I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land that we are meeting on today and the elders past and present. I acknowledge the elders in the room and the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the room. And I acknowledge all you here today.
I begin today by following a traditional protocol of introducing myself.
My name is Alana Garwood-Houng. I am the second oldest of five children. On my mother’s side my grandmother, is Nellie Stewart nee Jackson, who grew up at Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve in NSW and her grandfather a Yorta Yorta man, Bagot Morgan, was one of the first people to live on the Maloga Mission, which was the precursor to Cummeragunja. My grandfather was Frank Stewart. His grandfather was a Wamba Wamba man, Rob Roy Stewart from Lake Boga, near Swan Hill in Victoria. His mother was a Wergaia woman Eleanor Stewart (nee Pepper) who grew up at Ebenezer Mission in the Wimmera district of Victoria and her father was Archibald Pepper. I am a Yorta Yorta, Wamba Wamba and Wergaia woman. I grew up in Shepparton in Victoria and I have ancestral ties to the Murray River and nearby areas. I have been an artist for most of my life, working in different mediums. Creating large scale sculptures, drawings and more recently coil bundle weavings. I am a qualified librarian and I have worked as such for over 26 years at AIATSIS. I have just completed my Master of Museum and Heritage Studies at ANU.
By introducing myself so and in providing these details, I am declaring my genealogy, my ancestry and my identity. This allows community members to know who I am and establish any relationships and any connections. This is how I began my thesis.
Baskets held in museums may seem as though they are empty, but held within them are histories. It is not always visible but with time, patience and research, baskets can reveal what is held within. The histories in the baskets are important because they tell a story of a time past and of change. They also hold the threads of the story of their collection and journey to their current resting place.
To tell you the story of baskets I need to take you through my journey.
I have studied art at art school and while there used a range of mediums and majoring in sculpture. After art school I changed direction, exhibiting drawings of abstract forms and landscapes. Landscape drawings of the country of my ancestors, but in what I felt to be a non- Aboriginal format, both in style and medium. I wanted to create art that was based on a traditional cultural practice of my ancestors. I knew that I could not create art using techniques and imagery from other parts of Aboriginal Australia. I needed to find my own way. I do not live on Country and my grandmother left Cummeragunja as a teenager and never returned. She did not pass any cultural knowledge onto her daughter or to me. Identity is important to me I have spent a number of years on and off researching my family history. However, that was not enough for me, I as an artist, I needed to create, and to connect to culture through artistic expression. Family history research and finding a cultural artistic practice is also about confirming my sense of identity.
Years ago I came across a small photograph of a coiled basket with a text that stated that it was from Echuca, Victoria. Echuca is part of Yorta Yorta Country. Here was a traditional cultural practice from the area of my ancestors that I could use as part of my art practice. This image of a coiled basket from Echuca was a turning point for me.
The photograph Recoil: change and exchange in coiled fibre art, and is actually described as a ‘coiled rush mat made c1890 from Echuca’ and is part of the South Australian Museum collection. It was made using the coiled bundle technique. With this knowledge I knew that I had found what I had been searching for, my own cultural practice.
It was not until I attended the Selling Yarns 2 conference held at the National Museum of Australia in 2009 where I saw more images of coiled baskets I became inspired to learn more about coiled baskets and to make them myself. By examining photographs and coiled baskets from other regions in Australia I began to teach myself the coiled bundle technique. I made my first small basket.
Now I make coiled objects based on this technique. (Click) However, this mat was but one object and only one small photograph. This is what led me to do a Masters and became the focus of my research. I wanted to know more. Do more coiled objects from Echuca exist? Where are they? How did they get there? What else is known about Yorta Yorta coiled objects.
Yorta Yorta coiled baskets was the focus of my Masters research. The coiled bundle technique of basket making was a technique that was unique to southern Australia until the 1920’s when the technique was taught to Aboriginal women on Goulburn Island in the Northern Territory.
In 2003 the Melbourne Museum organized a workshop, as part of the Twined Together exhibition, with a small group of weavers from Gunbalanya, Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, to share weaving knowledge with women from Victoria and South Australia. This cultural exchange of weaving knowledge was the beginning of another revival of coil weaving in Victoria.
