In what had to be the most moving ceremony of the MyState Australian Wooden Boat Festival 2017, a Tasmanian Aboriginal man paddled quietly into Sullivans Cove on the morning of the first day to open the festival and connect us all to a culture of wooden boat building that long pre-dates European arrival. As an island people, Tasmanian aborigines relied on watercraft for hunting, for transport and for ceremony. They made these boats with the materials to be found in the Tasmanian bush and a heritage of traditional skills and knowledge passed down through many generations. Traditional boat builder Sheldon Thomas collected the cork weed, bark and made the rope that lashed the craft together. Helped by members of his family and his community, he built a strong, stable, seaworthy craft of simple beauty that captured the attention of thousands of festival-goers.
Witnessed by scores of international visitors from the USA, the Netherlands, New Zealand as well as hundreds of Hobart families, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community did us the great honour of a moving welcome to their traditional lands. Carrying a smoking firestick to represent the cleansing of the festival site and moving to the haunting sound of Dewayne Everettsmith’s song in the language of his people, a procession of elders and family members entered Parliament House Lawns. Family elder Auntie Brenda spoke a heartfelt message of welcome and respect for all those who have gone before. Chairman Steve Knight accepted the firestick and was joined by Premier Will Hodgman, MyState MD Melos Sulicich and Dutch Deputy Ambassador Arthur den Hartog to mark the occasion.
‘I felt very much honoured by what Sheldon and his extended family did for us’, said general manager Paul Cullen. ‘We have huge respect for the long tradition of boat building that Sheldon has chosen to pass on and the knowledge that comes with it. These are no flimsy craft, these are beautiful canoes of strength and grace. Personally, I was fascinated to learn just a little about how they are made. There is not a piece of metal, adhesive, artificial binding or plastic in it. It is all made by hand from found materials and I have no doubt you could paddle it from here to Bruny Island and back again, as Sheldon’s ancestors would have done. This has great resonance for a festival of wooden boats; here is where the tradition started.’