Tag Archives: Reconciliation Manningham

Wurundjeri, Woi Wurrung: What’s in a name?

THE HUMAN SENSE of identity and belonging is multi-layered.
At an immediate level, we can identify our belonging to a family, a locality, and a community.
From there, it broadens to a matrix of various communities of interest, such as your membership of a profession, sports club, recreational pursuit, or religious affiliation.
At increasingly broader levels, we can identify as belonging to a region, a state, a nation and a particular cultural heritage.
Within these various layers of personal and group identity, there are often also competitive elements.
For instance, your best friend at work may barrack for a rival football team, and this might then involve some friendly banter and mock mutual derision.
The point, though, is that in-group and out-group psychology does not necessarily lead to deep alienation and antagonism between individuals or groups, even though, of course, it sometimes does.
Traditional Aboriginal society was no different in that there were many overlapping layers of personal and group identity.
These successively involved your family and totemic relationships, a shared geographic water catchment area, a language group of several catchment areas, and then an even broader federation of adjacent language groups.
However, just like Victorians might refer to West Australians as “Sand Gropers”, Queenslanders as “Banana Benders” and South Australians as “Crow Eaters”, so too did Aboriginal people have derisory nicknames for other Mobs.
This was clearly demonstrated in the early colonial period in Sydney when an Elder named Mahroot was asked what was the name of the people at Liverpool.
His reply was “Cobrakalls, same as you call the French people”.
As Cobra was the Aboriginal name for a foul-smelling mollusc that the Liverpool people ate and regarded as a delicacy, he was, of course, saying that they were snail-eaters.
More than that, though, he was probably implying that the Liverpool Mob were known as “Bad Breath People”.
Jimmy Dawson, who settled at Warrandyte in 1840 and then moved to the Western District in 1844, had a similar experience.
In recording the names of various languages in the Western District, he was told various nicknames that meant things like “Drawlers”, “Bleeding Lip”, and “Seaweed Speakers”.
These nicknames have since become institutionalised as the traditional language names in the area, because Jimmy Dawson’s is the only record, and Aboriginal humour was not accounted for in accepting the names.
There are many other instances across Australia of joke names being mistakenly adopted as traditional Aboriginal names, but I can give a couple of pertinent examples closer to home.
The Dandenong Valley catchment area of the Dandenong Creek, Cardinia Creek, and Bunyip River from Bayswater down to Kooweerup, was occupied by a Woi Wurrung clan, the Ngaruk Willam Balluk.
In context, Ngaruk refers the rocky southern slopes of the Dandenong Mountains down to Westernport Bay, whilst Willam-Balluk means “home country of these people”.
However, they were colloquially referred to by others as the Balluk-Willam and this changes the meaning to “Swamp People” or even more accurately, “Bog Dwellers”.
A very apt name for that area.
As can be seen from the preceding example, Aboriginal tribes very often take their name from the major river of their area.
The proper name for the Yarra is Birrarung, so the locals referred to themselves as the “Birrarung-Willam-Balluk”, but were commonly known by their language of Woi Wurrung.
To the surrounding tribes, however, just like the snail-eaters anecdote, the Birrarung people of the Woi Wurrung were given a nickname by their neighbours that reflected their dietary habits.
This nickname was Wurundjeri, which means “Witchetty Grub Eaters”.
However, in 1835, Batman’s surveyor John Helder Wedge, mistakenly thought that the name of the Melbourne river was “Yarra”.
The local Birrarung people therefore, quickly adapted to the Whitefella change and began referring to themselves as the “Yarra Tribe”.
This situation is tacitly confirmed by the Aboriginal Protector William Thomas, who kept a daily diary from when he started in 1839 to when he died in 1867.
In his diary, he makes about 400 references to the Woi Wurrung people but not one single reference to the name Wurundjeri.
However, just before his death in 1867, he drew a map of the Yarra Valley and Westernport area in which he marks Coranderrk, the Aboriginal Reserve, which had been established in 1863.
So, the map was obviously made at some time in the four years after that.
Then, across the map of the Yarra Valley area, he superimposed the words “Wurundjeri of the Woi Wurrung”, thereby clearly showing that the name Wurundjeri had only gained some currency after 1863.
The inescapable conclusion is that when Coranderrk was established in 1863, the non-locals there continued to refer to the locals by their nickname of Wurundjeri, and the locals simply got used to it.
The net result is that nowadays, we all routinely refer to the Wurundjeri as the traditional owners when originally it was just their nickname.