The workshop also revealed “the irony of the colonising process”. As Lorraine Coutts one the curators at the Melbourne Museum stated in Sort of like Reading a Map, the Arnhem Land ladies didn’t know that the coiling technique was taken up there from down here, so it was a learning experience for them.
It was ironic that coil weaving that began in the south, was being taught to southern people by northern people. Authors such Cato (1991), Hamby (2005, 2010) and West (2007) all discuss one missionary and her teaching the Maung women of Goulburn Island in the NT, the coil bundle basket weaving technique from southern Australia. It is usually cited that Ngarrindjeri women taught her the technique. Hamby (2005), in Twined together cites Cato’s 1Mister Maloga as the source for her contention that Gretta Matthews learnt how to weave baskets from Aboriginal women, specifically from Ngarrandjeri women. However, Edmonds and Clarke 2009, assert that missionary Gretta Matthews ‘learned the techniques as a child from people along the Murray River, including the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang.’ (Edmonds and Clark 2009: 20) I agree with this and in the back of mind I really wanted to prove this. As Gretta Matthews grew up on Maloga Mission with Yorta Yorta people and I assert that Gretta Matthews would have first learned the technique from Yorta Yorta people.
When the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, won the 2005 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award with their ‘Tjanpi Toyota’, this brought a focus to the Indigenous weaving in the north of Australia. But it also inspired a renewed interest in coil weaving in general.
This presentation will examine the cultural practices of south eastern coil basket making, focusing in on Yorta Yorta people and their history up to 1900, in order to bring to the fore a more complex picture of Aboriginal cultural practices in relation to basket making.
I needed to consider the history of the Yorta Yorta people, before Europeans, at Maloga Mission and Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve.
Methodology – I will briefly discuss the methodology.
Yorta Yorta History – Pre contact and post contact which was a time when it was considered by European Australians that the original people would die out or would convert to European ways. However, the people found ways to maintain and adapt cultural.
Collectors – in my Masters I examined of three collectors of south eastern baskets, at which point they acquired baskets and how the baskets made their way into museum collections. However, today I will only focus on one.
Baskets - analyse some of the Victorian baskets held at Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum. Within this there is an examination of traditional old style baskets and the baskets’ stylistic changes under European influence. Also baskets from Echuca held at the South Australian Museum.
So when writing my thesis one my main considerations was to write from an Aboriginal perspective that positions Aboriginal people as ‘the people’ and Europeans as Other.
This approach questions Western research paradigms and the positioning of Europeans as superior and Aboriginal peoples as Other. I say Aboriginal and not Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander as I am only referring to people and baskets from south eastern Australia and not including those from the Torres Strait.
So taking this into consideration the methodology needed to be one that as Smith says “privileges the indigenous presence… and that acknowledges our continuing existence” Smith (2012: 6) recognises that the term ‘indigenous’ is problematic” as is the term Aboriginal and so I used the terms Aboriginal and Indigenous sparingly in my thesis. These terms have been imposed upon the original people of this land and they not our name for ourselves. Before the arrival of Europeans there were no Aboriginal people in Australia. We had our own names for ourselves, for example the Yorta Yorta people were ‘Yenbena’.
The geographic area under discussion covers the region along both sides of the Murray River from Echuca to Yarrawonga, and the Barmah Forest including the Moira Lakes. Click These areas are the ancestral lands of the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang peoples. There are other clan groups within these areas but my thesis focused on the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang.
The Yorta Yorta are the people of the great water, Dhungala known as the Murray River and the Moira, a place of many reeds (Bowe and Morey 1999: 6-7).
The landscape was created by the ancestor spirits. One of these was Baiame, who created the great river Dhungala.
The Yorta Yorta lived by the waters in an area that contained an extensive network of lagoons, creeks, lakes and rivers and relied on the waters for food, fishing for Murray cod, crayfish, other fish and plant foods. As well as hunting other animals.
