The Aborigines - Early Inhabitants of the 'Top-End'

Aborigines have lived in the 'top-end' of Australia for at least 40,000 years and possibly much longer. Traditionally, they lived in distinct communities and centred their lives on the river valleys and waterholes, which helped support quite large populations and harboured plant and animal resources. The valleys also provided pathways through country which is often extremely rugged.

The boab was their special tree. It provided shelter, camp sites, seeds for food and ornaments, gum, bark for twine, and sometimes even water. The tribes exchanged rare and prized materials such as ochre and flints along trade routes that stretched far beyond their own lands.

Although their rock paintings are widespread, the most outstanding are found in the sandstone region of the north-west, in Wororan country. The Wororan tribes produced Western Australia's most dramatic paintings - the spirits called Wandjinas and the Bradshaw 'stick' figures.

European occupation, starting in the 1870s and preceded by smallpox and other foreign diseases, devastated these people. Their waterholes and sacred sites were invaded and vast tracts of tribal lands were taken for cattle stations. Gold discoveries inland and the pearling fleets along the coast added to the disruption.

Those who resisted were often hunted down and killed, occasionally in large numbers. Some found refuge in remote places such as the ranges and Bungle Bungle massif. One legendary leader, Jundumurra, led the fight against European settlement in the west Kimberley for three years before being killed in 1897.

The disruption continued well into the twentieth century. Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and subjected to a European education. Different tribes were forced together at feeding stations, on missions and settlements outside towns. They were taken away from the bush and firmly repressed. Tribal lands were depopulated to the extent that the lush and once well-populated land between the Prince Regent and Glenelg rivers, which George Grey explored in 1838, is now uninhabited.

Some 2600 Aborigines live in the north Kimberley today, making up about 30 per cent of the sparse population of the area, Although much of their traditional tribal knowledge has been lost, families and groups are now returning to their ancestral lands and living, in part, off the bush. The homelands settlement movement is gaining strength and the younger generation is showing renewed interest in the past. Aborigines are being appointed as rangers and the Purnululu Aboriginal community, traditional owners of the Bungle Bungle, is having a voice in its management.

Aboriginal Dreamtime Legends
The Meaning Behind the Coin Designs
1988, 1989, 1990

1988 - East Arnhem Land - Where the Myth Began - Yulunggul & the Wawalag Sisters

The area known as Arnhem Land is culturally rich in its mythology. A reserve (now mostly under Aboriginal control) spans an area of 37,167 square miles and has two main culture divisions - the east and the west. Each has a number of distinct social groups whose members 'possess' myths from the creative era of the dreaming. Many of these are acted out in religious ritual or in open camp ceremonies.

In eastern Arnhem Land every Aboriginal person is a member of one dialet (Mada) group and clan (Mala) according to decent from a father. Each Mada-Mala combination belongs to one of two divisions or 'Moieties' called 'Dua' and 'Yiridja'. These divisions apply not just to people, but to everything in the known universe. The recognition of them forms a basic part of Aboriginal life.

The characters depicted on the reverse of the 1988 Holey Dollar and Dump are drawn from a story which is one of the most significant in eastern Arnham Land. It is one associated with fertility and the increase of the natural species, the proper sequence of seasons and all phenomena necessary for people's well-being. It is the story of the Wawalag (or Wagilag) Sisters. Some of the meaning of the story is secret/sacred, but what follows may be shared by all of us. There are various versions and some complex interpretations, this is one:

The Story of the Wawalag Sisters and Yulunggul

Long ago, in the early days of the dreaming, two sisters left their home at Ngiligidji to embark on a long journey to the north. The elder sister, Boaliri, took her infant son along with her. Her younger sister, Garangal, was due to bear a child along the way. The sisters were members of the Wawalag group that belonged to the dua moiety. The women carried stone spears and hunted many animals along the way - goanna, possum, bandicoot and kangaroo. They carried these in their big 'dilly bags' and collected yams to supplement their supplies.

One day Garangal said to her sister, ' We must stop here, for the baby will soon be born'. Sure enough, she gave birth to a male child. When her strength returned, she gathered up the infant and continued with her sister until they reached Muruwul waterhole and they decided to stay and cook their food. They did not know that the land around the waterhole was taboo, because its waters were the home of Yulunggul, the great rock python who was a 'dua' headman.

Much to the sisters' surprise, as each animal was placed on the fire, it came back to life and jumped into the waterhole. This was their way of warning the sisters of the danger that faced them. The action of the animals disturbed Yulunggul, who started to get angry. The sisters, however, did not know they had done wrong and prepared to camp, gathering bark from a stringybark tree by the waterhole to make a shelter.

