Pormpuraaw Culture: Thaayorre, Kugu, Wik
Thaayorre people are the traditional owners of Pormpuraaw and surrounding country. The country of the Kugu people connects to the northern boundary. Wik people belong to the coastal country north of Kugu country and inland to the north-east. Each group has their own language and some have many dialects. Each has their own customs and traditions but share many song lines. Their was intermarriage amongst the groups.
The word for culture, art, religion and community did not exist in Thaayorre, Kugu or Wik languages. These concepts are new and constantly being redefined in today’s world. Culture was not separated into categories to be quantified or qualified as in European culture. Everything was “one”, defined as the “Law”. Everything comes from country and belongs to country including totems, language, dance, art and story-telling. Cape York has an abundance of different languages and dialects. If you own traditional country, you are expected to speak the language or sing the songs that belong to that country. A work of art made on country belongs to that country. When a work of art leaves us to go to an exhibition or is sold, a part of our country is leaving us.
Totems, Dance, Songs
Thaayorre, Kugu and Wik people believe all animals originally existed in human form. When they turned into animals they gave their country to us and they became our totems. All country is defined by totems. Totems are a symbolic animal, plant or land feature belonging to a clan’s ancestral homeland. Every clan and individual identifies with one or two major totems and a number of minor totems. They are like brother and sister to us. They are part of us and we are part of them. The big totems for Pormpuraaw are the crocodile and barramundi. They own everything including the people that live on that country. Knowledge of totems is like having a record of one’s ancestors and relationship to others. Knowledge of totems related to country acted like a map to guide people on their nomadic journeys during the seasons. People still believe they transform into their totems when they die. The song cycles and dances belonging to country are performed when someone dies to help guide their spirit back to their traditional homeland and to their old ancestors. We believe these ancient stories are true. They are our history.
The Old Ones
When we refer to the past we say ‘the old days’’ or “the old ones”. We are referring to the countless generations that came before us that connect us to our country. They made us who we are; everything comes from them. The old people would paint their bodies with red or white designs everyday. People held corroboree with song and dance everyday. Every clan group would paint their bodies or scar their bodies with unique patterns. If you were found in the wrong country without permission there could be serious issues. When you are in someone’s country you are expected to speak the language that belongs to that country.
Traditional art forms included painting on bodies and tools, weaving, dance and song. Dance and song were by far the most important of the art forms. Artistic expression such as painting and sculpture is our new way for telling and sharing our ancient stories. Our stories teach proper behaviour and clan identity. Some stories are unique to certain groups, others are shared amongst many groups. Present-day art forms are a new language for us to learn and explore. Pormpuraaw art is strong, free and colourful. There is not one defined subject matter or style. Pormpuraaw artists are encouraged to have fun and share. Art is a way of engaging and sharing our heritage with the outside world with dignity. Our art is immensely popular in Queensland, Australia and abroad.
Today our grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts remain our most important teachers. We grab onto their knowledge and keep our culture alive, strong and relevant. The spirits of the old people are still here on country. It is important that we remember and follow our Law because the old ones are watching; they know what we do. When we go out bush we call out to them. They protect us and ensure we don’t go home empty-handed when fishing or hunting. They sink into the ground if we get too close. When we die we see our old people again.
If the reader is interested learning more about Pormpuraaw culture we recommend reading our self published manuscripts “Pormpuraaw Stories, Art, Language” and “Pormpuraaw Cultural Uses For Plants”. Both these books can be ordered from our online store.
Three significant stories form our People
We believe these ancient stories are true. They are our history. The Rainbow Serpent features in the creation mythology of Thaayorre, Kugu and Wik people. The serpent was here in the beginning. It was the first being to inhabit the earth. It is extremely big and powerful. Sometimes it takes the form of a cyclone. When the Rainbow Serpent travelled across the flat and barren Australian landscape it created land features, especially watercourses. It created all animals by vomiting them from its mouth. Originally the animals had human form but over millennia most changed into animal form. Today, Thaayorre, Kugu and Wik people believe Rainbow Serpents live in permanent bodies of freshwater including rivers, lagoons and springs. Rainbow Serpents can be either good or bad. They can cause harm to people or the land. It is believed that in the past, a warrior could be swallowed by a Rainbow Serpent and regurgitated as a healer with special powers; a ‘noyan’. Noyans used their power to heal people who were ill and to help those who had been the victim of sorcery.
