Indigenous St Kilda

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by Mary McConville

The Land – Then

Before the English colonised Australia the land was held by the Aboriginal people. Where modern day St Kilda stands were the lands held by the Yalukit Willam. They were part of the Boon Wurrung people of the larger Kulin nation. The Boon Wurrung people were coastal people holding land that made a 200 kilometre arc, ranging from the Werribee river to the Wa’moon (Wilson’s Promontory). The local people, the Yulakit Willam, were so named as Yulakit means river and Willam means home or dwelling. The St Kilda area was called Prahran, a name we have kept and further down in the Elwood and Point Ormond area the land was called Yuro Yuroke which means “place of the grinding stones”.

The land itself in St Kilda was described as parklike, with open woodlands and wetlands. The open nature of the landscape would have been shaped by the traditional Aboriginal practice of controlled mosaic burning. The park like nature of colonial St Kilda is shown by a painting owned by the NGV in Melbourne of a “Coast Scene St Kilda” painted by Thomas Clark in 1857. Thomas Clark is unusual in that he captured the light of the hot white sky. Many early colonial painters showed a landscape that was too dark and wet for Australia.

The land supplied the abundant bush tucker that fed the knowledgeable Aboriginal people. In such a water-rich environment, with its sea, rivers and wetlands there were fish, shellfish, eels, frogs and turtles and from the land there was gathered food such as myrnong. Myrnong are yam daisies and look like small dandelions. They have a nutritious tuber hidden underground and are quite common in suburban Melbourne.

Derrimut Arweet was the Clan Leader of the Yalukit Willam at the time of the Ngamadji (Whiteman) landing in the year of 1835. In the local language Ngamadji means “returned dead spirits”. The white colonists were considered to be ghosts because of their pale skin. Derrimut was a fully initiated tribal man and was much respected by his own people and his White neighbours for his diplomatic work between the Old People and the Newcomers.

The People – Now

St Kilda’s modern Aboriginal Elder is Arweet Carolyn Briggs who was the Australian Female Elder of the Year in 2011. She has founded several Victorian Aboriginal organisations, is a treasure trove of knowledge and stories and is a restauranteur who regularly serves bush tucker.

The Land – Now

Although St Kilda is now a bustling and built over suburb there are still spots where the local Aboriginal history is present. A notable spot is the ancient “Ngargee tree”. It can be found in Albert Park in the south eastern corner. It is a very old River Red Gum that may be 700 years old. The River Red Gums were an important part of Indigenous life. They supplied very tough wood used for weapons, tools, canoes and shields. The bark was using for making shelters and the leaves and resin for medicine. The tree itself was a haven for wildlife.

Another significant place is the West Beach Natural History Project which is to be found between the pier and the harbour, Catani Gardens and Beaconsfield Parade. The project contains the only surviving community of salt marsh and dune plants in St Kilda. In the last 20 years more than $200,000 has been invested in this project. Local plant species have been planted and maintained, fencing and seating made and a winding path 300 metres long gives access to the local community.

The Local Deities

Sometimes when you look up you will see Bunjil the Wedge Tailed Eagle floating over the land and the people. He is seen as the Creator Spirit and is accompanied by other deities – Gunawarra the Black Swan who is his wife, Pallian the bat who is his brother and Waa the Black Raven.

If you would like to know more about the Aboriginal history of St Kilda you can go to the Boon Wurrung Foundation at www.boonwurrung.org.au. You can also find out more at heritage.portphillip.vic.gov.au/Aboriginal_heritage/Yalukit_WillamThe_River _People_of_Port_Phillip.

 

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