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NAIDOC Week – Day 1 Wurundjeri-wilam – White gum tree dwellers

Wurundjeri-wilam[1]– White gum tree dwellers

During this incredible year of challenges, sacrifice and suffering, we had opportunities to learn and connect with the land on which live and worked during lock down.

Kellehers office sits on Wurundjeri Country.  By chance, all our team’s home remote offices are also on Wurundjeri Country.

We’ve relished its beautiful calm quiet curfew nights, its earth and soils. Its many birds, whose songs and sounds filled the silence generated in lockdown, especially the native ravens, who became our friends.  We were close to the eucalypt trees, the wattles and the bushes that flowered as the seasons passed. 

We pay our respects to the People of Wurundjeri Country, its custodians, their Elders – and the incredible Elders of the past to whom we all owe so much.

Now we again celebrate NAIDOC week and use this week to learn, as a firm, more about the Country on which we live and work. We share our learnings and dispel some key myths that still persist when discussing Australia First Nations, in keeping with the  2020 NAIDOC theme:


Over the course of NAIDOC week, we will pay attention, learn about, share and respect Wirandjuri ancient history, hidden in plain sight. This is Australia’s major capital city.  All Australians should learn more if its scope and complexity, its stories, language and the impact of Narrm (Melbourne)[2] on its Indigenous community.

We welcome you to join our stories and share your experiences with us and know our beautiful Country more deeply, noticing its features, quirks and nuances – as we have from our daily COVID walks.

We are not experts and pay great respect, to the eminent WurundjeriElders currently advocating and educating so many about our deep history as a nation. To that end, we strongly recommend you take the 25 minutes to listen to Professor Aunty Joy Wandin’s welcome to her Country and her stories of women and sport:


With the spirits of her ancestors held sacred, she thanks them for looking after our Country and giving all Melbournians such a place in which to live.

The Wurundjeri

Humans have lived in Wurundjeri Country for at least 31,000 years, probably longer.[3] Bass Strait separated from the mainland only ~20,000BP.[4] The Wurundjeri-balluk form part of the Kulin nation’s ‘wurrung-speaking’ peoples.[5] The Koori (‘people’) of the Kulin nations, held the ancestral Estates in the Port Phillip region and spoke the language known as Woiwurrung.[6]

Woi means ‘no’ or ‘not’, the negative particle – so Woi-wurrung literally means language (‘tongue’ or ‘lip’) with Woi as its word for “no”.[7] We preference Woiwurrung in this article.  Give it a go!  It’s lyrical and perfectly describes our home.

The Kulin Koori have two moieties – Waa (‘crow’, ‘raven’) and Bunjil (‘eaglehawk’)[8].

Waa is protector of the waterways, rivers, creeks and billabongs, ensuring that fresh water would run and be plentiful supply for the people, birds and animals.’[9]

Bunjil, the creator spirit, made the earth and formed its creeks and rivers by cutting the earth with the large knife he always carried.’[10]

The Wurund’jeri are the Waa group.[11]

Wurundjeri country does not extend to the salt-water. As Aunty Joy says, Wurundjeri are freshwater People.

Wurundjeri-wilam means ‘white gum tree dwellers’[12]. A Wilam is ‘home’[13], ‘hut’ or ‘camp’[14]. Wurun is the manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) and Djeri is a grub, which lives in the bark of the Wurun[15].

Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta

The Wurundjeri People traditionally resided in three locations, named after their Ngurungaeta (‘elected headman’).[16] It was the Ngurungaeta who talked to John Batman.[17] At the time of first white occupation, the locations are understood to be:

  1. Billibellary’s mob – on the northern side of the Yarra River from the Maribyrnong River to Merri Creek (at its south) and Mt William (at its north). Billibellary was also known as Jika Jika;
  2. Bebejan’s mob – from the Merri Creek to the upper reaches of the Yarra River near Mt Baw Baw; and
  3. Jacky Jacky’s mob (also known as Borrunupton) – on southern side of the Yarra River from Gardiner’s Creek to northern slopes of the Dandenong Ranges.[18]

Billibellary was a leader who was actively recorded by many early Europeans. We include some sketches made of him and his family.

Billibellary’s wife

Billibellary himself sketched his own description of the Yarra River around 1840. The sketch is now held in the State Library of Victoria (located on Wurundjeri Country).

The name ‘Yarra Yarra’ was first recorded by surveyor John Helder Wedge in 1835. It does not refer to the Yarra River[19].

‘Curr [an early white man][20] … was told by Aboriginal people at Coranderrk that the river’s name was not Yarra Yarra but Bay.ray.rung. … John Green[21] … records Burr.erring as the Woiwurrung name for the Yarra River, after Brrering their word for river. According to Massola[22], … Boo.re.arm is the name of the Yarra River near Prahran, meaning ‘mist’[23].

