The Worimi have been on ‘Country’ since time immemorial.
The Dreaming is a complex network of knowledge, faith and practices that derive from stories of creation, and it dominates all spiritual and physical aspects of Aboriginal life. The Dreaming sets out the structures of society, the rules for social behaviour and the ceremonies performed in order to maintain the life of the land. It governed the way people lived and behaved. Those who did not follow the rules were punished.
The Dreaming or Dreamtime is often used to describe the time when the earth, Aboriginal people, the animals and the landscapes were created. During the Dreaming, ancestral spirits came to earth and created the landforms, the animals and plants. The stories tell how the Ancestral Beings (deities or gods) moved throughout the land creating the rivers, lakes and mountains.
Even today, Aboriginal people still know of these special places where the Ancestral Beings have been and where they came to rest.
Dreamtime Stories explain how Aboriginal people came into being and the creation of Totems, along with their links with each Aboriginal Nation, how people learnt languages and dance and how they came to know about fire.
The Dreaming did not end with the arrival of Europeans but simply entered a new phase. It is a powerful living force that is maintained and cared for.
Bayami (Great Spirit); In Worimi Dreaming this Ancestral Being, created their world.
In the beginning Bayami stepped down from the sky and created the land, formed the mountains and valleys, filled rivers with water, and created all living things. Everything Bayami created had a purpose, plants of all shapes and sizes were placed on the land, he also placed men and women on the special places he had created and made the first laws that governed the way Aboriginal people lived, that remained unchanged through thousands of years of Aboriginal life.
Bayami stayed and made sure all living things he created lived together in harmony. When he was satisfied he stepped back into the sky from which he came, where he remains now watching over his people and the wonderful place he created.
Aboriginal spirituality takes many forms practices and has been profoundly influenced by the impacts of colonialism, both past and present. For Aboriginal people, spirituality refers to ways of being, ways of knowing. It encompasses a sense of belonging – belonging to the land, to the sea, to the people and their culture. Spirituality links the past, the present and the future and can be expressed through dance, ceremonies, art and artefacts. It is an integral part of an Aboriginal persons being and is essential to their way of seeing and thinking about their world, and their connection to their Dreaming and Country.
The journeys of the Spirit Ancestors across the land are recorded in Dreaming tracks. A Dreaming track joins several sites which trace the path of an Ancestral Being as it moved through the landscape, forming its features, creating the plants and animals and laying down the Lore. Many Aboriginal communities travel along Dreaming tracks with their children, to teach them the stories of the sites. They explain and perform ceremonies to teach them about their Country and their Dreaming.
Dreaming tracks are sometimes called ‘songlines’ and record the travels of the Spirit Ancestors who ‘sung up’ the country into life. It is believed that performing the right songs and ceremonies at sites along the Dreaming Tracks gives people direct access to the Dreaming.
One of these Spirit Ancestors is the Rainbow Serpent, whose Dreaming track is shared by many Aboriginal communities across Australia. The Rainbow Serpent (Yuulangga) is represented as a large, snake-like creature, whose Dreaming track is always associated with watercourses, such as billabongs, rivers, creeks and lagoons. It is the protector of the land, its people, and the source of all life. However, the Rainbow Serpent can also be a destructive force if it is not properly respected.
The Rainbow Serpent is a consistent theme in Aboriginal paintings and has been found in rock art up to 6000 years old. The Rainbow Serpent is a powerful symbol of the creative and destructive power of nature. In most paintings of Rainbow Serpents, they tell the story of the creation of the landscape. Even today, after the rains have filled the waterholes and rivers and replenished the vegetation, the Rainbow Serpents spirit can be seen as a rainbow stretching from one waterhole to another.
The land (barray) held the key to life’s secrets. Man (guri) was given the knowledge to read the land, and for every rock (bakan), tree (wati) and creek (dungang), he found an explanation for existence. He did not own the land, the land owned him. To know the land was to know life.
Land is the lifeline of existence as we know it. Without it no community will survive. In the Goori way, it is a mother; We come from the earth, we return to the earth, we live off the earth, we seek solitude in her, we are protected by her, we dare not desecrate her, our law is enshrined in her and we carry out our rituals accordingly. Land is the starting point to where it all began, it’s like picking up a piece of dirt and saying this is where I started and this is where I will go.
