Boonwurrung elder Aunty Caroline Briggs in a possum skin cloak (CREDIT: Sarah Rhodes).
“Our cloaks held the knowledge of who we are. They were used in our ceremonies and etched in designs that communicate our diverse and unique identities as the first peoples of this land.”
Alf Turner, Grandson of William Cooper, Yorta Yorta
The woman stands strong and tall, overlooking the vast expanse of land. She observes pensively, mapping out the journey back to her peoples.
She feels the soft texture of the inside of her possum skin cloak, running her fingers over the grooves etched on the inside of it, reminding her of her spirit and her protective relationship with her creator, Bunjil the Eagle.
Her baby son is strapped to her back, wrapped tightly in his own possum skin cloak, a cloak devised and created especially for him prior to his birth.
This cloak will stay with her son throughout his life, with possum pelts being added to his cloak as he grows, keeping him warm but also reminding him of his spirit, his totem, his peoples, his connection to the divine (life) and also will aid as an on-going protective force both practically and spiritually.
Possum skin cloaks were sacred, soft to the touch and exquisite to the eye, they were an individualistic cultural piece, handed down over generations and often times acquired from birth. Possum skin cloaks were considered highly important in cultural life.
“Possum skin cloaks were a part of our culture that enabled us to continue telling our stories; we would adorn them when travelling,” Aunty Caroline Briggs, Elder of the Boonwurrung people told Culture Victoria.
“Possum skin cloaks and (the craft of assembling and creating) is a legacy from our ancestors that we must honour. They did leave us these legacies and we need to learn to see them again.”
“This (possum skin cloak) is a living link to our heritage; (the reclaiming of the craft) continues the vision of who we are today,” she said.
Possum skin cloaks were both a sacred and a sensible item generally given to a child from birth, and made intricately with great care by grandmothers and mothers.
Believed to be unique to Victoria and certain parts of NSW where the climate is cooler, possum skin cloaks are made from hundreds of possum skin pelts and were sewn together with kangaroo sinew.
They were adorned with many images on the soft inside of the cloaks that would represent a persons’ traditional land, totems, family, language and significant stories of his/her clan. After the careful process of sewing the pelts and creating the sacred images the cloaks would be rubbed with ochre and animal fat in order to keep them protected from fray and the elements.
Possum skin cloaks were essentially synonymous with life; denoting a statement of family and kin, but growing in significant spiritual depths as a person aged.
Although sources vary, it has been said that there remain only five original possum skin cloaks left in the world; just another layer in the destruction of our culture post colonisation.
Museum Victoria holds two original possum skin cloaks; others are in international museums and possibly locked away in vaults.
It’s only very recently that our people have had access to an original clock of their ancestors; to touch and feel its softness and its energy, once worn by a relative many hundreds of years ago.
Four Victorian artists have been involved in the re-claiming of the craft of possum skin cloak-making for some years now when in 1999 they were able to view and touch two nineteenth-century cloaks initially worn by their ancestors; the artists were Treahna Ham, Lee Darroch, Vicki Couzens and Debra Couzens.
Feeling the magnitude of the moment, but also the intuitive energy of what had to be done; these four Victorian Aboriginal artists would not only re-claim and create their own possum skin cloaks; they would also pass it on to the youth, enabling our younger generations the chance to experience the significance of a possum skin cloak.
Just recently Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at the Melbourne Museum was in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) to develop a world-first project of reclaiming the art of possum skin cloak-making.
Artists Vicki Couzens, Esther Kirby and Maree Clark worked with up to thirty Aboriginal children to create two large-scale possum skin cloaks. These cloaks are now on display at Melbourne Museum as part of First Peoples; a permanent exhibition at the stunning complex.
Additionally one of the two original nineteenth-century cloaks is also currently on display.
The exhibition Naghlingah Boorais (Beautiful Children) allows for a contemporary cultural connection for the young Koori kids, who have since reported the project was vitally important to them, and the building of their proud identity.
“We were (even) buried in our cloaks; wrapped in our country,” Vicki Couzens, a pioneer in the re-claiming the craft of possum skin cloak making and a Gunditjmara/ Kirrae Whurrong artist said.
Yorta Yorta artist Treahna Hamm, who is now a Doctor of the Arts, completed a PhD last year that involved her devising, and making her own possum skin cloaks, several of which have been acquired by museums here and abroad.
“These cloaks aren’t just beautiful to look at and wear, they form a crucial function by telling stories of identity, of land, of clan and of culture."
“My PhD focused on retracting family and history; telling these stories from a range of different media – from traditional possum skin cloaks to digital storytelling,” she said.
“The different projects I did and the different media I used are all interconnected, just like our culture.”
Understandably making a cloak was a long and enduring process for our people; the skins would be collected then dried, salted and/or smoked for curing, then designs would be devised and created for the skins, and then they’d be meticulously sewn together with kangaroo sinew. They were generally worn by flinging one corner of the cloak over one shoulder and under the other then fastened together firmly across the chest or at the neck with a piece of bone.
Vicki Couzens in her piece, Kooramook Yakeen (Possum Dreaming) written for Culture Victoria, reflects on the first time she was able to see and touch an original possum skin cloak.
“After a time, we were called to gather around a large unopened box. As we gathered, the box was opened to reveal the Lake Condah possum skin cloak (collected by the museum in the 1870s). Laid bare before us, no glass display cabinet, no barriers. I was overwhelmed with emotion – awe, respect, love, connection, yearning- all of these emotions swirling around inside of me. Lake Condah is part of my Grandmother’s Country.
“It seemed, in that moment, that the Old People were standing there beside and around us. I felt as if the illusionary veils of time, space and place had thinned, dissipated and I could reach through and feel them, touch and see the Old People. It was a profound spiritual experience.”
Naghlingah Boorais is on display indefinitely as part of the Melbourne Museum’s large scale exhibition First Peoples.
For further information vivit: http://museumvictoria.com.au/bunjilaka/
© Kate Munro 2015