Uncle Bryon Powell Interview Part 1 on the Barwon River, Wadawurrung Country
Uncle Bryon Powell interviewed by Lucinda Horrocks on the banks of the Barwon River, Belmont, Geelong, Wadawurrung (Wathaurung) language country, 2 March 2015, part 1. Produced by Wind & Sky Productions.Contributors
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In this extended interview Uncle Bryon Powell, Wadawurrung Elder and Chair of Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation, discusses the significance of bark canoes, the impacts of colonisation and the changes to the river landscape for Wadawurrung (Wathaurung) people, and hypothesises what life must have been like for a Wadawurrung man who helped a white domestic servant cross the Barwon River in the 1840s.
Bryon Powell: I think this is the rowing course, isn't it? Yes, it is. That's what this road is for. They row up and down here. This is where they have Henley on the Barwon.
This river has changed dramatically since settlement. Now it's very controlled. There's not much water flowing down it. This has changed.
Lucinda Horrocks: I'm Lucinda Horrocks, and I'm here with Uncle Bryon Powell, who is Chair of the Wadawurrung Corporation. Why are we here, Uncle Bryon, and where are we?
Bryon Powell: We're here to talk about canoes, their use, and the interaction with early settlers, and how it's a much maligned history, because Aboriginal technology was very scantly recognised. Yet we're here right in the place where it played an important part in the early settlers' lives. We are sitting on the Barwon. Do you know what Barwon means?
Lucinda Horrocks: No, what does Barwon mean?
Bryon Powell: Remember when we walked over here. What was that bird that was right beside us?
Lucinda Horrocks: A magpie.
Bryon Powell: Yeah.
Lucinda Horrocks: That's a Parwan?
Bryon Powell: Yes.
Lucinda Horrocks: That's a Barwon?
Bryon Powell: Yes.
Lucinda Horrocks: It's the Magpie River.
Bryon Powell: Yeah. The river was given that name, but it's a corruption of Parwan. If you think about how people heard a language that they had never heard before, and wasn't written down, if someone said, "Parwan," or, in our language, it sounded very similar to Barwon. If somebody says, "Ah, what's that over there?" Pointing at the river. The guy was looking at the magpies, "Barwon." It happens. It happens in a lot of places.
We're sitting on the Barwon, just south of Geelong, and looking at a very changed landscape. We're here to talk about canoes.
Lucinda Horrocks: We've got a story that goes back to this landscape, not far from where we're sitting now.
Bryon Powell: Why didn't it occur right here?
Lucinda Horrocks: Or did it?
Bryon Powell: Well, we don't know that.
Lucinda Horrocks: I will read out this extract that we have, and then I'll get you to give me your perceptions and your thinking about the meaning of this story. This is a story from ... it was written in 1904, but it refers to a story that happened a lot earlier, we think happened in maybe the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s.
I quote. “How quickly the Aborigine could improvise the means of crossing a deep stream may be told, perhaps, in the words of an old domestic who was in the employ of the late Dr Thompson when the incident occurred. Her story has been preserved by Mrs W Shaw. At the particular time, Dr Thompson lived at Kardinia, on the south side of the Barwon” not far from where we are now.
“His servant passed over to the north side on a visit to some friends in the township, Geelong, where she remained rather late. On her return, before reaching the river, it was quite dark and she lost the track.
“I wondered about for some time, not knowing which way to turn, then I was attracted by a fire on what is now called Bucklands Hill. I made for it hoping to get help. As I neared the fire, two or three dogs bounded towards me, barking loudly. In an instant I was surrounded by a number of Aboriginals, each holding a tomahawk in his hand. I was greatly alarmed, and could scarcely speak, but knowing that Dr Thompson had been very kind to the natives, I called out, "I've lost my way. I want Dr Thompson's."
