Respected Boon Wurrung Elder, N’arweet Carolyn Briggs, works passionately to recover and share cultural knowledge with present and future generations. Carolyn believes that an understanding of the enduring patterns of Aboriginal culture is essential for overcoming racism. Aunty speaks to Erica Higgins about NAIDOC and Indigenous history on 3KND.
Carolyn is inspired in her quest by the journeys of her own family. Her great-grandmother, Louisa Briggs, was born on the coast near Melbourne in 1835 and died at Cummeragunga in 1926. Louisa ensured that the continual connection to both Boon Wurrung country and heritage survived the disruption of colonisation.
She survived and navigated the challenges of the colonial era: the lawlessness of sealers operating around Port Phillip and the Bass Strait; and the challenges and opportunities during the gold rush period. At Coranderrk, her family fought for the rights of the Kulin, before being expelled. Louisa lived for the remainder of her life at Maloga and Cummeragunja. Carolyn’s grandfather, William Briggs (1861-1948), carried the family legacy forward. A renowned cricketer, he made an unsuccessful claim on the government for land. William married Wemba Wemba woman Margaret (Maggie) Taylor and they eventually purchased land on her country at Moulamein. This property became the glue that held together the culture and heritage of the family. Maggie was renowned as a midwife amongst her community.
Carolyn’s mother, Carrie (1912-1970), learned her Boon Wurrung heritage from her father and grandmother and her Wemba Wemba culture from her mother and uncles. As one of the last speakers of the language, she passed on the genealogies and family history to Carolyn, reinforcing her sense of identity and heritage from a very young age.
Carolyn’s intricate knowledge of family genealogies and the remaining living culture of the Boon Wurrung provided the basis for many of her subsequent achievements. Her knowledge of family genealogies is still often called upon to support and reconnect families. As a young girl, Carolyn moved to Moe, on the edge of Boon Wurrung country, where her father, John Oakley, found work.
Though times were tough after John was injured at work, neighbours from a variety of cultural backgrounds offered the family support. Carolyn’s mother provided love and strength, nursing her back to health when she contracted polio. Carolyn left school at 14 years of age to help her family survive. She later moved to Melbourne, where she found work, married and had two young children by the age of 18. Training as a child care worker, she became involved in establishing the first Aboriginal child care service with the Dandenong and District Aborigines Co-operative in the 1970s.
In the same decade, while working with Monash University’s Aboriginal Studies Unit, Carolyn became aware of the impact of past government and welfare authorities’ policies on Aboriginal young people. Whole generations had been disconnected from their family histories and knowledge of country. This inspired Carolyn to begin to record Aboriginal genealogies to help her people reconnect with their traditions, family and language in order to overcome racism and stigma. Employed as one of the Victorian Government’s first Aboriginal Youth Support Officers in the 1970s, Carolyn worked across Victoria, reconnecting many youths with their families. Carolyn became an activist, annoying many departmental staff by engineering the removal of young women from the secure juvenile facility at Winlaton.
Her commitment to Aboriginal youth continued as she helped develop and manage La Trobe University’s Aboriginal Tertiary Support Unit at Bendigo. While at Bendigo, Carolyn established the Dja Dja Wurrung Association to honour the original Kulin clan. She later worked for the Equal Opportunity Commission, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and the Attorney General’s Department. In 2005 Carolyn established the Boon Wurrung Foundation to continue to help connect Aboriginal youth to their heritage. As a member of the Setting the Record Straight for the Rights of the Child Initiative, she contributes to building better record-keeping practices for children in out-of-home care so that links with their heritage are not lost. Carolyn has studied linguistics to help her recover Boon Wurrung language, publishing a book for children about the language in 2008. For many years, she ran an Aboriginal bush tucker catering business and restaurant.
As a Boon Wurrung Elder, Carolyn has generously shared her knowledge of country and culture with many organisations, hoping to spread understanding and reconciliation. She has been an ambassador for her people and has promoted her heritage and knowledge in many countries across the globe, visiting Iran, as a guest of the Iranian Government, in 2016. In 2001, Carolyn was authorised, by traditional laws and customs of the Boon Wurrung, to sign the first ever Indigenous Land Use Agreement in the Melbourne metropolitan area – at Blairgowrie. Though this agreement was challenged through the Federal Court, Carolyn, with her usual tenacity and very few resources, successfully defended these actions. She regards this battle as one of her great achievements.
Together with other Elders, Carolyn has played an integral role in reviving Tanderrum – the traditional Kulin Nation ceremony of welcome. Since 2013, Tanderrum has opened the annual Melbourne Festival. For the young people from the five Kulin Nations who participate in Tanderrum, it is a chance to connect with and understand their own culture. For the wider community, Tanderrum provides a window of understanding of the Aboriginal history of Melbourne.
Carolyn’s contribution to the community was recognised in 2005 with her induction onto Victoria’s Honour Roll of Women and in 2011 she was NAIDOC’s National Female Elder of the Year. Carolyn has four children and seven grandchildren, as well as numerous foster children. She is currently studying for her PhD, researching ways in which the knowledge of Elders can assist urban Aboriginal youth to understand their culture. Carolyn regards her life as a journey, along which she has used the knowledge gained from her Elders and ancestors to pass on to current and future generations. Continually searching to reclaim heritage, Carolyn has generously shared this knowledge to strengthen culture and advance the cause of reconciliation.