Interview: Wergaia Elder Professor Eleanor Bourke
Interview: Wergaia Elder Professor Eleanor Bourke,
Sarah Rhodes, producer,
Koorie Heritage Trust, 2011
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Possum skin cloaks play a significant role in establishing cultural identity within Aboriginal communities. Wergaia Elder Professor Eleanor Bourke explains how the cloak is evidence that Victorian Aboriginal people exist and can be used as part of native title claims.
Aunty Eleanor is the proprietor of the Mt Noorat Hotel (just outside Warrnambool), committee member of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council and Native Title Services Victoria. She lives in Mt Noorat.
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My name is Eleanor Bourke. I was born Eleanor Anderson and I identify as a Wergaia woman through my mother. I was the oldest granddaughter of Archibald Pepper, from whom we know some of our language and totem, which is the pelican, and stories about our identity and about our place.
When the Commonwealth Games project with the cloak happened, it was intended to ensure that all language groups were able to participate and be part of the opening ceremony. We older ones expected that the artists in our family would, in fact, have done the artwork. But, because of the politics, I guess, and the nature of people, for and against Commonwealth Games, it didn't happen.
So, my sister and I decided that we would do the cloak, and, so, we made this cloak. We did our own design. Of course, we didn't do anything really artistic, except to try and draw the pelican, and I was inspired by another piece of textile design that I learned to do the pelican in this way.
The symbols and designs are very Victorian. The straight line, the linear triangles and shield shapes are particularly Victorian. We used those as the basis for a pelican standing in the past or on a lakeside or on the sand, or whatever you might want to envisage.
In relation to how we identify growing up Aboriginal, well we rely on our older folk to tell us the stories. And we were lucky enough - lucky in one way, but it was through adversity in another, that we had a lot of time with both grandparents who were able to tell us stories.
Growing up, we were in a very small school and we were the only Aboriginal family, but I was lucky enough to live near my grandparents. They used to talk about their backgrounds or their life. And as a result of some illness in my family I spent a lot of time with my brothers and sisters, with my grandmother, who always talked about her father and the stories that he had told her which were to do with our identity and the fact that the pelican was our totem coming from the Wergaia tribe in Victoria.
These stories were passed on to many grandchildren and assisted us in feeling strong about our identity and not feeling, you know, not cringing about our Aboriginal identity; which, you know, was a difficult thing because you notice that Aboriginal people won't talk about who they were publicly. We weren't allowed to express an identity and it's only in recent times that it's easy to say who you are and have people accept it without question.
And those stories get passed on. Well, my grandchildren, also, know these stories and they want to know more. See, my grandsons up there in corroboree, they expect to know about their identity. We just have to bring the rest of the country along with us, really.
My great grandfather's name was Albacutya. He had three names that we know of. We don't know enough about the way people were named. We know about how people were named in other parts of Australia now. He was sometimes called the Pelican Man and his name had Albacutya in the title, which is Lake Albacutya where one imagines would have been a place of pelicans when there was a lot of water.
It's been a dry lake for about 30 years, I believe, and it's only filled up this year, which is probably, hopefully, a good omen. But in our family we identify very strongly with the female line, the pelican totem, and the male line, with the cockatoo. If you're travelling around Australia, you often meet other people who have the pelican.
That sort of gives you a sort of sense of kinship, really. We always feel good when we see pelicans. We think it's a good sign. We're a bit superstitious about when something's going wrong. An example, my sister, who couldn't be here today, doesn't like seeing one pelican on its own. She thinks it's bad luck so we have all these beliefs around it that manifest themselves somehow from these stories.
I can't remember all the stories my grandmother told me - this is the sad thing. When you're a child you don't really take any notice, you just listen and you think. It's easy to remember that the pelican's part of our identity. But she had so many stories and we just didn't think it was - well it wasn't written down so we just can't remember them all. We've got an oral tradition. We are very lucky because the Wergaia language was recorded, both from my grandmother and one other older person, and so it is available for people to learn. It is being taught in a small part, in some schools in Victoria, in the region, which is good.
I do sit on a couple of committees - one for the government, the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, which I chaired for two years and also Native Title Services Victoria, which is responsible for assisting some groups firm up native title claims. Our group, Wergaia, we're in what is called the Wotjobaluk clan but so many of the Wimmera Clans - five clans - were recognised by the Peoples Court. The Wotjobaluk, the Wergaia, the Jaadwa, the Jadawadjali and the Jupagulk people were all recognised in a claim. There's not much to the claim, but, for me, it was so important to have the recognition that Wergaia people exist. And, for my grandmother, it was a wonderful thing to be able to have that recognition.
And, in the court hearing, I remember when our legal person spoke on our behalf - it was just a small statement. He was able to speak of my great-grandfather and one other person, Walter Kennedy, who were responsible for the language being retained in terms of the recordings that were made by Walter and by my grandmother.
It’s great for historical record, really. It's more that you just talk about how those connections mean something, and the impact on that is about one saying: ‘I'm an Aboriginal woman. I am Wergaia, and the pelican is my totem’. And then, when you go on from that, you get into other things. Now, you don't create other stories, but like my story about moving house. When we moved, we were only moving three and a half kilometres from one house to the other. Going down the road, four pelicans came and they were at a dam that was on the property that we were leaving. And I thought, oh, my goodness, I've never seen pelicans here before. I wonder where they're going. And, when we got to the house, these pelicans stayed on the dam. Two stayed for two weeks, and the other two stayed for four weeks. Which to me, it was like a blessing, to have a good move, and somebody was watching over me. So, things like that, you have an interpretation of something. And, as I've said about my sister earlier, if she sees one pelican running around, she expects something bad to happen, and that's sort of how these stories go, I guess. But the other thing is, when we go to places where there are lots of pelicans, you feel good. You think it's a good place and all that sort of thing, and you tell other people, oh, you're being looked after. So it's like representation of the spirits. It is about belief and spirituality.
