Being a coastal environment, fishing was one of the most important activities for the Worimi in Port Stephens. Fishing methods included both line, and spearing. The women (galbaan) utilised fishing lines (yirawaan) and typically fished from canoes (guuyang), whilst the men (guri) also speared fish from canoes and the shoreline.
The string used for fishing lines and nets were made by the women from the inner bark of the young Kurrajong trees (garrajung). The bark (banya) would be stripped carefully from the tree and soaked in water until the outer portions could be readily scrapped off with a shell. This left a white, flax like fibre that was very tough and strong. This fibre was rolled into string on the womans thigh to the required thickness.
Fishhooks (birrwuy) were made from the oyster and turban shell. The fishing hooks made from these shells have only been found at two places within Port Stephens, one is Karuah and the other is Birubi, both estimated to be 900 years old.
Fish spears (dhatay) were barbed and made in three distinct parts, the main shaft was the dried stem of the Gigantic Gymea Lily (bulungiyan) and into this was fitted a dried flower stem of the Grass Tree (bumiray) the barbed head had 4 prongs made of Iron-bark (djikarr).
The Worimi fished certain areas of the Port at night, but they never ventured in or around Fame Cove after dark, it was taboo, for fear of shark (duraagal) attacks.
Over generations, the Worimi observed signs from nature that would tell them when the mullet (biiwa) were running. The Worimi always knew when this event occurred by observing the hairy grubs, which would attach themselves to each other to form a single line up-to a metre long.
One with little finger removed (gatjiwuy). The Aboriginal custom of fingertip removal first observed in Sydney was a source of curiosity for colonialist. Initially the British were unsure why some women and girls were missing the first joint of the little finger on the left hand. They assumed it was indicative of marriage and important enough to be worthy of permanent marking.
This custom of amputating a small portion of the little finger of young girls to mark them out as fishers was also practiced further north in the Port Stephens, and was observed into the 1860s.
William Scott (source of The Port Stephens Blacks), who grew up in Port Stephens explains how this practice was related to fishing;
“An Aboriginal woman, Fanny, who was a servant of our family for many years, was in her girlhood days dedicated to the art of fishing. When quite young, a ligature was tied about the first joint of her left finger very tightly, and being left there for a considerable time, the top portion mortified and, in time, fell off. This was carefully secured, taken out into the bay, and, with great solemnity, committed to the deep. The belief was that the fish would eat this part of the girl’s finger, and would ever, thereafter, be attracted to the rest of the hand from which it had come”.
These women were not only defined as fishers, but also as the makers of fishing lines so that the virtue accruing from her innate powers over fish were communicated to the fishing lines she made. Scott had no doubts that the sacrificial offering was effective, saying that Fanny ‘was indeed a wonderfully lucky fisher.
The Worimi women had special sacred places close to fresh water, where they would go to give birth to a child (burray). These special places were known as Increase Sites (gayay). The young pregnant woman was usually accompanied by an older woman, who acted as a midwife. No men could go there – ever.
The site provided safety and shelter; mother (ngaya) and child (burray) would stay until they were safe and well enough to travel and re-join their people.
Totems (bakuwi) are symbols that acknowledge specific species of birds, animals, or fish and are considered sacred by their owners. Traditionally, a Worimi child would receive a totem from their mother or father. Each totem would have previously been owned by his/her parent’s ancestors.
Totems never change and are continually passed on to each generation. Totems have existed in traditional Aboriginal life since the Dreaming. The totem given to a person is never hunted or killed by the person of that totem; this ensured that a particular species was not subject to extinction. Totems were extremely important because they showed loyalty to the past.
Totem systems are still used by Worimi people as a way of continuing and maintaining connections with the land and all the species within it.
The Worimi also had gender Totems which symbolized the solidarity of the sexes.
In the book The Port Stephens Blacks; William Scott wrote;
“The men had as theirs the tiny bat that flies about at dusk, and this little winged sprite was regarded with deep veneration. He was “gimbi”, the friend of the males.
The women looked upon the small woodpecker, hailing his appearance with delight; he was the totem of the women.
In “Notes on the Social Organisation of the Worimi” A.P. Elkin wrote;
The men’s totem or kimbai, that is mate, was kulangulang, the bat.
Tree-creeper, this bird is also the womans friend and the womans totem was “dilmun” the woodpecker.
At the head of Aboriginal spiritualism is the clever man (Giraadji). This man, more than any other was in direct contact with the Dreamtime. It was believed that the Great Spirit (Bayami) gave the Giraadji his power. Because of his influence, he was a man of great power amongst his people. He would hold himself above others and was believed to possess magic and healing abilities.
He would use his powers to heal the sick and see into the Dreamtime, but to do this the Giraadji would have to develop his inner eye. With his inner eye, he could see into the body and look at the organs where sickness might be hiding.
