People and Places
27/10/2019
Indigenous dwellings built for seasonal living

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Do you know what a willum is? It’s an Indigenous dwelling where Aboriginal people came together to eat, sleep and converse. In the past, community groups would travel with the seasons, settling near water in spring and summer while moving inland during autumn and winter. When they reached their destination and required shelter, they built willums in which they would stay for up to three months at a time. 

A basic willum included a lounge room, bedroom and an outdoor kitchen with an in-ground open fire constructed from rocks behind a curved wall. There were no roofs on the kitchen in case of fire. Indigenous educator Lionel Lauch, pictured, of Living Culture, explains: “There was a tunnel between the lounge room and bedroom inside the willum. People slept on possum skins and we believe there would have been some form of mats on the dirt floor in the lounge room. We’ve ascertained from old settler writings that some willums were very big, and there’s been a recording of one that slept up to 50 people in Victoria. When the community moved on as the seasons changed, the willum stayed. No one ever resettled in them. It was understood that the person who built the willum stayed in the willum — an unspoken law.”

Lionel and his son Jarrah have been building a willum over the past two months as part of the terrific Cross-Cultural Exchange Program at McCrae Homestead, and it’s finally finished. Lionel continues: “It’s been tricky to construct the willum at McCrae Homestead because much of the knowledge has been forgotten. We’ve been working hard and have finally finished it, which is exciting because now we’ve built one we can build more and pass on the knowledge to others. We’ve used the young, green saplings from the black wattle tree for the frame because they are flexible. We dug 10 holes and secured the saplings in them and then bent them to meet in the middle where they were tied. Then we built a rock wall up to a metre high around the base. Traditionally there was mud on the inside of the walls, but because of safety reasons we decided to use cement. Eucalypt (messmate), melaleuca bark and common reed were used for the roof on the outside and then mud was placed over the top. It’s taken a lot of time but we are very happy with the result.”

If you’d like to understand more about our First Nations people and how they lived, get along to McCrae Homestead to view a traditional Indigenous dwelling built by Indigenous people who are bringing their fascinating culture to light.   

LIZ ROGERS

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