Yanggendyinanyuk emerged from the musty archives of Victoria’s nineteenth-century lunatic asylums. He walked into my life, took hold and would not let go until our journey became a story of truth-telling.
While researching Victoria’s early asylums, the records of ‘Dicky Dick (Aboriginal)’ caught my eye. His resilient and adaptive response to asylum incarceration stood out; of the 11 Aboriginal patients admitted during the mid to late 1800s, Dicky Dick was the only one who did not die within weeks or months of asylum custody. He responded remarkably to the progressive treatment for mental illness pursued in Victoria’s asylums during that period, and was discharged ‘recovered’ after eight months.
Dicky Dick was sent to the Ararat asylum in 1875 from Ebenezer Mission in the Wimmera region of north-western Victoria, suffering with ‘great depression of mind’ and an overwhelming urge to end his life. For the first six months he refused to speak. But then Dicky Dick’s condition improved markedly at the asylum’s annual picnic.
Treatment in Victoria’s asylums mirrored the revolutionary reforms that had swept through England in the early 1800s, following dark centuries of brutal mistreatment of the mentally ill. The modern reformed asylums were intended to be therapeutic places of recovery, with treatment focused on providing uplifting environs, purposeful occupation, fixed routines and a variety of diversionary amusements, including the annual picnic.
Still refusing to talk, Dicky Dick was the only Aboriginal man among more than 150 patients who set off from the Ararat asylum for the annual picnic in 1876. Walking or travelling in covered wagons, they soon arrived in open country on the banks of a nearby creek, shaded from the blazing February sun by the boughs of large red gums. Cake and ginger beer completed the special picnic lunch, followed by the afternoon’s entertainment that included a game of cricket. A few days later, the asylum doctor recorded the dramatic improvement in his mute Aboriginal patient. ‘On Saturday last at the annual picnic this patient brightened up wonderfully and amused himself at cricket.’
The cricket game’s impact on Dicky Dick’s emotional state seized my attention. And the name. Could this be ‘Dick-a-Dick’ from the famed team of Victorian Aboriginal cricketers who toured England in 1868? The cricketer who thrilled the English crowds with his daring display of Aboriginal warrior skills?
Across many more archives and texts, I traced the story of Dick-a-Dick and the 12 other Aboriginal men from north-western Victoria who were taken on the tour of England by Charles Lawrence, their white captain and coach. Lawrence had spotted an irresistible opportunity. ‘I thought I should soon make a fortune, for I had an idea after I had seen the Blacks throw the boomerang and spears, that if I could teach them to play cricket and take them to England I should meet with success,’ Lawrence wrote in his diary.
The Aboriginal cricket team played 47 matches during the six-month tour, entertaining English crowds with their competence in the ‘civilised’ game of cricket. At the end of each cricket match, extra spectators flocked in to watch the ‘native sports’, an exhibition of skills and weapons from a race believed to be on the brink of extinction. Simulating the near-nakedness of a ‘savage’, the Aboriginal men changed their white cricket flannels for black tights, a possum-skin loin cloth and headdress of lyrebird feathers. Like living museum exhibits, they filed onto the field, gave a war cry then threw boomerangs and spears, and staged a warrior fight.
English crowds eagerly awaited the show-stopping final solo act, spruiked in newspaper advertisements throughout the English tour—‘Dick a Dick Dodging the Cricket Ball!!!’. Armed with only a narrow shield and L-shaped club, Dick-a-Dick boldly stood at 15 paces as all-comers hurled cricket balls at him in rapid succession. For 15 minutes he withstood the rain of missiles, elegantly blocking or knocking them away with his weapons, while coolly ignoring those passing within inches of his body. Balls sure to miss he treated with contemptuous indifference, moving his head just slightly to one side so the flying ball ruffled his hair, or lifting an arm to allow a missile to pass between limb and body. As the excitement reached its climax, Yanggendyinanyuk worked himself close to the crowd almost in defiance and finished with a victorious yell or a brief warrior dance as he emerged unscathed from the pelting.
