As a kid, Lenny Collard and his mates would head across to Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth, to surf the waves of Strickland Bay. He remembers the waves having an almost mythological quality. Rottnest sat on the horizon and blocked most of Perth's swell. To a grommet, it felt like another world. "We'd always be saying, ‘It's not like Cottesloe out there, mate! No way!'"
"I was about 14," recalls Lenny, "so how old am now? Sixty... 61 now, so it must been 40-odd years ago we went there and the island, you go there with a certain sort of understanding, a comprehension of something and then only later in life you realise, oh hang on, there was stuff going on over there we weren't tuned into but we were conscious of. We weren't fully engaged in thinking about [Rottnest] as a colonial prison as such because we're too busy going surfing and eating our baked beans heated up on the fire and carrying on as young blokes did."
Young grommet Lenny is now Professor Lenny Collard of the University of Western Australia. He's spent his life studying the history, culture and language of his people, the Nyoongar traditional owners of southwestern Australia. Lenny is a Whadjuck Nyoongar elder, and his work has created a cultural bridge for non-Aboriginal Australians - wadjelas - to understand the long history of his people. He's one of the most respected Indigenous academics in the country and a lifelong surfer. There's nobody with a better working knowledge of the history of Wadjemup (Rottnest's traditional Nyoongar name); it's recent history and it's long history.
Uncle Lenny talks of a time during the last Ice Age when sea levels were lower and his people could walk across to Wadjemup from the mainland. "You'd be basically on a hill out on a big sand plain," offers Lenny. "I always wonder what the waves would have been like. It must have been peeling around from the south, and the south westerly blowing would have been offshore every day, all day, mate!" The island was an important ceremonial location for Whadjuk Nyoongars and is considered to be a spiritual gateway. The spirits of the dead move to the western end of the island, where they disembark and are taken by the whale out to Kooranup, their final resting place in the deep water off the island.
Those early surfing days out on Rottnest put Lenny on a path to greater understand his people's story, and eventually create a framework to tell it to modern Australia. "As a young bloke, you know, when I went there surfing and when I slept out there, I slept on top of the graves of the old people. I didn't know I was sleeping on the graves. No one told me. But mind you, I used to have this horrible, horrific nightmares and I came home and I talked to my pop and other oldies. ‘I'm having these weird dreams over there, what's all that about?' And of course, then, you know, things are revealed to you."
During colonial settlement and the frontier wars of the 19th Century, Wadjemup was established as a colonial prison for Aboriginal men from all over Western Australia. "The Nyoongar and Njamatji and Wongai patriots were defending the homeland so the first people to defend this land were the Aborigines," says Lenny. "They are the first patriots. They stood up against the invading forces, fought tooth and nail to defend their homelands and defend their loved ones and defend their country. Conflicts are occurring, people are being killed, massacres, prisoners are taken and in any war-like scenario you've got to take the prisoners somewhere."
This was Rottnest, which became a prison for almost 4000 Aboriginal men between 1838 and 1904. Some made it off, others didn't and there are at least 373 Indigenous prisoners buried in sandy graves out on Rottnest. "Just remind people it's the biggest prison colonial site in Australia. It's the biggest deaths in custody site in Australia. There's nothing bigger."
Uncle Lenny describes Wadjemup today as, "A conflicted space. When you go there, you know that there's this feeling to it and it's a really powerful thing. But there's beauty as well and there's goodness too, but there's a negative energy. And so you've got to be careful how you walk in the negative and the positive, you've sort of got to walk in the middle."
This dark chapter of Rottnest's history has only broadly been acknowledged in recent years. It's history as a brutal colonial prison doesn't knit well with the island's current incarnation as a carefree tourist escape for the people of Perth. Lenny, as a gatekeeper of the island's story knows it as a powerful place both for his people and, for modern Australia, the idea of reconciliation with Australia's traditional owners. When the World Surf League announced a tour event on the island, Lenny saw an opportunity with the world watching to both acknowledge the true story of Wadjemup and use it ask, what comes next?
"We can tell the truth to the cows come home," says Lenny of the island's colonial history, "but what's after that? What's the applied practice of the dialogue?" Lenny is seeing the moment as a catalyst for a new way forward, where surf culture and Indigenous culture work together to create recognition and respect for Australia's traditional owners. He's proposing a national Indigenous and islander surfing association, aligning surf culture closely with the oldest living culture on earth. "We want to bring crew together, we want to do a treaty settlement among surfers because there's really fine attributes in surfing… but I think we can do better."
When asked what the visiting surfers can expect from their time on the island during the tour event, Lenny replies, "You know, Wadjemup is a powerful place. And I think you're here because of that power. And you're talking to me because of that power. And I'm talking to you about how that power is going to reverberate like that water where you threw the rock in. It's going to go right across Australia, and in fact it's going to go around the globe."