Identity and connection

The 1992 Mabo decision recognised Native Title on the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait. This decision led to the Native Title Act (1993) and subsequently had a direct impact on the identity of First Australians. There was greater acceptance among First Peoples to publicly define our identity according to our pre-colonial status. We define ourselves by clan or nation, rather than the generic colonial term ‘Aboriginal’ or geographic terms such as Koori. This movement also coincided with a much larger number of people identifying as being ‘of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent’, as demonstrated in the census. These people were mostly not known to the existing Aboriginal families and kinship groups.

The recognition of the clan and nation origin of First Australians has led to an increased demand for research and re-construction of Indigenous languages and cultures and a demand for greater access to the archive by Aboriginal people. This movement presents an entirely different notion of identity for Indigenous youth and so these aspects of documenting language and culture demand particular cultural and community protocols. This includes having an understanding of and commitment to engaging with traditional laws and customs, including how to act and behave when you are researching your own or someone else’s cultural and Country connection. It is because of this movement we have seen the public display of rituals and practices which include welcome and smoking ceremonies at public events and functions.
The retelling of Indigenous stories in English requires adaption to concepts and contexts as traditionally stories were told on Country. This required the storyteller to make reference to place, people and spirit beings of that Country through songlines and song circles. In the retelling of stories about Country and history, the story is reshaped. This is through the restriction of freedom that has impacted on the story’s cultural memory over preceding decades and added to this is the inherent difficulties of language translation.

The experience of First Peoples in the retelling of our narratives, encompasses a history that necessarily revolves around power relationships, conflict with the dominant coloniser, with resettled peoples, and a legacy of anger and frustration. Yet the role and history of women, in First Peoples’ stories, offers new ways to retell this history. This includes women being able to share and pass on cultural knowledge through their family line, as well as to a wider public and across families through storytelling traditions.

When my great grandmother Louisa Briggs died at the Aboriginal Reserve at Cummeragunja in 1925, it represented the end of an era. Louisa’s life and her story of survival offers motivation and inspiration to her descendants, many of whom have provided leadership and support to both the Victorian Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Louisa’s oral history is in the archives. In an interview with researchers from Sydney University in 1923, Louisa’s recollection was of a city that had ‘more than three houses’ and an ‘Exhibition ground [that] was all forest’. She witnessed this early part of the city of Melbourne being built. She was described as a woman of courage and audacity. 

Other accounts of her life document how women and children were stolen during the early years of settlement. Louisa was kidnapped by sealers from Point Nepean and taken to Preservation Island in Bass Strait. Many women and girls were kidnapped during this period, including the wife of the Boonwurrung warrior Derrimut, and “Mary” the daughter of Big Benbow the son of Old Benbow, one of the last from the Yaluk-ut Weelam clan of the Boonwurrung to live on his country in Melbourne.

We know from the records that the sealing industry was a harsh and cruel world; many sealers were escaped convicts and renegades. The sealers made camps on the islands and the mainland. The sealing trade declined in the 1830s and the kidnapped women and children were stranded in the islands. I learnt that Louisa and her aunt Anne were determined to return to their Country. Sometime during the late 1840s coinciding with the beginning of the gold rush, they returned to Melbourne.

Louisa had nine children. She worked in the Beaufort district and near Violet Town until the late 1860s. She joined Coranderrk Aboriginal station, near Healesville, in 1871. A dispute with the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines, which managed the station, over the board’s failure to pay a cash wage to the workers, resulted in her husband John Briggs being expelled after seeking paid work elsewhere. We learn from the 1872 publication of the Melbourne Argus she was described “a most resolute woman”. In 1874, the family returned to Coranderrk where Louisa worked as a nurse and dormitory matron. In 1876, she became a staff member and received wages for her work for the first time.

The board’s policy over Coranderrk’s income and the inclusion of newcomers, who were not related to the Kulin clan inhabitants, caused resentment among the residents. Protests followed. Louisa is said to have led a rebellion during this period against government plans to sell the station. She gave evidence in August 1876 at an inquiry. She was 40 years old at the time. In 1878, her husband died.

After further protests Louisa was forced off the reserve, seeking asylum at Ebenezer Aboriginal station, Lake Hindmarsh, where she again acted as a matron. Conditions were poor and she wrote to the board to complain of the lack of food in 1878 and again in 1881. Following another inquiry into Coranderrk, Louisa returned to the station in 1882. Legislation in 1886 forced ‘half-castes’ off the reserves and Louisa’s family was again forced to leave Coranderrk, seeking refuge at Maloga mission in New South Wales.

