Uncle Bryon Powell Interview Part 2 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 2. Produced by Wind & Sky Productions.Contributors
CC-BY-ND-NC 4.0 This audio interview is licenced for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence. You are free to share, copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes so long as you give appropriate credit and make no modifications or edits to the material.Copyright
Wind & Sky Productions.
In this extended interview Uncle Bryon Powell, Wadawurrung Elder and Chair of Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation, discusses the values of Wadawurrung people, the loss of story as a result of colonisation, and continues to speculate on the lives of the two people, the white domestic servant and the Wadawurrung man, who met on the Barwon River in colonial Geelong.
Lucinda Horrocks: This story about the domestic servant who gets taken across the river by the Wadawurrung man. What does that tell you about the Wadawurrung experience in those times?
Bryon Powell: Well, it shows to me the value. The values that the old people had. For this man to send the others away, and then look after this woman and help her, shows me that he respected other people. I know within our culture, women were respected and valued, extremely. The white settlers didn't. Even today, we still have a legacy of superiority of men compared to females. Women are still fighting for their rights. Yet we had equality. We had equality years before it was even thought of in the western world.
For this man to help this woman, I think shows a basic human respect for other people. To do it at a time when his countrymen were getting killed, were dispossessed of their land, their whole life was changing so dramatically, and you remember, the time of first contact to the time when their traditional ways were changed forever, was only about ten to fifteen years. In that time, Wadawurrung people had gone from living in a landscape where they made all their own tools, and used all the resources, to their traditional way of life being gone forever; fifteen years. Yeah, fifteen years. Ten to fifteen years. Massive change. People find it hard to deal with change today. Imagine what my old people went through, to have that change, not of their choice, but thrust upon them. To be moved off their land, to be in an area where you have been living, and your family has been living for thousands of years, if you can imagine ... Let me ask you. If you owned a house and a bit of land, and it was passed down from generation, to generation, to generation, then all of a sudden, someone came in and said, "Get away from here, get out of it. This is mine now." How would you feel?
Lucinda Horrocks: Angry and ... violated.
Bryon Powell: Absolutely. Just think if you had a veggie garden, and some livestock on your property, and that was just run off and destroyed, and this new person that came in, said, "Okay, I'm going to give you some tea, flour and sugar. That will be your staple diet, and we will give it to you out of the goodness of our hearts, because you are primitive. You don't know what's good for you. You don't know how to live."
Lucinda Horrocks: What do you think we should take out of this particular river crossing story?
Bryon Powell: One, that Aboriginal people, especially Wadawurrung people, were human and had values, principles, and ideals. We weren't just primitive, natives wondering across the landscape. That's shown in the story. It's shown that we did care about people, we did have those values of respecting people, and valuing them. Even though it wasn't returned.
I still want to know what she was thinking, though, about this hot, naked body. How could she write that in those times? Must have been a very risqué story.
Lucinda Horrocks: Yeah, there's more to it, isn't there? You want to find out what her life was like.
Bryon Powell: Did she chase him? Did she follow him up?
Lucinda Horrocks: Well, he came back to visit her. Maybe she wanted to ... Yeah.
Bryon Powell: Yeah, maybe he did. Maybe he saw something in her. Did she ever marry?
Lucinda Horrocks: I don't know.
Bryon Powell: Did they get back together? They don't tell you that. Just the story of the crossing. It's so intriguing because of that one comment that changes the whole story from just someone who helped me across the river; it just opens it up to so many other scenarios that you think, "Well, what if?" I'd love to talk to that old lady, and find out what happened after. Did she ever go back and find him? Did she ever talk to him? Did she ever get to know him? It would be interesting, it really would. It's a tremendous story. I think it's a story that just shows that in amongst all this huge change that was happening, not only for Wadawurrung people, but for settlers who came here. How alien was this world? How could they survive here?
Within that, you have these small stories, these small photographs of life where things happen out of the ordinary. Something so simple as being helped across a river. You think about people like Gellibrand who set off from Bellarine and went down to the Western District. He was never seen again. Nobody knows what happened to him. The other two convicts that escaped from Sorrento with William Buckley, came around here when they got to Indented Head. They went back but nobody ever heard of them. They never got back. Buckley survived, but we don't know what happened to them. Buckley was lucky. He picked up the Spear of Murrengurk, and it was because of that spear that the women thought he was a Murruck, a spirit. A white spirit of Murrengurk.
They looked after him. They cared for him. They took him in, treated him like royalty. He didn't have to eat. He didn't have to hunt or go collecting for his food. It was all given to him. He was treated like royalty, a special guest. Yet people say, "He survived." That gets me angry.
Lucinda Horrocks: Yeah. "I survived on the most ideal life."
Bryon Powell: Yes. Survived ... he was kept alive, and looked after, because of the accident of picking up a spear that belonged to a well known warrior.
Lucinda Horrocks: Now it goes back to what you said before, it's human stories, and that's when it becomes interesting, isn't it? That's like this one and the river, it's not just a river crossing, it's these two humans having a human reaction to each other.
Bryon Powell: It is. I always try and put myself in those situations. What would I do? Just imagine what that man must have been going through. There was three of them. They had a couple of dogs and they all came down. He took it upon himself. Did she say she feared?
