Yingabeal is the name of a scarred tree in the grounds of Heide Museum of Modern Art in the suburb of Bulleen, Victoria.
This film talks about how Yingabeal became a scarred tree, and its importance as a marker tree at the intersection of many songlines. Discover how these songline pathways became well-worn and eventually became some of the roads we know today, and how Yingabeal may be the most significant scarred tree in Melbourne.
UNCLE BILL NICHOLSON: In Victoria, for a tree to qualify as a traditional scarred tree, it must be at least 165 years old, and a species indigenous to the area.
DUGALD NOYES: It would have evidence of Aboriginal cultural significance, meaning that, at some stage material has been removed to fashion some form of implement or canoe.
Scarred trees get their name from the fact that a scar is left on the tree this was generally done on the south-eastern side of the tree which helped aid in the healing process of the scar, which will eventually close over by the trees natural defenses of healing.
Scarred trees generally occur in groups of three we know of another sister tree down on the corner of Manningham Road and Bridge Street.
DR JIM POULTER: Well the scarred tree at Heide, as far as I'm aware, is six or seven hundred years old and apart from having had a canoe carved out of it at some stage, perhaps a few hundred years ago, it also fulfills the role of what's known as a marker tree, and a marker tree may be a scarred tree, a spiral tree, it may be two trees tied together, which marks a travel route known as songlines.
And this tree is very important because it actually marks the convergence point of songlines that head in five different directions.
So it's probably the most important marker tree in Melbourne.
UNCLE BILL NICHOLSON: So Yingabeal means, 'yinga' means 'sing' or 'song' and 'beal' is our name for the 'red gum'. So I suppose you could translate that into Songtree or Singtree. Aboriginal people all over Australia did not use a written culture, we communicated in other ways.
Some of those ways were through storytelling, through example, through art, and through song, and through dance. Singing, or being taught different songlines, as we called them, was a way to help with your memory.
As we all may realise, our favourite music, our favourite songs, we normally memorise the lyrics and the beat, and that's why we are attracted to that type of music. In the traditional culture, it was a way of memorising the landscape around you, where to travel, how to travel through the landscape, where important aspects of the landscape may be.
And there were actually marker trees out there, very similar to your road signs that you'll find on the side of your road, giving you advice of what you should do when you're driving the car.
Well these marker trees could give you advice, everything from burial sites, areas of boundary, areas of birthing places. Pretty much they're all relevant on our significant sites of culture for information - what people need to travel through the landscape.
DR JIM POULTER: A songline, it's called a songline because Aboriginal people used songs, as part of their navigational system. In a sense, it was very like modern cars GPS system, which tells you 'turn left in 200 metres' etc.
But the Aboriginal song would say things like 'turn left at the scar tree at Heide', 'go down to the ford at the river at Warringal Park', 'go up Burgundy Street to the top of the hill, then follow, Bell Street.. cross over Darebin Creek, cross over Merri Creek, Moonee Ponds Creek...' you know.
All of these instructions would be actually coded into a song, and before you had to go somewhere, you had to learn the song.
UNCLE BILL NICHOLSON: Well, unfortunately, due to the heavy impacts of colonisation on Wurundjeri culture, I have not been taught any traditional songlines. But aspects of it are, information you need to know for your survival, and cultural protocol I suppose.
If you're a man, you don't go near a woman's birthing area for instance, so that may be a part of the songline. A boundary marker to let young people know when they travel over these boundaries, that they are in someone else's country, and there are certain protocols they must respect. So it would have been very important, I suppose, life skills - taught to you when growing up in a traditional childhood into young adult hood, and then having those skills taught to you, and having those skills and knowledge as an adult, and songlines was part of conveying that knowledge from the elders.
DR JIM POULTER: The thing about songlines is that they stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, so just as we have to have a passport when travelling through other countries, Aboriginal people had passports too, and if you were going through another tribes country, then you had to sing the song of the songline, in their language, and that was your passport. Of course, if you were not on the songline and skulking around, you could be arrested, and deported or worse.
And as well as singing the directions on a songline, there's also a process called 'singing country', where you just sung in praise of the country, so if you were travelling through another tribes land, and you actually didn't know their language, if you just 'sang country'
as you went through, you would still be safe.
KENDRAH MORGAN: The interesting thing is that the songlines are like gentle paths through the landscape, that the colonists and settlers also used. So as they were used more continuously, they became broader paths, and roads, that we probably now use today.
So in many ways the Indigenous history is embedded in the landscape. We're pretty sure that one of the songline tracks existed at Heide when John and Sunday moved here, and they used to use it to take the cows from the milking shed down to the river at the river crossing.
And I guess in that way, the songline became part of the daily rhythm of John and Sunday's lives here at Heide.
DR JIM POULTER: In looking at the Heide scarred tree, I would estimate that the original scar was about 3 metres long, so it would have been a 3 metre long canoe, for punting around the river flats in the area. And you can tell that because once the cut is made, the bark starts to regrow and you can tell where the regrowth is because it crowns around the scar as it pushes towards and to limit the size of the scar.
