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Possum Skin Cloak Project

On 19 August 2011, Vicki Couzens, Maree Clarke, Lee Darroch & Amanda Reynolds from Banmirra Arts travelled from Victoria to Newcastle to hold a workshop entitled Wilai Karingkareyang Turool: Possum Skin Cloak Healing Workshop.

Held at the Newcastle Town Hall, 40 members of the Awabakal Aboriginal community came from around the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie area to attend the 3 day workshop.

Wilai is the Awabakal word for possum, karingkareyang is the Awabakal word for cloak and turool is the Awabakal word for heal. Language is such a significant part of Aboriginal culture. Our languages hold the knowledge, history and stories of our ancestors. LANGUAGE + CULTURE = IDENTITY. The opportunity to share our language and our stories with each other whilst working on the possum skin cloak has enabled us, as Aboriginal people, to regain a big part of our cultural identity.

The ladies shared with us their vast knowledge of possum skin cloaks and Aboriginal culture; they taught the group many new skills including cutting the skins, sewing the skins together, creating designs for the cloak, burning onto the skins and painting ochre onto the cloak. Cloaks embody and strengthen identity. The designs can represent Clan, Country, Dreaming, personal and contemporary identities and stories. Making a cloak is a physical, spiritual and emotional journey that requires patience and dedication.

The participants worked together as a group to cut the skins, sew the skins together and create a design which was then burnt onto the cloak and painted with ochre. The cloak design portrays three Awabakal dreaming stories; The Stone Sisters at Swansea Heads – The Keepers of Lake Macquarie, the Creation of Belmont Lagoon - When the Moon Cried and the creation of the Hunter River – Maiyaa the Rainbow Serpent. The design also depicts the overall Awabakal totem; Birabaan the Eagle Hawk or Wedge Tail Eagle.

Community members who participated in the cloak workshop expressed feelings of pride, a sense of belonging, connection to country and spiritual wellbeing when working on the cloak and wearing the cloaks.

"This workshop made me remember. Made me think about the importance of our mobs – all together. Put things aside to come together for cultural business. One way, only way, right way – is together. We’ve got all different mobs together here – we’ve come to learn and share. We put up borders, we put up boundaries – but the song lines cross all of them. Where we are today and where we should be – is together with culture. Thank you." - Uncle Greg Griffiths

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History: Possum Skin Cloaks

Possum skin cloaks are one of the most sacred cultural expressions of south-eastern Aboriginal peoples. Aboriginal people throughout south-eastern and western Australia wore skin cloaks, as these areas were colder than the northern parts of Australia. The cloaks were made from the skins of possums, kangaroos and wallabies. The cloak was worn by placing it over one shoulder and under the other it was then fastened at the neck using a small piece of bone or wood. The cloaks were worn both with the fur on the outside and on the inside depending on the situation. The cloaks had many uses including to keep warm, to cradle babies, to sleep on or under, for ceremony, for a drum, for burial and to share stories and language through the designs. There are only five traditional possum skin cloaks surviving in the world today and most skin cloaks that people get to see are in museums and locked away from our people. Now that cloak revival is happening, Aboriginal people are now actually able to see, feel and use the cloaks just as our ancestors did a long time ago.


Image: An original possum skin cloak from the Hunter Region, 1839 – 1840, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, www.australiandressregister.org