Lucinda Horrocks: She says, she 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 Doctor Thompson had been very kind to the natives, 'I called out, I have lost my way. I want Doctor Thompson's.'" So yeah, she was scared.
Bryon Powell: She was scared, but she called out. She didn't say she called out in Wadawurrung. She didn't know Wadawurrung language. Would those men have known ... could they speak English?
Lucinda Horrocks: They must have been able to understand.
Bryon Powell: Or was the key, Mr Thompson? Doctor Thompson. What's the first thing you do when you meet someone? You introduce yourself. It's the same with Aboriginal people. You may not remember everything that's said, but you remember key words. If Doctor Thompson treated the natives with respect and kindness, that would be seen as a generous act, and a friendly act. If she called his name, even though you couldn't understand any other words, you'd think, "Ah, Doctor Thompson." Great, let's get him back.
As I said, they were strategic thinkers. They would have been worried about losing their land, access to their food, access to their resources, and the old people realized very quickly that their life was changing, and they needed to adapt. If they didn't adapt, they were going to become extinct. The one thing about Wadawurrung people, the whole premise of the tribe. The purpose of the tribe is survival.
Lucinda Horrocks: Do you have any stories from the Wadawurrung side of the way canoes were used, and how do you get those stories?
Bryon Powell: Unfortunately, most of the stories we have are stories like this one, that come out of the old historical documents. One of the things that happened 1850s, 1860s, was the movement was to take Aboriginal people and put them onto missions. From there, once they were on the missions, they were controlled very strictly. They weren't allowed to speak the language, weren't allowed to tell the stories, sing the songs, teach the dances. It was cultural genocide. Now I know my Nan, had eight kids, no, seven kids. She only taught one of them to speak the language, and that was the youngest boy, Uncle Laurie. Even when Nan married Pop, Pop was a Scotsman, if they talked together in language, Pop would get angry and would tell them to stop speaking that gibberish.
There really wasn't the opportunity for the stories to be told. A lot of the cultural knowledge has gone. We are learning it back. How do we learn it back? It's done through reading the history books, reading every scrap of information we have. Things like this story coming up. Reading settlers' diaries. Farm diaries, parish records, peoples' journals, but also we have amongst us, our neighbours who have very similar customs and traditions, and stories to us. We know from our neighbours, we can glean pieces of information, such as some of our song lines, some of our stories crossover several peoples' country. They still have parts of their stories, so we listen to that and they tell, in their stories, how we were. We're learning from that. We're trying to recover what was taken from us, or was tried to be destroyed. We will never have it all. We can't replace the knowledge. We can't find that information ... all the information again.
Unfortunately, it wasn't valued. Our history, our beliefs, our spirituality. Even our names for this place ... places such as this, this bend of the river. They weren't considered important. Where we told our stories to each other, and passed it down, early settlers didn't consider it important. They used what they wanted. The rest of it was just native flim-flammery. And because they didn't value us as people, they didn't value our beliefs, our laws, our lifestyle, our history. Which was unfortunate, but we survived. We are still learning, and we're getting stronger. Hopefully, my daughter, my grandson, will learn a little bit from me, and if they can continue on that will be great. At least I'll have done my bit.
Lucinda Horrocks: You've done a lot already. I was just wondering, coming full circle back to the river, back to our journey on the canoe, what's the significance of the Aboriginal canoe? Why is it important? Why should we remember it in stories like this?
Bryon Powell: Why is it significant? Why is it important? Have a look at the river. If we didn't have canoes, if we didn't have boats, how would you get across it? Where would the early settlers have been without canoes? As you say, they didn't know how to swim. Would they have taken much longer to colonise? I look at the river, I don't see a river, I see a source of life, I see a place where I can come along, and I can get food, I can get resources to live on.
And I like to think about how this would be ... What this stretch of river would look like, if we did it the old way. If we got rid of all the introduced species, and I'm talking about the introduced species of trees as well that come from other parts of Australia. If we went back to fire stick farming, what would this river look like?
I know this has been changed dramatically so people can enjoy the river, and this section has been set up and manipulated to use for rowing. How's that? Canoes, rowing. It just connected.
Lucinda Horrocks: It doesn't change, does it?
Bryon Powell: You asked me about the significance of canoes. Well, we're on a stretch of river that is used for sport and recreation for rowing. Oh bloody hell. Maybe we can introduce a new category of rowing? Make your own bark canoe and row up the river.
Lucinda Horrocks: Absolutely. See how far you get. I like it.
Bryon Powell: Yeah.
Lucinda Horrocks: What would you ... Thinking now about our overall project, which is really about these river stories, and about the simple Aboriginal canoe. You could call it simple, I don't think I could make one, but the Aboriginal canoe.
Bryon Powell: Yes you can. I can show you how to make a canoe.
Lucinda Horrocks: Please. I'd love it. Yes.
Thinking about that, and the contribution, just the fact of all of the people and the animals and livestock and goods that were ferried across rivers, in colonial Victoria by Aboriginal people on Aboriginal canoes, what would you like to be said as part of this project?
Bryon Powell: I think it comes down ... this project needs to point out that we don't judge people by our standards. Every person should be valued for the contribution they make to society. If we apply those values to everyone we see equally, I think the world will be a better place. It really would. If we valued each other as much as we value ourselves. I think so. I think it would.
Lucinda Horrocks: Thank you.
Bryon Powell: You're welcome.