I’d heard about Boon Wurrung author N’arweet (elder) Carolyn Briggs. Heard she was tough, direct and opinionated. When I first met her at a book signing in Sorrento many moons ago, her cool inner-Melbourne chic, cropped coloured hair, smart bright eyes and highly held head seemed to support the murmurings. She spoke with a voice of generations and a deep connection to land and ancestors. Here’s a snippet of her devotion to living her people’s story.
Who are the Boon Wurrung people?
The first people of the bays (Port Philip and Western Port) and southeast Victoria.
Where were you born?
In Melbourne. There was a strong Kulin community in North Melbourne, where my mother lived. When I was young, we moved to Swan Hill, to my maternal grandmother’s Country. Her name was Margaret Taylor and her family were Wemba Wemba. My grandfather, William Briggs, was known as Napa, a Kulin word meaning ‘grandfather’. He was a very proud and respected man.
Who is Bundjil?
Bundjil was a deity of the Boon Wurrung. He travelled as an eagle and protected the land and the children of the land. Bundjil was also the creator, and many of the traditional stories of Bundjil relate to both the creation of the people and the protection of the people from harm.
Tell us about your great-grandmother, Louisa Briggs.
Louisa was born into the Yaluk-ut Weelam clan of the Boon Wurrung language group around 1835 and lived until 1924. Louisa with her mother, aunt and grandmother were taken by sealers to Bass Strait to work as slaves — catching seals, processing their skins and rendering their oil. They travelled by open boat between the islands of Bass Strait and Melbourne. She was a matriarch and an activist who supported her children and made them strong. She sent many letters to the Aborigines Protection Board. Two of Louisa’s children gave evidence at the Royal Commission in the 1880s. She died aged 90 at Cumeroogunga.
What did the Port Phillip region look like thousands of years ago?
Much of the area we live on today was very different prior to the Europeans arriving. The land supported a complex ecosystem, with many creeks and swamps supporting a wide range of life. For example, the eels (iilk) would travel up through the creeks and rivers, and this provided a great source of food during particular seasons. These were farmed through fish traps and often smoked in large hollow trees to preserve them. I have seen some of these remaining sites on the Mornington Peninsula.
What is the Boon Wurrung Foundation?
The Boon Wurrung Foundation was established in 2005 so we could ensure the survival of the Boon Wurrung cultural heritage that had been passed down and to promote this unique part of Melbourne’s history.
What does being a keeper of the history and genealogies mean?
In our community, the history has been traditionally protected by the women who kept the knowledge of family and genealogies. This knowledge is the most important part of our heritage and it contains the stories of our families.
How does Boon Wurrung language differ between written and oral forms?
The first attempt to write the Boon Wurrung language occurred in the late 1830s by William Thomas, the assistant protector of Aborigines. He began translating the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer as well as some of the psalms into Boon Wurrung. William Thomas understood and respected the structure and hierarchy of traditional Yaluk-ut Weelam society. In recognition of his commitment towards the traditional owners, he was given the title Marminata, which translated means ‘the good father’. His diaries remain an important record of the Yaluk-ut Weelam.
What are you most proud of?
My children and other young people making some amazing achievements. When I see them happy, confident and achieving their own goals, I know the journey has been worthwhile.