Aboriginal heroes of fire, flood and food

The image was drawn by William Todd, a colonist on Wadawurrung Country in 1835 at Indented Head, who wrote: By the end of the first week we had run out of food and depended on the food gathered by the Aboriginal women. From the Federation University Australia Historical Collection.

The stories of Aboriginal heroes who helped shape Victoria's history are being illuminated through a project that will use film and digital mapping to chronicle acts of heroism in relation to fire, flood and the search for food.

Federation University historian, Associate Professor Fred Cahir, is collaborating with Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, historians and historical societies on the research project Aboriginal Heroes of Fire, Flood and Food to create the first comprehensive map highlighting these acts of heroism from 1800 to 1930.

The project has uncovered stories from across Australia about Aboriginal people saving non-Aboriginal communities during bushfires, floods and famines.

Associate Professor Cahir says his own experiences in the bush, including a near-catastrophic incident 30 years ago when he ran out of food and water while long-distance cycling on the Nullarbor Plain, sparked his interest in bush survival.

"I started exploring how to survive in the bush, and I was finding many accounts of white people being rescued by Aboriginal people, whether it was from bushfire – which happened frequently – being lost, or people being rescued from flooded rivers or shipwrecks," Associate Professor Cahir said.

This includes Aboriginal people reportedly saving people's lives in Rutherglen, in Victoria's northeast, during the 1870s fires that devastated the region. The Rutherglen residents had been warned about the large bush fire engulfing the area and fled.

In Gippsland's Orbost district, an Aboriginal man was reported to have rescued a sick colonist during floods by making a canoe out of a sheet of bark, placing the sick man in it and swimming through the turbulent waters, towing the canoe and the man to safety.

"Another instance that really jumped out at me was the report of a grazier taking his cattle to a market, but he needed to get these 4,000 head of cattle across the Murray River, but the cattle refused to cross the river," Associate Professor Cahir said.

"He ended up asking the local Aboriginal people in the area if they could help with their canoes – there was a fleet of about 20 of them that he recorded – and they used their canoes to successfully get his cattle across the river.

"Here's an example of Aboriginal people saving someone not from physical danger but from economic peril – the farmer would have been bankrupted if he had not got these cattle to the market."

Associate Professor Cahir is finding the records in comprehensive archives, including TROVE, the National Library of Australia's digitised collections from Australian libraries, universities, museums and galleries. He has also found records in archival repositories in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.

The project aims to bring together stories like these in an accessible format through the digital map and a documentary film and book. The final resource will be used by schools, cultural heritage tourism providers and the broader community.

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Wind and Sky and data technologists from Federation University's Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation (CeRDI) will collaborate on the project. The research is funded by Telematics Trust, which aims to transform lives through education and training for the cultural, social and economic benefit of Victorians.

"We hope this research will challenge the dominant narratives and understandings of Australian settler-colonial history, revealing shared history stories in a culturally sensitive way," Associate Professor Cahir said.

"The significant contribution of Aboriginal people to Victoria's history isn't well known within the broader Victorian community and we hope this project can help change that."

People can contribute to the research by contacting Associate Professor Fred Cahir: f.cahir@federation.edu.au.

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