The Wurundjeri-willam were the original occupants of what are now the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Their name comes from the Aboriginal word wurrun, Which means ‘white gum tree’. The Wurundjeri-willam was a clan consisting of a number of extended families. During the first years of contact with European society, the Wurundjeri-willam people were represented by influential senior men such as Billibellary, a respected elder. Billibellary’s clan lived on the northern bank of the Yarra and their territory extends from Yarra Bend northwards along the “Merri Merri” or “very rocky” creek.
In May 1835 an historic meeting took place between John Batman and prominent members of the Wurundjeri-willam and other clans. Billibellary and the other clan elders concluded with Batman the only treaty ever struck between the invaders and the indigenous people of Australia. These unique negotiations took place, wrote Batman, by the banks of a “lovely stream of water” which twentieth century historians identified as possibly the Merri Creek.
This treaty was declared invalid by Sir Richard Bourke, the Governor of N.S.W, who was unwilling to recognize and allow the aborigines the right to use and control their own land as they saw fit.
The clans of Central Victoria were born into one of two major totems - Bunjil the eaglehawk of Waa the crow, which were inherited from the father. The Wurundjeri-willam along the Merri were Waa. A Wurundjeri-willam man or woman who was Waa had to marry a Bunjil person from another clan. The woman usually left her own clan to join that of her husband’s.
Food & Camping
The Wurundjeri-willam had regular camping spots along the Merri Creek which they would visit according to season. In winter the low lying land next to the creek was subject to flooding and the general dampness made it an unsuitable place for camping. At this time they would move to the hills. In summer time when food supplies were plentiful along the creeks, clans would visit one another and host meetings and ceremonies.
Women were responsible for 90% of food collected, of which the staple were plants. All Wurundjeri-willam women carried a long fire hardened digging stick known as a kannan. They used their kannan to dig up the root or tuber of the murnong or yam daisy. It had a bitter taste in winter but became much sweeter when spring arrived.
The creek supplied the Wurundjeri-willam with an abundance of food such as eel, fish, and duck. Women waded through the Merri with string bags suspended around their neck, searching the bottom of the stream for shellfish. Emu and kangaroo were hunted in the surrounding grasslands.
In the forests and hills, possum was also a staple source of food and clothing, The flesh of the possum was cooked and eaten, while the skin was saved to be sewn into valuable waterproof cloaks.
These cloaks were fastened at the shoulder and extended to the knees. Clan designs were incised with a mussel shell tool into the inner surfaces of the skins. Wearing the fur side next to the body showed off the designs which were highlighted with red ochre.
“When we go into the bush in Victoria, it is hard for non-Kooris to imagine how the Kooris survived, yet they lived here for a least 40,000 years, using everything the bush provided, and when the Europeans arrived 150 years ago, the people they found were healthy and well-nourished. It was clear that they had managed the land so that its resources renewed themselves from year to year and were not exhausted” (Gott & Conran 1991)
Story of the Creation
The following story was told by William Barak, Wurundjeri-willam elder, to William Howitt, Assistant Protector of Aborigines, who recorded Wurundjeri-willam history at the time.
Bunjil the great creative spirit, having formed the earth and carved its features, decided to bring humanity into existence. Bunjil gathered up a quantity of clay from a river bed, divided it into two and placed both portions on large sheets of bark cut from a gum tree. He worked the clay into the shape of two men and took stringy bark from the trees to use as hair.
Bunjil was pleased with his work and danced around the figures he had made. He blew air into their mouths, nostrils and navels and filled them with life. Pallian, the brother of Bunjil, had been given control of all the rivers, creek and billabongs.
Pallian began to thump the water with his hands in the same manner as Wurundjeri women would beat possum skin rugs when their men danced a corroboree. The water became thicker and thicker and took on the shape and appearance of two women. Bunjil gave each man a spear and provided each woman with digging stick.
Merri Creek School
One of the earliest Aboriginal schools in Victoria was established on land between the Merri Creek and the Yarra River. The Baptist ministers in charge of running the school had taken great care selecting its site.
The Wurundjeri-willam told the ministers they felt comfortable with their children attending this institution because it was established on their land. The Merri Creek Aboriginal School existed for a number of years under the support and patronage of Billibellary.
The headquarters of the Native Police Corps were located at the Merri Creek from 1842 to 1844. The native police managed to live in two different worlds. To the disappointment of many government officials the men who joined the police force did not relinquish their clan affiliation, and they continued to organise and participate in ceremonial gatherings.
On Saturday March 22, 1843, at an encampment near the Merri Creek, nearly two hundred Kulin people cam to join the Wurundjeri-willam in the ceremony of Tanderrum. They had travelled from their own territories along the Delatite River to make a special visit to the land of the Wurundjeri-willam.
Visiting country belonging to another group was dangerous and required strict precautions. Tanderrum helped to establish bonds of friendship between different Aboriginal clans.
The newcomers carried torches or burning boughs in their hands which they used to purify the air. Water was brought to the newcomers but the locals drank first to show that there was no danger.
A young man visiting the Wurundjeri-willam for the first time stopped to drink from the Yarra without observing any preliminary ritual. He immediately lost the use of his voice.
The largest recorded meeting of Aboriginal people in Victoria occurred at Merri Creek in January 1844. The Wurundjeri-willam hosted an immense gathering of tribes which came from all over central Victoria. An estimated 800 people journeyed to the Port Phillip district to witness important judicial proceedings carried out according to traditions of Aboriginal law.
History & Archaeology
Much of the story of the Wurundjeri-willam has been reconstructed from the journals of William Thomas, who spent many years with Aboriginal people. Other information has been obtained from present day Wurundjeri people as well as the archaelogical record contained in sites on the Merri Creek.
The sites found are scatters of stone artefactes from old campsites, and scarred trees from which traditional people removed slabs of bark to make canoes, containers and shields. The artifact scatters are found because erosion of some sort has exposed the implements which were covered with sediment.
The scarred trees are often on the creek bank, fence line or road reserve where they escaped the clearance process. Both site types are traces of the hunting and gathering lifestyle of pre-contact Victoria, and are a fragile and non renewable resource.
Aboriginal sites are protected under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protection Act.
National Estate Registration
With the support of the Wunrundjeri, the Merri Creek Management Committee has nominated a group of historic and archaeological sites for registration on the Register of the Nation Estate which is managed by the Australian Heritage Commission. The group includes all known Aboriginal heritage sites in the Merri Valley.
Pre-contact sites include: scarred trees, stone artifacts and isolated tool sites. Post-contact sites include: the Merri Creek Native School, the Protector’s Hut, and the Native Police encampment.
Remnant native grasslands in the mid-Merri have been nominated as examples of aboriginal cultural landscapes created over thousands of years of burning.
People of the Merri Merri book.
The information contained here is taken from the book ‘People of the Merri Merri, the Wurundjeri in Colonial Days’, by Isabel Ellender and Peter Christiansen, published by the Merri Creek Management Committee. This book contains descriptions of ceremonies, hunting techniques, legendary tales and biographical details of prominent members of the Wurundjeri-william clans from pre-contact to 1850.
For more information, contact:
MERRI CREEK MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE
2 Lee St. Brunswick East 3057
Ph: 9380 8199
Unfortunately People of the Merri Merri is out of print and is not available through MCMC. Some libraries have it and it may be available second hand. A second edition is planned, but as of October 2020, we do not have a time-line for this.