You can also tell the highest point and the lowest point of the scar, by looking at where that crowning of the bark, of the new bark, goes. So, originally it would have been a metre wide, by about 3 metres long.
UNCLE BILL NICHOLSON: Wurundjeri traditional culture - we had one of the more, I suppose, valued assets in south-east Australia. It's called the green stone, green stone was quarried about 130km from where we're standing today, at a place called Wil-im-ee Moor-ring - or Home of the Axe. Well, today they call it Mount William.
Those particular axes would be made into a stone axe with a handle, and binded by sinew and glued together with a grass tree glue or sap. Those axes would then be used to create an outline of the bark shape that you're after, so a large canoe would be probably one of the larger pieces of bark we'd take, or a shelter. Everything down to small bowls, and drying boards and things like that.
But the bark was removed to the hardwood, the tree would not suffer for that as it was not ringbarked, and the would continue to grow and eventually heal over the scar.
If you look at the old red gums, they've got big gnarly sort of, bubbles on them, I suppose you could say. We cut them off and hollowed them out, so we'd use the axes to cut them off, hollow them out with stone chisels and so forth, and that could create a bowl of all different
shapes and sizes, for all different purposes.
Here in Victoria, it's hard to say how many Aboriginal people lived before Europeans arrival. Before they arrived anyway, their diseases had impacted us very quickly. So when they arrived, we were - population wise, and culturally wise - fairly decimated as it was.
So for knowledge to be passed down, even from the early beginnings was not easy. Then unfortunately, as part of assimilation policies that were created shortly after European arrival, speaking language and practicing culture actually became illegal.
So for someone like me, born 150 years later, really keen to know my culture and how my old people utilised their resources, and those magnificent skills they had, of utilising the resources - it's not easy.
I find that a mixture of practice, oral history, research, and getting out on country, and getting to understand it. You can get a bit of a feel of the country and it's like that saying 'practice makes perfect', you can tell whether you're doing it the right way, or you do it a different way, or if it's the right season, or whatever it may be.
So to me, to be an Aboriginal cultural Elder, or an Aboriginal Elder today, and that's my identity, I believe that we want to bring our culture back strong for our future generations, so that they can be proud of who they are.
DR JIM POULTER: I've come to know about songlines and a lot of Aboriginal heritage and history because my forebears first settled in Wurundjeri country in 1840 and established very close relationships with the local Aboriginal people, and lots and lots of stories have been passed down my family. And also, we have continued to have intergenerational relationships with Aboriginal families, so we've also had access to Aboriginal oral history as well.
But one of the things that happened, when tribal life was ending in the early 1850s, Simon Wonga, the head man of the tribe, decided to organise one last corroboree. Before that happened, he sent a bunch of boys on an initiation trip to Hanging Rock. And because my great grandfather and brother had immersed themselves in tribal life and learnt the language, they were taken with them.
And it wasn't until many years later I was being told one of the stories by my great uncles about how their father had gone to Hanging Rock, and he made the simple comment 'they sang all the way'. And it took me years to figure out, actually, that they had to learn the song to Hanging Rock. They travelled from Templestowe all the way to Hanging Rock, and sang the song. And of course, to come backwards, to come back, they had to sing the song backwards.
DUGALD NOYES: I'm the head gardiner at Heide, basically, one of my charges is to look after the health and wellbeing of Yingabeal. Yingabeal is actually protected under State legislation under the Aboriginal Heritage Act of 2006. As a river red gum, obviously water is crucial in its health, so during the spring and summer seasons it's my job to make sure that it gets adequate watering, this also helps reduce summer limb drop, a phenomenon where eucalyptus will shed large branches to try and conserve water.
This area of Bulleen was originally the possum farming area for Wurundjeri, they certainly did a good job, we do have a lot of possums here at Heide. This is why we have to have a guard on Yingabeal to stop them eating all of the leaves. Possums are creatures of habit and they tend to pick on one tree. In the past, Yingabeal was completely denuded of foliage, which is not good for the health of the tree.
UNCLE BILL NICHOLSON: I'm standing here near the songtree Yingabeal, it gives me a sense of pride, in the fact that I'm probably standing very close to where one of my ancestors did many hundreds of years ago, in creating this scar that we can see on the tree.
And I always consider, I always try to teach young children or anyone who is willing to listen, if you consider this place your home, you are walking on the footsteps of my ancestors, and really I encourage everybody to learn about the place you call home, and help us all look after it.
Story education resources
Education Education Kit: Yingabeal: Indigenous Geography at Heide
This unit of work has been designed to fulfil the content requirements of the Victorian Curriculum (History) Year 7 & 8 topic entitled ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Cultures’. It focuses on the Scarred Tree at Heide Museum of Modern Art as a starting point for discussing concepts such as Indigenous geography and wayfinding, Indigenous customs and traditions, food and resources and the importance of preserving Indigenous artefacts and intangible heritage.
This education resource will assist students to develop their knowledge of Indigenous culture and the issues that threaten contemporary Indigenous heritage.