Thousands of commuters pass it every day, but few know of the significance of the gnarled red gum towering above a small sanctuary of native bush, grasses and wetlands behind St Kilda’s Junction Oval.
Known as the Ngargee (ceremony) tree in the local Aboriginal language, the ancient 20-metre tall red gum, believed to be up to 800 years old, provides a window on the traditional culture of the Yaluk-ut Weelam clan of the Boonwurrung peoples.
The Ngargee tree near St Kilda’s Junction Oval.Credit:Wayne Taylor
That deep history and the Ngargee tree’s ongoing cultural significance as a meeting place was recorded by the Federal Court on Friday as part of a preservation of evidence hearing in the ongoing Boonwurrung Native Title claim that stretches from Werribee, across Port Phillip Bay and down to the tip of the Mornington Peninsula.
The hearing is the first of its kind to be held on Country in Melbourne and is a test case for major capital cities regarding the survival of Aboriginal traditional culture and heritage into the 21st century.
Yaluk-ut Weelam and Boon Wurrung elder, N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM, provided evidence to the court, following four days of hearings over the past week at Point Nepean, on the Mornington Peninsula, presided over by Justice Bernard Murphy. N’arweet is a title given to a Boon Wurrung leader.
The ancient ceremonial tree towers over N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM.Credit:Wayne Taylor
“The tree has extensive cultural heritage value, it’s a very significant red gum,” N’arweet Briggs said. “It’s significant as a ceremonial tree, and also because it has survived. It’s also significant because whitefullas have mobilised to protect and keep it.”
Briggs, who collects the seeds of the Ngargee tree to propagate and plant on the nearby Yalukit Willam Ngargee Reserve revegetation project in Elwood, says the tree provides proof of enduring connection to culture and Country, as well a standing as a symbol of a shared history between First People’s and the non-indigenous community.
N’arweet Briggs’ son, Jason Briggs, said providing the evidence to the court was also a tribute to his Uncle Fred Briggs, who was an important custodian of Boonwurrung culture, before passing that knowledge to his younger siblings.
He said: “The Ngargee tree represents not only a part of our history and an important part of our heritage, it embodies our strength and gives us spiritual power to keep our culture strong for future generations,” Briggs said.
Briggs said his uncle, who lived in nearby Prahran, was responsible for carrying and passing down knowledge of the site through his oral histories and conducting lore ceremonies with family beneath the tree. His uncle had inherited his cultural knowledge of the tree from Ngappa William Briggs, the last son of Louisa Briggs.
Louisa was a survivor of the first stolen generations of Australia’s southern colonies, after she was abducted as a child by sealers from a beach near the heads of Port Phillip Bay along with her mother, grandmother and aunt in the early 1800s.
Louisa survived the ordeal of her early life with the sealers and left the Furneaux Islands, located off the northeast coast of Tasmania, in 1858 to return to her traditional Kulin nation on the mainland with her husband, John Briggs – also a survivor of the first stolen generations.
This week, the City of Melbourne proposed erecting a statue of Louisa Briggs as part of its effort to memorialising in statutes remarkable women in the city’s history. Of the 580 statues in Melbourne, only nine depict real women.
The hearings continue next week, when the court will hear from First Nations respondent groups to the claim including Wurundjeri, GunaiKurnai, and the Bunurong, as well as the state and the Commonwealth.
The survival of traditional Aboriginal culture has been successfully recognised in previous Native Title claims over urbanised areas in Broome, Perth and Alice Springs, while Adelaide has had ongoing traditional cultural heritage recognised through consent determinations.
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