Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Bunya Festivals

A famous food of Aboriginal Australians, the high calorie, nutritious bunya nuts, ripen every year in high summer. Before white settlement, the trees grew in great forests stretching from the Sunshine Coast westwards to the place now known as the Bunya Mountains. The harvest varied from year to year, but approximately every three years there was a glorious over-supply.
Aboriginal people used to take advantage of seasonal events resulting in a greater food supply than local people could consume. Suddenly, they had the ability to feed a crowd, so they would invite their neighbours in. As with the Bogong moth hatchings down south and the winter mullet runs in Moreton Bay, the ripening of the bunya nuts enabled tribes from the Bunya territories to host large gatherings. Their guests came from as far away as the Carnarvon Ranges, Moreton Island, the Clarence River Valley, New England, and the Maranoa district.
At the bunya festivals, corroborees (songs, stories and dances, often by famous composers) were performed, religious ceremonies held, trading done and law cases settled. They were an important mainstay of pre-white culture in this district.
The last substantial bunya festival in southern Queensland was probably the one of 1875, at Mt. Mowbullan. After this date, the exploitation of timber on the northern edge of the Darling Downs meant that the remaining bunya trees no longer provided their previous largesse. This happened at a time when the Aboriginal population of the local tribes and of their traditional guests had dropped sharply, and cultural practices were dropping out of use
Smaller gatherings persisted until at least 1903, but the great days of the bunya festivals were over.

Historical accounts of the festivals differ in matters of detail.
For example, estimates of the number of people attending festivals in the Mowbullan area range from 5000 - an estimate made in the 1840s - to an 1870 estimate of 20,000.
There is also not complete agreement as to just which tribe, or sub-tribal groups, hosted the festivals. There were even different accounts of whether Aborigines would cut notches in the trees to help them climb up to pick the unripe cones, with their succulent nuts, or whether this was regarded as a shocking practice, harmful to the tree.
These discrepancies can probably be explained by the fact that the period, during which the white newcomers to the land recorded what they knew of the bunya festivals, was a time of great change for the original aboriginal owners of the land. Apparently contradictory "facts" may simply reflect this change.
The first accounts of  “Bunya Mountains” and the festivals held there refer not to the place which is currently known by that name, but to the district near Maleny which we now call the Blackall Range. In the days of early white settlement the coastal tribes went to a meeting place  on Obi Obi Creek Their festival hosts were members of the Gubbi Gubbi tribe. However the Gubbi Gubbi were driven out of those particular "Bunya Mountains" between 1838, when Brisbane was opened to free settlers, and 1861. All the larger bunya trees had been cut down by 1866.

Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales (which in those days included all of what is now Queensland) attempted to prevent the process by declaring the bunya-growing areas out of bounds for timbergetting in 1842, thereby creating an unofficial safe zone where Aboriginal people could continue their traditional activities. However it was reported that the timbergetters themselves resented and largely ignored the new law. The area was still being fiercely defended fiercely by Aboriginal people in 1845 or 1846 when fourteen-year-old Tom Petrie attended a bunya festival there, but this state of affairs may not have lasted for much longer.
In 1860 the new governor of the new colony of Queensland, Sir George Bowen, pleased his local constituents, all white men of course, by repealing the law. He reported in 1861 that Aboriginal people had been completely cleared out of the Blackall Range district. Perhaps the reason it was done so quickly was that, by then, there were few Aboriginal people left there to defend what remained of their precious bunya trees?
Many of the them would have been killed, but no doubt there were others who sought new territory where they could continue to live their traditional lifestyle in peace. Meanwhile those far-flung travellers whose habit it was to attend the bunya festival in the Blackall Range probably adapted to the change, going where the trees survived and the nuts continued to provide a triennial feast.  "Our" Bunya Mountains (the ones now in the Bunya Mountains National Park) would almost certainly have received an increased number of triennial visitors. They may even have changed hands as displaced Gubbi Gubbi people sought a new homeland and tribal borders shifted accordingly.

For us, it means that truly accurate knowledge of Aboriginal activities in the Bunya Mountains, before the area's invasion by the white newcomers, may be lost to us forever.


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