Dick-a-Dick transformed the racist native sports into his personal triumph. The proud display of his Aboriginal heritage evokes that of modern-day Indigenous AFL champion Adam Goodes and his warrior dance riposte to persistent racist taunts from football crowds. Goodes’s show of cultural pride only compounded the hostility, sparking a national debate over the enduring stain of racism in Australia.
But for the English in 1868, the novelty and pluck of Dick-a-Dick’s display was captivating. At Lord’s Cricket Ground, home of the gentleman’s game, the crowd stormed the hallowed turf and carried Dick-a-Dick shoulder-high off the field. Spectators spontaneously offered up pocketfuls of coins for his performance and he was fêted throughout England.
My reverie about finding Dick-a-Dick in the Ararat asylum ended abruptly with accounts of the cricketers’ fates following their ground-breaking international tour. Dick-a-Dick died in a blaze of baptismal glory in 1870, a year after returning from England. Writing to their church superiors, the Ebenezer missionaries reported the ‘happy departure’ of Dick-a-Dick after baptism on his death bed, more proof of the Lord’s salvation of ‘this degraded race’. They faithfully recorded his final words before he entered the mansions of heaven. ‘My body is already dead and cold, and my eyes are dark. But there is one thing left; I already see Jesus coming!’
And yet, in addition to the possible asylum link, I uncovered other shards of Dick-a-Dick’s life after his reported 1870 death. It didn’t add up. Recorded history had too casually accepted the end of an Aboriginal man’s life. Spurred by a mounting sense of injustice, I felt compelled to find his family to explore the possibility their ancestor may not have died as the missionaries claimed.
Soon I was sending a tentative email to Jennifer Beer, a Wutyubaluk Elder on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, who proudly identified as a descendant of Dick-a-Dick. My email sparked Jenni’s curiosity and brought an immediate response. The missionary story of Dick-a-Dick’s death had never quite washed and Jenni was keen to find the truth about her ancestor. Her brother Richard Kennedy, also a Wutyubaluk Elder, soon joined us on the quest.
Our different knowledge traditions and backgrounds stimulated a rich collaborative endeavour. I learned their great-great-grandfather’s Aboriginal name was Yanggendyinanyuk, which in his language of Wergaia means ‘his walking feet’. Together, we retraced the steps of those walking feet, reconciling their Aboriginal knowledge and passed-down stories of him, with glimpses in the written words of colonisers, teased from their often racist, paternalistic and self-serving accounts.
‘We’ve found him at last,’ Jenni cried, convinced along with Richard that their ancestor did not die at Ebenezer Mission in 1870. Their confidence gave credibility to other uncovered slivers from later in his life—his recollections of an encounter with the first white men in his country, and a family tale of a breastplate he had received. We strove to replenish some of the vast silences in Yanggendyinanyuk’s life, erased from history like the stories of so many Aboriginal people.
A remarkable Wutyubaluk warrior emerged from our interwoven fragments—a warrior born into ancient traditions and forged by a catastrophic invasion that perforated his youth with unremitting trauma and loss. How did he survive this cataclysm to thrive in the perilous world of his stolen country? And what enabled his dignified triumphs on the cricket fields of England and adaptive response to treatment in the white man’s asylum? I embarked on a parallel quest to understand his indomitable resilience, as together we found Yanggendyinanyuk’s story.
• • •
Yanggendyinanyuk was born into the Wutyubaluk world around 1835, with all the expectations of the first son of a head man of his clan. His crucial formative years were steeped in Wutyubaluk tradition, shaping his identity with thousands of generations of complex kinship systems, Dreaming, lore, customs and deep spiritual connections to country. The only traces of white influence in his remote land were ominous rumours and the mysterious bullock-dray tracks of passing explorers.