I have often wondered how she survived that period on and off mission as she travelled with her large family. Louisa pleaded to return to Corranderk, but the board refused re-entry. In 1889 Louisa and her children moved to Cummeragunja reserve, on the New South Wales side of the Murray River, opposite Barmah. She again requested to return to Coranderrk in 1892 and was denied. In 1895 ‘half-castes’ were excluded from Cummeragunja, forcing the family to settle in a makeshift camp at Barmah. In 1903, at the age of 67, Louisa asked for the rations to which she was entitled by age and ancestry. Again the board refused. She later returned to Cummeragunja, where she died on 6 September 1925.


Over the years I compiled entries for my family’s genealogy, connecting descendant lines to Louisa Briggs as apical ancestor. I collected references (birth, death, and marriage certificates where possible) showing the relationships in ancestral lines. This genealogy demonstrates the key connections between Coranderrk, Maloga and Cummeragunja, and Deniliquin and Moulamein in keeping the family and transmission of culture through a multi-clan collective. Currently, this genealogy comprises 700 living descendants.

It would not have been possible for me to engage with the impact of the cultural reconstruction work required in assisting Indigenous youth (for cultural transmission purposes) without this genealogical understanding. During my PhD studies, I followed many leads through conversations with extended kin. These were not “interview” based but rather conversations that occurred in family settings when significant information about family life is conveyed over time and in unexpected ways that a conventional interview would not have permitted. This meant I had to make a deliberate and concerted decision to focus on following my family connections, and oral histories in that connection, rather than to solely pursue the written records in library collections.


By following Louisa Briggs’ history, I have been able to reconstruct my own. My father was a white man from Tasmania, who was disinherited by his family for marrying my mother. My mother, Carrie Briggs was born in 1910, 74 years after the first European settlement of Melbourne. Both her parents were descendants of the greater Kulin Nation, First Nation or confederation, whose boundaries extended from the coast around Melbourne to beyond the Murray River. My maternal grandmother was Margaret Taylor from the Wemba Wemba, a clan living along the Murray River.

Margaret Taylor’s brother Johnny Taylor was the last of the fluent speakers of the Wemba Wemba, and his voice recordings are stored by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. My maternal grandfather, William Briggs, was born in Victoria in 1861, only 26 years after the European settlement of Melbourne. Louisa Briggs’ traditional country includes the coastal area of Melbourne. Her husband John Briggs’ father was a white man named George Briggs. John Briggs’ mother was Woe Te Moe Te Yenner, a Tasmanian who was the daughter of the great warrior chief, Manalagenna.

From researching this history in a culturally appropriate manner, my understanding of the significance of Boonwurrung values, built on principles of sustainability, caring for Country, care for one another, and sustaining knowledge for a better future has been deepened. The significance of Boonwurrung values and ethics is that they are designed to ensure sociality, sustainability and social justice. This approach offers ways to share values, ethics and ways of being across cultural and intergenerational differences.

Indigenous values, ethics and ways of being on Country are the gateway to environmental justice and human rights. Existing data indicates the world needs to significantly reduce carbon emissions to face the adverse effects of global warming. It is clear the environment is changing physically and ideologically, and that climate change is directly linked to these seemingly irrevocable shifts. The concept of Indigenous sustainability and perspectives of Country can help us better meet this global challenge.

Indigenous wisdom can illuminate the path to a sustainable future. Grounded by relationships to Country, family and culture, Indigenous people have survived oppression, genocide and several ice ages and other environmental crises. The opportunity to share these values and knowledge of Country can have profound and lasting effects on environmental justice.

To make connections between Country and community life is to practise culture, to communicate and live with the knowledge of my ancestors in forms that I hope and want for the next generation to engage with, connect to, understand and most importantly transmit in their own ways. To first understand what “knowledge” (Yulendj Boonwurrung) means in the context of my own cultural tradition, as a member of the Boonwurrung community, is to understand who you are before you can earn the right to speak. How Boonwurrung knowledge has been defined is something that I can only understand by having lived that life and seeing how my own understanding of what I know about my culture has been shaped by growing up with a family and history of people who resisted how their culture should be lived.
This was evident through my analysis of the different ‘Acts’ that governed our people and in terms of various government legislative and legal structures enforced during the 1800s to regulate our lives. This knowledge was passed on to me through my mother, and to my mother through her mother. When I studied the archives to follow up on Louisa’s story, it made sense for me how “knowledge” about “who we are” and “how we live” can become a part of our being, our skin, our spirit.

My intention is to continue sharing this knowledge in ways that can bridge differences. As our children grow up in this great Country, it is my hope that we can all celebrate our shared sense of history. This is a history which makes our country unique. To honour this has an even greater sense of urgency today. We faced an unprecedented environmental crisis with the recent bushfires and then this, the global pandemic. It is incumbent upon us, as we share this nation to understand the importance of maintaining and practising cultural ways of being and appreciating our living culture as part of our holistic environment. This is intrinsic to the continuation of our relationships with our ecology, our landscape and with each other.


