William Barak (c.1824–1903)
William Barak was born in the early 1820s at Brushy Creek near present-day Croydon, in the country of the Wurundjeri people. His mother Tooterrie came from the Goulburn River area, and his father Bebejern was ‘ngurungaeta’ (head man) of the Wurundjeri clan of the Woiwurrung people of the Kulin nation, one of seven leaders to sign the spurious 1835 ‘treaty’ of Melbourne with John Batman.
Barak grew up in times of traumatic social upheaval, the dispossession of his people’s lands and waterways and the silencing of culture occasioned by British colonisation of the Port Philip district. The traditional owners of Melbourne, the peoples of the Kulin nation, were dislocated from their Country, which disrupted their customary ritual practices and their access to sources of food and water.
Barak learnt much about Wurundjeri cultural lore from his senior relatives but was also educated at a mission school in 1837–39 where he learned to read English, and he was later baptised and confirmed as a Christian. He was married and widowed three times, and had three children who all died in infancy. In later years Barak became an artist, creating works from his cultural memory that attempted to bridge the gulf between European and Indigenous cultural understanding.
As a mature man Barak became the ngurungaeta of the Wurundjeri and also the leader of the Aboriginal people living and working at Coranderrk Station, near Healesville in the Yarra Valley. The continuing erosion of Aboriginal rights led Barak to make many appeals and deputations to the Victorian colonial administration, exhorting them to allow the Kulin people to be able to govern themselves on their own land. Barak also acted as a cultural ambassador, providing important information on language and customs to anthropologists and ethnographers.
Barak died in August 1903, as he had predicted, when the wattles were in bloom along the banks of his beloved Birrarung (Yarra River). Those who knew Barak unanimously described him as wise and dignified, with penetrating eyes and firm principles. He remains an inspiration to the generations that have followed him.