One of these explorers, Major Thomas Mitchell, travelled just south of Yanggendyinanyuk’s country and came across a flowing stream he named the Wimmera River. His rapturous descriptions of the rich soil and luxuriant growth along its course soon lured pioneering pastoralists to the new frontier. Droving their hard-hoofed beasts into the remote southern Wimmera region, the squatters claimed vast tracts of land as their own.
Yanggendyinanyuk’s people belonged farther down the Wimmera River, where it turns northwards and enters the vast plains, woodlands and scrubby mallee of Wutyubaluk country. The Europeans spurned their drier country at first, as the Wimmera River—the lifeblood of the Wutyubaluk people—flowed intermittently until becoming a patchwork of lakes, soaks and waterholes.
But in 1844, two squatters and their Aboriginal guide ventured farther north along the river in search of a sheep run. Yanggendyinanyuk was around ten years old when the men with loaded pistols in their belts rode into his country. They fixed their eyes on the grasses of the open woodlands. Later in his life, Yanggendyinanyuk vividly recounted the arrival of the white men to a pioneering woman of the area, Mrs McKenzie, who carefully recorded his recollections. One of the white men, George Belcher, wrote his own substantiating narrative of the encounter.
Yanggendyinanyuk and his father were out hunting with other clansmen, when the intruders rode into their camp. The women and children scattered into the bush, but George Belcher caught up with a slower old woman, Coonangamabool. Terror-stricken, she gesticulated wildly to indicate the intruders would be speared when the men returned if they didn’t leave. The Aboriginal guide, Davey, conveyed Belcher’s ultimatum to Coonangamabool: he would shoot them all if the men came with their spears to interfere.
The intruders rode off and set up camp a few miles away. Davey seemed very troubled by the encounter. He crept away to spend the evening with the men of Yanggendyinanyuk’s clan, where he hatched a plan to keep the peace based on a ploy he must have witnessed before. He would ask the white men to christen each of the Aboriginal men with a name—‘Make each one you big chief.’
Next morning, a dozen Aboriginal men arrived at the squatters’ camp—‘all strapping fellows but one, who was quite a lad and thin as a scarecrow’, Belcher wrote in his diary. The solitary lad was Yanggendyinanyuk. Sitting the Aboriginal men in a row, Belcher slowly poured a pannikin of water over each head as he bestowed a name. The men seemed delighted, causing the squatters to laugh until tears filled their eyes. The baptism had secured an easy reconciliation, so Belcher fixed his mind on some splendid sheep country and would soon return with his flock.
A few months later, the young Irishman of twenty-one years was master of his own sheep station, which he named ‘Coonangamabool’. Soon after, Belcher was disturbed one morning by a young Aboriginal fellow—Yanggendyinanyuk—warning him a group of Aboriginal men were on their way up the river to attack his station, and then he disappeared into the bush. Arming himself with a double-barrelled gun and pistols, Belcher dispatched Davey with a message of his violent intentions.
Davey returned with the head man, who told Belcher the country he’d taken up belonged to his clan, and wanted payment in return. ‘I admitted the justice of the claim,’ Belcher wrote in his diary, and asked how he could recompense. Flour, sugar and some blankets was the response. ‘Tell him, Davey, to bring something to hold the flour, but as for blankets we have none to spare.’ The head man cut a canoe-shaped piece of bark from a red gum, which was duly filled with flour, and the Aboriginal men left without further trouble. Belcher settled into his new life on the land, but within a year of claiming Yanggendyinanyuk’s country as his own, became bored and handed Coonangamabool over to his brother-in-law.
Not long after, the Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, journeyed into Wutyubaluk country and made a grim assessment. ‘Every spot where water and grass is met with is being occupied,’ he recorded, ‘hence the situation of the Aborigines must, if driven from their water-holes, especially in the dry season, be perilous and truly pitiable.’ At first, Wutyubaluk warriors intensely resisted the squatters and their vast flocks in a form of ‘guerrilla warfare’, as described by Wimmera pioneer Charles Hall. Isolated shepherds and hut-keepers were speared in out-stations, sheep were killed or huge numbers driven away and tethered by breaking their legs, the supplies of homesteads ransacked. In response, settlers fortified their huts with gun portals and hunted in packs with their lethal bullets. ‘Every station had some tragic tale connected with this subject,’ wrote Charles Hall.
