Totemic Species: The use of natural resources

Although the term ‘totem’ has Native American cultural origins, the functional reality of the practise exists in parts of Australia, including across the southeast coastal region. The term is used to describe the complex inter-relationship between people and the natural world, the two providing mutual benefits to each other through a spiritual, yet tangible inter-dependency.

There are a number of different forms or categories of totems including personal totems, gender totems, family or clan totems, tribal totems and totems relating to the specialised powers of ‘clever people’. Totems can stand for or represent an aspect of the natural world as well as provide kinship links between the people or group whom identify with a particular totem, as well as kinship links to the natural world9. Participants in this project spoke of protecting their totemic species, not eating or killing the species, and taking care of the habitat that sustains it.

King Merriman’s totem was the Pacific Black Duck, Umbarra. Pam Flanders acknowledges that there are different totems for different families, and that the Wallaga Lake Community ‘adopted’ Umbarra as a localised community totem because Merrimans Island is close by [Pam Flanders and Albert Solomon 11.4.2006].

So although the Black Duck can be a personal totem, for people such as Tanya Parsons, and a community totem for Wallaga Lake, it also considered a tribal totem for all Yuin people [Trisha Ellis 4.2.2006 / Tanya Parsons 5.6.2006]. The Black Duck has in many ways become an important element in the formation of an identity for contemporary Yuin people, who as a result of restrictive protectionist and assimilation policies of the past, may not have been informed of their personal or family totem.

As described by Mariah Walker, many of the totems in this region are birds, and are passed onto succeeding generations. They are thus referred to as ‘family birds’. Mariah has inherited the Plover as her totem from her father Alex Walker [Mariah Walker 5.6.2006].

Trisha Ellis’s personal totem is the Crow; Trisha’s mother’s personal totem was Willy Wag Tail; her grandmother’s personal totem was the Magpie. Trisha’s daughter’s personal totem is the Peewee. The totem for the Moruya area is the Black Swan; Gunyu and tribal totem for Walbanja people is the Sea Eagle. Other personal totemic species, within the Yuin area, include the Kookaburra, Pigeon, and the Mo Poke. These totems are not passed down as such, but are personally identified and recognised [Trisha Ellis 4.2.2006].

Georgina Parson’s ‘bujangal’, or spiritual bird is the Sea Eagle. She is not permitted, in accordance with Aboriginal Lore, to eat the Sea Eagle. Other people are not permitted to eat the Black Swan, for example, if that is their totem [Georgina Parsons 14.12.2005].

Mary Duroux’s family totem is the Tawny Frogmouth Owl, and her personal totem is the Echidna. The Tawny Frogmouth totem connects Mary to the Haddigaddi family. According to Mary, nearly all animals are totem species. From this perspective ‘all birds need protection; one can’t just care for one and not the other. …. Aboriginal people would never have run out of food because their totems were protected because people did not eat their own totem….’. Mary also believes totemic species’ habitats should be protected. For instance, ‘…because black swans mates with one another for life, laying eggs in only one area, if that area were to be damaged, then they have no where to lay eggs and would die soon enough. ….’. [Mary Duroux 6.2.2006].

The use and significance of a variety of natural resources across the Eurobodalla Shire has been documented during this project. Natural resources are used now and in the past as a food source, as a base for medicines, for altering the weather pattern, to construct shelters and shades and to make tools, for instance. Also documented were the restrictive Aboriginal lores governing access to traditional ecological knowledge, including that relating to the location, distribution, collection and preparation method of flora used for food and medicines. As with the spiritual significance of topographical features, outlined above, a number of ‘bush tucker’ and ‘bush medicine’ species can be briefly outlined in this report, however, the intricacies have been spared for those who have the traditional right to inherit such knowledge.

