State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 85 May 2010


Helen Gibbins
Possum Skins Cloaks: tradition, continuity and change

VERY FEW POSSUM SKIN cloaks or rugs made by the Indigenous people of southeastern Australia in the nineteenth century have survived to the present day. Fifteen are documented in the collections of museums throughout the world, including two in the Melbourne Museum.1 Archaeological studies undertaken at various locations throughout south eastern Australia have sought to shed light on the lifeways of Indigenous people that related to possum skin cloaks before the arrival of the Europeans. The journals and memoirs of nineteenth century settlers, missionaries and administrators make frequent mention of possum skin cloaks and rugs. Many record observing that possums were hunted, the skins pegged onto pieces of bark, scraped clean of flesh and incised with markings using sharp implements of shell or bone, and then sewn together. Before European settlement led to a disruption of traditional lifeways, the making of possum skin cloaks was part of a material culture that contributed to and expressed the emplacement of the Indigenous people on country. The removal of the Indigenous people from country onto missions and stations and the catastrophic population decline that followed led to many aspects of culture that relied on living on country falling into abeyance. The oral transmission of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next was difficult in the fragmented communities that survived. Yet the practice of making possum skin cloaks has survived.
The Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne has in its archives several possum skin cloaks made and decorated by artists in the 1980s and 1990s. However, cloak making experienced a resurgence more broadly after two Indigenous artists, Vicki Couzens (Kirrae Wurrong/Gunditjmara) and Lee Darroch (Yorta Yorta), saw two deteriorating cloaks in the Melbourne Museum. The Lake Condah cloak had been collected from south western Victoria in 1872 and the Maiden's Punt cloak from near Echuca in 1853.2 Vicki Couzens worked with Debra Couzens (Kirrae Wurrong/Gunditjmara) to research and remake the Lake Condah cloak and Treahna Hamm (Yorta Yorta) joined with Lee Darroch to remake the Maiden's Punt cloak. A detailed account of the journey of discovery made by these artists as they researched the old ways of cloak making and found new techniques when the old ways could not be replicated is given by Amanda Reynolds who documents the close connection the artists felt between the old cloaks and country.3 These artists went on to make cloaks that are significant for their families and communities. Their knowledge of cloak making was shared with Indigenous communities throughout southeastern Australia through the Possum Skin Cloak Project
which culminated in the production of 35 cloaks worn by Elders in the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006. In this article I will examine how making possum skin cloaks today is an expression of the perception of country and contributes to the construction of identity that emerges from a sense of place.