“Immediately, one of them in his own language, ordered the others away, and seizing me by the arm pulled me off at a pace I could scarcely keep up. We were soon on the bank of the Barwon, where the native with his tomahawk cut a large piece of bark from a tree, and in less time than it takes me to tell, placed it on the water, laid me on it, and plunged into the river beside me. I was conscious of being slowly paddled across the stream. All the time I could feel his hot, naked body touching my face, and hear his heavy breathing. Soon I was lifted up on the other side, and, in the same manner, almost dragged on until we reached Kardinia. The Doctor rewarded the native by giving him food to take back to the camp.
“A few evenings afterwards, I chanced to look up at the window and saw a black face smiling at me. I recognized at once, my rescuer. I called the Doctor, who once more rewarded the native with plenty of food, but made him understand that he was not to come again.'”
Bryon Powell: A couple of points in that. The emphasis on the hot, naked body. Not your usual Victorian way of writing, is it?
Lucinda Horrocks: Not at all.
Bryon Powell: The canoe itself, to be able to make a canoe just to cross a river. The old River Red Gums that were along here. You could strip the bark off it fairly quickly, and to be able to strip a length of bark six, seven feet long, would only take five, ten minutes, if that.
Lucinda Horrocks: Which is what she said. She says, ‘In less time than it takes me to write this, or say this,’ so really, really quickly.
Bryon Powell: Now, the bark itself, in that situation will float. No need to shape it or put it over a camp fire to heat it and shape it. Depends how he sealed the ends. Would have been easy. It still comes back to ... I'm intrigued with why she would write 'hot, naked body.' It's not something that was written in those days.
Lucinda Horrocks: No. It's very unusual, and it's a memory that she's preserved too, so this is related to ...
Bryon Powell: He must have been a good looking fellow. Don't forget, he was naked. In those days they were very modest, had heaps of layers of clothing, so yes, it would have stood out in the mind. Then, to be rewarded for doing that, and for him to come back a couple of days later to be given more food. Yeah, I can see why he did it.
Lucinda Horrocks: Do you think he came back to visit her? Or he came back for food?
Bryon Powell: It would have been food. It would have been food, of course. Then again, I can't really say that, because interaction between Wadawurrung people and early settlers was fraught with danger. Ask yourself, why did he grab her and tell the others to go away? What was he thinking? Was he protecting her? I know at that stage there was a lot of ... 1830s ... late 1830s, 1840s, there was a lot of killing happening of Aboriginal people. There was a lot of animosity. If he saw her as someone who needed help, obviously he was a man of influence, because the others would not necessarily have just gone away.
Lucinda Horrocks: It's a pretty generous act to take that amount of time and effort to show someone who's lost, particularly someone who represents such a risk to you to help her.
Bryon Powell: It does. It's out of the ordinary. Yeah, it's interesting. It had a huge affect on her.
Lucinda Horrocks: Yeah, she remembered it. She remembered it her whole life.
Bryon Powell: Now, interesting, does it say how old she was when she recorded the story, or when it happened?
Lucinda Horrocks: No. We know that the story was written down in 1904, but it was written down by a man who interviewed Mrs Shaw, who had heard the story from the domestic, so it's a second hand account of something that happened fifty, sixty years before it was written down.
Bryon Powell: Well, that's strange in itself, because even in 1904, to talk about a hot, naked body was very risqué. It's an amazing story, and it had such an effect on the woman.
Lucinda Horrocks: How does the story affect you personally? What's your personal response to it?
Bryon Powell: I'd just like to know who the man was, because my great, great grandfather ... my great grandfather was an Aboriginal man who had two wives. Both of them were white. Now, my grandma was born 1899 to his second wife. His first wife, I think was ... I think they were married in the 1870s, or 1880s. 1880s. Even then, for a white woman to marry an Aboriginal man was really going against the norm. It would have been frowned on. Considering that there was a surplus of men around, so women were in great demand, so for him to do that, and for her to actually live with him out in the bush; not allowed to go into the city, into the towns. Not allowed to live on the missions. They were strong women.
I'm just thinking, who is this man that helped this lady? I know he was related to me, but was it a family trait?
Lucinda Horrocks: It just questions everything, doesn't it, about your perceptions ... our perceptions of history, and what actually happened in those times? These stories.
