White settlers knew the Wurundjeri as the ‘Yarra’ tribe. They were closely associated with the Yarra River drainage basin, with various subgroups of the tribe owning lands at various spots on the course of the Yarra. They were the main tribe of Aboriginal people settled in the area that would become Melbourne. Their language, Woiwurrung, also distinguished them. This method of distinguishing tribes was common amongst Aboriginal people
The subgroups of the Wurundjeri included the ‘true’ Wurundjeri, under the clan head Jakka-Jakka. This name is also spelt as Jaga-Jaga and Jika-Jika. His was one of the signatures on John Batman’s ‘treaty’ of 1835. This clan occupied land which included parts of the Darebin Creek. The Kurnaje-berreing were further divided into two groups. Billibellary led one group, the Wurundjeri-willam; his clan’s lands included the Merri Creek and much of what is now Darebin. The other was led by Bebe-jan. His clan owned some of the land by the Darebin Creek. The final subgroup of the Wurundjeri was called the Boi-berrit, led by Bungerim. Their land was centred around Sunbury. Within these subgroups there was further division, usually on family lines, with each group owning a defined tract of land.
The clan heads, or ngurungaeta, were important figures to the Wurundjeri, as they were in other Aboriginal tribes. However the clans were never dictatorships, and decisions that affected the clan were only ever made final after extensive consultation amongst members of the clan. This democratic method and lack of hierarchical structure was unusual to the early white settlers who documented the first contacts with Aboriginals. It demonstrates a high level of sophistication in Aboriginal culture that was either ignored or not understood by early white chroniclers of Aboriginal culture.
Under leaders like Billibellary, the Wurundjeri were able to develop reasonable working relationships with white settlers. While they remained true to their values and customs, they also became guides, messengers and workers in a world that was changing so dramatically around them. Due to the tolerance and wisdom of Aboriginal leaders like Billibellary and Beruke, and the patience and determination of Assistant Protector William Thomas, there was little violence between whites and the Wurundjeri-willam, a marked contrast to the violence and brutality that disgraces much of the early history of white settlement in Australia.
Traditional Aboriginal law forbade marriage within the clan, so the Wurundjeri marriages were often arranged with members of more distant tribes. These were a way of strengthening ties between clans. Often, when a male member or the clan received a wife, he would see his sister married off to a member of his new wife’s clan. The Wurundjeri-willam had forged close marital ties with other Kulin people from the upper Goulburn region. Normally the Wurundjeri males would only have one wife, but the clan heads, like Billibellary, often had more than one.
The Wurundjeri-willam of today refer to themselves as Wurundjeri. They have suffered from breaks in continuity with their past and have lost touch with aspects of their culture and language as they were forbidden from talking about their culture together. They suffer from the same identify crisis that plagues all of Australia’s Aboriginals as a direct consequence of the arrival of Western culture.
Clark, Ian D. and Heydon Toby, A bend in the Yarra: A history of the Merri Creek Protectorate Station and Merri Creek Aboriginal School 1841-1851, Canberra (A.C.T.): Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004. Ellender, Isabel and Christiansen, Peter, People of the Merri Merri: The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days, East Brunswick (Vic.): Merri Creek Management Committee, 2001 Howitt, A.W., The native tribes of South-East Australia, Canberra (A.C.T.): Aboriginal Studies Press, 1996