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Reproduced courtesy of Dr Treahna Hamm

Dhungala biganga (Murray River possum skin cloak)

Date: 2006
Dimensions:
Overall: 1450 x 1535 x 40 mm
Medium: Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) skin pelts, thread, natural earth pigments
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Copyright: © Dr Treahna Hamm
Classification:Art
Object Name: Cloak
Object No: 00039880
Related Place:Murray River,

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    Description
    This possum skin cloak decorated with ochre and yellow paint represents the creation of the Murray River (Dhungala). The cloak contains imagery related to the river system and the connections the Yorta Yorta people have with their country. The ochre reflects the landscape of the Barmah Forest and the red river gums. It was created by the artist Treahna Hamm, of the Yorta Yorta people. After seeing the original Lake Condah possum skin cloak in 1999, Treahna Hamm, Lee Darroch and Vicki Couzens decided to reproduce the cloak and revive the cloak-making tradition.
    SignificancePossum skin cloaks were a highly prized possession of the Indigenous people of south-eastern Australia. Once common there are now only six cloaks, made prior to the nineteenth century, in existence.


    HistoryCloaks were traditionally made from possum skins sewn together with animal sinew, and were decorated with symbols significant to country, cultural sites, individuals and clans. They provided a key form of protection against cold weather for Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia. Cloaks were used in a wide variety of ways, were a valuable item and were traded over long distances. Following contact with Europeans, possum skin cloaks were rapidly replaced by woollen blankets, although these provided less protection from the cold and damp.

    One of the producers of this cloack Lee Darroch says:

    "Possum skin cloaks are sacred to us as Koori people. Traditionally the manufacture of a possum skin cloak was a laborious process. First, the men of the tribe would hunt the possums. A smoky fire would be built at the base of a tree. The men would then cut toeholds into the tree and climb it to club the possums as they fled the smoke. The men would then skin the possums, scrape the skins clean with mussel shell or stone scrapers and peg them out on a bark board by the fire to slowly dry from the smoke and the sun. Once cured, the skins were incised by the women with sharp mussel shells or stones with special patterns. The incised patterning had significant meaning for it denoted the wearer’s status in the group, their totem, their clan, their tribe, their country and their personal mark. The pelts - as many as 81 - were then carefully stitched together using kangaroo tail sinew and a bone awl.

    Traditionally Aboriginal people from Victoria wore possum skin cloaks for a wide range of practical, cultural and spiritual reasons. Possum skin cloaks kept our people safe and warm throughout the colder months. Whole families would sleep under an exceptionally large cloak at night. When our babies were born they were wrapped in a possum skin cloak and carried on their mother’s back. As our children grew into toddlers a special child-size cloak was made for them. This cloak "grew" as the child grew, with more panels being added over time".

    Contemporary cloaks are made from the skins of common brushtail possums culled by the Maori in New Zealand, where possums have become a major pest to the environment. Possums are a protected species in Australia.

    On 11 June 2004 the Yorta Yorta people and the Victorian Government signed the Yorta Yorta Co-operative Management Agreement. This granted the Yorta Yorta people co-management of 50,000 hectares including Kow Swamp, Barmah State Park, Barmah State Forest and Crown land and water along the Murray and Goulburn Rivers.This was a recognition by one level of government that the Yorta Yorta did have a significant relationship and connection with the lands and waters of the Murray River. The Yorta Yorta people lodged a Native Title Claim in 1994, which was rejected in 1998 by Justice Olney. The Yorta Yorta appealed the decision on two occasions, but both appeals were dismissed.
    Additional Titles

    Secondary title: Yorta Yorta Possum Cloak

    Web title: Dhungala biganga (Murray River possum skin cloak)

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