Yulunggul smelled the scent of the women and became incensed. He blew a mouthful of water into the air, forming great black thunder clouds. Lightning crashed and rain came pelting down. The sisters, frightened by the sudden storm, retreated into the hut with their children. In the stormy darkness, Yulunggul uncoiled himself from the depths of the waterhole and approached the hut, his eyes protruding like great lights, searching them out. Terrified, the sisters took turns in performing a series of dances, trying to stop him. But they could not keep him at bay for very long with their songs and dancing and at last they both fell asleep exhausted. Slowly, Tulunggul coiled his huge body around the hut, pushed his head through the doorway and swallowed them all, the children and their mothers - and according to some versions of the story, their dogs.

Next morning, Yulunggul reared up on his tail and proudly surveyed the flooded countryside around him. Other 'dua' moiety snakes stood up too, and began to talk to each other in voices like thunder. Eventually the conversation got around to food and Yulunggul was forced to admit that he had swallowed the sisters. This was a calamity because, like the sisters, he was of the 'dua' moiety and so had done wrong by eating them.

As soon as he had confessed to swallowing the Wawalag, he fell to the ground, spewing out the sisters alive, but retaining the children in his stomach, because they were of the opposite moiety division, 'yiridja'. At this time, the northern monsoonal season began in earnest, bringing relief from the long dry period, fertilising the earth so that all the natural species could grow and increase and provide food for human beings.

On hearing the thunderous noise, some of the Wawalag men hurried to the scene. When they saw a rainbow within the waterhole, they knew that Yulunggul must be in there beneath the surface. They made a symbol of the great python - a long, sinuous dijeridu, and lay down to sleep. As they slept, the sisters came to them in their dreams and, guided by their messages, the men re-enacted the songs and dances the sisters had performed to ward off the snake. These became the rituals that are carried out each year to encourage fertility and the natural passing of the seasons.

1989 - The Kimberly - Land of the Wandjina - Wodjin & the Crocodile

The Wandjina dreaming tradition dominates the art of the Australian Aboriginal groups of the North-Western section of the Kimberly region in Western Australia. The movement of many of these people southward from around the Prince Regent River to reside eventually at Mowanjum near Derby has spread the Wandjina tradition to a much wider area.
There are many myths recalling the activities of the Wandjina and their creation of the world. The Wandjina are said to have come out of the sky to live on the land; fishing, hunting and engaging in other activities similar to those subsequently carried out by the Aboriginal inhabitants of the area. While some of the myths indicate that Wandjina behaved in socially disruprive ways in the creative era of the Dreaming, these stories enshrine elements of cause and effect; disruptive behaviour usually resulting in disaster or severe punishment.
On the whole, the activities of Wandjina are believed to set the prototypes for each district's religion, law, customs, rites, songs and dances.

When the Wandjina completed the creation of the earth and their allotted time on the land, they painted their images on the surfaces of rock shelters and caves and then entered into the rocks themselves. They are often claimed to have been there since mythological times; a mythical being may have 'become a painting', settling down in the cave while perhaps his spirit travelled to some other site, or into the sky. But the paintings are said to have been there 'always' as part of the mythological era, part of the Dreaming, and the spirit of the Wandjina remains to watch over the forthcoming generations of people. Many of these paintings are ancient, created as they were before living memory, and their origins are said to be non-human. Their meanings are not always known or, if they are, they are shrouded in mystery.

Wandjina are believed to be responsible for bringing the rain in the monsoon season that controls the fertility of the land. To ensure the arrival of the rains each year, the Wandjina decreed that their paintings should be regularly retouched or renewed by ritual leaders. If this was not done, the result would be drought and hunger. If a painting should become dim, the Wandjina would vanish as would the rain and the fertility of the countryside.

The Wandjina figures are strange, majestic creatures; usually painted against a white background. An oval band encircles the face, except for a break at the chin, and from the outer edge of the head, lines radiate out. They are often shown wearing a headband; eyes and nose form one unit; with lashes encircling both eyes, and they are rarely given a mouth. The body, when there is one, id filled with parallel stripes down the arms and legs. But they are more than pictures; they represent the very essence or spirit of the beings and creatures depicted. In the cave are pieces of rock symbolizing parts of their bodies, and the ritual act of painting or retouching them releases energy or power, bringing on the wet season and sending out spirit children or spirits of edible plants and natural species.

The figures are generally drawn surrounded by the totemic beings and creatures associated with them, on which they depend for sustenance, and these caves and rock shelters become a focus of tribal religion and ritual action.

