Indigenous history of Merri-bek

The Woi wurrung people occupied 12,000 square kilometres in Victoria and it is estimated there were about 1700 of Woi wurrung people in the years before white settlement divided into four clans (land-owning groups).

The Woi wurrung people

For most of the year, the Woi wurrung lived in groups of between 20 and 50 people. They assembled as a clan or larger group only a few times a year to have celebrations or conduct business. Food resources did not allow large gatherings too often or for too long. During the rest of the year the groups moved around their own territory looking for food. In summer they went to the coast and river flats. In winter, they sheltered in the hills from the wind and rain.

Heads of families carefully planned group moves according to the season. Each day was a food quest: hunting kangaroos, emus and possums, catching fish and eels and gathering edible plants. On good days when there was plenty of food, groups spent about four hours collecting and preparing food. The rest of the day was spent talking, sleeping and story telling. 

The Woi wurrung had a religious relationship to their land, participating in corroborees and sacred ceremonies on Merri Creek. They played games too – wrestling, throwing boomerangs and playing 'Mamgrook'. Two sides played this ball game. A round ball made of rolled possum skin tied up with kangaroo sinew was kicked high in the air.

Meeting places for the Woi wurrung

Merri Creek was a meeting place for the Woi wurrung and three other cultural language groups. There was enough food for up to a thousand people for several weeks. The meetings were for social contact, ceremonies, marriage, deciding issues in tribal law and trading axe heads, reed spears and possum skin cloaks.

Settlement and the Woi wurrung

The settlement of the area around Melbourne in the 1830s was a disaster for the Woi wurrung. The Aboriginal and Torres Islander people died from western diseases – small pox, fever, ulcers, syphilis and dysentery. The growth of the white population and building of houses and towns meant that bird and animal life moved north because the land was taken over by sheep and cattle. Sheep ate the plants and trampled food and water resources. Lack of food, accidents, alcohol and violent incidents with white people killed many. Fewer babies were born because Woi wurrung were so fearful – their country was theirs no longer.

William Thomas was appointed Protector of Aboriginal and Torres Islander people for Melbourne and Western Port in 1839. His job was to protect, help and support Aboriginal and Torres Islander people. Thomas provided the first detailed census of the Woi wurrung in November 1839. The total number in 1839 was 209. By 1853 there were no children and only 55 adults, and in 1858 only 33 remained.

In 1859 Thomas accompanied seven Aboriginal men to a meeting with the Minister for lands. They wanted land near the Goulburn River to settle and grow crops. The government agreed to this but was slow to act so the Aboriginal and Torres Islander people settled themselves at Coranderrk near Healesville.

The present day

The 2016 Census for Merri-bek (C) (Local Government Areas) shows that there were 813 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people which is 0.5% of the population in Merri-bek. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people made up 0.8% of the population in Victoria and 2.8% of the population in Australia.

The median age of Merri-bek's Indigenous people was 28 years which is significantly younger than the non-indigenous population median age which was 35. In Merri-bek 6.8% of Indigenous people live with a severe or profound disability.

Between 2006 and 2016 the following social trends indicate significant changes in some areas. In 2006 over 45% of 20-24 year-old Indigenous people left school before completing year 11 and by 2016 this decreased to just over 13%. In the same period the percentage of Indigenous people aged 25 to 44 years who hold a degree or higher qualification increased from 16% in 2006 to over 35% in 2016. The percentage of 15 to 24 year olds who had given birth decreased from 17% in 2006 to 0% in 2016.

For more statistical data for Victorian communities inclusive of Indigenous residents visit the City of Greater Dandenong and the Victorian Local Government Association (VLGA) social statistics website.

Further information

Wurundjeri people: Merri-bek's original inhabitants

For more information about Aboriginal languages, see Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages.

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