The documented early history of the people of the Great Sandy Island is incomplete and always open to debate and discussion.
In western society, ‘Invisible Heritage’ (a term used in archaeological theory) refers to sites and landscapes where past occupation, events or other cultural activities have failed to leave enduring tangible evidence in the environment.
Bringing together Indigenous perspectives with contemporary research is a difficult process as Indigenous and western knowledge systems more than often possess conflicting beliefs. One of the most challenging things for an Indigenous group attempting to exert its tradition and culture is to retain its credibility.
After European settlement, much of the evidence of the Great Sandy Island and its peoples’ way of life was destroyed, either intentionally or through ignorance.
The Butchulla/Badtjala people were governed by lore established by the Council of Elders and generations of traditions. A Council of Elders comprised of a number of old men who were respected by their clans with only the eldest being afforded voting rights.
The Council of Elders oversaw visitors to the tribal lands, giving travellers permission to enter and telling them when to leave. The Council ensured both social and environmental lore were adhered to and was responsible for governing the totem system.
Using early accounts of recorded history, the Badtjala peoples were situated on the centre part of the island and the mainland, with the Ngulungbara peoples to the north and Dulingbara peoples to the south. Each group was divided into named clans.
It is believed the Badtjala people placed their dead on platforms to let their spirits greet their ancestors and then wrapped them in bark and lodged them in trees. The bones were then collected and stored elsewhere in either bark wrapping or dilly bags and stored in a sacred hideaway. This was because the sand would quickly erode the bodies or the dingoes would dig up the corpse and eat them.
Cultural revolutions of the late 60s and early 70s and the growth of environmentalism and feminism groups, along with the High Court Mabo decision and the resultant Native Title Act has affected Butchulla/Badtjala cultural authenticity. Because of these influences into spiritual beliefs and ideological practices, it has been rendered into a ‘New Age’ style of folklore and legend.
The feminist movement of the 70s introduced the concept of a separate women/s business, spiritualism and places into what was a severely chauvinistic society. Distorted History has played a major role in today’s Butchulla/Badtjala society.
The old traditional knowledge has an intrinsic value that can be revived by conscientious and honest research.
Article written by Ian Wheeler HH Dip PH Gundir-ru Traditional Badtjala Elder