Yorta Yorta people wore possum skin cloaks which were vital for survival because of the climate along the river. Possum skin cloaks were warm and waterproof. Everyone would have had their own cloak that would have grown with them from childhood until they were buried in it. Each cloak was unique to each person, with clan designs and other designs significant to the wearer incised into the skins. One known Yorta Yorta cloak survives, from Maiden’s Punt, now known as Moama. It is dated 1853 and it is currently on permanent display at the Melbourne Museum.
The arrival of Europeans brought many changes for the Yorta Yorta, as with the other peoples in Australia. According to Ian Clark “smallpox took the lives of around 75 % of the people before European settlers even arrived in Yorta Yorta country” (Lynch, Griggs, Joachim and Walker 2012: 115). Other illnesses such pneumonia continued the devastation.
The arrival of Europeans in the 1820’s brought a loss of land as settlers, who brought in their sheep for grazing and took over the land of the Yorta Yorta people. Many people were forced to live on the fringes of European settlements such as Echuca and Moama and were considered to be a ‘problem’. Although there were those who still endeavoured to live a traditional life away from the towns. There were also those people who were able to support themselves by working for local European pastoralists.
The Victorian government’s solution was to try to move people from the Echuca area to the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, in the Yarra Valley approximately 50 kilometres east of Melbourne. Many people would not leave their traditional land, and of those that did many made their way home.
With little support from the NSW Government or the Victorian Government Daniel Matthews, an Echuca merchant decided to start an independent mission on his own land.
In 1874, Daniel Matthews and his wife Janet established the Maloga Mission on the bend of the Murray River in New South Wales (NSW). This was on the site of a traditional Yorta Yorta meeting place and ceremony ground. According to Daniel Matthews the name Maloga means sand in the local language (Cato 1993: 17). Having the mission on a traditional meeting ground meant that the site already had significance to the local people. As well they were used to gathering together there for ceremony and other significant events.
Daniel Matthews was not an ordained minister, but he was an extremely religious man. At the beginning of Maloga, Daniel Matthews actively drove out in his horse and buggy collecting people for his mission.
In 1877 Daniel Matthews wrote in the Riverine Herald that one of his main aims was “to wean the aboriginals from their semi savage and nomadic habits of life, and to train them as civilized men and woman [sic] to earn their own livings in a useful way”(Riverine Herald 1877: 2). People were gathered at Maloga but they still were able to maintain their clan groups and had their “own separate camp[s]” (Clements 1930: 3). So even though the people were living on the mission, they were still living in a traditional way within their clan groups. Until houses were built, many people still lived in traditional mia mias. Slide There were those who were reluctant to move into European style houses and preferred their traditional living accommodations. The population of Maloga was at times a fluid one with people staying for a while and moving on sometimes to another mission or reserve. The men would usually leave to get work on pastoral stations, shearing. However, there was a core population that stayed at the mission especially those people who were converts to Christianity.
Although Maloga was a refuge for local groups, Yorta Yorta people still continued to maintain their links with the Land, camping at traditional places in the bush, and along the rivers. They collected food to supplement the reserve rations and continued to use the country as their ancestors had done for thousands of years.
Life at Maloga meant that men were expected to work in the garden, build houses and fences while the women did domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning and sewing. Daniel Matthews conducted morning and evening prayers, Sunday services and weekly bible lessons. Attendance at all of these religious activities was compulsory, “if the people did not show up for morning prayers Daniel would go down to the huts and admonish them or try to get them out of bed, by force” (Cato 1993: 121). This would not have gone down well with the people, although, when Uncle Colin Walker on recent episode of Yorta Yorta Youth on NITV, talks of Maloga he says that “Mr Matthews was the manager, he controlled us here not spiritual way, but religious way”. So even though Daniels Matthews felt that he had control over the people and wrote as much in his annual reports, the people were able to find ways to reconcile his religion, European ways of living and traditional ways of living.
Maloga saw its fair share of European visitors and often these visitors were provided with gifts made by the people at Maloga such as skins, feathers, and grass baskets. It was not easy to find references to baskets or basket making at Maloga and this is the only one, the newspapers on Trove were a valuable resource.