The concept of place extends beyond location in space. Casey takes a phenomenological approach to place that argues that any knowledge of the world begins with the information that comes through the senses.4 During the reconstruction of the old cloaks from Echuca and Lake Condah, the artists Lee Darroch, Treahna Hamm, Vicki Couzens and Debra Couzens were seeking the meaning of the designs they were reproducing. They were prompted to an understanding from what they saw in the physical qualities of their environment. Treahna Hamm relates:
I'm not too sure about the designs but to me it relates to the River – very much like a mapping. That's what it seems like – different areas along the River or special places. The River itself is very prominent in the design – the bend in the River ...When I go home on the River around Echuca, I can feel like I'm home – I'm completely home. And it's not actually just doing the (art)work – it's smelling the River, touching the trees, looking at everything, taking it all in with all your senses ...5
This description indicates how important the sensory input is to Hamm in her perception of the environment that holds cultural meaning for her. From the very first, awareness of the environment sense is made of it in ways that are culturally determined. Space is never without meaning. Space does not become place by the superimposition of meaning assigned by social institutions and cultural practices. Writing of the cultural link with the land in American Indian tribes, Basso explains the sense of place as a dynamic process between the physical environment and the deepest levels of the subconscious resulting in emplacement.6 The continual negotiation of the sense of self, identity and the sense of the physical world, each in terms of the other is discussed by several writers in the context of Australian Indigenous culture.
The nature of the reciprocal relationship between the physical environment and its inhabitants is indicated in the narratives of Indigenous groups throughout Australia. These narratives, referred to as Story or Dreaming, tell of the actions of Ancestral Beings that give rise to aspects of the physical environment and whose influence continues to the present. Story instils particular places on country with special characteristics and in the afterlife Story gives the Ancestors spiritual force. Stanner writes of the significance of narratives such as these in defining the social structures, the knowledge and the reasoning through which the physical environment is perceived by Australia's Indigenous people.7 The power of the spiritual realm is mediated through the authority
of the Elders who keep the knowledge of the relationships between the human and the non-human and the responsibility for rights and obligations that determine social action. Langton writes of the identity of the Bama people of eastern Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, for example, as spatialized beings.8 Each person carries as part of his or her identity a close association with particular elements of country and is the descendant of a line of Ancestors whose spiritual presence resides in the Story places on Country. The Bama people acknowledge that it is through the senses that the spirit world interacts with the living when they observe rituals and codes of behaviour such as adherence to particular colours of body painting or the practice of 'giving smell' to protect guests to country.9 Through the process of perception sensations from the physical environment reach the consciousness in a way that will emplace the subject at the very outset, from the first moment of awareness. Being emplaced, or being in place, is what occurs as the sensations are processed. Casey writes:
There is no knowing or sensing a place except by being in that place, and to be in a place is to be in a position to perceive it. Knowledge of place is not, then, subsequent to perception...but is ingredient in perception itself.10
The reception of information from the senses is passive and the act of perception involves a construction at the subconscious level by what Casey refers to as 'cultural and social structures that sediment themselves into the deepest levels of perception'.11 Langton also claims the primacy of place over space when she writes of 'the a priori significance of places, their spiritual meanings, which infuse all of (the) ordinary, and not so ordinary, but everyday experiences with a special sense of place'.12 The sense of self is not separate from the physical world but is embedded in and expressed though place.13 This dissolution of the boundary between the self the subject, and the environment in which the subject lives is written about by David and Wilson as 'lived space'.14 They write of the dissolution of the subject-object boundaries through participation in a subjective experience of that space. Items of material culture are part of that environment and relationships with such items contribute to the construction of identity and give expression to that identity through the social relationships that are enacted to bring the item into being as well as the way the item is used. A further example of the reciprocal relationship between people and place whereby artefacts of material culture, Ancestral Beings, country and the living exist in an emotional state to each other is described by Kearney and Bradley when they write of the Kundawira stones of the Yanyuwa people of the Gulf of Carpentaria.15 An object of material culture from the past brings with it the embodiment of the relationship of the spiritual world and the makers of the item. It is necessary to understand the relationships in the present to make sense of the relationships in the past.
When the possum skin cloak artists speak about the project to reproduce the old cloaks, there is a strong sense of connection with others in their community, both living and deceased. On seeing the old fragile cloaks Vicki Couzens said: 'It was a really strong
emotion from the cloak itself that the Old Ones were right there and everyone felt it'.16 They speak of the importance of consulting the Elders. Vicki Couzens sought guidance from her father while Lee Darroch said:
Because the cloak was really old and because it was owned by our whole Yorta Yorta tribal area, we had to get permission from a number of people to actually recreate it with a traditional design.17
Debra Couzens felt so strongly that the designs belonged to someone else that she would not allow anyone to actually put the cloak on.18 After researching and practising the skills required for cloak making, these artists continued sharing this knowledge with their families and communities throughout south eastern Australia.

