Lenny Collard is holding court. “‘These wadjelas, they just found out about rising sea levels? Wooooow.’” To the Whadjuck Nyoongars – Len’s mob – the wadjelas are the whitefellas and they’re about ten thousand years behind on the concept of sea level rise. 

“The old Nyoongars used to tell stories, and one of the stories was how they used to walk to Wadjemup. So if you follow the Western science logic of how do they figure out sea level rise and falls, they reckon about seven to 10,000 years ago the sea levels rose, and hence the islands off the coast all got cut off, and they became what they are today.” 

Wadjemup is known to the wadjelas today as Rottnest Island, named by the Dutch who thought the native quokkas were giant rats. To the old Nyoongars, Wadjemup was culturally important, as it was the departure point to the spirit world. The spirits of the dead would make their way out to the western end of the island, where the whales would pick them up and take them out to Kooranup, their final resting place out in the deep water off the island. 

As a kid, Lenny Collard and his mates would head across to Rottnest, 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 went out to Strickos and our eyeballs bobbed out of our head, mate. We never seen anything like it, just these big blue and turquoise waves coming in, these big pumping A-frames. 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 first 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.” 

Grommet Lenny is now Professor Len 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 both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians to understand the long history of his people. He’s one of the most respected Indigenous academics in the country and a lifelong surfer. Lenny’s whip-sharp with a mean sense of humour. 

Those early surfing days out on Wadjemup put Lenny on a path to greater understand his people’s story, and eventually create a framework to tell that story 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 these 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, brought down on the chain. “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 between 1838 and 1904 became a prison for almost 4000 Aboriginal men. Some made it off, others didn’t. There are at least 373 Indigenous men 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 in terms of reconciliation. So when the World Surf League announced a surfing event on the island, Lenny saw an opportunity with the world watching to both acknowledge the true story of Wadjemup, and more broadly to tell the true story of colonial dispossession and injustice in Australia. Beyond the acknowledgement though lies the question, what comes next? 

“We can tell the truth to the cows come home,” says Lenny, “but what’s after that? What’s the applied practice of the dialogue?” Lenny is seeing the Wadjemup 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.” 

The starting point is an acknowledgement that we’re surfing on stolen coast. “In surfing, there’s nothing worse than some bod turning up in your backyard and thinking they own your break and just go about in a really disrespectful way. I think surfers around the world know what I’m talking about? And you know what? Aborigines knew that before surfers knew that.” In the tens thousands of years before us wadjelas showed up, there was a deep cultural exchange anytime one Aboriginal group moved onto the lands of another. They needed to be welcomed onto country that wasn’t theirs’. This is what Lenny is getting at. When surfing organisations from the WSL all the way down turn up on country to surf, the first phone call should be to the local TOs and a dialogue and cultural exchange starts. Simple respect. 

Lenny, who’s got a foot in both camps, believes this dialogue could build a strong alliance between surfers and First Australians, the two groups sharing common interests around coastal stewardship and cultural respect. It makes sense, but surfing should be leading here, not following. “And I think that that’ll be the beauty of Wadjemup,” says Lenny. “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 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.”