The Kempsey canoes project in 2011 involved a mentoring program which addressed low retention rates among Aboriginal students at local high school, Kempsey High, and involved cultural groups in the Macleay Valley area.
Students and their mentors met weekly, with the boys gaining experience in carpentry, metal work and traditional construction methods. It was compulsory for the boys to attend school during this period and participate in life skills and goal-setting sessions with the mentors.
They learned how to build a canoe in three ways – a traditional Aboriginal canoe, using stringy bark; a wooden dugout canoe, using a local camphor laurel tree and a tin canoe from corrugated iron.
These three mediums represent the story of the local Dunghutti waterways, from traditional bark canoes used for collecting food sources and relocating from one side of the river to another, to dugout canoes using modern tools, right through to corrugated iron canoes built in the 1970s with the only materials made available to Aboriginal people, showing their resourcefulness and adaptability to modern times.
The programme included water safety classes and a two-day cultural camp to encourage the youth to become future cultural mentors themselves. At the camp they learned about the culture of the Dunghutti people, heard stories from Elders and explored what it means to be an Aboriginal man. The camp included a field trip to see where the Dunghutti people carved canoes out of ancient trees hundreds of years ago.
Following the success of this project, the following year a second project ran, involving Dunghutti Youth and Culture and the Birpai Men’s Group (BMG), who worked with Aboriginal youth from Port Macquarie. During the 10 months of the project, which included a series of workshops and a cultural camp, the young people built five canoes using three different methods including traditional bark, dug out wood and corrugated tin.
By taking steps towards reviving culture and opening up the discussions about local history these activities actively provide a platform to increase the communities’ cultural identity and improve the partnerships between community members, schools and cultural organisations.
The canoe revival project provided a fun and informal way for Elders to engage and connect with the boys’ Aboriginal history, practices, culture and stories while the students gained technical, leadership and life skills. Both DYC and BMG have been able to expand and deliver more workshops as a direct result of this project, as well as create a bond with local youth.
The participating schools praised the project and its positive effects on the youth involved.
Mick Eller, then principal of Kempsey High School, said: “Everyone involved with and touched by the 2011 canoe project speaks of the pride those young men had in more fully participating in their own culture and learning about it from men willing to pass it on.
“Projects like these directly, positively and quite profoundly enable the school to lift levels of participation and retention. But of course, the project offers much more – motivation, opportunities for traditional leadership, catalysts to community participation… In short, these initiatives produce all the effects which we are seeking for our Dunghutti youth and the school.”