After many years of living and working at Maloga and working for pastoralists the people began to want land of their own to farm. For Matthews this was the people were being ungrateful for what he had done for them and were also stepping out of their place. Matthews’ noted in his journal “that the Maloga folk talked incessantly of their desire to ‘own’ blocks of land, and he found them more and more ‘rebellious’” (Barwick 1972: 48). For all of Matthews religious calling to help the people once they had reached a level of wanting to be independent he viewed it as ungrateful and that the people did not know their place.
The Maloga Mission was on private land owned Daniel and William Matthews and so was considered a private institution, free of all control by the Government or the Protectorate. However, the Aborigines Protection Association of New South Wales wanted more control over the lives of the people along the upper Murray River and so bought land near Maloga to start its own mission. In 1888 the Aborigines Protection Association removed the houses of the people from Maloga to be rebuilt on a new site three miles up the river. This effectively put an end to the Maloga Mission. Eventually Daniel Matthews and his family left the area in 1899 to begin a new mission in South Australia.
The new site was known as Cummeragunja.
The collectors that I chose to research were Gummow, Johns and Matthews. I chose to write about these collectors for differing reasons. Gummow because he was from Swan Hill and he collected Wamba Wamba baskets, Johns because he was a major collector and Matthews because she was at Maloga and had collected baskets from there.
At the South Australian Museum (there are four coiled baskets and two coiled handles that belonged to Miss M Matthews. These came to Museum from the Miss Matthews’ estate. The location of these objects is given as Echuca, Victoria. Gretta’s parents were Daniel and Janet Matthews, Maloga Mission.
Gretta grew up in a family that was deeply religious and through her parents developed a strong belief in the need to help the original people of the area.
Gretta also went on to be a missionary in Canada, Fiji and Goulburn Island in the Northern Territory. Goulburn Island is east of Darwin at the eastern base of the Coburg Peninsula. Gretta arrived at the mission on Goulburn Island in 1922, run by the Methodist Missionary Society of Australasia. Gretta lived on Goulburn Island for six years, and was one of the teachers. During her time at Goulburn Island Gretta taught the local Maung women to make coil baskets. “Matthews brought with her examples of baskets made by Aboriginal women in the southern missions. [The mat] with zigzag openwork, collected from Echuca in Victoria probably around 1890, is one of those baskets” (Hamby 2005: 61). The Maung women passed on their knowledge to other women, family and friends, so that the making of coil baskets gradually spread throughout the Northern Territory.
The four baskets that were once owned by Gretta Matthews are described by SAM as from Echuca, Victoria. I conclude that these baskets were in Gretta Matthews’ possession when she left Maloga Mission. Little is known about the collection of these baskets and again so many questions arise. Who made them? Did Gretta have these baskets for some time? Were they gifts from the makers upon the Matthews departure?
I chose to research baskets at the Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum. The MV seemed like an obvious place to research the baskets made by Yorta Yorta people. Even though the MV holds over 70 coiled baskets from Victoria, none have been clearly identified as Yorta Yorta or any region near Echuca. However, it is the South Australian Museum that holds baskets from traditional area of the Yorta Yorta people.
These museums hold these baskets which in turn hold knowledge of their creation. They have the knowledge to recreate them, if one can read in them their history. Museums are not only keepers of tangible heritage such as these baskets but the intangible heritage of the skills held within and the intangible story of the basket.
The tangible aspects of these baskets examined are their construction, using a coil bundle and sewn technique. The story of each of basket is different and important. The story could be of how the basket was used by its maker, the significance of the design and why it was made. The story of the basket also includes the baskets journey to its current resting place, a museum. A basket that was once used to catch food or hold objects can now hold a history of a people.
The people of the south eastern region of Australia were making coiled baskets long before the arrival of Europeans and their subsequent settlement. The making of traditional basket shapes and designs was broken by the arrival of Europeans and the mission and reserve systems that attempted to eliminate traditional culture. After the arrival Europeans the people continued to make baskets.
Once I was allowed into the vaults to view the baskets I was allowed to hold them, only while wearing disposable blue nitrile gloves. Gloves that ‘protect’ the baskets, but limit tactile sensation, but not the smell. The smell that is still held in the baskets is a reminder of the materials that they were made from, the reeds and the grasses.
