Upon first glance, the murnong plant can easily be mistaken for a common dandelion. Its long, narrow, and toothed leaves sprout yellow flowers during the year’s warmer seasons. Yet, despite its common appearance, the murnong carries thousands of years of Aboriginal history. Prior to colonisation, the murnong was a crucial staple in the diets of First Nations people. With sweet and coconutty edible roots, the plant was abundant across the grassy plains of south and southeast Australia. Historical observations from settlers reveal that there were ‘millions of murnong… all over the plain’ and that First Nations people had complex methods of harvesting and managing them. But over the past two centuries, the murnong has been decimated by invasive pasturing and introduced species. In particular, they were palatable to sheep and rabbits, and the hard hooves of livestock damaged the soil in which they grew. Today, while they may be found on roadsides and rock crevices by the sharp forager, wild murnong has virtually disappeared.
Indigenous knowledge surrounding food production derives from a mutually beneficial and caring relationship with the non-human, allowing the land to replenish itself of what has been taken. It’s a different way of looking at food; not just for nutrition, but as something innately spiritual that connects people with Country. In Lou Bennett and Remaine Moreton’s essay Looking for Murnong, they write that “Murnong is more than a plant. Murnong is an Ancestor. To speak her name affirms our place and our belonging as Original peoples.” They reflect on the Jaara women who grew Murnong in the basalt plains and cooked their roots in Earth ovens: “The ancient hands of the Jaara have fashioned these necessities with intimacy, love and familiarity.”
Native food systems have protected human and natural life for millennia. Though much of this wisdom has been erased through dispossession and genocide, historical accounts from settlers — detailed by Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu — reveal sophisticated farming practices that demonstrate First Nations peoples’ intimate knowledge of native species, soil and climate. For example, nardoo, a species of waterfern which produced sporocarps used to make bush bread, was grown in otherwise inhospitable regions by being planted in the beds of shallow lakes. When the lakes dried, seeds were swept back into vast stockpiles. People would move seasonally from camp to camp in order to ensure that the landscape had time to heal. Even in land of extreme heat and aridity, they were able to produce grain surplus to their need. Charles Sturt, in his travels to northern Australia, described ‘grassy plains spreading out like a boundless stubble field.’
Because the relationship of First Nations people with nature was one based on reciprocity, the land also gave back by generating healthy and nourishing foods. In their Paddock to Plate project, research scientists at the University of Sydney recently discovered that dhunbarrbila — native grains and seeds — are highly nutritional, containing many macronutrients that provide energy to the body and micronutrients to protect against disease. Grains such as kangaroo grass, which has seeds that can be ground and mixed with water to make damper, were found to have 40 per cent more protein than the bread wheat we consume today.
When Indigenous lands were pillaged and destroyed, so too were these sacred food systems. Due to the importation of European crops, grazing animals, and extractive farming practices which were not ecologically compatible with Australia’s natural environment, there has been widespread erosion of soil. Today, about two thirds of agricultural land is degraded, producing low crop yields while preventing many native plant species from growing. Further, with the rise of agribusiness, food has become commodified, produced for the purpose of sale and profit rather than use. While native food systems provided sustenance to all members of the community, millions of people today live below the poverty line despite a surplus of food production and 7.3 million tonnes of food waste annually. Where food-bearing plants were once gifts of the Earth, wealth is now extracted from them at every point of the production process — farmers to buyers, to packagers, to wholesalers, then to retailers — all before it reaches the people that need (or can afford) them. As Bennett and Moreton write, “Western colonial industry has always relied on the exploitation of storied lands of Indigenous people,” thus poisoning the symbiosis between humans and nature.
While many settlers died due to starvation or nutritional disease, there are also documented stories of settlers raiding Indigenous food stockpiles, stealing their crop in order to survive. Pascoe tells the story of explorer Ernest Giles’ brother, who came across huge stores of grain on platforms three metres high: “He was lost, and he was angry. He took the grain that had been stored for the harvesters.” It is even more harrowing to trace how colonisers have weaponised food against Indigenous populations. When First Nations people were forcibly relocated into missions, they were cut off from their native food sources and forced to subsist on nothing but highly processed food rations. These rations often comprised only white flour, refined sugar and alcohol, which resulted in nutritional diseases and health disparities that persist decades on. Today, food coercion continues to exist, most evidently in prisons where predominantly Indigenous inmate populations across the country are underfed and malnourished. It is difficult to forget the story of David Dungay Jr, an insulin-dependent diabatic, who was killed in Long Bay Prison by guards for eating a packet of rice crackers.
Restoring native foods through ecologically sound food systems, as well as allowing communities to directly control and receive the benefits of their own agriculture, are vital aims of decolonisation. This concept has come to be known as “food sovereignty” which, as Professor Kyle Whyte of the University of Michigan envisions, gives First Nations people the capacity to self-sustain and adapt to environmental and economic changes. In Yuin Country, Pascoe has started a small-scale farming project known as Black Duck Foods, which seeks to restore traditional knowledge and farming practices by growing native crops in the region. The farm, which employs First Nations people, has been able to harvest mandadyan nalluk — or “dancing grass” — for the first time in in what is believed to be over 200 years. “That’s what this farm is all about,” Pascoe says. “[T]rying to make sure that Aboriginal people are part of the resurgence in these grains, rather than being on the periphery and being dispossessed again.” Similarly, Paddock to Plate seeks to breathe life back into a native grains industry — one that is owned and managed by local Aboriginal Land Councils rather than corporations. They are currently in Gomeroi researching its agricultural ecosystem and cultural practices of caring for Country, uncovering thousands of years of traditional knowledge that has been lost.
We must be wary of conceiving food sovereignty as something primarily concerning remote communities, as this upholds the colonial imaginary that “authentic” Indigenous people are from the bush. It is important to also consider what food sovereignty can look like in urban contexts. In Eveleigh, the first Indigenous-run rooftop farm atop Yerrabingin House has brought 30 species of native foods back to the local community. It adopts elements of Indigenous permaculture, planting species such as finger limes and old man saltbush which can thrive in harsh conditions of high sun and wind. Much of the produce goes to local chefs who incorporate native ingredients into their cooking, and the community is also taught how to grow plants in their own spaces using traditional practices. However, in order to expand urban agriculture to an extent that would sustain communities in cities, challenges such as soil erosion, the high price of land and strict regulation, directly linked to colonial structures such as private land ownership and expansion, must be addressed.
While hope can be drawn from these acts of resilience, there is a deep sadness in how much has been lost since colonisation. We may never bear witness to the overgrown plains of dancing grass, or relish the taste of wild nardoo. In Looking for Murnong, Bennett and Moreton return to their Country of Djadjawurrung in search of the yam daisy. They speak the language of their Ancestors and listen to the messages that the wind brings, pulling them closer towards the yellow flower. But they do not find it. “For now, our search for murnong continues. Growing in those spaces where she is safe from hooves, cars, colonialism and whiteness. We choose not to purchase murnong seeds. How can this be a right relationship? We seek her on the basalt plains, wild and free.”