The land and its environment was managed, nurtured, protected and respected by Aboriginal people in a cyclical process of birth, death and renewal that is central to Aboriginal philosophy.
This relationship ensured that the land would not be exploited. Family groups were restricted to designated areas for day to day activities, and these restrictions included areas to which access was limited by both gender and the level of instruction one had received in traditional lore.
 Lore: Acquired knowledge or wisdom on a subject such as local traditions, handed down by word of mouth and usually in the form of stories.
To Aboriginal people land is not just something that they can own or trade, it is the core of their spirituality, identity and purpose; Aboriginal people are connected to this land and always will be. The land has never just been about soil, rocks or minerals, but a whole environment that sustained Aboriginal people, their culture and practices in a traditional past and now in an ever evolving modern present.
The spiritual relationship Aboriginal people have to the land has been and continues to be deeply misunderstood by many Europeans. When European colonisers first arrived in Australia they encountered an unfamiliar land occupied by people they had no understanding of, particularly their social structures and their land ‘ownership’ system. As a result, Australia was mistakenly deemed to be ‘terra nullius’ and the land was claimed by the British.
It is sometimes said that Aboriginal people did not own the land and just wandered around. This myth has come about because the British saw no evidence of cultivation or land ownership systems. They saw no fences or barriers to show land ownership as in the European way, therefore the British concluded that Aboriginal people had no interest in the land.
Aboriginal people divided the land up into traditional lands using geographic boundaries such as rivers, lakes and mountains. The knowledge about their boundaries was communicated through carved trees, rock carvings and paintings, as well as being passed down by the Elders. The Elders would pass on their knowledge by teaching the younger people through songs, dance, art and storytelling.
Traditional Custodians of Port Stephens
The Worimi (Warrimay) have always been and remain today the traditional custodians of a large area of land, “The Worimi Nation” oral history passed down by the Elders record that the Worimi Nation was originally bounded by four rivers, Hunter River to the south, Manning River to the north, the Allyn and Patterson Rivers to the west.
The Worimi Nation was home to 18 clan groups or ‘ngurras’, with the Worimi Conservation Lands falling within the area of the Maiangal ngurra. All spoke the Gathang language.
Traditionally, the Worimi people used Stockton Bight to travel between the northern and southern parts of the Worimi Conservation Lands (WCL). We know these areas today as Birubi Point to the north and Stockton to the south.
Much of Worimi Country has changed dramatically since 1788, and dispossession has had significant impacts on Worimi people and their culture. As a result, the granting of the freehold title over the WCL means it is of particular significance to the Worimi. It is an area where the protection of Worimi cultural values has priority in Australian law, where decisions affecting Worimi Country and culture are made by Worimi people through their majority representation on the Board of Management, and where Worimi traditional owners are employed to implement these decisions.
When Europeans arrived in their country they conducted a great deal of research into the lifestyles and practices of the Worimi. They noted that the Worimi who inhabited Port Stephens were slightly fairer in skin colour, taller and of a more muscular physique than the Eora people of the Port Jackson region of Sydney.
In 1873 William Scott (source of The Port Stephens Blacks) wrote;
“The Port Stephens Aborigines were more prone to laughter than tears, seemingly regarding life as great fun to be enjoyed to the utmost”.
The Worimi are proud of their culture and heritage, their descendants still live on their traditional lands and continue to maintain their cultural practices by passing their knowledge, arts, rituals and performances from one generation to another, speaking and teaching their traditional language, protecting cultural property and their sacred and significant sites and objects.
Ngurra is a traditional word used by the Worimi of Port Stephens to identify groups of Worimi people living within their own distinctive territory. Early Europeans recorded eleven Ngurras of the Worimi Nation, however, Worimi Elders record that there were eighteen. With the arrival of European settlers, the Worimi Ngurras were dispossessed of their lands and eventually forced onto Reserves and Missions. The government policies in which families and communities were separated were more than just heartbreaking for the individuals involved – they also effectively halted the passing of cultural knowledge and lore from one generation to next.
There were 4 Ngurras of Port Stephens and surrounding areas each occupying a definite area. Two of these were salt-water groups, and two were inland groups.