Jim Poulter is a local historian and a member of Reconciliation Manningham.
Find out more at: facebook.com/reconciliationmanningham

Image: Merri Creek,Plenty Ranges, Charles Troedel NGV

Let’s Celebrate Simon Wonga Day on May 24

I HAVE WRITTEN before about how Simon Wonga developed a plan for the survival of the Kulin people in the 1840s.
This was for them to learn agricultural and stock mustering skills in order to establish an economic base in the new world they faced.
Wonga organised the last ever Kulin Nation corroboree in 1852 and gave his people the opportunity to play all their traditional games and thereby say goodbye to tribal life.

I have also told the story of how Wonga Park got its name, in tribute to Wonga’s stock mustering skills and charismatic leadership.
He was a great man, and to me Simon Wonga stands alongside Sir John Monash as the two greatest Victorians in our State’s history.
Perhaps you might agree with me when you hear a brief account of how he secured a government grant of land to establish Coranderrk Station at Healesville in 1863.
It was an achievement against all odds that showed his strategic brilliance.

Wonga’s father Billibelleri was Headman of the five Kulin tribes from 1836 until he died in 1846.
Wonga was then 25 and had been groomed for leadership.
Not because he was Billibilleri’s son, but because his innate ability, character and knowledge made him the standout choice.
However, Wonga did not feel he was ready, so in 1846 the leadership passed to Billibelleri’s younger brother Berberry.
When the government approved the establishment of an Aboriginal Reserve at Pound Bend in October 1850, Wonga decided he was ready for leadership.
Berberry willingly stepped aside and Wonga then began activating his plan.
Unfortunately, gold was discovered at Warrandyte in 1851 which compromised the viability of the Reserve at Pound Bend.
A new Reserve was consequently declared at Woori-Yallock, only for gold to be found there as well.
However, the meagre gold at Warrandyte and Woori Yallock was soon vastly overshadowed by the discoveries at Ballarat and Bendigo.
Curiously, the Ballarat and Bendigo gold discoveries turned out to be an advantage to Wonga’s plans.
With workers deserting their employment and flooding to the goldfields, it inadvertently drove up Aboriginal work opportunities and wages.
Wonga was therefore able to get contract work for Aboriginal people on farms up the Plenty and Yarra valleys.
Wonga in fact won the contract to build the first public house in Warrandyte.
It is a pity his name is not commemorated in some way at the present day Warrandyte pub.
With the disbandment of the Native Police in 1853, William Barak joined Wonga at Wonga Park, where they met the Reverend John Green who had arrived in 1858.
The three of them were to develop a most fruitful relationship over the next sixteen years.

In February 1859, Wonga received information that a settler in the Upper Goulburn had abandoned his run.
Wonga knew it was prime land, so he led a deputation of Elders to see the Aboriginal Protector William Thomas.
The deputation also included my great-great-grandfather’s friend, Murrum-Murrum.
Thomas got approval for them to claim the land, so Wonga, Barak and others left Melbourne, to establish Acheron Station in March 1859.
They were later joined by Reverend Green and others from Woori Yallock.

Over the next two years, Wonga and the Kulin people made a great success of the venture, but they were ultimately cheated out of the land by neighbouring squatters Hugh Glass and Peter Snodgrass.
Glass, a land speculator, was the richest man in Victoria and Snodgrass a Parliamentarian, so draw your own conclusions.
The Kulin were forced onto bleak and inhospitable land near Cathedral Mountain, where people started dying like flies.
So in early 1863, Wonga, Barak and Green led the remnants of their group across the Great Dividing Range, via the Black’s Spur Songline, to present day Healesville where they claimed land there.
Wonga had learned his lessons well.

The demise of Pound Bend, Woori-Yallock and Acheron had shown him he would get nothing from the parliamentarians.
So he went over their heads. On May 24, 1863, which was Queen Victoria’s birthday, Wonga led an Aboriginal deputation to Government House.
They presented gifts of woven baskets, artefacts and possum skin rugs to Sir Henry Barkley for ‘The Good Queen Mother’ and the just married Prince of Wales.
Then Wonga presented a petition for the land at Coranderrk.
Immediately afterward Sir Henry summoned the government leader and told him in no uncertain terms that if the grant of land was not made immediately, ‘the Queen would not be happy’.
The result was that a month later the land grant at Coranderrk was duly approved.
Over the next decade Coranderrk became socially and economically the most successful Mission in Australian history, until Wonga died in 1874.

So to me, May 24 is not Empire Day, it is Wonga Day and it should be fittingly celebrated as the start of Reconciliation Week each year.