Recent Cloak Making

The Tooloyn Koortakay 'squaring skins for rugs' collection of the National Museum, Canberra, includes artwork and tools associated with cloak making.19 Also displayed with the Tooloyn Koortakay collection when it was on display at the Melbourne Museum in 2006 were six cloaks made by Vicki Couzens, Debra Couzens, Treahna Hamm and Lee Darroch and members of their families. Having reclaimed and developed the making of possum skin cloaks as a medium of visual culture among contemporary Indigenous artists of south-eastern Australia, Vicki Couzens approached the organisers of the Commonwealth Games to be held in Melbourne in 2006 with the idea of the Possum Skin Cloak Project. With the approval of the Elders of a number of communities who comprised the Aboriginal Advisory Group to the Commonwealth Games Ceremonies, M2006, Regional Arts Victoria was approached to manage the project. Under the direction of Vicki Couzens and leading artists Treahna Hamm, Lee Darroch and Maree Clarke, Indigenous artists were trained and then placed in different language group communities across Victoria. This ensured that local knowledge and traditions were shared and incorporated into each cloak. The names of these communities are given in Table 1 and the geographical location of each appears in Fig. 1.
Journals were kept by many of the artists participating in this project and are a useful insight into the process of decision making by these communities and the progress of the cloak making. These journals are held at Regional Arts Victoria in Port Melbourne. The leading artists consulted with any members of the community who wished to be involved in making the cloak. Among all the groups participating in this project, the sources of imagery and the number of individuals involved varied enormously. In the journal for the Braiakaulung cloak for example, Lisa Kennedy, the artist for two cloaks of adjacent groups, the Braiakaulung and the Brataualung, documents searching through ethnographic and historical literature, gathering oral histories of older members of the communities, searching resources such as the Koorie Heritage Trust, the Cultural Site Register at Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, Bunjilaka at the
Table 1: The Language Groups of the Possum Skin Cloak Project20
Bangerang Yorta Yorta Dhudhuroa – North East 1
Boonwurrung Woi Wurrung Dharwurd Wurrung
Way Wurru – North East 2 Keeray (Girai) Peek Wurrung Gulidjan
Wotjobaluk Djargurd Wurrung Wathuarung (Ballarat)
Gadubanud Wathaurung (Geelong) Djadja Wurrung
Jardwadjali Djab Wurrung Braiakaulung
Brabralung Krauatungalung Bidawal
Brataualung Tatungalung Ladjiladji
Wergaia Yuyu (Ngindadj) Keramin
Jari Jari Wadiwadi Wembawemba
Dadidadi Muthi Muthi
Barababaraba Taungurung
Melbourne Museum, river charts, road maps, island maps, and fishing maps for significant information. Personal family stories of experiences in the past and present, creative interpretation of traditional designs and the creation of new designs were gathered. Many community members have ancestors from other places who, forced to move by the authorities, journeyed from south-western Victoria or New South Wales to become part of the community in the Latrobe valley. Stories of the journeys undertaken were included on the cloak. These family stories, and the oral histories collected from the older members of the community are narratives that construct social memory through which the past is viewed.
The cloak Maloga and Cummeragunja made by Treahna Hamm and Lee Darroch records historical events that are part of the social memory of the Yorta Yorta community. The artists' description states:
This cloak tells the story of the Yorta Yorta people, their moving away from the homeland of Dhungula to Maloga and Cummeragunja. Themes include the impact of European settlement and Christianity, the 'walk off' from Cummeragunja, the High Court of Australia finding against the Yorta Yorta native title claim and reconciliation.21
Motifs include footprints, trees, Christian crosses, head and shoulder shapes and shapes that resemble canoes. The cloak portrays significant events that have impacted on the lives of the Yorta Yorta people at the hands of European administration and their representation on the cloak contributes to social memory construction. Designs relating to social relationships are found on many of the cloaks.

Figure 1 Locations of communities participating in the Possum Skin Cloak Project Copyright Regional Arts Victoria.

Social relationships and spiritual connection to country are represented in Ngart Koorramook by Vicki Couzens and her daughters and bears the description:
This is the daughters' cloak, about the first part of our lives as young girls and daughters – the young growing from young child into young women. It is about the learning of our connection to our spiritual mother; the land, the air, the water, the fire.22
Several motifs are repeated on more than one skin including diamond shaped lattice designs, patterns of concentric circles around a central spiral shape and branching designs. Although another cloak, Ngeerang Kooramook, the Mother's Possum Skin Cloak by Vicki Couzens and three of her daughters who are also mothers – Jarrah, Yaraan and Marlee Couzens-Bundle – is accompanied by a statement relating to the importance of mothers in the community, it does not offer any explanation connecting the designs with the statement. The description reads:
The mothers are grandmothers in training. They are the providers of sustenance for the physical, nurturers of the emotional needs and spiritual teachers to our young. In this second part of their lives, the mothers take on more responsibilities and community life.23
This cloak of twenty-five skins is heavily decorated, many skins by more than one motif. Some designs are recognisable as hand outlines, adult and child, platypus, insect, birds and goanna. Some designs carry significance that is more esoteric. The Grandmothers' Possum Skin Cloak, Koorookee Koorramook, a thirty-skin cloak made