Maiangal and Gamaipingal
Garuagal and Buraigal
Before 1788, there were approximately 700 languages spoken throughout Australia, with an estimated population of 750 000 to 1 million people. The Gathang is the traditional language spoken by the Worimi throughout their Nation. The Gathang language that was once spoken by the Worimi of Port Stephens would soon became unspoken with the arrival of European colonisation of their lands. When the Australian Agricultural Company established its headquarters at Carrington on the north shore of Port Stephens in 1826, the Worimi migrated toward the settlement, and began to learn the European lifestyles and language. This migration reduced the number of Worimi following a traditional lifestyle which inevitably led to the loss of their language and culture. There are many place names in Gathang language that are used to describe a particular area such as; Birubi (‘Southern Cross’ or ‘view of the Southern Cross’), Tanilba (place of white flowers), Mallabula (swampland between two mountains), Karuah (place of native plum tree) and Pindimar (place of black possums).
In the 1960s the linguist Nils Holmer made audio recordings with Worimi Elders, Eddie Lobban and Fred Bugg. From this he compiled a set of rules that describe the structure of the Gathang language that control the way that sentences are formed. Today; efforts are now being undertaken to revive the Gathang language, through books songs, dance, storytelling and language workshops.
The Worimi people lived a hunter and gatherer life. The men hunted the large animals such as kangaroos and emus, whilst the women and children hunted smaller animals and collected fruits, berries and medicinal plants. The local environment provided a variety of food (buwatja) sources during particular seasons. Although there are no major freshwater (ngapuwi) creeks (duumala) or rivers (bami) in the area, this would not have constituted a barrier to occupation as ground water is readily available in low lying areas. The estuarine, marine and terrestrial plant and animal resources are extensive and easily accessible. Their traditional knowledge of plants and animals has not been surpassed.
On the coast and in the harbour the Worimi caught fish and collected many types of shellfish including pipis, mussels and oysters. To maintain the fragile environment and because of seasonal variations, the Worimi would only stay in an area for a certain time. This helped make sure they didn’t hunt, fish or harvest an area too much so there would be food for the next season. Every part of the animal and plant was eaten or used to make things such as clothing, baskets, tools and weapons.
Carefully chosen tree branches were made into hunting weapons and utensils such as boomerangs (barrgan), woomeras (wamarr) and digging sticks (ganay). Boomerangs were made from Wild Myrtle (garrigay). Gums and resins from some plants acted as adhesives for certain weapons.
The lifestyle of the Worimi was a mobile one; they never stayed in one place for too long and because of this they constructed the most basic shelters. Seasonal changes determined which particular structure they would erect; the shelter used at the camp when the weather was cool or wet were bark huts (ganya) made from paperbark, and when the weather was hot and dry, shelters were made of bush (wirray).
In 1826 Robert Dawson (superintendent of the Australian Agricultural Company) describes the bark shelters of the Worimi as being:
“A small hut supported by three forked sticks, about three feet long, brought together at the tops in a triangular form; the two sides towards the wind are covered by long sheets of bark, the third always open. In the winter, each family has its own fire in the front of the hut”.
The Worimi, as with all Aboriginal Nations have a complex system of family relations, where each person knows their kin and their country. These extended family relationships are the core of Aboriginal kinship systems that are central to the way culture is passed on and society is organised. Kinship systems define where a person fits into the community, binding people together in relationships of sharing, obligation and responsibility in raising and educating children with structured systems of moral and financial support within the community.
The traditional meaning of a Worimi Elder is someone who has gained recognition within their community as a custodian of knowledge and lore, and has permission to disclose cultural knowledge and beliefs. The Elders bridge the past and the present and provide guidance for the future. They teach important traditions and pass on their stories, skills, knowledge and personal experiences. Elders are highly respected people within all Aboriginal communities.
Elders can be referred to by using the term “Aunty or Uncle” in the formal introduction of their name.
An artefact is anything which has been made or modified by humans. The term ‘stone artefact’ includes both a finished product – usually a stone tool – and the debris which was left behind when it was made. The Worimi used stone tools for many things including: to make other tools, for hunting and preparing food, to chop wood, and to prepare animal skins. Stone artefacts are one of the most common forms of artefacts found on Worimi country. They are generally in areas where the landscape has not been drastically altered by European settlement; these artefacts can be found lying on the surface, often in quite large numbers. They can also be uncovered by erosion, or the shifting of wind-blown sand.
Under the National Parks and Wildlife Act removal of any artefact is prohibited and carries heavy fines.