As the traditional existence of his childhood evaporated, Yanggendyinanyuk saw Wutyubaluk warriors felled protecting the land entrusted to them by their ancestors. Hard hooves pummelled his waterholes and hunting grounds. He watched his people—men, women and children—sickened until death with hideous, unknown diseases. Gradually the violent clashes over land subsided and Wutyubaluk survivors sought refuge on the pastoral runs of squatters with some sympathy for their dispossessed state. They camped on the stations’ fringes, decimated families attempting some semblance of familiar local-group life.
• • •
Amid the enormity of these losses, Yanggendyinanyuk’s once-slender frame bloomed with vigour. His strength, traditional skills and intimate knowledge of the landscape became valued assets on squatters’ stations. Soon he was employed as a mail rider, plying the postal track between Horsham and the South Australian border and making acquaintances across the stations of the Wimmera. He mastered the European games of billiards, boxing and cricket, but resisted the balm of the white man’s alcohol and became a life-long abstainer.
Yanggendyinanyuk’s reputation as an expert tracker reached across the Wimmera. In the winter of 1864, a frantic father rode for miles through the night to Mt Elgin station where Yanggendyinanyuk worked as a boundary rider. The desperate father sought his help to find his three young children, hopelessly lost in dense scrub. For eight days, 36 men had searched fruitlessly, and now torrential rain had obliterated the children’s tracks. Next morning, Yanggendyinanyuk led the search with two other trackers, at times crawling and then running over his familiar country as he discerned the children’s movements and exhausted condition. With ingenuity and unerring accuracy, he found them lying among saplings, barely alive, just before sunset.
As a reward, Yanggendyinanyuk received 15 pounds and was dubbed ‘King Richard’. The miraculous rescue captured headlines and inspired paintings and children’s books across Australia and England. Generations of Victorian school students came to know of ‘King Richard’ and his tracking prowess as they read the ‘Lost in the Bush’ story in compulsory schoolbooks from 1896 to the 1950s. One of the rescued children, Jane Duff, reflected on the famous incident as an older woman. ‘Good old King Richard,’ she said, ‘how I love his memory and loved him after I first knew him.’
• • •
Four years later, Yanggendyinanyuk’s traditional skills brought him fame once more with his Wutyubaluk weapons and cricket-ball-dodging show in England. The cricketers’ tour had caused controversy and concern before they left, led by Constable Kennedy, a Wimmera policeman. He wrote to the Board for Protection of Aborigines urging a halt to ‘this speculation in the Blacks’. The exploitative venture would expose the Aboriginal men to potentially fatal alcohol excesses and chest disease, he claimed—and the board agreed, vetoing the men’s involvement in the tour. Word reached the team’s captain-coach, Charles Lawrence, who had to move swiftly. Under the guise of a fishing trip, he smuggled the Aboriginal men out of Victoria on a coastal steamer bound for Sydney, from where they sailed to England.
In preparation for leaving on the momentous trip, Yanggendyinanyuk left his adolescent son in safekeeping with the Wimmera police officer, Constable Kennedy, whom he admired. His son adopted the Kennedy surname, which has been passed down through the generations.
Meanwhile, Charles Lawrence was busy cultivating the trust of Yanggendyinanyuk and his teammates. Sitting around Wimmera campfires at night, he explained that winning a cricket match was akin to their tribe beating another tribe in a fight—the victory would make them believe in their head man, so they should believe in him, their team captain. And in the same way, if they believed in Jesus, the ship’s captain would pray to him for their boat’s safe arrival in England.
Yanggendyinanyuk and the men seemed to put their faith in Lawrence’s analogy as the gales and heaving seas swept them to England. For those men of the dry Wimmera, the oceanic experience must have been confronting. Lawrence had a different assessment. ‘Nothing seemed now to trouble them for they thought the captain was so good that the ship would never sink,’ he wrote in his diary. The men sought the company of women and children onboard and became great favourites, using Lawrence’s copy books—intended for their literacy lessons—to draw the trees, birds and animals of their country.