Figure 2 Yorta Yorta cloak, Possum Skin Cloak Project. Copyright Michael Carver.

by Vicki Couzens, is entirely decorated with designs that require cultural knowledge to relate to the following statement that accompanies this cloak:
The Grandmothers are the keepers of the family, kinship, knowledge and relationship, women's business, birth, death, the songs and the land. This cloak shows the Grandmothers' connection to daughters and grandchildren. It also depicts the three parts of a woman's life from young girl to woman and mother and then grandmother and wise woman.24
The application of the cultural knowledge of the artist or group of artists working on a cloak is a collaborative effort. The descriptions of Mothers Possum Skin Cloak, Ngeerang Kooramook and the Grandmothers Possum Skin Cloak, Koorookee Koorramook refer to cultural practices, the transmission of knowledge and changing roles through a woman's life. This sense of the linear progression of time from one point to another through a woman's life situates the woman in the spiritual realm that manifests itself in the women's environment in her role as spiritual teacher of the young. The descriptions accompanying these cloaks emphasise the social connection the Mothers and Grandmothers have in their community. The linear passage of time with its implications of physical locality and social emplacement is also evident in cloaks that have a historical narrative.
The Ngatuk possum skin cloak was given to the Melbourne Lord Mayor, Council and Staff by the North West Nations Clans in May 2003 for 'Council's commitment to all Indigenous Peoples' and re-presented again in September 2004.25 The re-presentation
in 2004 was in recognition of the first anniversary of the return of the remains of the Jaara Baby to the Traditional Owners and Elders to be laid to rest in Dja Dja Wurrung country after ninety-nine years at the Melbourne Museum. The artists' statement describing a procession echoes the sense of linear progression in time as the people walk to the Lord Mayor:
The Circle represents the continuous relationship that the City of Melbourne has with the North West Nations Clans and the Victorian Aboriginal community.
The River represents the Milloo (Murray River) which runs through Dhudhuroa, Way Wurru, Yorta Yorta, Baraparapa, Wamba Wamba, Wadi Wadi, Tati Tati, Latje Latje Ntait country and other rivers in country.
The Elders are standing in front and the Men, Women and Children are following behind. They are here to meet the Lord Mayor.
Waa the Crow represents the Dja Dja Wurrung and is the protector of the Dja Dja Wurrung people and their country.
Bunjil the Eagle is the creator and protects our people throughout the state of Victoria.26
The use of possum skin cloaks as a gift in this instance is an example of the social function played by material culture in a similar way that may have been occurring when individuals were observed exchanging cloak for cloak in the nineteenth century as described by McBryde.27
The inclusion in the designs on the cloaks of Dreaming stories that recall the actions of the Ancestors contributes to the construction of a social memory through which individuals engage with the physical world. Through these stories, meaning is made of the physical world while simultaneously and reciprocally, the physical world gives meaning to the stories.
The Yorta Yorta cloak, for example, was made by a group of five artists who recorded in their journal the stories that gave context to the designs. These ranged from personal experiences on country, such as memories of collecting grubs and gum leaves to use for fishing and catching Murray crays with uncles and cousins, to Dreaming stories of Biami the Creator and the Murray River (Dhungalla) (Fig. 2). The artists described the use of some of the images as symbols representing some aspect of their way of life today. The Yorta Yorta journal records: 'The Long Neck Turtle was used as a symbol of survival and the ability to adapt and live in two environments, being land and water'. Entries explain the footprints on the cloak: 'we are always walking the land and the animals are always in our presence. On the cloak we placed footprints and the animals we often see'28. The Creator named Biami by the Yorta Yorta is named Bunjil the Eaglehawk by the Taunurung People and Barami by the Bangerang.
The 'Dreamtime story of the Bangerang people regarding the making of the Murray (Tongala) River' is the title given to the Bangerang cloak (see fig. 3). Some of the characters and events in the Dreaming story recorded in the Bangerang journal appear
in creation stories told by other groups and incorporated into their cloaks.
This is the story of the Moiraduban people who are part of the Bangerang Legend of the Murray River, animals, plants and country. When everything was still and all the spirits on earth were asleep, Barami the creator spirit was awaken(ed). Gently he awoke his old (Kormooka) woman. The Father of all spirits said to her ''Go down from the high country with your (Kunna) digging stick and your (Pokkas) dingos to journey across the flat and waterless land to create the great river (Tongala), fish, lizards and plants'.
Barami had sent his great (Toonatpan) snake to follow the old (Kormooka) woman. She had journeyed a long distance. As she walked she drew wriggley [sic] lines in the sand with her digging stick. Behind her came (Toonatpan) the great serpent, following her movements and making grooves for the banks of the river with his body.
Then Barami spoke in a voice of thunder, and lightening flashed above the high country. Rain fell and water came flowing down the track the old woman and (Toonatpan) the snake had made. After many moons she came to the sea and went to sleep in a cave. When she awoke the spirits of birds and animals burst into the sunshine around her. While the (Pokkas) dingoes kicked up the sandhills around the river mouth. The sound of the sea is the voice of the old woman as she sings in her sleep.29
Spiritual references connected to country appear in the descriptions of Echuca Biganga made by Yorta Yorta artists Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm. The description with the cloak states: 'It is the story of Dhungulla (the Murray River) Yalooka (the Campaspe River) and Kanila (the Goulburn River)'.30 Rivers of strong ochre colour cross the cloak. A human figure with two dogs appears on one skin. Other designs appear to record the impact of European settlement in the area, for example, a paddle steamer and signs of Christian crosses.
The statement accompanying Barmah Forest Biganga by Treahna Hamm carries the description:
... one of the first cloaks using ochre to be made along the Murray River since the original cloak was collected from Maiden's Punt in 1853. It denotes the spiritual significance of the Barmah forest, the largest red gum forest in Australia.31
This cloak of twenty-five skins is entirely covered in red ochre (Fig. 6). Across the centre of the cloak flows a river containing figures of freshwater crayfish, tortoise, and a fish. Emanating from either side of the riverbanks are large tree shaped figures holding their arms aloft bearing the foliage. On some of the trunks are white oval scars of bark removal for canoe making.
The role played by items of material culture in the reciprocal relationship between Ancestors and the living is evident in the accounts given by some of the artists regarding the connection they felt with their Ancestors. Both Vicki Couzens and Lee Darroch speak of a spiritual connection with the 'Old People', their deceased ancestors, as they work on the reproduction of the Maiden's Punt and Lake Condah cloaks. Lee Darroch

