Serene O'Halloran describing how the succulent plant Pigface can be eaten as a green vegetable.
Image: Nicole Alley
Source: Museum Victoria
During NAIDOC Week, Australia celebrates the culture, history and achievements of Aboriginal and Islander people. This week, Museum Victoria's Indigenous staff are sharing their knowledge and experience with visitors in a series of special programs. The Milarri Garden cultural tours are conducted by three Indigenous staff members who explain the bounty of resources found in this part of Australia.
On the first of two tours, participants were treated to a truly sensory experience as they munched on spicy Mountain Pepper leaves, sniffed Stinkwood and played with an animal-skin football.
John Duggan explained the different types of shields used in combat and how they were skilfully constructed with stone tools. John showed a beautiful spearhead and knife that he had knapped from stone, the knife bearing a handle of kangaroo claw. His demonstrations of natural glues and binding techniques illustrated how materials were combined to make the tools.
Will Patten explained the biology and cultural significance of eels as he fed them a pungent mix of mealworms and cat food. He advised strongly against trying to feed eels, describing their “sandpaper teeth that hang on with a jaw-lock”. Milarri Garden pond contains eels that are accustomed to their human keepers, but even they receive a nip occasionally.
Serene O’Halloran described the deep knowledge held by Indigenous people about the properties of the plants in their environment. Whether medicine, food, poison or tool, virtually every plant in Milarri Garden has valuable qualities. “The bush is like a supermarket,” said Serene. “You just need to know what you’re looking for.”
Tour participants were amazed at how each plant is used for very particular purposes. Many plants offer more than one use; for example, common reeds have edible tuberous roots, stems that make sturdy spear shafts, and leaves used in weaving.
Knowing what is and isn’t safe to use is important too. Serene explained that Burke and Wills became ill after eating the aquatic fern Nardoo because they didn’t know how to make it edible. This sort of knowledge was as critical to Indigenous life in Victoria as the ability to make fire. Serene noted that “any man or woman can make fire in two minutes, so long as they have the right tools,” Not any old stick will do – it must be the soft stem of a grass tree, a hard drill stick made from Austral Mulberry, and a handful of dry grass or stringybark.
Full details of all NAIDOC Week activities at Melbourne Museum are listed on the Bunjilaka website.