The Commonwealth Games opening ceremony was really an historic moment for Victoria and Aboriginal people because it brought together the 36 language groups at one time for work on things to do with stories and heritage and identity that people could talk about and, perhaps, write down.
Some people worked as groups and others, like my sister and I, just did it as a family because nobody else was going to. It was a great moment. We captured it with the photographs of all the people in cloaks in the group photos and the preparation for the games when we were together talking about how we did what we did, which was also really important. So, that's now on the public record, again, as part of an ongoing tradition and identity of people.
The second thing in relation to Henry Atkinson's comment on education, my daughter uses her cloaks as teaching tools when she talks to groups. As an artist, she will use a cloak and talk about each panel and what she intended with each pattern on a separate panel. At the moment, one of her cloaks is in the permanent display at the Koorie Heritage Trust. Used in an educated way for people to understand that these are Aboriginal people of Victoria here and they're still here.
It's because of the history of dispossession and dislocation. In the beginning, when you're a colonised society, people really don't want you there because you remind them of the bad things that have been done in taking over the country. There's whole waves of experiences that people have, right up until when we got the protection phase, which lasted for about 60 years in Victoria, where people thought we were going to die out, that was the general belief. Because the authorities counted what they called was 'full-blood' people and this was enshrined, at least, in legislation, so there was this sort of countdown that we were going to die out, and there are many records showing census figures that have 10, 15, you know, small numbers of people, few hundreds of people for the whole of Victoria, which we find ridiculous because what that meant was that they were saying, well, you know, half of the rest of the population didn't count and weren't Aboriginal, and that's why there's been such a strong reaction, even to the extent of what we called ourselves.
The authorities just talked about Aboriginal people generally, or people that were Goulburn-Blacks, or Murray-Blacks, or Barabuls or whatever, not even using our proper names, so it's quite miraculous that people can identify their own clan name or travel name, and indeed know some stories about their totems and things that are really part of the identity from some generations back. And that's the reason we feel so good about it. Because it's survived despite all the bad things that happened in between.
Well, I didn't grow up where our country is but I've travelled through it many times. I went to see the lake, and was horrified when I found it was dry. The cloak with the pelican on it really just symbolises the place for us because we're not there. In Victoria, most people have been dislocated from their country for the way so called progress has happened. And the way people have gone to chase work and to get an education or have gone into mixed marriages. There's all of those experiences. So that's what makes this precious in a way.
We are possum cloak wearing people because of our climate. So it was a skill people had in the past. It's the identity. It's the continuation of that identity. It's like I said before, and it really in our case with the pelican, it's about the people and the place because we're not there even though we did get that native title finding that's a positive determination that we do exist. It's all part of that package.
Well when we did it, we told many members of our extended family what we were going to do and why. So that we could say, well look if nobody else will do this, this is what's going to happen. Most of them said yes, that's great, I'm glad that's happening. So for us that was positive because it would've been terrible to not have been there. We would've been invisible. The same struggles that we've had in our lives would've happened for the grandchildren and so on.
As far as healing goes, I didn't have that as an issue, even though I tell you all the negative things that have happened in history. I was more feeling constructive that we can do this. The opportunity was there to keep the historic information and keep it on the public record. To me that's really important because it talks to an ongoing presence of people and that's the most important thing to me personally.
Your photograph and your use of the photographs will continue that perpetuation of people. Knowing that we're here and they can see that this group of people existed and there's groups of people that existed. To me, that is the biggest thing. And I don't really care what people say. They can say hurtful things but that's not the important thing. It's not lost from the story of Victoria. We've been here and we still are.
The photos of my grandmother and her sister-in-law - they're quite amazing in a way because when you think about it, they were fashion plates. They were striking women right until the later years. That sort of came about from their experiences because they were made to feel they had to be as good, even better dressed, than other people. And so they stepped up on special occasions and I think it's quite interesting that they did that. In a time when there were obviously Aboriginal people but Aboriginal people were treated in a particular way at that time.
Women worked like the men in those days. People lived on the land so they worked on the lands. Women were cooks or cleaners; domestics. And the men worked on the stock and sheared and so on. In our family everybody worked back in those generations. They were hard working people.
I probably should mention the most obvious thing. I'm named by my grandma. She was Eleanor Jesse Pepper and I am Eleanor Anne. I was named after her and had one other cousin who was named after her as well. So that has created a special sort of bond between us. I should also mention that this photograph was taken when my grandmother was 19. I'm not sure if you call it a photograph with the tinting. And when my mother went to work she had it made into this picture and this frame, from a smaller black and white, when she was 16. So I grew up seeing this picture in my grandmother's house. When I was little, she used to say when you grow up this is your photograph. You can take this. And of course, as she got older and older, she used to tell me towards the end of her time living in her own home, that I should take this picture. Of course I said no, I would never take it while she was living. Eventually she left her home to be cared for by an aunt of mine and I did get the picture before she died. So that was a bit sad because I never ever wanted it at all until she was gone. There was never any question that she was going to go and so, here we are.