By Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson, Kate Bongiovanni, and Mike Flattley Updated October 2023
This updated article follows a panel discussion convened by the Royal Society of Victoria (co-hosted by Inspiring Victoria and Inspiring the ACT) during National Science Week on 13th August 2021 titled “Indigenous Food and Agriculture”. The panel featured Uncle David Wandin (Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation), Luke Williams (RMIT University), Aunty Kerrie Saunders (Yinarr-ma), and Joshua Gilbert (Charles Sturt University), and was Chaired by Associate Professor Bradley Moggridge (University of Canberra).
“The Indigenous population of Victoria was estimated to be at least 11,500 before the founding of Melbourne in 1835. Less than 30 years later frontier violence and the introduction of European diseases had decimated the population and only about 2,000 Aboriginal people survived.”1
In the early 1860s, an Aboriginal reserve was established and held by a surviving collective of Kulin people and other Indigenous groups displaced by the invasion and colonisation of Victoria. This farming community sustained itself in the face of British imperial and Victorian Government control of ancestral lands and interference in the lives of First Peoples between 1863 and 1924, finding new ways to persist and survive in a transformed world that had devastated a legacy of tens of thousands of years of human cultural practice in Australia’s southeast.
Located around 50 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, the residents were mainly of the Woiwurrung, Bunurong and Taungurung peoples, who had selected and successfully petitioned for the land to be reserved for the purpose of producing crops and sustaining themselves. They named the property for a plant indigenous to the area that produces effusive white flowers in the summer months – Coranderrk, known in English as the ‘Victorian Christmas Bush,’ and to Western botany as Prostanthera lasianthos.2
Coranderrk ran successfully for many years as an essentially autonomous Aboriginal enterprise, producing and selling wheat, hops and crafts to the burgeoning Melbourne market. Produce from the farm won first prize at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1881.3 Yet further controls were imposed on Aboriginal Victorians’ lives, culminating in the passing of the Aborigines Protection Act 1886, which required “halfcastes under the age of 35” to leave the reserve, among other requirements and restrictions. This politically literate group sent a petition to the Victorian colonial government in 1886 to protest these oppressive measures, which became known as the Coranderrk Petition.4
In 1920, Sir Colin MacKenzie, a leading medical researcher, leased 78 acres of the Coranderrk reserve from the Aboriginal Protection Board to begin his work in the comparative anatomy of Australian fauna. This was the catalyst for the creation of the Healesville Sanctuary, now a popular conservation zoo for Australian native animal species.
The Coranderrk reserve was formally closed in 1924, with most residents removed to the Lake Tyers Mission in East Gippsland. The land was handed to the Soldier Settlement Scheme, which denied all but two returning Aboriginal soldiers from World War 1 an allocation anywhere in Victoria.5 It was not until 1991 that the Wurundjeri people were able to reclaim the cemetery at Coranderrk, and an additional 119 hectares were purchased by the Indigenous Lands and Sea Corporation soon afterwards. Coranderrk was added to the Australian National Heritage List in 2011, and the property is now managed by Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation.6
Uncle David Wandin is a Fire Elder of the Wurundjeri, an expert recognised by his people, trained in traditional methods for using fire on the landscape to sustain and maintain Country. He has led the return of cultural burning and food production at Coranderrk Station almost a century after his ancestors were removed from their land.
Following many years of neglect, the property was covered in weeds, and native seeds struggled to germinate amid introduced pasture grasses for cattle. Over the past decade, Uncle Dave used a series of carefully controlled burns to clear away the pervasive weeds and promote the growth of native seeds. It took eight weeks to clear the 800m driveway alone, but now the land is bouncing back.
The trees there are now growing at their own pace and are being helped by First Peoples under Uncle Dave’s tutelage. Birdsong now fills the air, and wombats, wallabies, echidnas, and other animals have returned. Further, native plants require less work and fewer resources to grow compared to introduced crop species, making them more sustainable as a food source in agriculture. In addition to teaching students to care for Country, Coranderrk will also be aiming to produce food over the next few years. Landowners should be learning from cultural knowledge holders so that Victoria’s native plants and wildlife are conserved for future generations – just like they are on these 200 acres cared for by Uncle Dave.
To get more bush foods on the market, however, they first need to be approved by the national food regulatory body. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) currently does not recognise thousands of years of Indigenous Knowledge and song lines as evidence of safe consumption.
Luke Williams, a proud Gumbaynggirr descendant, is working with FSANZ alongside Aboriginal businesses and organisations to change this. He studies the bioactivity and toxicity of bush foods – essentially their effects in our bodies – and is helping to develop new regulatory frameworks to assess the dietary safety of traditional foods that better consider the unique history, knowledge, and culture held by First Nations people.
Once cleared for general consumption, bush foods need to become familiar to the mass market to drive commercial uptake and success.
Kamillaroi/Gomeroi woman Aunty Kerrie Saunders showcases bush tucker found around Moree in northern NSW. What started out as hobbies, gardening, and bushwalking, became a business conducting bush tucker tours (Yinarr-ma). Aunty Kerrie takes people on walks on Country, pointing out medicinal and food plants, and prepares meals for guests with them. One of her favourite foods to serve is bush pizza; with a ganalay seed flour base and a topping of galan galaan (native spinach) and buuy buuy (river mint) ricotta.
While the tiny ganalay seed grains work well in damper (dhaamba) and pizza, Aunty Kerrie has found it more challenging to produce bread with them. Similarly, weeping grass is a native rice grain that is too small to be commercially viable. However, it may just be that they are too small for now. Uncle Dave pointed out that the first-known leavened bread was made by the Ancient Egyptians who worked with grains just as small – it was over time that the seeds became larger and more productive. Furthermore, these native seeds were larger 200 years ago, when they were still being looked after by Traditional Custodians of the land prior to the interruption of European invasion.
Uncle Dave and Aunty Kerry hope that with careful agricultural husbandry, native seeds will eventually become bigger again, and even hit the market. (After all, quinoa is tiny but has been branded as a superfood!)
If and when these grains become commercially successful, it is important that traditional knowledge holders are properly acknowledged, along with the associated intellectual property. Farmer, academic and Worimi man, Joshua Gilbert, warns that First Peoples currently only receive between 1-2% of revenue from the commercial bush food space. He believes that despite being the first farmers in the world, the knowledge and wisdom of our agricultural landscape held by First Peoples is often ignored.
There are 6,500 types of native foods that we could all be eating, but there are many barriers to First Nations people commercialising them. Joshua therefore advocates greater First Peoples representation in the agricultural sector.
The good news is that 40% of the land mass has been returned to Traditional Custodians, and now with a formalised commercialisation and export strategy for native foods, the opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander producers are endless.
The Australian population is continuing to grow, demanding more food and resources, but climate change is already taking a toll on the agricultural industry. We need to listen to Traditional Knowledge and revitalise cultural ways of taking care of the land if we are to maintain another 65,000+ years of sustainable agriculture.
Nanni, Giordano; James, Andrea (October 2013). Coranderrk: We will show the country. Aboriginal Studies Press (AIATSIS). ISBN 9781922059406. Retrieved 19 July 2020. Chapter 1: A brief history of Coranderrk, 1835–81
“Melbourne International Exhibition Awards”. The Argus. Melbourne. 3 February 1881. p. 6. Retrieved 13 November 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
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