Key features of Wurundjeri Country are Birrarung, Mirring-gnay-bir-nong[24] (Maribyrnong River), the sacred junction of Birrurung and Mirring-gnay-bir-nong, the junction with the Merri Creek and the Burnley Corroborree Tree.[25]

Billibellary’s sketch of the Yarra River


Paul Memmott’s review of Aboriginal architecture[26], includes photographs of Wurundjeri housing and settlements near the Yarra River. He notes that:

From the available evidence, it seems that for many Aboriginal groups, symbolism was seldom attached to shelters -… nor were they often embellished with any decoration.  … Domiciliary memories and experiences … were more regularly associated with specific campsites, their position in the cultural landscape, and the patterns of domiciliary behaviour and shelter design…

But there were many exceptions … Particular forms or designs or components of a shelter did carry particular symbolic meanings among certain Aboriginal groups… Shelters are also a constant reminder of the patterns of domiciliary behaviour enacted in camps.

Memmott notes the relationships between Aboriginal cosmologies and house/camp layouts recorded in other parts of Australia[27]

Early Melbourne photographers captured the scene[28].  The 1858 Fauchery photograph shows a house suitable for fine weather, with simple lean-to shelters made from large sloping sheets of rigid bark supported on ridge poles and struts.  Five or six different households cluster together[29].

Wurundjeri-willam circa 1858 one is by A.J. Fauchery

An 1880s photograph of Jackie Logan, ‘Old Mary’ and ‘Rosy’ shows a substantial house, in the shape of a triangular prism. A central ridge pole supports large sheets of rigid bark and sheets of bark are form ridge-capping along the top[30].

1880s photograph of Jackie Logan ‘Old Mary’ and ‘Rosy’

The Law

Aunty Joy beautifully described the ceremonies and the legal agreements required before any visitor entered Wurundjeri Country.  These agreements complied with Wurundjeri law (and lore) and included strict arrangements as to food and sickness, as well as detailed entry protocols[31].

 ‘The Law, which encompasses all things in the environment, including land, seas, waterways, flora, fauna, humans, sun, moon, constellations, etc.  The realm of Spiritual existence is not divorced from the material world, but embedded on it.  People and nature are one, whereas in Western thought these are separated’[32]

Ancestral Beings founded the laws of human society[33].

In 2017, those deeply important and nuanced laws that pre-date European occupation came full circle with the introduction of the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-Gin Birrarung Murron) Act 2017 (Vic).[34] That Act was the first legislation in to be framed in the words of a Victorian Indigenous language. It uses the Woiwurrung language of the Wurundjeri-balluk:

Manyi Birrarung murrondjak, durrung ba murrup warrongguny, ngargunin twarnpil

Birrarungwa nhanbu wilamnganyinu

Nhanbu ngarn.ganhanganyinu manyi Birrarung

Translated, this means ‘The Birrarung is alive, has a heart, a spirit and is part of our Dreaming. We have lived with and known the Birrarung since the beginning.  We will always know the Birrarung.’[35]

                                                                ALWAYS WAS, ALWAYS WILL BE

The speeches of Wurundjeri Elders to the Victorian State Parliament upon the passing of this historic law, record clearly that the Wurundjeri-balluk “always were, and always will be”. Elder, Aunty Alice Kolasa, named her Parliamentary Speech:

Yiookgen dhan liwik-al intak-kongi nganyinu ngargunin twarn

Translated, this means “Dreams of our Ancestors Hopes for our Future”.[36]

Take the 10 minutes to listen to this historic speech in Australian history:



[1] Sometimes Wilam is spelled as Willam. We adopt the former, relying on Murphy, Joy and Andrew Kelly, 2019, Wilam: A Birrarung Story, Black Dog Books an imprint of Walker Boos Australia Pty Ltd, New Town NSW, Australia. The name is sometimes translated as ‘White gum tree dwellers’, some sources also call the Wurundjeri-wilam, the Witchetty Grub People:

https:www.maribyrnong.vic.gov.au/Discover-Maribyrnong/Our-history-and-heritage/Aboriginal-Maribyrnong accessed 06112020.

[2] Nicholson, Mandy, 2018, Mandy Nicholson- Deadly Story, https://www.deadlystory.com/culture/my -stories/NAIDOC-week/Mandy_Nicholson accessed 05112020

[3] Presland, Gary, “Keilor Archaeological Site”. Online Encyclopedia of Melbourne (eMelbourne), retrieved 3 November 2008 via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woiwurrung#CITEREFPresland accessed 06112020

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woiwurrung#CITEREFPresland accessed 06112020

[5] https://www.vaclang.org.au/languages/woiwurrung.html accessed 05112020, citing Presland, G., 2001, Aboriginal Melbourne,Harriland Press, Melbourne.

[6] Alternative spellings used in various historical sources include Waverong, Waworong, Wawoorong,, Woiwurru, Wowurroong and Woiworung. https://www.vaclang.org.au/languages/woiwurrung.html accessed 05112020, citing Presland, G., 2001, Aboriginal Melbourne,Harriland Press, Melbourne.

[7] Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) https://www.vaclang.org.au/languages/woiwurrung.html accessed 05112020 citing Presland, G., 2001, Aboriginal Melbourne,Harriland Press, Melbourne.

[8] Howitt , A.W., 1904, The Native Tribes of South East Australia, Macmillan, London, 127.