The Story of Wodjin and the Wandjina

The most widely known Aboriginal story from the Kimberly refers to a mythical being. In this legend, Wandjina collaborated to fight against human Aboriginal groups and, in the process, kill many of them. The story is one of cause and effect and is told here in an abridged version.

Two children were playing with the bird, Tumbi, who they thought was a honeysucker. However, it was really an owl. They did not see the difference in the eyes and thought the bird was unimportant. The children maimed and blinded the bird. They mocked him by throwing him into the air and telling him to fly, but he could not and fell back to earth.

Tumbi was not just an ordinary bird, he was the owl, the son of a Wandjina. This is why he was able to disappear and go up to Inanunga, the Wandjina in the sky, to complain. The news flew to all the Wandjina who determined to punish the people. A Wandjina named Wodjin called all the Wandjina from throughout the country together, and the owl who had been maimed incited them to revenge.


However, they did not know where to find the people, and the lizards and animals which they sent to scout around for them refused to tell where the people were. The animals were sorry for the people, and tried to hide them, knowing that the Wandjina would kill them in revenge for the bad deeds.

But the Wandjina saw the people on a wide flat near the spring at Tunbai. They moved to the top of one of the hills which surround this flat and Wodjin, by stroking his beard, was able to bring heavy rain and floods.

The Wandjina divided into two parties and attacked in a pincer movement from the top of the hill. Meanwhile, the Brolgas (birds) had been dancing on the wet ground and had turned it into a bog. The Wandjina drove the people into the boggy water, where they drowned. The people tried to fight back, but they were unable to harm the Wandjina.

The boys who had injured the bird were very frightened by the fight, the rain and lightning, and escaped to a large boab tree with a split in it, where they decided to hide. But the tree was really a Wandjina and no sooner were the boys inside than it closed on them and crushed them. The Wandjina, having achieved their aim and revenged the injuries done to the owl, were now able to disperse around the country.

The Crocodile

All living things in the Kimberly region were created by Wandjina during the Dreaming, but some have a closer relationship with Wandjina than others. Among the animals regarded as close kin are the freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni) as opposed to the saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus). In the mythical past, the latter became 'spoiled' and imbued with bad spirits when they grew too large, and were banished from life-giving fresh water to go and live in unpotable salt water.

The freshwater crocodile, on the other hand, became an important originator of the Law by which Aboriginal people live. The freshwater crocodile is connected with the instigation of male initiation, and the transverse scars which it carries on its back are copied in some initiation ceremonies.

The Story of Fire and the Crocodile

There are a number of crocodile legends associated with each area of the Kimberly. One such legend explains how the Wandjina helped the Aboriginals to save their fire-sticks, which had been stolen by a crocodile, and how a local bird got its colourful feathers.

According to Dreamtime legend, a big group of freshwater crocodiles representing all the language speakers of the north-west Kimberly were gathered at an open space near the Prince regent River. Fire, a commodity which had the potential to revolutionise their lives, had just been created.

realising how powerful a weapon this could prove, a large Worora-speaking crocodile crept up to the precious firebrand and furtively made off with it tucked under his stomach. He was edging his way towards a deep pool in the Prince Regent River when the other crocodiles spotted him. A great uproar ensued as they tried to prevent him from extinguishing the fire in the water. The Wandjina saw the fight amongst the crocodiles and sent the Redwing parrot (Aprosmictus eryyhropterus) to save the coal, over which the quarrel had arisen. Whilst the battle was raging the bird swooped down and flew off with the precious firebrand tucked under his wing. To this day the colourful parrot has a red patch on its wing as a reminder of the day he saved the fire for all people.

During the battle, the Worora-speaking crocodile was speared in the guts, and his liver and kidneys fell out. These can be seen today, in the shape of red stones at the battleground, and is the reason why crocodiles have no kidneys. Further reminders of the red ember the selfish creature wanted to control for his own ends are the red marks on the crocodile's belly and its eyes which glow red in the dark.

1990 - The Art of Western Arnhem Land - The Mimi & Barramundi

Some of the most spectacular cave art in Australia is found in Western Arnhem Land. Since 1878, when traditional bark paintings first came to the attention of the outside world, western Arnhem Land has been recognised as the home of some of the richest and most striking examples of Aboriginal art. Galleries of these paintings give colour and life to many of the shelters and coves of the numerous hills and rocky outcrops in the region.

