Sunday, January 25, 2015

Australia Day is a good time to think about Indigenous Australians. Not just in the abstract, as victims of dispossession, massacres and other barely recognised atrocities, nor as Magical Negroes with cool mythologies and ceremonies and traditions and 'affinity with the land', and not even just the survivors of today.

I try to learn specific things. I want to think of my familiar places as having been someone else's familiar places long before, and of the words and names I know as having ambivalent historical meanings.

For instance, did you know that Wurundjeri, the name for the traditional custodians of the land including Melbourne, comes from the manna gum ('wurun') and a grub that lives in it ('djeri')? When an elder does a "welcome to country" ceremony and waves around a spray of leaves, they are from that tree.

And next time you're drinking your Yering Station wine, perhaps consider the events of the Battle of Yering in January 1840, in which white settler Major Charles Newman brutally forced the Wurundjeri off their land at what's now Warrandyte over a dispute surrounding the cultivation of potatoes. When 50 clan members protested, their leader Jaga-Jaga (also spelled Jakka-Jakka or Jika-Jika) was captured, but his fellow warriors created a counter-attack as a diversion to lure the whitefellas away so Jaga-Jaga could be freed. The rescue mission was successful! No whitefellas were killed or injured; it's uncertain whether any Wurundjeri were.

Jaga-Jaga sounds badass! Someone should make a movie about this guy!

There were three brothers who were known by this name. At least one Jaga-Jaga was one of the signatories to John Batman's 1835 treaty, which historians suggest was signed at a bend of the Merri Creek near the present Rushall station. Today, the brothers are namesakes of the Federal electoral division Jagajaga that spans their traditional land in the north-eastern suburbs.

The Jaga-Jaga of Yering was the nephew of Billibellary, the brilliant politician and ngurugaeta (leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam, whose subtle negotiations with white settlers helped ensure his people endured far less violence at settler hands than did other clans.

Assistant Protector of Aborigines, William Thomas, had a close friendship with Billibellary. After the latter's death, Thomas wrote: "It may be said of this Chief and his tribe what can scarce be said of any tribe of located parts of the colony that they never shed white man's blood nor have white men shed their blood. I have lost in this man a valuable councillor in Aboriginal affairs."

His son Simon Wonga succeeded him as ngurugaeta, followed by Beruk 'William' Barak, son of Billibellary's brother Bebejan. In a photo taken in his mid-thirties, Barak looks strikingly like Ned Kelly, and is certainly as handsome. He was a master diplomat, forging many cross-cultural friendships and promoting his culture to whitefellas. He's also known for his artworks, which are very collectable. He died, aged 80, in 1903, having witnessed the signing of the treaty at age 12 and lived long enough to see a whitefella nation founded on his people's land.

Barak was the last traditional ngurugaeta. His three children didn't survive into adulthood; but the leadership role does. Barak's sister's son Robert Wandoon had a son, Jarlo Wandoon, who enlisted in WWI under his whitefella name, James Wandin. Jarlo's son Juby succeeded Robert as ngurugaeta; Juby's sister Joy Murphy Wandin has also played an important role as ambassador for her people and culture. Since 2006 the ngurugaeta has been Barak's descendant Murrundindi (Gary Hunter).

The tragedy of the Wurundjeri is that their friendliness and goodwill were never repaid in kind by the whitefellas. They welcomed John Batman to their country under the understanding that the 'treaty' constituted a kind of temporary visa. Batman, however, saw it as a land purchase contract.

Batman was a horrible person. After I read Rohan Wilson's excellent novel The Roving Party I did some research on Batman, and he was every bit as cruel as Wilson depicts him. The artist John Glover, his neighbour in Tasmania, called him: "a rogue, thief, cheat and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known." When he first landed in Victoria, he heard a local dog howling and got his dogs to find and play with it. Then he drove the native dog into the water and shot it.

The Wurundjeri must also have heard terrible tales of whitefellas from neighbouring clans. Escaped convict William Buckley had lived with the neighbouring Wathaurong, whose lands are near Geelong, and told them much about England. And the coastal Bunurong people, who lived along Port Phillip and Western Port, had been killed, and their women abducted and enslaved, by white sealers and settlers.

Nonetheless, the Wurundjeri had a good working relationship with the Protectorate of Aborigines, and hospitably warned white settlers about attacks from hostile neighbouring clans. Surely it was pretty reasonable for them to be granted land to live on?

In 1863 they were granted a reserve, Coranderrk, at Healesville, years after first asking for a place to live, and being moved on from their first choice at Bulleen because it was 'too close' to white settlement. They basically squatted at Coranderrk until the government gave it to them. Still, it was a traditional camping ground; and despite not being granted the freehold on the land, and being squeezed from an initially proposed 4850 acres (1962 hectares) to 0.2 of a hectare, Coranderrk became a beacon for members of the Kulin Nation. They were happily self-sufficient and won agricultural prizes for the wheat and hops they produced there.

Of course, they farmed the land so well that their neighbours complained that clearly it must be the best land ever and hence too valuable for mere Aborigines. All sorts of indignities followed, including 'half-castes' aged under 35 being forcibly kicked off the reserve, which decreased the labour force to the point where they could barely tend their crops any more. At one point William Barak led a protest march to Melbourne, as Simon Wonga had done before him. Finally the government just decided to close Coranderrk down in 1924 and shift everyone to Lake Tyers in Gippsland near Lakes Entrance.

This was a super remote holding place for displaced Indigenous people from all over Victoria, where they were basically cut off from the rest of the state. Some older people refused to move there, and stayed at Coranderrk until they died. Eventually, around 1950, Coranderrk was carved up and used for the Soldier Settlement Scheme, although of course not for Indigenous soldiers whose requests were turned down. A tiny parcel of the land was returned to the Wurundjeri in March 1998.

Anyway, I am never sure of the etiquette of telling these stories – they're not mine, just as the places I live are not truly 'mine'. But I've always preferred a view of history that folds together the places and people of the past and present: one that helps us empathise with these long-dead Australians, to see them as individuals who were like me in wanting to be heard and recognised, and to be free to live the lives they wanted.

We should all know the histories of the geographical terrain we move across. We should know these people's names and biographies as one of those taken-for-granted parts of culture. We might have no direct stake in the names and biographies of American presidents or kings of England, but we know them anyway because we live with their cultures. Well, I am no more Indigenous than I am American or English, but Indigenous cultures have helped create my culture, and have left their traces on it.

Thanks Mel.
Thanks Mel - I really enjoyed this. Shocked that none of it was familiar to me.
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