[9] https://libguides.angliss.edu.au/IndigenousAustralia/terminology accessed 5.11.2020.

[10] Smyth, R.B., 1878, The Aborigines of Victoria: With Notes Relating to the Habits of the Natives of Other Parts of Australia, Vol 1, Victorian Government Printer, Melbourne, 423.

[11] Presland, G., 2001, Aboriginal Melbourne, Harriland Press, Melbourne, referenced in Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, Woiwurrung, https://www.vaclang.org.au/languages/woiwurrung.html  accessed 11082020

[12] Clark, Ian and Toby Heydon, 2004, A Bend in the Yarra: A History of the Merri Creek Protectorate Station and Merri Creek Aboriginal School 1841-1851, Report Series,, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, 8.

[13] Murphy, Joy and Andrew Kelly, 2019, Wilam: A Birrarung Story, Black Dog Books an imprint of Walker Boos Australia Pty Ltd, New Town NSW, Australia.


[15] Murphy, Joy,2016, Swinburne Commons, Swinburne University, https://commons.swinburne.edu.au/items/75815548-d5fd-4490-9fb3-90f9a9d1ca88/1/ accessed 05112020.

[16] Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) explains that the precise locations and relationships of these peoples is complex and still the subject of detailed research, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) https://www.vaclang.org.au/languages/woiwurrung.html accessed 05112020 citing Presland, G., 2001, Aboriginal Melbourne,Harriland Press, Melbourne.

[17] Billibellary and Bebejan and six other Wurund’jeri senior men met with John Batman several times.  On 6 June 1835, on the bank of a ‘lovely stream’, according to Batman’s diary, a treaty was signed.  It may not have been signed by any Wurund’jeri person.  Barak was a boy at this time and attended on 6 June 1835.https://en.m.wikipedia.or/wikiBatman%27s_Treaty. Accessed 06112020.

[18] Clark & Heydon, op cit 8. Also Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) https://www.vaclang.org.au/languages/woiwurrung.html accessed 05112020 citing Presland, G., 2001, Aboriginal Melbourne,Harriland Press, Melbourne.

[19] Clark & Heydon, op cit, 6.

[20] O’Callaghan, T., 1922, Place Names, in The Yarra Cooee, May, 48-51.

[21] In Smyth, R.B., 1878, The Aborigines of Victoria:With Notes Relating to the Habits of the Natives of Other Parts of Australia, Victorian Government Printer, Melbourne, 9.

[22] Massola, A., 1968, Aboriginal Place Names of Southeast Australia and Their Menaings, Lansdowne, Melbourne.

[23] Clark & Heydon, op cit 6.

[24] Maribyrnong City Council, Aboriginal Maribynong, https://www.maribyrnong.vic.gov.au/Discover-Maribyrnong /Our-history- and-heritage/Aboriginal-Maribyrnong accessed 08112020Mirring-gnay-bir-nong translates as ‘I can hear a ringtail possum’. 

[25] For other significant places https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woiwurrung#CITEREFPresland accessed 06112020

[26] Memmett, Paul, 2007, Gunyah Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, Australia.

[27] Memmott op cit, 234 and 235.  He notes ‘another set of architectural semantic associations in Aboriginal cosmological belief pertains to the interpretation of certain star constellations as containing the houses and camps of Ancestral Beings’ and includes (Figure 10.1, 235) a fascinating drawing adapted from an illustration by Phillip Clarke, South Australian Museum, that ‘depicts the Milky Way considered by the Ramindjeri people of the extended Lower Murray area to be ‘rows of huts, among which were heaps of ashes and ascending smoke’.

[28] Douglas T. Kilburn and A. J. Fauchery referred to in Memmott op cit 315.

[29] Memmett, op. cit. 153.

[30] Photograph by F. Kruger in mid-late 1880s at or near Yarra River in Memmott op cit 152

[31] Murphy, Joy, 2016, https://commons.swinburne.edu.au/items/75815548-d5fd-4490-9fb3-90f9a9d1ca88/1/ accessesd 05112020.

[32] Sutton, Peter (ed.), 1988, Dreamings: The art of Aboriginal Australia, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic.

[33] Tripcony, Penny, 1996, Too obvious to see: Explaining the basis of Aboriginal spirituality, conference paper presented to Australian Association of Religious Educators Conference, Gold Coast, October, qcaa.qld.edu.au/downloads/approach2/indigenous_read001_0708.pdf accessed 06112020., 4.

[34] https://content.legislation.vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-04/17-49aa005%20authorised.pdf

[35]Woi wurrung preamble to the Wilip gin Birrarung Murron Act, 2017 (Yarra River Protection Act, 2017), https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/wp-content/uploads/pdf/Wurundjeri_Woi%20wurrung%20preamble_b.pdf accessed 08112020

[36] Kolasa, Alice, 2017, Yiookgen Dhan Liwik – Al Intak-Kongi Nganyinu Twarn Dreams of our Ancestors Hopes for our Future, https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/wp-content/uploads/pdf/Wurundjeri_parliamentary_speech_download_a.pdf

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