 28 percent of cash income) came from production of artefacts for market exchange.[1492]