Muttonbirding – Where To From Here?

We, as an Aboriginal community, have to be realistic in our outlook about the issues that we are facing in regard to the Muttonbird Season and what it means to us today.

Maybe many of the answers to why birding is where it is at today, especially in relation to our younger generation, stem from when some of our families left Cape Barren and Flinders Island years ago and moved to mainland Tasmania.

This decision to relocate was not from choice but rather from pressures brought to bear by the government. It would have been a painful decision and a very hard choice to make but there was no escaping the fact that the move, for those particular families, was necessary in order to survive within a system that did not cater to the needs of our people who lived on the islands. The cost of living became a huge financial burden on every household, especially those where young families were involved.

The only solution that a lot of our people could see was to move away to where the cost of survival would not be such a burden on the family and where there was easier access to the workforce. Another attempt at genocide?

When those of our community, who moved from the islands, settled into urban lifestyle the urge and the need to go birding was still very strong. Many of our community kept up the tradition but for others it didn't prove that easy. For those of our people who were out there in the workforce harsh ultimatums were being given, such as – 'If you go, don't bother coming back' or 'Your job won't be here when you get back.' This really didn't leave much of a choice, especially when those particular community members were supporting families.

It is important to remember that when the muttonbird season was in full swing all those years ago, through to when families started to move away, a big percentage of our people who went birding lived on Cape Barren and Flinders Island. Even after the move, birding was still a major part of their life, that is until, outside pressures started forcing changes.

Many of those changes were due to enforced government policies, mainly within the Departments of Education and Health.

Long before the 40's, the school on Cape Barren Island used to close for the duration of the bird season, which at that time was a six week period. This does not apply today.

The schools on Flinders Island didn't close for the bird season but allowances were made for Aboriginal children to go muttonbirding with their families. Even during the early 80's, the Flinders Island Disrict High School made provision for those of our young ones who were going birding with their parents. Each child was given a set amount of school work that was spread out over the four week period of the bird season. Of course this is not heard of today and, imagine, would not be tolerated by the Department of Education.

Health Department regulations varied from time to time as is noted in Muttonbirds of Bass Strait (1956) and The Birders (1978). It was stated in the second video that the Willis Shed on Big Dog Island was up to the health standards that were required back then.

The health regulations that are now imposed on the bird sheds, in relation to processing standards, is at such a high level that the costs incurred for shed owners is huge considering that the bird season only goes for a four week period each year. The way that our people process muttonbirds hasn't changed and catering to the needs of the various markets is not a problem but due to all the overhead costs now involved one nearly has to be a 'rich black' to be a shed owner.

Social and environmental changes in our life are proving to be a burden in many ways and the majority of our young people are growing up in the broader mainstream of today's society.

The restrictions that were, and still are, imposed on our people in the effort to retain one of our existing cultures, was and still is, just one of the many battles that we have faced, and are still facing today, in the struggle for our Identity.

It is important to remember that though we, as an Aboriginal community, are facing what look like unsurmountable barriers in relation to keeping the muttonbird season alive, we will continue in our struggle to overcome these problems.

No matter what, this part of our culture will always remain alive within us.

The comparisons between then and now may well be too big a gap to span, which indeed leaves us with the old cliché, 'where to from here'.