A ‘midden’ is an occupation site where Aboriginal people feasted on fish, shellfish, birds and animals. At some sites, substantial deposits grew over generations from continued use of the same area, showing some middens few metres deep. Non-Aboriginal people refer to middens as waste dumps and while this is partly true, it ignores the sophisticated cooking techniques of Australian Aboriginal people. In Aboriginal community’s middens were associated with large communal ovens. The Worimi people constructed a pit lined with stones to retain and radiate the heat of the cooking fire. When the fire burnt down to glowing coals, some foods were wrapped tightly in green vegetation and covered with more hot stones and coals and left to bake slowly. The food cooked this way retained a lot of moisture and sweetness.
After the meal, the oven was swept out in preparation for the next day’s feast and as a consequence animal bones and shell remains built up beside the ovens. Some of these heaps grew to be some metres in height and examples can be found on most riverbanks and seashores. Shell middens tell us a lot about activities of the Worimi in the past. The types of shells and bones in a midden can show the type of aquatic and terrestrial food sources that was used, and the time of year when Worimi people used it. Shell middens are generally located around sandy beaches and dunes; some are also located around estuaries, swamps, tidal creeks, rivers and lakes. Charcoal from campfires and pipi shells are mostly found in middens on the Worimi Conservation Lands. Some middens also contain artefacts and tools made from stone, while others contain fishhooks made from bone or shell. Middens are usually located in the best possible spot – a pleasant place, that’s easy to get to, where there are plenty of shellfish. They are often found close to fresh water on a level, sheltered area.
Flaked Stone Tools
The flaked stone tools were made by hitting a piece of stone, called a core, with a ‘hammer-stone’. This would remove a sharp fragment of stone called a flake. Both cores and flakes could be used as stone tools. New flakes were very sharp, but quickly became blunt during use and had to be sharpened again by further flaking, a process called ‘retouch’ providing a distinct difference between a simple rock and an artefact. The best types of stone are rich in silica, hard and brittle. These include quartzite, chert, flint, silcrete and other stones with fine grained qualities.
The Worimi quarried such stone from outcrops of bedrock, or collected them from rivers and streams. Many flaked stone artefacts found on the Worimi Conservation Lands do not occur naturally in the area therefore the cores would have been carried long distances.
Canoes (guuyang) were made from the bark of the Stringy-bark tree (bana). Using a stone axe to cut the particular shape of the canoe the bark would be carefully prised from the tree by their spears and immersed in water then passed over a hot fire to cure and shape the bark. Most canoes were generally 15 feet in length and each end bound with vine and plugged with clay (barray), a small fire (watha), burned on a bed of clay at the back of the canoe. Their paddles (walung) were made of seasoned hardwood and were shaped like a large spoon. They were used in a kneeling position from the middle of the canoe.
The Worimi accessed fresh ground water from the low-lying areas around the Port. Freshwater (ngapuwi) was also accessed from permanent seepages from the rocky hillsides and headlands. A favoured location used by the Worimi for accessing fresh water is a waterhole at Karuah known as the ‘dam’ and a natural spring at Salamander Bay. The Worimi also used water (bathu) for the leaching out of poisons from certain plants prior to consumption. For example, the nuts from the Burrawang Fern, a form of Cycad, were used as a source of flour to make damper type bread. Although high in nutritional value, about 43% carbohydrates and 5% protein, but in the raw state they are very toxic. To render the plant edible, the nuts were left to leach out the poison in running water for several days.
Water was also used in the manufacturing process of tools and weapons. The sharpening of points or wearing of edges was necessary. To ensure there was a continuous availability of water to meet these and other needs, small wells were often made in rock (giba) surfaces.
The Worimi used fire (watha) for warmth, providing light, cooking, hunting, protection from evil spirits (guwiyn), communications, ceremonial applications, medical applications, manufacturer of weapons and tools, and as a tool itself in altering the landscape. Through a process, called fire-stick farming, the vegetated landscape was undoubtedly changed.
Continuous burning turned forests into grasslands and increased the carrying capacity for edible grass-eating animals such as kangaroo (wambuyn) and wallaby (barrin). Nearly all the larger native animals were grass eaters. Apart from the advantages for hunting and food gathering yielded by the fire-stick farming processes, an additional gain was that large masses of undergrowth were not able to build up. Thus, the risk of fire to the community was minimised.
Many Australian plant species are relatively fire-resistant and some rely on fire and extreme temperatures for germination.