Figure 3 Bangerang cloak, Possum Skin Cloak Project. Copyright Michael Carver.

talks of the gradual awareness of the 'Old People' telling her the meaning of the designs on the old cloak, as she spent long hours burning the designs.32 Vicki Couzens speaks of 'ancestral memories', 'the knowledge of the Old People speaking to me through my spirit'.33 Maureen Reyland, the artist who made the Muthi Muthi cloak for the Possum Skin Cloak Project, recorded in her journal the spiritual connection she felt as she made the cloak:
The presentation of the cloak is my spiritual art that interconnects me and spiritual ancestors (that)... have affiliated with Mother Earth and my sacred tribal land since time immemorial and creation was by my sacred spirit.34
Engagement with deceased ancestors can be envisaged through a sensual engagement with the cloak, with the designs on the skins, and with the environment on country that are perceived as the embodiment of these Ancestors. I assert that such an engagement enables a dialogue with the past in the manner described by Kearney and Bradley35 and Magowan,36 a dialogue that is not accessible to someone not emplaced. Maureen Reyland (quoted above) makes reference in the journal of the sands that are a prominent feature of her country. Designs that feature the granular texture of the sand cover many of the skins and are a strong visual component of the Muthi Muthi cloak (Fig. 5). The artist is communicating more than a visual representation of country. A representation of the sensual impact of country is a communication with Ancestors.
Some of the meaning of the designs on the new cloaks can be ascertained if there

Figure 4 Barmah Forest Biganga by Treahna Hamm. Copyright artist.

