Blackboys, Squaw Vine and History: Who Gets to Write the Story?

While visiting family in Fremantle (Freo to locals), Australia outside Perth, we got to observe Australia Day on Saturday January 26. Why January 26? It marks the date in 1788, when a fleet of 11 British ships carrying convicts sailed into Botany Bay, effectively founding Australia.  January 1, 1901 marks the beginning of the federation of Australia. By 1935, January 26 was known as Australia Day in all states except New South Wales, where it was still called Anniversary Day. It wasn’t until 1994 that the January 26 date was celebrated throughout the country, However, the Aboriginal Australians see the celebration of colonization as the shattering of their heritage. They’ve been working to change the date to create a more inclusive event weaving both histories together into one celebration. Several observations regarding culture became evident during our visit.

A Nyoongar Smoking Ceremony was held on the 27th as an alternative to the colonization theme. This ceremony is used to welcome visitors, cleanse an area energetically and to show respect for people both living and in spirit. The Nyoongar is the language of the local Aboriginal families (the Whadjuk people) who were part of a larger group that existed in the South-West of Western Australia (WA) for more than 50,000 years.

At 8 am on the day after the Australia Day we took a train to Freo and walked down to the beach to observe the ceremony. As we rounded the corner, we saw smoke drift out over the bay and heard the didgeridoo carry its thrumming sound over the waves.  There was a large crowd gathered round on the stairs and patio leading down to the beach. We were able to get close enough to hear and see the various speakers who were a combination of local elders and activists.  They spoke movingly of their desire to have equal opportunities and respect for their history and sacrifices. Australia still struggles with their past treatment of the indigenous population. However, I believe they are further along in the process of reconciliation than we are in the States. There were calls for continuing the push to change the date of Australia Day in addition to supporting other recommendations of the local Reconciliation Board. Compared to the Aussies, we in the States are only in the beginning of discussions about perceptions of history, who gets to write the story and the truth that there is more than one story to be told. History may be written by the “winners” but that is one sided and incomplete.

Another similarity in cultures is noted in the common names assigned to plants. In the States we have a plant that used to be called Squaw Vine (Mitchella repens) but is now called Partridge Berry since squaw is a derogatory term. It was used by Native American women to help with menstrual cycles and  urination as well as being used as both a tonic and an astringent, conditions for which we still use Partridge Berry today.

In Australia, there is a tree called Blackboys. As in the States, it’s considered a derogatory term. Specimens have been known to live up to 600 years and thrives with periodic wildfires which stimulate flowering. Grasstree (Xanthorrhoea australis) is now the common name. The bark contains a resin used in spear-making and as an adhesive to patch leaky water containers. The dried flower stalk scape is used to generate fire and nectar from the flowers gives a sweet-tasting drink.

People give common names to plants based on characteristics of the plant, its uses (Horny Goat Weed anyone?), its effects on the body.  So many ways to label something depending upon one’s perspective. Regardless of what we call it, it’s still a plant: pretty or odd, stinky or sensual, bristly or soft. Our approach to giving common names to herbs reveals more about us and our culture than them. The same is also true about how we label ourselves and others: the labels we use often tell us more about ourselves than the object being described. Being mindful of how we name ourselves and others is the first step.



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