Stone (giba) was used to make implements. It was also used for food preparation and cooking. Common implements made of stone were axe heads, scrapers, knives, chisels and spear heads. The Worimi manufactured their tools in different locations, such as Stockton Beach, Birubi, Soldiers Point and Karuah. The nature of their lifestyle ensured that stone work was done on site with only the finished product being carried away. Geographical variations in availability of differing stone types led to ongoing trade, enabling all groups to benefit from the comparative advantage one might hold.
The Worimi preferred the marine resources; such as fish (makurr), oysters (ninang) and pipis (bitjagang), however, their pattern of exploitation was associated with the seasonal availability and the relative abundance of other food sources, such as kangaroos (wambuyn), wallaby (barrin) as well as vegetable foods, such as the gigantic lily (bulungiyan) and wild yams (wambay). A favourite food that the Worimi considered a delicacy was the Cobra (nyumarr) a worm mostly found in the mangrove trees.
The environmental richness of the estuaries and coastline confirmed that the Worimi had a variable and readily available food resource. The abundance of marine sources of food in summer (garrwaayn) tended to make the Worimi more relaxed during the summer months.
There was an abundance of seafood both inside and outside the Port, which the Worimi accessed during different seasons. Aquatic resources inside the harbour were a staple component of their diet, primarily in the form of fish (makurr) and oysters (ninang). On the seaward side of the Port, the Worimi collected seafood along the coastline from Fingal Bay, to Birubi Point through to Stockton. This included several species of fish, crustaceans and shellfish.
Aquatic foods included;
Fish – makurr
Mullet – biiwa
Flathead – darawang
Bream – gupirr
Jewfish – djarrawarra
Pipi – bitjagang
Oyster – ninang
Crab – dijiraa
Lobster – wira
Prawn – banung
Although there was a preference for the aquatic foods, the terrestrial foods were not neglected but formed a supplement and variety to their diet which were accessed during winter (dhakarr). They would venture inland in the colder conditions of winter to hunt for kangaroo (wambuyn) and wallaby (barrin). Of all the land animals, the kangaroo and the wallaby were the preferred meat when hunting, however, they considered the possum (wathu) a delicacy and were only eaten on special occasion.
Terrestrial animal foods included;
Kangaroo – wambuyn
Wallaby – barrin
Possum – bilu
Carpet Snake – dhungiyn
Emu – mitukit
Echidna – miriki
Goanna – wurran
Flying Fox – gandjiwang
The Worimi also accessed a variety of bush food for their dietary needs. The wild Native Plum (garuwa) and the Lilly Pilli (buranggirrbang) were highly sought after. The wild yams (wambay) a common vegetable tuber of a slender vine that flourished in the scrubby gullies were dug up by the women with their yam sticks (ganay). The tubers vary in thickness to 5cm and are up to 20cm in length and were baked in the ashes.
The apple berry (garamalay) is an oblong berry, 2 cm long and 1 cm wide grows on a small vine and forms in summer. The fleshy green fruit turns yellow when ripe. Fruit is eaten raw when it has fallen to the ground, or roasted if still green. The skin is hairy and similar to peach and the fruit has a sweet flavour similar to kiwifruit.
The roots of the Swamp Fern (bangwaal) were soaked, roasted and pounded to make flour then baked into a form of bread. The young flowering spikes of the Gigantic Gymea Lily (bulungiyan), after a long soaking in water were roasted prior to consumption.
The Bush honey (girrga) was extracted from the hives via the use of a small axe (magu) however; they favoured the honeycomb as a great delicacy as opposed to the pure honey.
The flowers of the Grass Tree (bumiray) and the Golden Wattle (batjigay) were also used as a valued source of sugary carbohydrates.
The leaves of the Native Hop Bush when crushed were used for toothache and the relief of fever.
The crushed leaves of the Sally Wattle Bush (gupang) were used to poison the water and stun fish for easy capture.
The soft bark of the Paper-Bark Tree (bilbuuribith) was used as bandages, bedding, shelters and food wrap.
Coolamons (gulaman) were made of wood or paperbark and were used for carrying food, water and even babies.
The juice from the leaves of the Pigface plant (gaarkula) when mixed with water was used to treat diarrhoea, dysentery and stomach cramps. The leaf juice was also used externally, much like Aloe Vera for burns, abrasions, open cuts, grazes, mosquito bites and sunburn.