Finally arriving at Gravesend, the team set off across 15 counties of England on a gruelling six-month cricket match schedule. They broke even in the victory tally, winning 14 matches, losing the same number and drawing 19. One month into the tour, the fears of Constable Kennedy were realised when Bripumyarramin became gravely ill with pneumonia and died in hospital a few days later. Balkinjarrunin and Lyterbillijun also suffered serious chest infections, with the only option for their survival an early ship home.
A more complete cultural dislocation is hard to imagine. The Aboriginal men were under constant scrutiny as exotic savages, destined for extinction. Yanggendyinanyuk’s strong and muscular body attracted the attention of a prominent English naturalist, William Tegetmeier, who grasped the opportunity to examine and photograph three specimens of a race ‘surely disappearing from the face of the earth’. Yanggendyinanyuk, Jarrawuk and Yellana endured 12 measurements of their body parts—navel to ground, length of hand, circumference of upper arm with and without tensed biceps, and so on—before refusing to participate any further. The naturalist’s photograph captured the ‘stern determination’ of Yanggendyinanyuk’s resistance. He promptly dismissed the men. ‘My Australian friends have, like petted children, been rather spoiled by their good reception in this country,’ he reported in the press.
All the while, Yanggendyinanyuk brought the entertainment of each cricket match to its dramatic conclusion as he dodged and parried flying cricket balls with his lightning-quick reflexes and Wutyubaluk weapons. At the tour’s farewell function, he was chosen to respond to the toast on behalf of his Aboriginal team. He stood and simply said ‘We thank you from our hearts’. And then the wild oceans carried the band of Aboriginal men home, their country’s earth finally under their feet again 12 months after departure. Each man had signed an ‘x’ next to his name on the tour contract, which promised a payment of 50 pounds apiece on their return. Yanggendyinanyuk didn’t receive his 50 pounds, and neither did anyone else.
• • •
Yanggendyinanyuk arrived home from England to yet another grievous change in his country. While the team was abroad, new government regulations had come into force prescribing where Aboriginal people were allowed to reside. He joined the dwindling band of Wutyubaluk people corralled into Ebenezer Mission, built on traditional ceremonial grounds on a bend of the Wimmera River with a lethal recent history.
Two German missionaries, Reverends Spieseke and Hagenauer, ran the mission with fervour and a keen eye for conversions, driven by the failure of their first mission near the goldfields in the early 1850s. Local settlers had been resentful the missionaries were luring Aboriginal people away from labouring on their stations, so they circulated malicious rumours: the missionaries were eating Aboriginal children, stealing their women and cutting off men’s penises. After retreating to Germany in disgrace, the missionaries arrived back to set up their new venture in the remote Wimmera region. Naming the mission Ebenezer—‘stone of help’ in Hebrew—they were determined to achieve a greater rate of baptismal conversion than in their first effort.
The missionaries may have been fixed on saving souls but they also saved lives, providing the Wutyubaluk people refuge and protection from the settlers. Mission life also brought some sense of community, though at great cost as spiritual and cultural practices were forbidden. Ebenezer did secure the missionaries more candidates for baptism, their prized evidence of the Holy Spirit at work among the heathen. But Yanggendyinanyuk was not one of them, contrary to the missionaries’ description of his glorious Christian death. While their zeal for conversions is clear, the most plausible (and benign) explanation for Yanggendyinanyuk’s ‘happy departure’ is mistaken identity with another Aboriginal cricketer, Jallachmurrimin, also known as Dick.
