Winning for the category of ‘Indigenous Projects’ or ‘Keeping Place’, The Gnarrwirring Ngitj Festival, was held in partnership with the Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation last May.
The Festival was held to celebrate Aboriginal stories, traditions and history, as well as the important contribution that Aboriginal people made to the goldfields.
Local Elder, Bryon Powell is Chairman of the board and project officer at Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation, but he has a different way of describing himself.
“I’m the silly bugger everyone comes to when people want to know something.”
Starting out 20 years ago in just a lounge room, but now, Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation is a multi-million dollar organisation that looks after the country and is recognised by the State Government as traditional owners of the land.
Uncle Bryon says they’ve been working with Sovereign Hill to tell people about Aboriginal people’s involvement in the Gold Rush.
“It wasn’t just white fellas and Chinese fellas who came in. We were there in the Eureka stock aid; we were making money by providing goods. Our women provided childcare facilities, our men went hunting for their food. Miners were told to buy possum skin rugs in Ballaarat. We were an integral part of the gold rush in Ballaarat.”
"They trusted Aboriginal people to guard the gold because we didn’t value it, we wouldn’t steal it. A white fella guard would have stolen it!”
Uncle Byron says it’s up to them to tell the stories of the hidden history of Aboriginal people in the gold fields.
“We’ve now developed an app so when people wander around Sovereign Hill, they can learn the story about Aboriginal people being the first guards of the gold shipments. You see they trusted Aboriginal people to guard the gold because we didn’t value it, we wouldn’t steal it. A white fella guard would have stolen it!”
Gnarrwirring Ngitj Festival is a week-long event that celebrates Aboriginal culture. It includes educational talks, tours, basket weaving workshops, artifacts such as spears and boomerangs. In the apothecary room there’s a jar of bush medicine and they’ve recently introduced boiled lollies with bush tucker flavours.
But Uncle Byron says it was the final event that stole the show. The grand Corroboree.
The Corroboree is an Aboriginal celebration in song and dance around a fire and ranged in ages from 8 to 89. It is always performed to the Elders and is a way of saying who they are, where they come from and sharing the stories.
“This was the first celebration that Wathaurung people - the traditional owners, have danced at since the gold rush in the 1850’s.”
It was based on the dance of the Porrongijt (Brolgas) who left the land because they were sick from unkempt waterways as people stopped caring for them. Uncle Bryon says only in the last 10 years people have started to repair it, which is why they chose to perform it.
“It wasn’t until an environmental change when people started caring for country and healing the waterways when the Brulga’s came back. This reflects Aboriginal history in a modern song and dance of celebration.”
To view the Corroboree, Uncle Bryon has been told it was ‘amazing’, but he says ‘to be part of it and looking out was even better’.
“It brought home to us what this country meant. It reinforced our culture, keeps us strong Wathaurung people dancing on Wathaurung land again.”
“This is a way of showing people we’re still here, we still have our history,” because Uncle Bryon says “It doesn’t matter how much milk you put in a cup of coffee, it’s still a cup of coffee.”
"We’re proud that the Gnarrwirring Ngitj Festival celebrates the richness and importance of Aboriginal culture."
Worimi woman Genevieve Grieves judged the festival alongside Frank Howarth. Together they said the Gnarrwirring Ngitj festival showcased a perfect blend of culture and country.
“It was an excellent initiative that highlights how an organization, that largely highlights Western culture and histories, can begin to develop a relationship that with local Aboriginal communities,” they said.
“The collaborative and multi-pronged approach across events, culture and education has benefited the community, organisation and local audiences by deeply engaging with Indigenous culture and history.”
The Awards Ceremony was held on Monday night at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre as part of the Museums Galleries Australia National Conference.
Sovereign Hill CEO Jeremy Johnson says their aim is to deliver innovative, unique events, that educate and empower people while also showing Australia’s black past.
“Indigenous people contributed greatly to the history of the goldfields, and we’re proud that the Gnarrwirring Ngitj Festival celebrates the richness and importance of Aboriginal culture.”
The MAGNAs primarily focus on innovation and excellence in exhibition, audience engagement and Indigenous projects and has been running for the last six years. It is open to all non-commercial museums, galleries, zoos, botanical gardens and other cultural and collecting institutions who are members of Museums Australia.
The Gnarrwirring Ngitj Festival won first place for the Level One award, which recognises talent on a low budget. Other winners from the Indigenous project section were Western Australian Museum, Yurlmun: Mokare Mia Boodja (Returning to Mokare’s Home Country), and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, kanalaritja: An Unbroken String.