Interview: Wemba Wemba Elder Fay Muir
Interview: Wemba Wemba Elder Fay Muir,
Sarah Rhodes, producer,
Koorie Heritage Trust, 2011
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Elder Fay Muir explains how she sought permission from the Wemba Wemba community to share their stories on a possum skin cloak.
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I'm Fay Stweart Muir. I'm an elder of the Wemba Wemba and Boonwurrung clan. Wemba Wemba is on my Dad’s side, who was born in Tresco, near Lake Boga. His mother was very proud and strong in her culture, and so was he. So when the cloak came about, I was honoured to be able to wear the Wemba Wemba cloak. I had to go through the protocols of asking my dad and another elder if I could wear it in the coming days. And I was given permission, which was beautiful, but then we had a lot of work to do. The cloak was already made but there were no drawings or any designs on the back of it so we had to work over two nights before the actual time that we were wearing it and design what was on it.
So what is on the cloak is the red tail black cockatoo, which is our totem from my dad's side. There's also the lake that's depicted on the cloak, which depicts Maboga and also the ruler, the Maran ruler, which is also very strong in our culture as well.
There's also lot of other little totems that's also designed onto the cloak. So there was a lot of love and effort and laughter that was put into that as we designed the cloak.
As I said it was also an honour to wear it, out there with all the other cloaks, on that very warm summer's day in 2006. We all had a ball with the choreography, getting everything right, and presenting our cloaks. We wore the fur on the outside to start with, and then we showed the world the designs on every cloak as we turned it around. And that was really great.
Cloaks in our culture are very, very important. They were used as a tool for bartering between tribes and they're also very important for the women because the women made the cloaks. The men caught the possums, they skinned them and dried them and then the women sewed them up. They used kangaroo sinew as a thread and kangaroo bone as a needle. Their work was very, very fine, as you can see in some of the old cloaks that are still available.
Six were sewn together for a baby to be wrapped in and there was up to thirty for an adult. Thirty pelts sewn together for an adult to keep them warm, to be worn as clothing. As the child grew, more skins were added to that cloak, until they got up to an adult, so that they have thirty pelts.
They were used for ceremonies, when all the tribes got together, because they used to get together where the MCG is now situated in Melbourne. That was a big gathering place for all the tribes in Victoria, and they come together to arrange marriages, and trade the cloaks there. They'd also have lots of games and lots of fun, as well.
Today, to have the cloaks back in focus for all people to see, I think, is very important, because they don't understand that the cloaks were used as clothes and a trading tool.
The possum pelts were also used for the first football. They were sewn together, I think there was eight sewn together and then they were packed, the footballs were packed with grass and the men used to play football. It was a great entertainment. Some of these football games would go on during the day and also during the night, they can go on for hours. There was always a lot of people around, as well, at these football games. And it wasn't just the number that's on the ground nowadays. There was you know maybe thirty or forty people together playing.
The cloak travelled through from birth through to the adult age, until death. When Aboriginal people died they were put in trees. So that they would be away, wrapped up and put in trees. Probably in paperback and put in trees to dry. And they were away from the animals so the animals couldn't get to the body. And when it was just the bones left they would get the bones down and wrap them in the possum skins and bury them.
So that was another way of what happened with our people when they died. So it was really a different way. A lot of people don't realise that. But it's a different way of looking at how we prepared our people for death.
But it was still sad but it was very enlightening, as well. For the tribes to know that their people, the spirit was still away in the tree. They could fly, the spirit could fly back to the dream time. So that was one of the things that they did.
To start with there's only part that was put on. As the child grew there was more stories added to the cloak. And there was more stories told to the child so that they'd understand it. And a lot of children were told stories to keep them safe. So they were only told so much. But as they grew old they were told more and more of that story until they were old enough to understand the whole story. But most of them were to tell children to keep them safe.
Like I was told when I was a child about little hairy men. If we went down near the holes the little hairy men would get us. But I didn't realize that until my grandmother always told me that, and my mom. But I suppose I was early teens before I knew that the hairy men weren't around.
What was down the holes was a rabbit warren. But it was to keep us safe. Keep us away from those great holes in case we fell and hurt ourselves. That was mostly what stories were told to children for.
I can't remember them what my dad used to tell because it was so long ago. Yeah, which is a shame. I would have loved to pass those on to my grandchildren. And I was a girl so he only spoke to my brother about different things, as well. Because there was women's business and men's business. They were stories to tell to son's and for women to tell to their daughter's. But seeing I was an only child for quite a while I got told sort of things by my dad.
On my mother's side, her family is the Boonwurrung people. And they come from around the coast. Down around Melbourne down to Wilson's Promontory. My ancestors had a lot to do with the coastal areas. They knew about fishing -- when they could catch the fish. They knew about spawning, not to touch when the fish were spawning because there wouldn't be some for the next year.
When a lot of our people, when they died, especially down around the sands, they were buried in the sand. And they have been, our people have been found down there, ancestors, aerating the sand still and with their tools. So it was great. So it's history.
We're still learning these different things that are found in the sand. Because sand preserves it much better. So there's a lot of our artifacts still found in the sand that we can trace back 20 or 30,000 years ago.