Interview: Yorta Yorta Elder Professor Henry Atkinson
Interview: Yorta Yorta Elder Professor Henry Atkinson,
Sarah Rhodes, producer,
Koorie Heritage Trust, 2011
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In 2002, the Yorta Yorta people lost their native title claim as they could not prove that they had continuously occupied their traditional lands in accordance with their traditional laws and customs.
For Monash University Professor Henry Atkinson, the possum skin cloaks are important evidence of the continuing traditional culture of the Yorta Yorta.
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My name is Henry Atkinson. I'm an elder of the Wolithiga Clan of the Yorta Yorta Nations. I was the former spokesperson of the Council of Elders of the Yorta Yorta Nation. To me, keeping alive our culture, regardless of what clan, what nation, or what group of people we come from, I think it is very important that we really attempt at the highest level to make sure our culture is alive, especially for our younger generations.
Now, before I get into talking about the possum skin cloaks. I just want to say this that, this project or the possum skin project, or anything to do with our culture, is not about revitalising or bringing back. To me, our culture has always been with us.
It's just that it has been denied to us to carry it to through into from generations and generations. So our culture has survived. It has not died, we are not revitalising it. It is constantly with our Elders, and it's up to the Elders to make sure that it is passed onto the younger generations, so we do survive for another 75,000 years or more.
Now, the possum skin cloaks, to me, certainly was one way of keeping our people warm, but for certain people, the possum skin represented who those people are, their status in their society. That was by the markings that were on the possum skin, on the inside of the possum skin cloaks.
The possum skin cloaks from each of the individual groups tell the story of today. It tells about where they're from, what the landscape was like, and it also tells who that person is in status in their communities.
The possum skin cloak was worn with the markings on the outside so other people could identify who those people were. They wore the cloak with the fur on the outside when it was raining so the water would drop off and keep the people dry.
Museum Victoria or the Museum Melbourne has two possum skin cloaks that are very, very old, and one of them is from my particular part of the country - Wolithiga.
Those markings on that original possum skin cloak tell the story of the landscape such as the waterways, the rivers, the Dungala, and all the other connections that run into the Dungala like the Eldon rivers.
Of course, the other possum skin cloak in the museum is a Gunditjmara possum skin, and it also tells a story as far as the markings.
We've got to continually keep that alive for the younger generations for their self esteem and build them up to be proud of who they are and where they come from, and with possum skin cloaks, this is one way we can do that.
The possum skin cloaks, when you think about North American people, the first peoples of Canada for instance, what did they do with the buffalos. They took the skins of the buffalos and used them as cloaks. Our culture is much, much older than those cultures but it's just one way of showing that we do have connections to a lot of Indigenous people around the world and their cultures are very, very similar in certain ways.
In getting these possum skin cloaks produced, it helped to bring together our peoples in each of the communities to work on a project and to get ideas from the younger ones, what they want to put on the designs of each of those nations' possum skin cloaks.
The Yorta Yorta people, we went through native title and we weren't successful. Of course, the judge on that day really denied us our rights as Indigenous peoples in his formal assessment of the Yorta Yorta tribe.
I really think that projects such as this can prove, and help other Indigenous peoples, that yes we are alive. We are people. We are Indigenous people and we do still have that culture that is very, very strong.
I have family, adoptive family up in the top end of Australia in Alice Springs. I just want to make this point that it's very hard for Indigenous people in south-east Australia to be really recognised as Aboriginal people. A lot of non Indigenous people think that there's only Aboriginal people at the top end of Australia. That is not true. We are Indigenous people down here in south-east Australia and we have a culture. It's just that what's happened to our people has not happened in a strong sense to those people up in northern Australia.
So I congratulate those three girls that started this project off, especially Vicki Couzens, the Gunditjmara woman. She's still carrying on that culture. She's still carrying on the fight for her people and her right to be recognised as Indigenous peoples.
I really want to see my younger generations succeed in life. I know we have some great sports people and yeah, for sure they do succeed. But what I would like to see is our younger generations to be used not just as role models in sport but good role models within their own selves. The only way they can get that is through good education and to be business people in their own right or to be a politician or a legal person or whatever. That can be achieved.
What I do here at the faculty of education at Monash University is I teach teachers how to teach and I teach them, in a sense, history, not culture because I cannot teach culture. Culture is so diverse and so wide. I teach the interconnections between how student teachers can relate to an Indigenous student for a start.