Travels of the Rainbow Serpent in Thaayorre Country
Told by Ivy Conrad
The Rainbow Serpent came into the country. It stopped at Yaawathan then followed the river to Purp. There is always water in one big, long pool in that creek bed. There’s a big rock in the middle of the pool. The Rainbow Serpent broke that rock trying to squeeze past. It took the broken stones from that place and put them on its head. A brown bird, the swamp pheasant called Minh Pulp, chased him away. Minh Pulp said to the Rainbow Serpent, “You can’t stop here, you go.”
The Rainbow Serpent travelled down a little creek towards Maachangk, Bull Lake. He joined a corroboree with the people who were camping there. But he was just pretending, he swallowed all those people. He headed for the coast by way of Chillagoe wetlands. There, two men speared the Rainbow Serpent. The elder man was then swallowed by the Rainbow Serpent. Next, the Rainbow Serpent travelled to Muthrinchan, the mouth of the Coleman River south of Pormpuraaw. He drowned there, that Rainbow. We used to give him spear, woomera and baskets to make him stay there. The stones are there too.
Minh Pinch and Minh Kanharr
Saltwater Crocodile and Freshwater Crocodile
The saltwater crocodile, Minh Pinch, is the mythical ancestor of present-day Thayorre and Kugu people of Pormpuraaw. They are Saltwater people. Minh Kanharr, the freshwater crocodile, is the ancestor of the inland clan groups, the Freshwater people. Minh Pinch, Minh Kanharr and all animals existed in human form long ago at the time of this story. They transformed into animals after they died.
Minh Pinch and his clan lived at the mouth of the Mungkan River, just to the north of present-day Pormpuraaw. One day his cousin/brother Minh Kanharr from the inland country visited Minh Pinch and his coastal clan. Minh Pinch was working on a fish trap at the time. Minh Kanharr invited Minh Pinch to a corroboree. Minh Pinch decided to attend so the two cousin/brothers and Minh Pinch’s people travelled inland to Minh Kanharr’s freshwater country. The two clan groups danced and sang together. After a while, Minh Kanharr became jealous of Minh Pinch’s many wives and gilfriends. Minh Pinch was a big, important man and he had a big mob of women. The cousin/brothers began to fight. Minh Pinch picked up small, slim Minh Kanharr and threw him on the fire. Minh Kanharr’s back and tail were burnt. The black marks are still visible on freshwater crocodiles today. Minh Kanharr recovered enough to turn around and spear Minh Pinch in the chest. Minh Pinch was mortally wounded.
Minh Kanharr and his people decided to carry Minh Pinch back to his coastal homeland to be buried. Minh Pinch’s many widows followed behind. Both clan groups sang the ritual songs at each campsite to comfort Minh Pinch and guard his spirit. Minh Pinch was buried near the coast at Wuuchangk. His spirit travelled down to the mouth of the Mungkan River. When he saw his home he began to sing, “This is my home. This is my place now.” He sank down and drowned.
This story tells us where we belong. It tells us who are Freshwater people and who are Saltwater people, where our homeland is and who we are related to. People who come from the inland, freshwater country are slim like their freshwater crocodile ancestor, Minh Kanharr. Every song that the two clan groups sang on the journey back to the coast became part of a song cycle that has been passed down through the ages. We sing it when people die to help their spirit find its way back to the ancestral homeland.
Told by Georgina Norman and Albert Jack
We are Thaayorre people. When we die our spirits go to a secret story place that only Thaayorre people can find. This place is inland. If an outsider goes there a big rain and massive flood event will occur. Our spirit will take the form of Minh Maal, the black flying fox. At times it will hang from a tree, other times it will roam about its country. The spirit is guarded by its song cycles. If it smells human scent it will vanish. The spirit will calm down and stop roaming after all the rituals associated with the deceased person have been completed.
However, if the person’s death was believed to be caused by sorcery, the old warriors would walk to find Minh Maal before the rituals were finished. They protected themselves by smearing their underarm smell over their faces and bodies.They sang and danced to persuade Minh Maal to show himself. They carried a spear with a hook so they could catch him. Once they had captured him, Minh Maal would appear to them like a real person. They talked with Minh Maal to find out the name of the person who had performed the sorcery. Minh Maal would tell them straight up. Then the warriors and Minh Maal had a big fight till Minh Maal settled down.