The Big Bora—How the People got their Totems
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Title: The Big Bora—How the People got their Totems
Artist: Tex Skuthorpe
Medium: Acrylic on Canvas
Size: 123cm x 176cm
Price: AU$ 5000
Status: For Sale
Message sticks were placed to tell all the people that there would be a gathering of all people at Googoorewon.
The old people said that this would be the first time for a Bora. Baiame who was a great Wirrigan said he would take his two sons to the gathering so that they could begin their learning to become men. As people arrived, each different totem took up different points on the ridge surrounding the clearing where the ceremony was going to be held. Wahn, the crow at one spot, the Dumer, pigeons at another place, Madhi, the dogs, Baiamul, the swans, Ooboon the blue tongued Lizard, Bohda, the red kangaroo, Dinewan, the emu, Bidgee, the sand goanna, etc. all took different spots.
When everyone was there, nightly corroborrees were held with each group decorating themselves, and performing their songs and dances which told the story of the totems of their people.
After a while, the Wirrigans (clever people) from each group got together and decided they would hold a Bora ceremony. Each day they went out as if they were going hunting but prepared the Bora ground instead. They cleared a large circle of land; they built earth mounds around the circle and cleared pathways from the bush into the circle, with mounds on each side of the pathways. Each totem built a sculpture of their totem animal in the mounds along the pathway, interspersed with small shrubs turned upside down so that their roots formed a kind of umbrella which decorated the whole pathway.
This preparation had been going on for quite some time when one of the old Wirrigans walked away as if he were sulking. One of the other wirrigans followed him back to his camp and they started fighting. Their fight was so loud that everyone could hear them. All of a sudden, in the middle of the fight, everyone heard this strange new sound. It stopped the two old men from fighting and everyone was afraid. They knew it was the sound of the spirits who had come to the Bora ground to help with the initiation of the young boys into manhood. The old women gathered their children and said “Gurraymi” meaning Bora spirit. The boys became really frightened and said “Gayandi” which also means Bora spirit but men and women must use a different word to describe it. The noise went on all night so the next day everyone moved inside the bora circle. In order to move inside the circle, each group had to do a ceremony beforehand.
Before moving, the men left their camps and went into the bush. Just before sunset they all walked in a single file out of the bush along the paths they had previously cleared. They walked between the mounds they had built. They each carried a firestick and a branch of a tree. When they reached the middle of the circle it was the time for the women and young people to leave their old camps and move into the Bora circle. They made new camps inside the circle and held a corroborree for everyone as they had on previous evenings.
However, this evening the corroborree was interrupted by Biaime, the greatest Wirrigan of all. All through the corroborrees the Madhi had been laughing and playing amongst themselves instead of watching, listening and learning about their sacred ceremonies.
Doing this had shown great disrespect to the Wirrigans and their people. Yet again on this night, the Madhi were talking and laughing. Baiame, went over to them and said “I am the first Wirrigan. All people show respect for my learning. I want you to stop talking and laughing while other people are doing their ceremonies. Because you didn’t listen to the other Wirrigans, because you think the Wirrigans will never make your young boys into men, that is why you show disrespect. You will not speak the same way again. If you want to be a noisy people who can’t keep quiet when strangers are in the camp and a people who do not understand sacred things, then you and all your people will make a noise but it won’t sound like talk or laughter, it will be a noise like howling.”
When the Madhi tried to say something mocking to Baiame, they found that he was right—they could no longer speak or laugh like men—they could only howl or bark. And as the Madhi realised what had happened, a great sadness and yearning came into their eyes , which is still there to this day. Everyone who had seen what had happened were in awe of Baiame as he walked back to his people.
That night, another corroborree was held. The women who were related to the boys sang all night and the boys corroborreed for them. At the end of the night the young women were taken into goondis, made from leaves and grass, which were surrounding the Bora ground. The old women stayed on to show the boys respect for the journey that they were about to take from boyhood to manhood. Each man would lift a boy onto his shoulders and do a short corroborree, to show that the boys were in good hands during their journey. So the women paid their final respect to them as boys. Then the women joined the younger women in the surrounding goondis. When all the women were out of sight, some of the men pulled the goondis down so the women couldn’t see the direction the boys went. As soon as the boys had left, each with their teacher, the women could come out of their goondis.
The men were not allowed to tell them where the boys had gone or how long they would be away. The women would see the boys some months later at the little Bora ground which was made out of grass rather than earth. The boys would come with their teachers, some with a front tooth missing or with ceremonial marks on their body. When the women had showed respect to the boys and had seen that their sons were alright, the boys and their teachers would leave together as a group. They would spend 6–8 months together and then they would separate again—one boy with his teacher—and go in different directions. Again, the women would not see this happening.
After the boys had left, the women packed up and moved to the little Bora ground that is made out of earth. After a little while, Millindulunubba came into their camp saying that they had all left her and her children to travel alone. She had been left to carry and look after all her children alone. Each time she came to a waterhole to give her children much needed water, she found only mud. So she went looking for water but at every water hole she found only mud. Her children were crying because they were so thirsty. One by one each of her children had laid down and died from lack of water, that everyone had drunk before she reached there. A woman went to her with a wirree of water but she wouldn’t drink it because she didn’t want to live when all her children were dead. When she lay down to die, the woman poured the water over her mouth. Millindulunubba got up and said “because of your hurry to get here and your selfishness in wanting to know that your children were alright, you forgot to look after my children.” She began pointing and waving her hands and saying “because of this, you will stay here forever, turn into trees, turn into trees.” And everyone close to her were turned into trees and they are all still there, standing around the edges of the Bora ground. The oak tree carries the spirits of the mourning for the death of Aboriginal people and can be heard when the wind moves through it.
And all the people in the background were also changed, they were turned into the totems that they were known by. So, the barking Madhi were turned into dogs, the Biaimul, into swans, the Wahn into crows, the Dumer into pigeons, the Ooboon into blue tongued lizards, Dinewans into emus, Bohda into kangaroos and so on, each with their own language and customs.
When the boys and their teachers arrived at this little Bora ground made of earth, there was no-one to be seen. They waited and waited but finally Baiame said that something must have happened to prevent them coming. He said that they should all go to a far country to start again and to continue their initiation. Baiame travelled with his dog to Noondoo, where his dog left him, went into the scrub and gave birth to a litter of puppies, the like of which had never been seen before. They had the bodies of dogs but the heads of Piggibilla, the porcupine. And Noonghaburra people believed that if they saw one of these eermoonari, or long tooth, they would be killed by it. Not even Baiame dared to go near his dogs litter. So Baiame now lives alone on one of the Noondoo ridges.
Artists Comments: Tex Skuthorpe, a Noonghaburra man from Noonghal country