Baskets that were once used for fishing or that held a variety of objects and were worn daily are now considered to be precious objects by museums. Baskets that were once only for short term use by the people as they were easily renewable are now so precious that they cannot be touched by the bare hand of a possible descendent of the makers. This museum policy puts a barrier between the basket and the people who now seek to hold them.
The Museum Victoria holds old style baskets in their collection. (My term) The older coiled baskets at the Museum Victoria were made using a variety of styles. The similar style is the use of coil bundles, while some differ in the tension and size of the coil and also differ in the patterning of the stitching. The coil bundle would spiral out and around from the centre with more fibres continually being added to the bundle until the basket was completed.
The coils are made of bundles of plant fibres wrapped using a coiling stitch. This stitch has been called by a variety of names, including buttonhole stitch (Robson 2013; Hamby 2010). However, I prefer the term coiling stitch, as it is specific to the coiled basket making process. This process is dissimilar and contrasts with the European term, buttonhole stitch, which has also been used to describe the stitch, developed for securing holes for buttons, using flat stitches around a hole on a flat piece of fabric.
The coiling stitch is more three dimensional and has to be strong enough to contain a bundle of reeds or grasses.
Coiled baskets begin with “a bundle of fibre, which becomes the foundation core over which the other element, usually a single strand, is stitched” (Hamby 2010: 314). The way that the foundation core is wrapped or stitched with a single strand is weaving, even though it is considered a by Hamby to be a “sewn process“(Hamby 2010: 314). Community basket makers continue to refer to coil basket making as, weaving.
Bone awls could be used to assist with stitching by being inserted through the top of a stitch, to make a hole for the next stitch to pass through. (describe bone awl). The stitch can pass over more than row, as well as giving greater strength to the basket can also form patterns.
These patterns look decorative but they can have a greater meaning. Old style baskets could be plain. I suggest that these were more utilitarian or did not have the significance that the patterned baskets had. To create patterns a double coiled stitch or skip stitch was used to make repeated patterns of lines or geometric designs. The British Museum suggests on their website for the exhibition Baskets and Belonging that patterns were not merely decorative but could indicate “clan, totem and other important information”.
As I mentioned earlier possum skin cloaks contained designs with significant meaning and so I consider that it is conceivable that the designs on baskets also held personal and or totemic significance. However, as Lindy Allen and Louise Hamby state in Links to the South that due to colonisation the Ngarindjeri people of the Murray River and Coorong regions in South Australia were subjected to lost much of the layered, cultural, and ceremonial meaning of traditional woven forms (Allen and Hamby, 2005: 371). This would have true for all of the peoples of the south eastern regions of Australia. Unfortunately now it is not possible to identify what the geometric designs on many baskets mean.
Baskets that were carried usually had a thick string made of twisted fibres that was attached through holes constructed in the baskets. This string would have a large knot at one end and be threaded through the hole and joined to another from the opposite side. I argue that this joining of the two lengths at a central knot would enable the maker to adjust the length of the string so that it would be a better fit for the carrier. Also this type of handle attachment would allow for the string to be easily replaced when it became worn out or damaged. These baskets were made to be worn over one shoulder, which would leave the hands free to carry other objects, or to gather food to place in the basket.
Many of the old style baskets at the Museum Victoria show various stains and wear, indicating that they were actually used by their owners. All the old style baskets in the Melbourne Museums collection have worn or damaged handles, indicating that they were once well used by their owners. This can be seen in the baskets on the left.
The examples of coiled baskets in at the Museum Victoria are finished with a smooth rim. The stitch goes over the top coil and through the stitch beneath, creating a smooth finish. The makers of even utilitarian baskets took care to finish off their baskets with this smooth finish, which this author considers to be a demonstration of the skill of the maker. However, on some baskets the stitching itself seems quite large and coarse. This coarse stitching is similar to that used in the construction of eel traps. It is my hypothesis that these coarsely stitched baskets could have also been used in the water, as the coarse weave would allow for water to easily flow out. Eel traps were immersed in water with the open end allowing eels to swim in and to be caught in the narrowing end, while at the South Australian Museum time allowing water to flow through the trap.