Figure 5 Muthi Muthi cloak, Possum Skin Cloak Project. Copyright Michael Carver.

Figure 6 Dhauwurd wurrung cloak, Possum Skin Cloak Project. Copyright Michael Carver.

is an artist's statement available which is not always the case. When on display at the Melbourne Museum, the cloaks displayed with the Tooloyn Koortakay Collection were accompanied by text that provided some insight to the designs. Some of the journals of the artists in the Possum Skin Cloak Project also included explanations of the designs on the skins. Even with an artists' statement the meaning of the designs is not always accessible; cultural knowledge is required to link the information in the artist's statement with the designs that appear on the skins. Cultural knowledge is often restricted to those with the authority to know. Reference to the issue of restricted knowledge appears in some of the artists' journals in the Possum Skin Cloak Project. Part of the process of community consultation applied to all communities in the project required Elders to sign off on the use of cultural material to be used in the designs applied to the skins. Artist Mandy Nicholson, making the Woi Wurrung cloak for the local community of Wurundjeri people, writes that some proposed designs had to be omitted on instruction from the Elders as they related to 'secret men's business'.37 Thomas Day, the artist who made the cloak for the Dhauwurd Wurrung people, wrote in his journal: 'It (the cloak) is a map or a guide, but I'm afraid its meaning has to remain a secret'38(Fig. 3). Several journals recorded the inclusion of designs that could be used on the skins but whose meaning could not be revealed and other designs that could be used on the cloaks but could not be reproduced elsewhere.
The decision making processes recorded in the journals reflect the social relationships that exist in the communities, the authority of the Elders and the relationships with past cultural practices that have been passed down from previous generations, from the Ancestors. Without the appropriate cultural knowledge, it is not always possible to speculate on the sociality between the referents on the cloak and the community members involved in the cloak making. However, following Kearney and Bradley39, Magowan40 and Langton41 who write of the reciprocal relationship of emotion that exists between items of material culture, Ancestral Beings, country and the living, I argue that the images on the cloaks drawn from an engagement of the senses with the physical environment represent more than the simple presence of those environmental stimuli. To engage with country is to engage with the Ancestral Beings that are manifest in it. The collaboration of the artists and the community in the making of the cloak is a social connection that situates the cloak in time and place in the present and, through the social connections of kin and country, to those no longer living, whereby engagement with country contributes to the concept of cloak making as an act of emplacement.

Figure 7 Glass panels, Oxfam offices, Carlton, by Maree Clarke (left) and Lee Darroch (right), 2007. Copyright artists.

Possum skin cloaks as a symbol

Images of people wearing possum skin cloaks were widely portrayed in the paintings of the indigenous artist William Barak in the nineteenth century. More recently, images of people wearing possum skin cloaks and images of the cloaks themselves appear in different media and diverse locations in southeastern Australia. Through these works possum skin cloaks have become a symbol of Indigenous identity today. In the Koorie Heritage Trust is a painting by Jenny Murray Jones of a mother carrying a child on her back, both wrapped in a possum skin cloak.
Murray Jones took her inspiration from an old postcard of Lake Tyers mission where traditional customs were prohibited and possum skin cloaks were replaced by blankets. These blankets were inadequate protection from the elements. The illnesses that resulted impacted greatly on the communities. Murray Jones also writes of the importance of possum skins to moiety, clan and nation identity. Possum skin cloaks were of great significance in Indigenous society economically, culturally and spiritually.

Figure 8 Glass panels, Oxfam offices, Carlton, by Treahna Hamm, 2007. Copyright artist.

