William Barak

 
 
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In the late 18th century, British settlers sailed into the Harbor near what is now Melbourne, Australia. Right away, they started pushing the native people around, scamming them out of their land. When Beruk Barak was born in 1823, the local Kulin, an alliance of five native tribes, were on the brink of decimation. When he died at the age of 80, 15 Aug 1903, he’d saved their culture, and documented it for posterity.

The Kulins called the land that had fed their people for 60,000 to 100,000 years the “Yarra.” To them, the Yarra was sacred. Now, it was deeply under threat. So, too, was their culture. Barak thought it a good idea to make friends with and better understand the white settlers.

At 19, he joined the Native Police Corps, established by the British colonial government. He even changed his name to William in a bridge-building gesture. But when he was ordered to be a human shield in their fight again the Ned Kelly gang, a notorious group of outlaws, bank robbers, and police murderers, Barak realized he was being used.

Deserting the force, he become a mediator and spokesmen for his people instead. In partnership with his cousin, Barak petitioned the colonial government for a tract of land for the Kulin Nation, exclusively. After many delays and more Kulin deaths, the authorities finally relented. In 1862, Barak led 40 men, women, and children into the bush to found a new community: Coranderrk. Within three years, the aboriginal town was thriving.

Twelve years later, however, white settlers were land-hungry again. They wanted Coranderrk, and proposed moving the Kulin to a remote wilderness on the Murray River. In protest, Barak walked 60 kilometers (37 miles) to plead his rights to Parliament. Declaring, "Me no leave it, Yarra, my country,” Barak saved Corranderrk, but the government slashed funding for the community and refused to turn over control of the town’s finances to the people. 

Still, Barak was beloved by his people, who saw him as a prominent figure in the struggle for aboriginal rights and justice. They made him clan leader in 1875.

As an elder, Barak recorded the Kulin culture through storytelling and art. Chronicling the life of his people on the Yarra, he depicted their traditions for the edification of future generations. He died a symbol of indigenous resistance to colonization, as well as a voice for the rights of oppressed cultures, everywhere. In addition, he left a vital and enduring legacy of aboriginal culture in his famously beautiful works of art. 

As an elder, Barak recorded the culture of his people through storytelling and art. Chronicling the traditions of his people on the Yarra, he recorded the traditional ways for the edification of future generations of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, alike.

William Barak is remembered throughout Australia as a symbol of indigenous resistance to colonization and a spokesman for the rights of oppressed cultures. He also left an enduring artistic legacy: highly prized works of art that tell the story of Australia's indigenous Kulin people, before, during, and after the arrival of white European colonizers. It's a story Barak knew well, because he lived it.

Thank you Uncle for keeping the fires burning and for keeping our culture alive. Your paintings are ancient treasures. In the modern world, you remind us of our place of belonging.
— Joy Wandin Murphy
Coranderrk in the early days (c. 1867). Photo: Museum Victoria XP1922.

Coranderrk in the early days (c. 1867). Photo: Museum Victoria XP1922.

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