Interview: Boonwurrung Elder Carolyn Briggs

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Indigenous language specialist and Boonwurrung Elder Carolyn Briggs talks about the role of language in shaping identity. She explains how the markings on the possum skin cloak communicate customs and land maps to other tribes.

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On Country: Boonwurrung Elder Carolyn Briggs

Home: Boonwurrung Elder Carolyn Briggs

Possum skin cloak: Boonwurrung

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Video transcript:

My name is Carolyn Briggs and I'm a descendant of the first people of theee Boonwurrung language group. I'm from the Yallukit Willarn. My country goes from Werribee River to Mordialloc and then it enters into another band of the Boonwurrung language group.

Our language goes from the Werribee River, or what you'd know as the Bay Ray Rung and it travels all the way to the east and then to the south again to Wamun or Wilson's Promontory.

In that were bands, the Yallukit Willam, Ngaruk Willarn, Mayune Baluk, Boonwurrung Balug, Yownegerra and the Yallock Balluk. These are the different bands, but all spoke Boonwurrung. When people entered our country, they must be welcomed on the country and they must be presented with the stories so that people have this connection to know where the water is, where they need to travel, and be acknowledged by the owners of those areas in language, Boonwurrung.

So this is what our cloak - it represented us to continue telling the stories. The story is where we travelled. It shows country. Mine depicts language of country. The shell middens. The river. The stories. I say bik, bik. I see mun gruk. I see Boonwurrung. I see language of our country. I see places that indicate where we've travelled. I see a map of our country.

So this was about telling a story. It's another part of the storytelling. So the possum, the possum which kept us warm would traditionally have been caught. They are the willet, which means possum, the possum skin. We would adorn this and we travelled.

Everyone would have significant markings on there. How they've trod across the mountains, the rivers, the creeks and these were named on your map through symbols. So when we had to do this and we wanted to showcase it to the world that opportunity that the arts council and Vicki Couzens, who is a Keerray Wurrong woman, asked us to present our images to the world through the Commonwealth Games. So that was a part of the vision. That's only one part of our vision.

To continue that vision is to look at symbols, to look at dance, look at song, look at language. To do a reclamation of who we are and where we are today. It's been a part of my lifetime. But it's the legacy that we must honour of our ancestors. That did leave us those legacies. And we need to learn to see them again, the hear them. So it is a part of the deep listening. It's about learning to see again, learning to hear, learning to speak. So this is part of the speaking tour, showcasing that culture has survived. And it's still a living link to our past, our heritage of who we are.

So that's the importance of maintaining. The importance of evolving and adapting and allowing the future generations to be a part of these stories. And to see the Country that they're a part of now.

Some of the stories that are on this cloak are from the shield that we were able to access from the museum – Bunjilaka (Museum Victoria). You start to see designs and imagery that portrays where you come from. This was a part of the natural process of trying to understand these images that were on the original cloaks. We found one of the last of our cloaks that is in the Lyon in France which we'd like to go and visit and get photos of to showcase some of the works that our people gave as gifts to visitors or maybe the museums just sent them around.

Why is your physical health is so dependent on these customs?
The old people say what's in the heavens is reflected on earth. We have to learn to see the in between. Moral indicators or nature's indicators are out there and that's probably what they meant by you need to learn to see, you need to learn to hear.

Everything tells you that were being pushed into this Western paradigm. We've forgotten to go back to our Indigenous ways of knowing. We need to start to reconnect to our heritage to make sense of our purpose in life.

That means understanding our food sources that have been revived. I've been fortunate enough to learn to understand it. Only parts of it but I wanted to show that to the world as well. Understanding our food is now being perceived by science as the super foods because they haven't been genetically impacted on at this stage. They're still in their natural state. They're high in all the trace elements that we require for our body.

You can fish when the time is right. Not during their spawning season. You can eat the meat of the land after their birthing cycle.

So you sort of know when the time is to hunt. You don't eat the emu during its nesting period. You know that the male sits on the nest and he almost starves. So you're not going to eat from him, because he's got nothing to give us. He's skinny. So I tell that story to children. The woman goes on to produce more eggs. You can take certain eggs when the time is right. There is knowing how to track an emu, to take only a few because it's about the survival.

So you're taught these things. You're taught that only special people know the knowledge to track because the stars guided you. The constellation would tell you when the emus were nesting so you would not hunt the emu. So you didn't expend time running around spearing animals. You had to know that when the water was drying up, the animals would come in. You had to take on the spirit of that animal to be able to honour that animal, to consume that animal.

Certain people had birthrights - they had totems. They couldn't hunt certain animals so that there was always a balance. Some people have dreamings of parts of the animal that they cannot consume and that's taken generations to understand that complexity.

We are hearing how other people are connected to their country. How they understood their laws of marriage rights. Who they could marry, who they couldn't marry -- wrong skin, wrong blood. It kept the balance because it was a way of stopping the in-breeding. Science now tells us the genetic structures. Maybe we understood it. Maybe if western paradigm hadn't come in we wouldn't have been interrupted.


Interview: Boonwurrung Elder Carolyn Briggs,
Sarah Rhodes, producer,
Koorie Heritage Trust, 2011
Filesize: 20.9 MB


Sarah Rhodes

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