Several of the plant species identified as holding cultural value correlate with rare and endangered species such as the Pink wood, whilst others are known as weeds, such as the Inkweed [Phytolacca] and the Black Wattle. A number of non-native plants such as the prickly pear, are also attributed a cultural value. Such recent adaptations is evidence of an ever evolving and adaptable culture, a culture that has taken on many new challenges over the last 40,000 year, especially over the past two centuries.

In the Bood-jarn [Hanging Mountain] area, the pink wood trees are of medicinal value. The sap and bark are utilised for specific purposes and the bark was used to make canoes [Dave Tout 25.1.2006].

Tom Davis’s uncle Thomas Henry Davis would pay ‘2 bob’ for wattle grubs, found in the trunk of the green wattle [Acacia Mearnsii]. The kids would collect them for him. The kids would eat the sap – or gum from the wattle. ‘Won-dharma’ vine grows on the hill at the old Batemans Bay Cemetery. It is a green bean full of seeds. It should be picked when it is green and left to ripen in a jar so that it turns clear and grey [Tom Davis 18.12.2005].

Throughout this report many places identified as significant camping sites, are camping sites due to their proximity to particular natural resources. The Deua River [8 Mile] and McGregors Creek area is used as a camping place, but is foremost a place to collect particular medicinal species not found elsewhere. Ryans Creek and the Nelligen area are also places where particular medicinal plant species grown. It is also thought that traditional medicines are better quality if made using species found in more remote bush locations [compared with the same species growing in more developed areas], like ink weed for instance [Trisha Ellis 29.5.2006].

Oysters, lobsters, ‘conks’, ‘muttonfish’, black periwinkles, cunjevoi, and other shellfish can be found in the Barlings Beach area. These foods were caught in the rocks at low tide, whilst at high tide people could go diving for fish. There were no fridges; the fish was always eaten fresh. Bush foods such as yams, wattle gum, ‘snot-gollions’, ‘sea eggs’ [sea urchins], and prickly pears were also found. Wattle trees were everywhere, didn’t have to go far to find some ‘gum’. Symalene would clean and heat the gum wattle and set it like jelly. Families would fish for black fish and bream off Barlings Island at low tide. The fish would feed the families camped at Barlings Beach as well as be sold at garages and at the Sydney markets. The families were ‘self employed’ fisher people [Symalene Nye 15.11.2005].

Inkweed [Phytolacca] is used to make medicine. Although it gets pulled out like it is useless, it has a value. The leaves and flowers from the ‘rib grass’ [plantago spp] are also used to make medicine. Mary’s Uncle showed her how to make medicine from the wattle. The seeds are edible and the bark can be used to dye nets and tan leather [Mary Duroux 6.2.2006].

Throughout the bush in the Garland Town area, native cherries, raspberries, yams, honey suckle, gooseberries, pig face and ‘gum’ from wattle trees were found. A vine, used for making lobster pots as well as wattle bark for dying fishing nets is also found in the area between Garland Town and north of the Moruya Quarry [Maureen Davis 19.12.2006].

Water is a natural resource, which, at certain places, in certain circumstances is respected and utilised for its healing qualities. People use to go to Bendethera to drink the water, which filters through limestone rocks. The water is thought to have healing qualities [Trisha Ellis 29.5.2006]. Likewise the water flowing from Gulaga [Mt Dromedary] is believed to provide health benefits [Dave Tout 29.5.2006].

Other species, such as the ‘rain flower’ described in Mary Duroux’s recent publication, provide direct linkages between flora and the weather cycle. When the particular flower is picked, it will rain. Protection of this species is important to Mary, so only shares the details of the plants location with a selection of people. Mary questions what would happen if the broader community became aware of the flower’s location, particularly in this time of drought, ‘… would they protect it or pick it’? [Mary Duroux 6.2.2006]. Similarly, for Symalene Nye, the sighting of 4 black cockatoos signals 4 days of rain [Symalene Nye 15.11.2005].

Taken from Stories About the Eurobodalla by Aboriginal People. View the full study

Excerpt from Stories About the Eurobodalla by Aboriginal People, 2006. Story contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School.