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Archives » Aboriginal Issues & Advocacy » Book Reviews & Recommended Reading

Book Review:

Last Chief Of The Yarra Yarra Tribe

First published in 1984 as
Shirley W. Wiencke

This colorful piece of writing is not a long read, but it is enthralling. As you approach the book, the cover attracts the eye. It has a cameo portrait of the dignified William Barak the last chief of the Yarra Yarra Tribe set among the blooms of wattles. 
Wiencke seems to bring Barak to the reader as one who could easily be your friend. The personal notes and the many accolades from his long-term friends are impressive to say the least.
The former title is linked to the story of Barak's old father, Chief Jerrum Jerrum who died when the wattles bloomed. Every year when they bloomed, Barak visited his father's grave. When he was in his eighties and tired from his struggles, he predicted that he too would die when the wattles next bloomed - and he did, in the August of 1903.
Barak's life spanned from witnessing the first fleet's arrival in Australia to just after the Federation of the Nation. He was one of those who met John Batman when he negotiated the purchase of Melbourne. 
Sadly, over the duration of his life we read of the demise of the Yarra Yarra Tribe and the vast proportion of Aboriginal Nations that lived in our country in a wonderfully socialized way before white settlement. 
Barak was also from a subset of the tribe of Yarra Yarra called the Wurundjeri. It is believed that thirty eight tribes existed in Victoria alone. The blanket coverage of the original inhabitants in Australia consisting of some eighty-three cultural and language groups, gives a great understanding of the error of the English court's ruling of Terra-nullus.
In Barak we see a gracious man always willing to negotiate with the very people who took over his land. We see time and time again that white 'rulers' did not stand by their word, yet we never see a 'call to arms' from him. If he had made that call, all would have followed as such was the esteem in which he was held.
The grace and charm, dignity and poise of the man, allowed him access to the Houses of Parliament, Ministers of the Crown, State Premiers, Governors and the homes of the Melbourne Establishment. Over his life he proved to have a wealth of information on Aboriginal culture, botany and climatic environs. In this capacity he worked closely with researchers and archival recorders.
We see the compassion of this great man come through when we read of his love for his wives and children. Three wives having died in his lifetime and a special son who would have been the next heir. The death of this son made Barak the last chief of his tribe. It appears that although too other 'apprentice' leaders stood at his side in training just as he had done for Wonga, his older cousin and the former leader, they were Woiwurrung tribesmen from the general area, but not purely of the Yarra Yarra Tribe.
Disturbing facts emerge throughout the book such as within the period from 1813 when Barak was born until 1852, only 59 of the combined tribes of the Bunerong and the Woiwurrung were left. This compared with the numbers of 3511 whites, 31,0946 sheep and 13,2272 head of cattle at the census in 1838. The Aboriginals who did not die of direct persecution and disassociation from their lands and culture, died of white man's sicknesses and the lack of their traditional foods. Many others simply pined away over the lostness they felt and no hope for the future. This hopelessness even affected the birth rate, as they could not see reason for bringing children into their world of demise. 
Through all this negative time, Barak continued to build and maintain relations with the white friends on whom he could rely. He spent some time in the Native Police with great effect and later became the leader on the Aboriginal Reserve Station named Coranderrk in the Yarra Valley. From 1863 until his death in 1903, Barak led the community at Coranderrk with good will and good sense and was loved by all.
Another area of interest to me was his Christian experience. When he was around forty years of age he committed his life to God and maintained a close relationship with the one he called his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He led his community in this Christian manner, which to the surprise of some who believe Christianity was forced on the people, in a personally committed and convinced way. This meant that he was a lifelong advocate against the drink that so easily destroyed his people. I particularly like the ending of his farewell letter to Sir Graham Berry, the Chief Secretary and Premier of Victoria. After thanking him and wishing him well on his new appointment in London, he writes, 
"We have a trouble here in this country, but we can all meet up above along 'our Father'. We hope that God will lead you right through the water and take you safe to England, and keep you in the straight way, and give you eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Saviour".
Signed Barak
Chief of the Yarra Yarra tribe of the Aborigines.
Victoria Australia. 

A good and informative read for all who wish to get to know more of our combined history in this wonderful country. Let's never take a former ill-gotten gain for granted and may we always seek to find ways to show the original inhabitants of this land the same grace that William Barak showed.


Focal Point Yarra Valley 2009