The illustration by W. A. Cawthorne’s of “Natives catching crawfish” [sic] demonstrates a use of baskets in the water.
These baskets were made from plants that were part of the makers’ traditional Country. To make these baskets the makers would need to know and understand their Country and have an understanding the land, the seasons, the plants, to know when and where to collect the plants. This walking the Country to collect the right plants for basket making would continue the connection of the makers to their Land. Coil baskets were a necessary utility item, but they were also part of the continuation and connection to their Land.
With the arrival of Europeans, life for the people of the rivers and the land changed for ever and this was reflected in baskets design. Government Reserves and religious mission stations were where many of the people eventually lived. Reserves and missions were places where the old ways were not valued or understood by the Europeans. However, the people were able to adapt some of their cultural practices to fit this new way of life. The Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines operated from 1869 to 1957and controlled the government reserves and the people living there.
Managers of some of the missions or government reserves encouraged the making of items for sale including coiled baskets, for this meant that the people were industrious and not idle. It also meant that the people were able to make money for themselves, especially the women and they often made more money than the men.
However, the old style of coiled baskets was not profitable so the makers changed the style of baskets to fit the needs of the Europeans who bought them. The makers of coil baskets were able to adjust what was a traditional cultural practice to what became tourist commodities.
These adjustments meant a number of changes to baskets and the creation of newer shapes. One of the biggest changes in the design of baskets was the handles.
Handles were no longer made of string and knotted onto the basket but were also coiled and were either incorporated into the basket or made separately and stitched onto the basket. Handles were smaller and made to be carried by hand, rather than for example in the old style over the shoulder. The new style handles could be made of three or four rows of coiled fibre which gave the handle strength and solidity. However, these European influenced styles of baskets at the Museum Victoria are very clean and show little or no use, and I would argue that these baskets were used for display by the purchasers.
These shapes were also a dramatic change from what had been made in the old style, indicating that coiling was no longer limited to baskets. Bowls that were reminiscent of European style fruit bowls were made. With embellishments around the edge.
The women were able to adapt their coiling technique to create new shapes. Shapes that would require new making practices, shapes that could be constructed from individually coiled pieces.
In the Museum Victoria collection there is one exquisitely made envelope shaped handbag, that was made in 1894 and is only small object 10 cm by 19 cm.
This handbag was not made in one single coil, but from at least five individual coiled pieces that would have been stitched together, two sides, a separate handle, clasp and the main body that wrapped around and over. This constructing of a basket from five individual pieces was a new direction for coiled basket making. The skill of the maker is evident.
There are also utilitarian baskets and one coiled item that reflect the strong influence of maker demand, a flower wall vase, for hanging on the wall, perhaps for dried flowers.
Another change was the coils and the coiling stitch itself. The coils were smaller and stitches were closer together, giving a finer result. This finer stitching may have been because of the introduction of sewing needles rather than the use of bone awls, which would have allowed for the use of finer fibres and smaller stitches. The stitches of the baskets at the Museum Victoria were more closely stitched, so that the inner bundles were not as visible and the close coils gave a smoother finish that are reminiscent of the finishes on the old style baskets.
These European influenced baskets are hybrids, traditional techniques used to create European shapes and forms. But still nevertheless distinctly Aboriginal, these shapes shield and hold within them an Aboriginal cultural identity.
The South Australian Museum holds baskets from traditional area of the Yorta Yorta people. Four of these are described in the SAM data base as coiled baskets and two as coiled handles from Echuca. These come from the estate of Miss M. Matthews who I mentioned previously is also known as Gretta Matthews. It is possible that these baskets were made by Yorta Yorta people, although that cannot be confirmed. These baskets exhibit the influence of the European style in their construction and their shapes.
In the first basket that I examined the starting coil in the basket in is very small in comparison with the outer stitches. This small center coil would enable the maker to make a tight circle when starting off. The center few rows include purple fibres that look as if they have been dyed. The interesting elements of the centre stitching is that every fifth stitch is a double stitch going over two rows and that the majority of these double stitches wrap around the second row and not through the top of a stitch. Also, the purple section has a finished row (row 11), as though the maker changed their mind on what they were making instead of a small mat, to a basket. This is the only basket examined that has colour a component.