For so long I never saw myself in the landscape. I still don’t. When I walk through Melbourne, I cannot see myself and have questioned what it is to have an authentic history. I am always concerned about the absence of any recognition of our people. Our people had names, and I rarely see those acknowledged. When I walk around Melbourne, I see many streets and parks named after white European men. When I read the history of our culture our people are never named. We cannot talk about our history or our landscape without talking about our people.
Perhaps it can be explained as two levels of consciousness. Others have called this a double consciousness. These two levels involve conflicting types and levels of knowledge and interpretation. ‘Spiritual consciousness’: I do not need to explain this because it is related to the spiritual world, my spiritual world which is personal. Any explanation is a self-evident truth. It does not need to be rationalised by reference to European science.

The relationship between spiritual consciousness and European sciences such as geography also requires no explanation. Trees and bushes are not treated as inanimate plants but have a spiritual or personal relationship. They are living.

One might ask whether or not all this academic and political talk adequately addresses this double consciousness, or whether the talk is simply accepted into the academic environment because it can be analysed through frameworks that institutions are comfortable or familiar with. Our stories can either serve us well or sabotage us. To create a new set of stereotypes that define Australia’s First People only as victims, fails to accommodate or address the narrative of adaption, success and achievement.

To what extent is the First Peoples’ narrative restricted by the use of a set of languages to describe the relationships of the past?
How do we accommodate a complex community where First People share a diverse range of economic, racial and social experiences?
The discipline of history provides opportunities to engage in debate and achieve perspective, but it can never really reveal the whole of the past. History can be misleading, limit the experience of First Peoples to stereotypes; it has relied on anecdotes and false historical memory to create the modern and constructed political identity of ‘the Australian Aborigine’. This stereotype has the capacity to oppress in the same manner stereotypes limit and hinder the potential of all humans. These are ‘new age stereotypes’. To express this concept from a personal perspective, I am very aware of the manner in which this ‘new age stereotype’ works to oppress First Peoples – ironically within political sanctions which themselves perpetuate white dominance.

In this environment, where one culture dominates another, there can be no such thing as “equality”. Only difference. And the dominated group is portrayed as lacking, inhabiting a vacant space that white people presume to occupy.

What is an authentic story? Authenticity is not primarily about history. Authenticity is about connections and relationships, about being true to your values and ethics. If you want to be more authentic start by knowing yourself. We may have shared histories of colonialism and of ongoing existing forms of oppression in our everyday lives. And I believe these are the things that make our histories authentic and real. Shared experiences allow us to relate to one another and form the basis of relationships.

An authentic history is one that is not measured against another. What would we measure? How accurate an account of history is? Whether your head circumference equates to your level of intelligence? We know that history got it so wrong there.

The literature available to Indigenous youth uses history to represent First Peoples as victims. Some people carry this victim mentality; but the role and history of women in First Peoples’ history provides examples of strength, resilience and talking back to power. Women have been able to share knowledge to a wider public and across families through storytelling traditions in spite of being moved and hounded, forced to be paupers in their own Country.

A reflexive and reciprocal awareness of self in relation to ‘the other’ includes an awareness of ‘the other’ as it is found in individuals, communities and cultures; as well as an awareness of how they might conceive of historical perspectives and political viewpoints that are inclusive of the personal and the collective as well as perceptions of both body and mind, memory and imagination, theory and method, knowledge and knowing. This is the holistic ethos of Indigenous knowledge, shaped by the value systems functioning within Indigenous knowledge practices, operating within equitable spaces. Our knowledge is from our mothers, celebrated and protected. I look forward to sharing our language and culture in ways that educate and inform, and most importantly, that help our young people to understand the significance of where they come from, and the beauty and sustainability of our cultural traditions.


Photo credit: Peter Bergmeier


Read the rest of Overland 240

If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four brilliant issues for a year


N'Arweet Carolyn Briggs

N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM is a descendant of the First Peoples of Melbourne, the Yaluk-ut Weelam clan of the Boon Wurrung. She is the great granddaughter of Louisa Briggs, a Boon Wurrung activist who was born near Melbourne in the 1830s. Recognised as the keeper of history and genealogy of her people, Carolyn has been involved in developing and supporting opportunities for Indigenous youth and Boon Wurrung culture for over 40 years. In 2020, she completed her PhD on Indigenous knowledge transmission (Yulendj Boon Wurrung) and is Elder in Residence at RMIT University, Ngarara Willim Centre.

More by N'Arweet Carolyn Briggs ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays