Each member of the Ngurai-illum Wurrung Aboriginal people belonged to one of two moieties, Bunjil or Waa. Moiety means “half” in Latin, and in the local Aboriginal context means there are two social or ritual groups into which all people are divided.
“A person’s affinity with either Bunjil or Waa defines their kinship relationships, marriage partners and social responsibilities.” (museumsvictoria.com.au/bunjilaka) “People who share the same moiety are considered siblings, meaning they are forbidden to marry. They also have a reciprocal responsibility to support each other.” (australianstogether.org. au)
Bunjil and Waa
Bunjil is represented by the “eaglehawk”, or as we know it better, the Wedge-Tailed Eagle. In local Aboriginal mythology, Bunjil was the creator deity – similar to God for Christians or Allah for Moslems. Bunjil was also considered to be a cultural hero and an ancestral being.
Waa is represented by the Crow. Like Bunjil, Waa was a cultural hero and ancestral being. Waa was considered to be something of a trickster, but also a protector.
So, everyone in the local Ngurai-illum Wurrung people was in either the Bunjil or the Waa moiety. This was decided by the moiety of their Father, in a system known as patrilineal (patri = father). This was true of many of the neighbours of the Ngurai-illum Wurrung e.g. the Taungurung to their south, but through south-eastern Australia, the system was generally matrilineal i.e. people traced their identity from their Mother.
As well as individuals being identified as being Bunjil or Waa, so too were clans. We have already talked about three Ngurai-illum Wurrung clans, and each of those identified with Bunjil or Waa, viz – Ngurai-illum balug (Murchison) – Bunjil; Bendebora balug (Elmore and to the north) – Bunjil; Gunung willum (south of Elmore) – Waa.
Whenever a marriage occurred with the Kulin nation, it was always between one person identifying as Bunjil and one as Waa, and with someone from a clan with the opposite moiety. For example, if a Bunjil woman was to marry, it would be with a Waa man, and she would then go and live with the Waa clan. Any children of the relationship would identify as Waa. As a local example of this, Tooteerie, a woman from the Ngurai-illum balug clan (Bunjil) married a Wurundjeri man (from a Waa clan) and their son was the famous artist and Aboriginal activist William Barak (1824-1903).
Marriages could still occur between someone from the Kulin nation and someone from a different group of Aboriginal peoplewho spoke a different language. For example, the so-called “Queen Mary” buried in the Murchison cemetery, who married “Charles” Tattambo, was from the Wemba Wemba Aboriginal people from on the Murray River. Prior to marriage, she spoke quite a different language and had different cultural beliefs to Tattambo’s people.
Totems and skin names
In addition to being from a specific language group, clan, and moiety, Aboriginal people could also be linked by having the same personal totem e.g. a specific animal, bird or reptile. Having a particular totem meant that it was incumbent on a person to protect and conserve that creature. It also gave them a link to anyone else with that particular totem, who would be treated as a sibling. Totems might also be plants, landscape features and types of weather.
Yet another personal link between people could be by a Skin Name. The system of using skin names was in the form of a sequential cycle, usually of 16-32 names. Again, you shared a special bond with anyone who had your skin name.
A sense of belonging
The upshot of all of the above is a level of connection between Aboriginal people that is difficult to grasp for most people of European origins. Although the extraordinary kinship relationships that existed before European colonisation have been compromised by disconnection from country, it is clear that very strong bonds continue to be an important feature of Aboriginal life today. It must be reassuring to have so many people looking out for you.
“You will never be an only child. Here’s all your other brothers and sisters…You’ve got all these other mothers and fathers to support and teach you. That’s the strength of the system…That extended family take it really seriously and want to be engaged in that life.” Lynette Riley
References: australianstogether.org.au and Museums Victoria websites