Murray Jones relates how the degrading and racist captions on the old postcards of Indigenous People in the mission blankets robbed the subjects of their identity and their dignity. By painting the mother and child wrapped in the possum skin cloak, Murray Jones feels she has restored the Indigenous identity of the subject.42
Other art work that that makes reference to possum skin cloaks appears in public places. Common Ground, a sculptural artwork in Birrarung Marr along the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, incorporates 'large steel touch panels representing possum cloaks and playing recorded stories drawn from Victorian Indigenous culture'.43 The non-Government organisation Oxfam has a representation of possum skin cloaks in three glass wall installations at its offices in Carlton. Treahna Hamm, Lee Darroch and Maree Clarke have designed the panels that have been made by Koori glassworks, Wathaurong Glass in Geelong. These glass panels can be seen as a statement of identity of Oxfam. They have arisen from the relationship of Oxfam with the Indigenous designers and glass makers and the symbolism of the designs communicates their relationship between the Oxfam community and the people they assist. Symbols on the panels locate Oxfam in Melbourne but with a global sphere of action.
The importance of the cultural memory that is transmitted through narrative to the link between the Ancestors and the land is evident in the statement by Maree Clarke (Mutti Mutti, Wamba Wamba and Yorta Yorta) that her work:
... symbolises the journey throughout time of Dhungala (the Murray River). The designs are influenced by the patterns of the landscape, both traditional and contemporary. The river has been there since creation. The stories told by our Ancestors are carried through the generations to us today.44 (Fig. 7)
Clarke gives an indication of the reciprocal relationship experienced with country I have written of earlier when she writes 'I believe that by drawing my Country I make it stronger'.45
The panel by Lee Darroch (Fig. 7) includes references to features of geography and culture that are of significance to Indigenous people across Victoria. A statement explaining the designs makes reference to Dhungala (Murray River) at Echuca, Yalooka (Campaspe River), Gragin in the Gippsland Lakes, The Crags overlooking Deen Maar Island, corroboree, water holes, food sources and long neck turtle eggs.46 Bunjil, the eaglehawk and the old Lake Condah cloak are also represented, both indicative of the past reaching into the present and the future.
The larger and more complex panel designed by Treahna Hamm (Fig. 8) relates more directly to the work of Oxfam with Indigenous people throughout the world. In a statement that describes the designs she has used, Hamm focuses on the importance of the environment for survival and the work of Oxfam in offering aid in the relief from floods, tsunamis and droughts. Mountains are symbolic of the obstacles to be overcome in the establishment of human rights for many individuals and communities. Hamm emphasises the importance of handing down knowledge through the generations for the survival of a culture. This threat to the transmission of cultural knowledge was one of the factors contributing to the decline in the manufacture of possum skin cloaks but communication with the Elders was one of the dominant features of the journals recording the Possum Skin Cloak Project.


Before the arrival of Europeans in south-eastern Australia, possum skin cloaks were an important part of Indigenous culture, not only for the protection they gave but as a means by which Indigenous people were emplaced in their culture. The designs on the Lake Condah and Maiden's Punt cloaks have been interpreted by the artists working on their reproduction as indicating physical features of country. I have followed the writings of Casey, Basso and others to argue that the engagement of Indigenous people with the physical world is a dynamic process whereby meaning is made of the sensory stimuli received from that world. Phenomena of the physical world are perceived through the framework of cultural knowledge. For each individual, identity is constructed through this engagement with the physical world, the Ancestors who are
manifest through phenomena in the environment, and others in the community with whom social relationships are shared. In such a way, individuals are emplaced. The sense of themselves and their surroundings, and how others sense them, are embedded in cultural understandings that give meaning to the world at the same time as their perception of the world gives meaning to the identities of individuals and their social relationships. A sensual awareness of the environment perceived in this way and inscribed onto possum skin cloaks constitutes an act of emplacement. The explanation for the existence of so few cloaks surviving from the nineteenth century lies beyond the fact that they were prone to insect attack and decay or that very often the deceased were buried wrapped with their possessions in a possum skin cloak.
After the arrival of Europeans, the Indigenous people of south-eastern Australia were forcibly removed from country. Traditional ways of living on country were disrupted and the distribution of blankets and meagre food rations were insufficient to sustain the people. Their vulnerability to disease led to a catastrophic population decline. The transmission of an oral culture was further threatened by policies of assimilation that separated family members. The practice of making possum skin cloaks survived and the remaking of the Lake Condah and Maiden's Punt cloaks and the Possum Skin Cloak Project have led to a resurgence in this expression of Indigenous identity.
The cloaks that have been made recently are an expression of the emplacement of Indigenous people. The designs on the cloaks have arisen through the cultural mediation of sensory experience of country and the lived experience of being part of a community with a rich history. Dreaming stories, oral histories and designs from the past have been included in the designs. The stories from the lives of the living and new designs that have been made to signify cultural practices of the present and features of country and community are constructed through the perception of individuals and communities that are emplaced.
The meaning of the possum skin cloaks in the construction of identity through place and space is reflected in the words of Thomas Day, the artist who made the Dhauwurd Wurrung cloak for the Possum Skin Cloak Project. In his journal he wrote:
This rug means much (more) to me than just a piece of art for the games opening. To me, it is a representation of my ancestors' country and the knowledge that I have been taught. My great great grandfather (James Lovett) was one of the five men that produced the original Lake Condah cloak, so for me it is a journey of self discovery I suppose. I have always known my past and where I fit in, but doing this cloak made me realise the significance of what I have done, particularly for my Nan.
The cloak I have produced is a map, or as I like to refer to it as a 'Cultural Footprint'. It is a map or guide, but I'm afraid its meaning has to remain a secret. I come from a proud people, a tribe of fighting Gunditmara. We were a proud people. I hope this cloak makes them proud of me.47