Ebenezer Mission was now Yanggendyinanyuk’s home. Within a year he found love and married Eliza Townsend, a widowed Aboriginal woman. In the autumn of 1875, an epidemic of measles ripped through Ebenezer. Almost all the Aboriginal residents became severely ill and one-fifth of the people died. With characteristic stamina, Yanggendyinanyuk survived the virulent infection but suffered serious complications involving inflammation of the brain with mental disturbance. He was gripped by melancholy and an overwhelming urge to end his life. Attempting to revive Yanggendyinanyuk’s life force, Rev. Spieseke allowed his people to take him into the bush. Before long they returned with grave fears for his safety, and Spieseke, unable to prevent Yanggendyinanyuk from harming himself, had no choice but to send him to the Ararat lunatic asylum.
Under a diagnosis of ‘brain disease after measles’, Yanggendyinanyuk commenced his treatment at the Ararat asylum overseen by Dr Gordon, the medical superintendent. After slow progress in the first months, Yanggendyinanyuk improved dramatically with the cricket match at the annual picnic and steadily recovered to return soon to his people at Ebenezer.
Yanggendyinanyuk had fought back from the abyss of despair, regaining his sense of self and purpose, despite his disease-affected brain and being locked in the asylum, the only Aboriginal patient among hundreds of debilitated Europeans. But Dr Gordon, who oversaw his recovery, could not muster the same resilience. The wounded healer tragically surrendered to his own suicidal anguish in November that year.
Soon after Yanggendyinanyuk’s return to Ebenezer, Rev. Spieseke died and the mission gradually fell into decline under the authoritarian rule of the new missionary, Rev. Kramer. ‘Satan was busily at work,’ Kramer reported to his church superiors. Terrible diseases continued to claim the Wutyubaluk people, with mounting deaths fast eclipsing the fading number of newborns.
However, Yanggendyinanyuk’s progeny defied Ebenezer’s dismal statistics. In 1878, Yanggendyinanyuk witnessed his son Richard Kennedy marrying Rose, a young Aboriginal woman. Their 12 children boosted declining Wutyubaluk numbers, with 11 thriving well into adulthood to continue Yanggendyinanyuk’s lineage. His own mental vulnerability remained though, and a few years later overwhelmed him once more. Such was Yanggendyinanyuk’s faith in his previous treatment, he requested to ‘get cured’ at the Ararat asylum and responded favourably yet again. He was back at Ebenezer within a few months.
Yanggendyinanyuk’s mental travails had not dimmed his tracking acumen or reputation, and in 1883 he received an urgent request to find a toddler lost in dense mallee scrub, despite two days of searching. With sharp eyes and intuition, Yanggendyinanyuk soon tracked the tiny footprints and found the little girl lying down, six miles from home. Local settlers rewarded him for saving her life and around this time ‘King Richard’ received a breastplate from the Europeans to honour his achievements.
Perhaps emboldened by this recognition, Yanggendyinanyuk set his mind on applying for a grant of land as part of a government scheme aiming to attract European small farmers to his country. Yanggendyinanyuk asked a Horsham Justice of the Peace to apply on his behalf, and a favourable response set the plan for a piece of his own country in motion. But at the last hurdle, Rev. Kramer cast doubt on Yanggendyinanyuk’s motivations for the land claim. ‘I believe self-interest lies at the root,’ he wrote as he scuttled the application.
To settle the increasingly troubled Yanggendyinanyuk, his daughter-in-law Rose Kennedy wanted one of the mission houses for him to live in. Rose insisted the house had been bequeathed to her and went above Rev. Kramer’s head, sending her letter of demand directly to the chief of the Board for Protection of Aborigines. ‘The house was built by my uncle when the first missionaries were here,’ she wrote. ‘I wanted the place for my old father to stay in but he [Rev. Kramer] told me it belongs to the government.’ Rose implored the chief protector not to inform Rev. Kramer of her letter. ‘Please do not disappoint me by sending it to Mr Kramer,’ she wrote.
Rose’s determined instructions were cast aside. On receipt of the letter a few weeks later, Kramer promptly thwarted yet another plan for Yanggendyinanyuk to claim a place of his own. He soon required asylum care once more.