The finished end of the coil bundle is reduced in size and the finishing is so fine that it is difficult to tell where the final stitch is tucked under, even using a magnifying glass.
The second basket in the Matthews collection, displays more wear and damage than the previous basket. One of the internal walls of the baskets shows what I initially took to be a repair but I can see no evidence of a repair on the outer wall. I speculate that this could be the remains of where a handle was attached, or where handles were demonstrated being attached, possibly even one of the handles in this collection. Gretta Matthews used these baskets as teaching tools to teach the Maung women of Goulburn Island the technique of coil bundle weaving and perhaps was this basket was used to demonstrate the attachment of handles.
Handles would have been stitched to a basket. As noted in the Miss Mathews collection there are two handles. Now I wonder whether these handles were attached to baskets when Gretta Matthews first acquired them and she subsequently removed them. I consider that it is significant that they are unattached, as this would make them more useful as teaching tools. This handle has four rows where two of the rows have a double stitch every ninth stitch, contrasting between the two types of coil stitch.
This handle would function perfectly as a teaching tool for Gretta Matthews. Here is a handle that has two versions of coil stitching. Also there are two different ends. These would allow Gretta Matthews two types of stitching and two handle endings that would then be sewn onto a basket. Both baskets look slightly battered.
The coiled mat in the Matthews collection is the one that inspired me to create coil bundle objects. This was the basket that started me on this journey. Unfortunately it was on display and I was not able to hold it my hands as I did the previous two baskets.
In the old style, baskets were functional whether for fishing, carrying eggs or other objects. Old style baskets may also have been able to denote clan designs or other significant information. Consequently they were vital to their owners, whereas the baskets that were made after the arrival of Europeans had a different meaning to the makers. This being an economic one. At Coranderrk Aboriginal Station women were earning an income from their craft work equal to that which the men earned shearing. “Their baskets, hats, mats and opossum [sic] rugs were the most reliable and often the largest source of year-round cash income” (Barwick 1974: 54). Thus demonstrating the importance of baskets to the women and hence the community. Continuing to make baskets using traditional techniques also meant that the women could continue a cultural practice albeit with new shapes and forms. Even though Maloga Mission was not as close as Coranderrk to a large European population there were still plenty of European visitors to Maloga and so there was opportunity for this to also occur there. The examples of baskets from Echuca held by the South Australian Museum show a diversity of styles and skills of the maker. However, the baskets discussed today are only some those held by two museums, what of private collections and those held by descendants of the makers, unfortunately I only had one semester to research and write my Masters thesis.
I have demonstrated that baskets hold within them a history but they also hold a future possibility that today’s makers, craft peoples and artists can build upon. An understanding of the past can form a platform from which to launch new woven creations.
The focus of this research was to find Yorta Yorta and Bangerang historical coiled objects, the closest I came to reaching this was at the South Australian Museum and the baskets from the Miss Matthews collection.
Were these baskets made by Yorta Yorta people? I would like to answer Yes, but there were people from other areas also living at Maloga Mission, I can only say that it is possible. I would like to be able say that these baskets were made by one of my ancestors, such as Lizzie Morgan, Bagot Morgan’s wife. Unfortunately I cannot say this. At the South Australian Museum I did hold the Echuca baskets in my hands and I like to hope that they may have been made by my ancestors, ancestors that I have little or no information about. To know that they created coil bundle baskets brings them closer. These baskets hold a story that I know only small part of.
Baskets in museums may seem as though they are empty, but held within them are histories. It is not always visible but with time, patience and research, baskets can reveal what is held within. The histories in the baskets are important because they tell a story of a time past and a time of change. They also hold the threads of the story of their collection and journey to their current resting place.
That is why collectors are important in this story of baskets. Baskets that were once easily made and easily renewed that changed to become for Europeans collectible items of a people that they considered were dying out.
The outcomes of this research for me are twofold, firstly, to locate and hold in my hands baskets of the past and secondly to begin to understand what they hold. The history of Yorta Yorta people is part of my history that I can weave into my own woven objects so that they too will hold a history.