F. Blacklock, 'National Quilt Register: Aboriginal skin cloaks', at (accessed 22 February 2007).


A. J. Reynolds, Wrapped in a Possum Skin Cloak: the Tooloyn Koortakay Collection in the National Museum of Australia, Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press, 2005.




E. S. Casey, Getting Back Into Place: toward a renewed understanding of the place-world, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.


Reynolds, p. 33.


K. H. Basso, 'Wisdom Sits in Places: notes on a Western Apache landscape,' in Senses of Place edited by K. H. Basso and S. Feld, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 1996.


W. E. H. Stanner, 'The Dreaming (1953)' in White Man got No Dreaming: essays, 1938-1973 Canberra: ANU Press, 1979, pp. 23-40.


M. Langton, 'The Edge of the Sacred, and the Edge of Death' in Inscribed Landscapes: marking and making place, edited by B. David and M. Wilson, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.


Ibid, p. 263.


Ibid, p.18.


Ibid, pp. 18-19.


Ibid, p. 260.


See also D. B. Rose, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal view of landscape and wilderness, Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 1996.


David, B. and M. Wilson,'Re-Reading the Landscape: Place and Identity in NE Australia During the Late Holocene', Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 1991, pp. 163-188.


A. Kearney and J. Bradley, 'Landscapes with shadows of once living people' in The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies, edited B. David, B. Barker and I. McNiven Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006, p. 196.


Reynolds, p. 2.






National Museum of Australia 2007(a), showing/tooloyn_koortakay_and_were_here/ (accessed 15 March 2007).


Regional Arts Victoria.


Melbourne Museum 2006.






Melbourne Museum 2006.


Janina Harding, 2007, Indigenous Arts Program Manager, City of Melbourne, personal communication.




I. McBryde, 'Exchange in South Eastern Australia: an ethnohistorical perspective', Aboriginal History, vol. 8, nos. 1-2, 1984, pp. 132-153.


'Yorta Yorta Journal', Regional Arts Victoria 2006, unpublished.


'Bangerang Journal', Regional Arts Victoria 2006, unpublished.


Melbourne Museum, 2006.




R. Frankland, Tooloyn Koortakay: A film featuring Vicki Couzens, Debra Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm courtesy of the National Museum of Australia, Golden Seahorse Productions in association with the National Museum of Australia, 2004.


Reynolds, p. 42.


'Muthi Muthi Journal', Regional Arts Victoria 2006, unpublished.


Kearney and Bradley, op. cit.


F. Magowan, 'Crying to remember: reproducing personhood and community' in Telling Stories: Indigenous history and memory in Australia and New Zealand edited by Bain Attwood and Fiona Magowan, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2001.


'Woi Wurrung Journal', Regional Arts Victoria 2006, unpublished.


'Dhauwurd Wurrung Journal', Regional Arts Victoria 2006, unpublished.


Kearney and Bradley.


Magowan, op. cit.


Langton, op. cit.


Koorie Heritage Trust 2004.


Melbourne News 2005.


Oxfam 2007.






'Dhauwurd Wurrung Journal', unpublished.