Bryon Powell: Well, it does, because everything I know talks about struggles between Wadawurrung people and the settlers. Actually wars, massacres, shootings, killings. My old people were shot for stealing sheep when all they were doing was trying to feed themselves, and considering that all the roos and emus and native animals had been driven away, so they had to eat. One animal was just food. There wasn't that ownership that you think about today when people say, "Well, they're my sheep." I know my great grandfather. I think it was my great grandfather, or great, great grandfather, I think he was done for horse rustling. He spent time inside. The ownership of animals wasn't there. The ownership ... the western perception of ownership wasn't there. Animals were there to be used for food and resources.
Lucinda Horrocks: Talking about resources, bringing us back to the river again, rivers were one of the first places that Aboriginal people and Wadawurrung people were cut off from, wasn't it? It was also one of the richest areas that sustains life really.
Bryon Powell: Well it is. Have a look just over the front here, down in the water. You've got water ribbon. Across the other side you've got cumbungi growing, which was another food. You've got the fish, you've got the birds. I can guarantee, around here, along this alluvial terrace, there are old campsites. This is like a supermarket and a chemist shop. The water sustains life. Once you move back into the hills, the resources tend to drop off, so most of the living ... 80% of the living was done along the waterways. Most of the travel was done along the waterways. That was our main source of water. We always gravitated to the waterways. Yeah, they are important. Very important.
Lucinda Horrocks: Aboriginal people could swim, colonists couldn't swim.
Bryon Powell: Isn't that amazing? They would put themselves on a boat and travel tens of thousands of miles by sea to come here, and they couldn't bloody swim. I think that's incredible. Yet they were supposed to be able to colonise this great land, and explore this great land, they had trouble crossing rivers. They have to rely on Aboriginal people to get them across. To me it's just amazing that they survived at all.
Lucinda Horrocks: Yeah.
Bryon Powell: I just find it incredible that early settlers came out here, didn't even think to look at how Aboriginal people survived, and what you say made of the land. Then had the audacity to say there is no food here. Yet, they were in a supermarket. That shows you how much, or what value they placed on Aboriginal people and their knowledge. Yet, today they are valuing our medicines and our foods a hell of a lot more, because they are suddenly realizing that we had to live within the environment. We had to live as part of the environment, part of the landscape. They are starting to see those methods of living now, and especially the way we cared for the environment, as extremely important to ensure the survival of modern society.
Lucinda Horrocks: Even stories like these are telling us that even back then there was a reliance on Aboriginal knowledge, and know how, and skills, that's kind of been forgotten since then. Just the very fact that you needed to use an Aboriginal canoe to get across the river. That was the only way you could get across many rivers. That you could get goods across, that you could get people across.
Bryon Powell: Yeah. If you have a look at the history of settlement in this country, always in the background you will see, or know of, Aboriginal people that supported those settlers. One of the best stories is about the gold rush in the 1850s, and how, if it wasn't for my family, my old people, the gold rush probably wouldn't have happened, and the miners wouldn't have survived. Down here, in their quest to get to the Western Plains, had to use Aboriginal people to ferry their goods across the river. Not only that, it was places like the Werribee, they used old fords, and fish traps to cross the Werribee.
They used the old walking tracks. I know if you look at some of the walking tracks, you'll find some of those are now modern highways. The old original walking tracks. Things like South Gippy [Gippsland] Highway, Calder Highway, they are old walking tracks. The Midland Highway heading up between Geelong and Ballarat, old walking tracks. They used Aboriginal guides that showed people how to move across country. I'm still amazed about Burke and Wills.
Lucinda Horrocks: Yeah.
Bryon Powell: They walk across country, they take Aboriginal people with them, and yet they starve. The Aboriginal people with them were standing their scratching their heads going, "What are these silly buggers doing?" They wouldn't eat Aboriginal food. Yet, you can look at the food, some if it is the best food you can get, it's just different to western food, it's different to European food, but then so are other cultures, and they valued them, but never valued Aboriginal people. Still don't.