Aborigines create these inspiring paintings using the limited resources gleaned from the land. For bark paintings, the inner surface of sheets of stringy bark is used. Brushes, fine or heavy, are fashioned from pieces of twig flattened at one end, or feathers or human hair mounted on small sticks. The rich colours present in so many of the works are carefully prepared using red and yellow ochres, pipeclay and charcoal, or sometimes a black rock, mixed with water and ground at intervals during painting. To help pigments adhere to the work surface, an adhesive can be derived by rubbing the surface with an orchid root. Some of the paintings can be seen in what seem to be impossible places, high on the vaulted ceilings of caves, which can be reached only with the help of a notched pole or native ladder.

Dominated by the Gunwinggu language speaking peoples, the art of western Arnhem Land is characterised by the use of two distinctive styles - 'X-ray' art, which is featured on the Holey Dollar, and 'mimi' art, which is depicted on the Dump. In X-rat art, the skeletal and muscular structure of the subject is shown in detail to emphasise its importance. Without the internal aspects, say some Aboriginal artists, 'we show only their shell; we want to show them living'.

In contrast, mimi art possesses a stylised simplicity. Considered by many to be the most ancient form of Aboriginal art, mimi figures are generally slender and stick-like. Striking in its grace, proportion, and feeling of movement and rhythm, mimi art sometimes shows humans hunting, camping or dancing. More often, however, it depicts the spirits which gave this style of art its name, the mimi.

The Mysterious Mimi

Said to live in family groups along the rocky escarpments of western Arnhem Land, mimi spirits appear regularly in Aboriginal myth as well as in cave and bark art. They are described as being just like the paintings on rock shelters; naked, stick-like creatures with big heads and hair. One myth from Gunwinggu country tells of the mimi being so thin that you can see right through them, and adds that, because they have no flesh, their bones rattle as they walk.

Considered a race unto themselves, these slender spirits are said to live forever and possess mystical powers that enable them to seal and unseal their caves with a stone covering, simply by speaking to it. 

Despite their apparent immortality, the mimi are believed to leave their caves only in calm weather for fear that a strong wind might break their thin necks. Few humans have met and spoken with the mimi on their home territory, but myths do recount instances where mimi and mankind have established friendships.

The stories, however, provide a warning that the capricious mimi are not to be trusted. Besides stealing their friends' food, the mimi are also inclined to make a meal of any human they chance upon. One story tells how a Gunwinggu man wandered into Mimi country and was invited by one of the spirits to return to his cave home. The man refused the hospitality and tried to escape, but was captured by a mimi 'headman'. The other mimis in the area danced with joy in anticipation of a feast, but found to their annoyance that the mimi headman had already eaten the man.

The mimi depicted on the Dump are in a somewhat less aggressive mood. Derived from a bark painting by Naderadji Goymala, the design shows three dancing mimi women. Each mimi spirit wears a stylised headpiece, and their bodies are decorated with designs directly associated with such figures. Two of the mimi women carry dilly bags used in the collection of food. They are dancing and 'acting silly' because two male mimi are fighting over them for their favours.

Barramundi Dreaming

Thebarramundi is a highly prized source of food for the Aborigines of western Arnhem Land, and plays a large part in the region's dreamtime mythology. Showing two men spearing a barramundi from a tree overhanging a billabong, the design on the Holey Dollar is based on an X-ray style bark painting by Dick Nguieingulei Murumuru, inspired by the legend of the giant Dreaming Barramundi fish which once lived at the head of the East Alligator River.

The dreamtime barramundi, says the legend, was spotted by three hunters, one of whom, Nagongbid, approached and managed to spear him. The barramundi, however, broke loose and swam towards the coast, creating the East Alligator River as he went. The hunters pursued him to the river's mouth, where, to avoid capture, the barramundi transformed himself into a large rock. Located at Gulari Point, the rock that was once the Dreaming Barramundi can still be seen at low tide.

Another myth explains how the barramundi came to have spines on its back. The legend speaks of two young lovers, Yungi and Meyalk, who decided to run away together before the girl's marriage according to traditional law to an older man. They eloped during a Bora, or corroboree, and ran through the countryside, eventually arriving at the sea shore. Knowing they were followed, they prepared many spears and successfully managed to fend off their pursuers until their supply was exhausted.

As the angry party of men approached them hurling spears, Yungi and Meyalk threw themselves into the sea, where they turned themselves into barramundi. Some of the spears, however, struck them as they fell and that, says the legend, is why the barramundi has spines on its back.

The Holey Dollar and Dump Collection Book issued by the Perth Mint - 1990.
Australia's Wilderness Heritage - World Heritage Areas, 1988.

Aboriginal Dreamtime legends appear on the following Australian coins:

1988-90 Holey Dollar & Dump Set

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