He treated the sick, by winding a cord of opossum fur around the body of the patient, and then round the body of a female relative or friend, who held the end of it in her hands, and passed the cord to and fro between her lips, until the blood dripped into a bowl over which she held her head. It was believed that the evil magic which caused the sickness passed up the cord into the body of the female and then into the bowl.
The Giraadji would carry a small possum skin bag tied to skin belt attached around his waist.
As William Scott reports in his book The Port Stephens Blacks;
“In climbing a big mangrove tree on the edge of the bay and in a hollow fork I discovered one of these mystery bags. I peered into it and saw a piece of rock crystal.
The quartz crystal used by the Giraadji was believed to have originally come from Bayami’s throne and so possessed magic powers. They believe the crystals had fallen to earth from Bayami’s realm as solidified light.
Clothes and Accessories
The clothes that adorned the Worimi consisted of possum (barrangi) fur skin (daan) attached as a belt to cover the lower front and back of the body. Possum fur skins were stitched together and used as a cloak and blanket during the colder months. The Men decorate themselves with pipeclay (dabu) and wore elaborate head-dresses. His long hair was turned up and bound about the head with opossum yarn with a tuft of grass in the centre above the hair, to present the appearance of a plume. In the hair, a little above the ear, was placed a small sharp pointed bone, from the leg of a kangaroo: this was used a comb, or to unravel the hair.
The Worimi performed many types of ceremonies for both Men’s and Women’s business. Symbolic dances and rites were performed to teach vital lessons to the initiate. The Bora ground (burrabang) is where the Worimi performed initiation ceremonies for boys to take the status of a man within the tribe. The front tooth of the young initiate man (bumbat) was removed by one of the Elders by placing his bottom tooth against the Bumbats upper tooth and, by giving a sudden jerk; snaps the boys tooth off.
The Bora (burra) initiation ceremonies were also conducted by the Women (galbaan) and males and females were excluded from each other’s initiation ceremonies. The Bora ground was also used for other ceremonies such as a corroboree dance (djaraalma). Clap-sticks, boomerangs (barrgan) and spears (gamay) were used for rhythm making at all ceremonies.
Bullroarers (burruwa) were used at initiation ceremonies and are spun above the head of an initiate (bumbat) before the sacred ceremony. The unearthly sound produced, serves both as a warning for the uninitiated to keep clear, and to cleanse the area of evil spirits (guwiyn).
The Moon Dancers
Before European settlement began around the Karuah area of Port Stephens, there were many important ceremonies held there by the Worimi. One of the reasons why the Worimi chose this area is the bright coloured ochre, which is found in very small deposits near and around Karuah. One is vivid red clay ochre and the other bright orange clay ochre.
This clay ochre was used for ceremonial dances. The dancers used fine crushed Mica which was rubbed in with the clay ochre and was painted on the bodies of the dancers in artistic pattern designs handed down through generations.
After intense rubbing, the clay would shine brightly during the full moon giving a “startling” effect against the silvery moonlight. The corroboree dance and the use of this special ochre was symbolically intended for the sun and the moon and went on until the silvery light had faded.
The Worimi obtained the finely crushed Mica from the Nangongan (which means “people from the back of the hills”).
The Worimi regard the Willy Wagtail (gitjarrgitjarr) as the bearer of bad news. If he appeared at an important meeting, all talk would cease, because it was believed that he would eavesdrop and spread tales. Because of this reputation as a gossip monger, he was not permitted to listen to any conversations. He is known as gitjarrgitjarr because that’s the sound of his call as he shakes his body from side to side when delivering his news or calls of warning when danger is present. He finds it very hard to sit still.
The Worimi didn’t trust him because he was a trouble maker. He is sometimes called the “bird of death”. If he was seen, he was chased away. It was believed that killing him would bring very bad luck, or perhaps even death. Whenever he made an appearance, it was thought he could be bringing an important message, especially if he looked one in the eye, made a noise as if talking, or flew in front of one’s path. This message would come, shortly afterwards, in the form of a dream, an unannounced visitor, or an omen.
The Worimi feared an invisible spirit they called “Guwiyn” who exercised harmful or evil acts over their lives. They feared the dark as any mysterious noise at night was attributed to “Guwiyn” and they never moved around after dark without a fire-stick to keep him away.
The little hairy man they called “Yurriwina” or Brown Jack was a creature that roamed throughout the bush particularly at night and was feared by the Worimi. It is believed that the clever man (Giraadji) could talk to these creatures.
Around the harbour, the time of burials were fixed for the flood tide (wakaguba) the belief was that if the burial happened at the ebb tide (baaraguba) the spirit of the deceased would be carried out to sea (garuwa) and lost in the great waters. A small She-Oak sapling was always planted over the grave site to identify the burial site.
It was considered bad luck for the Worimi to go fishing after a feed of fruit.
The Worimi were greatly afraid of blood falling into lakes or rivers from a cut or wound, as great storms (malu) would result and cause the destruction of fish (makurr).