From Coranderrk to the Gunditjmara’s eel farms, caring for their people and the environment governed Aboriginal business practices

 The Injinoo Dance Group rehearses before performing a welcome to country ceremony.The Injinoo Dance Group rehearses before performing a welcome to country ceremony. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

The Gunditjmara smoked the eels and traded them with other Aboriginal nations. It was a successful economy based on healthy lifestyles and stewardship that worked with the natural environment as the farms shifted and changed with the seasons, with floods and droughts.

Last year, when I attended Purpose, the values-led business conference, I discovered the similarities between BCorps and the principles that have always governed Aboriginal business. And there is much that non-Indigenous businesses can learn from us when looking for models that create a positive impact on the world and generate prosperity.

The Gunditjmara eel farm was an early example of an Aboriginal economy based on key principles of contemporary values-led business. The farms engaged with seasonal changes to have a positive environmental impact, creating a new ecological system rich with vegetables and waterbirds.

The woven traps were made from biodegradable locally sourced materials. Efficiency was key, with people spending the minimum amount of time acquiring food. The smoked eels were a unique product traded with other nations. And the Gunditjmara Elders had a succession plan. To this day they teach young people how to weave the traps, where to place the stones, and how to smoke the eels.

I named my company Kalinya, which in my language, that of the Yorta Yorta people of northern Victoria, means good, beautiful and honest. This is to serve as a constant reminder to practise Aboriginal ways of working as I move into the business sector.

Business is not new to us; our economies stretch back tens of thousands of years. Yolgu people from Arnhem Land were engaging in international trade long before colonisation: the Macassan people would come from Indonesia to trade cloth, tobacco, rice and knives for sea cucumbers that were valued for medicinal purposes.

Eel Trap, by Aunty Iris Lovett-Gardiner.
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Eel Trap, by Aunty Iris Lovett-Gardiner. Photograph: Culture Victoria

Post-colonisation, our people continued to run successful enterprises. Coranderrk Station in Healesville, Victoria, ran successfully for many years selling wheat, hops and crafts. In 1881 produce from the farm won first prize at the Melbourne international exhibition.

It was the success of Coranderrk that led to its downfall. When the farms flourished, neighbouring non-Indigenous farmers petitioned that the land was now too valuable for Aboriginal people and the station was closed.

We are coming into a critical time for Aboriginal enterprise. There is a growing interest in Aboriginal knowledge, a trend for uniquely Australian products, and an increased awareness of native foods, medicinal plants and beauty treatments.

But as Aboriginal business owners, we must remember what happened at Coranderrk and equip ourselves for this wave of increased interest. We need to protect our intellectual property and trademark our ideas so we can rebuild our economies in a way that is true to our principles.

When you are systematically pushed out of an economy, it does terrible things for your self-confidence. The hardest part of running a business for me has been valuing my unique knowledge as an Aboriginal woman. For years I have worked 50-hour weeks and lost money. I was partnering with non-Indigenous companies who charge standard industry prices, while I charged reduced rates. I was paying my suppliers double the amount I was charging clients. It was a rookie error but there is something at play that goes beyond the need for business mentoring and support for Aboriginal start-ups. It speaks to our self-confidence.

Colonisation is a system designed to break up social structures. When our people were put on missions, we were robbed of our ability to practise culture, sustain a healthy lifestyle and our economies were broken down. The Gunditjmara could no longer farm eels and our trade routes were destroyed.

Colonisation works by making Indigenous people dependant. As wards of the state, our people were not paid cash, in the new cash economy, but rather given ration cards to get flour, tea and sugar. Our Ancestors built the railroads, made up a large portion of the shearing industry and worked tirelessly as domestic staff, but until the 1970s the government could confiscate 70% of an Aboriginal person’s wage.

To decolonise, we have to understand that Aboriginal people have been systematically pushed out of the Australian economy and rid ourselves of the misconception that we are somehow inherently “bad” with money.

Countless generations of our Ancestors ran successful businesses. They developed unique products and traded with different nations. Our pre-colonisation economies cared for Country. As the Gunditjmara eel farms show, Aboriginal business can have a positive environmental impact.

As our lives have adapted to contemporary Australian life, we have retained Aboriginal ways of working, which put people and culture first. We value the knowledge of our Elders and create succession plans to ensure the wellbeing of future generations. These fundamental principles are at the heart of values-led business. As the sector takes off, it is an opportunity for Aboriginal entrepreneurship to shine.

Elders, Ancestors and Country is capitalised in recognition of Aboriginal kinship structures, relationship to the land and in respect of cultural protocol.

Jirra Lulla Harvey will be speaking at Purpose Sydney, which runs from 5-6 December