Although Yanggendyinanyuk returned to Ebenezer after six months, his tenacious battle was nearly over. ‘His constitution is broken down, and, to all appearance[s], he cannot survive long,’ Rev. Kramer reported to the board. On 22 August 1886, the famed Wutyubaluk warrior died at Ebenezer Mission. His spirit was at home in his country on the banks of the Wimmera River, the lifeblood of his people.
• • •
Midway through our quest to find Yanggendyinanyuk’s story, a sudden realisation struck me. My great-grandfather was a farmer in the Wimmera in the late 1800s, and I had never considered how he gained his land. He had fled his native Germany for Victoria to escape military service, and I soon found proof he was granted acres of Wimmera country under the same government scheme and about the same time as Yanggendyinanyuk’s application was rejected. It was one more challenging research discovery I relayed to the Elders, but this one had a personal sting.
Yanggendyinanyuk’s descendants and I shared a powerful journey as we traced those walking feet. Most importantly, we restored—and Jenni and Richard reclaimed—16 years of Yanggendyinanyuk’s life and established how and where their revered ancestor died. The famous tracker who joined across racial divides to search for lost children had himself been found through our collaborative efforts. At a time when the Uluru Statement from the Heart had been summarily rejected by the federal government, we three private citizens ventured on one of its central requests—truth-telling about history.
The man whose truth we traced walked tall in his stolen country. Disrupted from the ancient rhythms of his traditional early years, Yanggendyinanyuk was forced to tread a dangerous colonised world. Squatters stole his land and missionaries stalked his soul, but they could not rob the Wutyubaluk warrior of his childhood and its deep cultural and spiritual foundations. The reservoir of strength from Yanggendyinanyuk’s time-tested culture seemed to shield him from the ravages of trauma and loss, empowering him to thrive in the fraught new order.
Today’s Indigenous mental health scholars would argue that Yanggendyinanyuk’s formative traditional childhood fuelled his resilient response to the catastrophes of colonisation. They contend that pre-contact Aboriginal societies provided optimal conditions for social and emotional wellbeing among their people. Traditional culture offered a collective sense of belonging; meaningful existence and guidance from deep spiritual connections; adaptive behaviours shaped by customary law and defined social roles; rich expression of self through language and art; and ceremonies to mark the importance of life transitions. Indigenous clinicians describe the imperative of connection to these inherent sources of strength and healing in modern-day Aboriginal cultures and communities for resilient mental health.
Vested with the strengths of his culture, Yanggendyinanyuk claimed a rightful place in his own country at a time when his people had no rights or recognition. His heroic feat has echoes in that heartfelt statement from Uluru:
Sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished.
One hundred and twenty-two years after Yanggendyinanyuk’s attempt to gain land in Wutyubaluk country under British law, Justice Ron Merkel sat on the banks of the Wimmera River at a special sitting of the Federal Court of Australia. He handed down a historic determination of native title, the first in south-eastern Australia, recognising the Wutyubaluk People’s native title rights to hunt, fish, gather and camp in reserves along more than 150 kilometres of the Wimmera River. In his reasons for judgment, Justice Merkel singled out the testimony of senior Wutyubaluk Elder Uncle Jack Kennedy, Yanggendyinanyuk’s great-grandson. He had ‘achieved what the Elders expected of him’, Merkel stated, ‘fighting for this little piece of country for his ancestors and for future generations’.
Yanggendyinanyuk’s cultural resilience and confidence in his entitlement have flowed through generations of his descendants. He lives on in them, as they have championed their people’s rights and responsibilities, achieved Wutyubaluk Native Title and recently reawakened Wergaia, the ancient language of Yanggendyinanyuk. The Wutyubaluk warrior inspired two of his descendants and me to trust each other, and together find his story and tell its truths. His walking feet have left enduring tracks. •
Jill Giese is a Melbourne-based writer and clinical psychologist. Her book illuminating Victoria’s early lunatic asylums, The Maddest Place on Earth, won the Victorian Premier’s History Award (2018).