How Boonjil Noorook discovered Captain Cook

Early one morning a young man named Boonjil Noorook was spearing seals for ngulli [meat] for his family when he heard a loud crash in the ocean. Boom boom boom. Shortly after, he noticed something strange, which looked like a large canoe with white fenders coming towards shore.

Well, it was the Endeavor with Lieutenant Cook, later known as Captain Cook. That’s when the Endeavor came from New Zealand and they headed straight for Gunai country, southeastern Australia, and did the soundings with the ship’s cannon.

Boom boom boom.

Boonjil Noorook spotted them there and it looked like trouble. He returned to his elders and told them what he had seen. They told him, “Send a smoke signal and a song and warn everyone along the coast. The southwest winds were blowing quite strong and the Endeavor was coming along the east coast.

So, this is a story about Boonjil Noorook discovering Cook.

Boonjil Noorook sent out the smoke signals to communicate with all the different crowds along the coast. Our people were communicating and sharing information with our family and friends, our neighbors, our alliance groups, to warn them of something out there that looked like danger.

Since the first sighting of Endeavour, messages have been sent to other peoples. It was a form of resistance, to take care of our country, to warn people that there might be danger: “Keep an eye on those people over there, whoever it is over there.

Each group transmitted its own song and story in the smoke it sent. It was a form of awareness and therefore resistance to what was coming, especially around Gulaga, what Cook called Mount Dromedary, the place near Lake Wallaga.

As the ship sailed up the east coast, these became fires. In the journals of Joseph Banks and in the journals of Cook they both write of sighting the earth and various landmarks and the location of the locations, and where they sighted these signals of smoke and these fires.

I am told that when they came out around Barunguba (Montague Island) the crowd blew smoke signals. But when the Endeavor returned, the crowd lit big fires. From there, that’s when you see a series of fires along the coast. This message was also relayed: “You are moving away from here. It’s not a welcoming smoke here. And in fact, Cook even wrote that down in his journals. So he got the message, he got the feeling. People resist coming ashore.

Wayne Thorpe leading the Gurandji Dancers in Corroboree at the Dupang Festival in South Australia.Credit:Justin McManus

two laws

When they got to Kamay Country, what they call Botany Bay now, and the Gweagal were on the shore, well, Cook and his men started shooting. They had been ordered not to do that, so they broke the law in that sense. They broke their own law and the orders of their king.

And they broke our law.

It is important for people to realize that there are two points of view here. Two laws were in play, and there still are. We never ceded sovereignty and there was no deal. And there still hasn’t been a treaty. So we are looking for ways to resolve some of these situations. We are always looking for solutions because we need better care and better treatment in our own country.

“We need to have our own debriefing and then make informed decisions. There’s a bit of a consensus then, and it’s a tribal way.

Uncle Wayne Thorpe on the Yoo-rrook process.

I remember reading and hearing many stories from our elders, who talked about the connection with the different clan countries along the coast, and even inland from the beginning of the Snowy River, and how they down the Snowy to Cape Conran.

Now, there might be a whale that’s washed ashore, so they’d call the different peoples to come. They not only used smoke signals for Captain Cook there, but also to say “come cook the food, there’s a beached whale, come and share the food”. Then there would be bogong moth season when we traveled and met again.

There weren’t those hard perimeters as they want for Native Title that cause so much tension and heartbreak in our communities today.

There were alliances formed with the various tribal groups around the east coast and over the mountains to the country on the Murray River.

native title

But there were also stories about how we didn’t get along so well with the west side of Gunai Country. It was above swan egg rights and it was a seasonal thing. For example, down Yiruk – at Wilson’s Prom – well, it’s a shared place for food at seasonal times. You see? When this season of food resources is over, well, the season is over, it’s time to go home. So people did, but there were people who came back, stealing the last eggs. This caused fights.

When that kept happening, there was a fight, and then a rematch – kind of a tough fight. And at some point, we became enemies. But before that, we were in a covenant, kind of an agreement, you see.

The boundaries between clans, tribes and groups are not always as clear as the Native Title Act would like, says Wayne Thorpe.

The boundaries between clans, tribes and groups are not always as clear as the Native Title Act would like, says Wayne Thorpe.Credit:Justin McManus

And so, when Native Title started asking us, “Where are your limits, where is the line that separates you from that one? I thought, well, in my conscience, there is no single hard line. Now with the east of the country, we had good alliances, and it is even in the language that it is Gwan Dhang, which is rough throat speech, mixed speech and a dialect of Maak-Dhang, the global language continuum.

Now the language is mixed because there is a lot of commerce. There is a lot of interaction between the groups in this region. Even the dialect indicates it.

But it seems that Native Title was designed to separate and divide again, to weaken. You weaken alliances, so people are alone.

Yoo-rrook

I think what people need before the [Yoo-rrook Justice] Commission comes to Bung Yarnda (Lake Tyers) is an opportunity to talk to each other. What do we want? When do we want it? What do we have? We can ask ourselves this. Because we’ve been blinded by white all the time. You see? And they are in our faces. It’s in our faces.

It may take a few visits before we talk. We need to have our own debrief and then make informed decisions afterwards. There’s a bit of a consensus that happens then, and it’s a tribal way.

We need an opportunity to speak within ourselves, to establish ourselves, so we speak in the same direction. Because we have had an informed discussion with our elders, with our people who will speak in these meetings, but who will not speak properly in these meetings. You see? We must therefore organize ourselves in our structures.

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Another important thing is that truth is meant to be about both parties telling the truth. To the right? It doesn’t happen, and I noticed it with reconciliation. When they first talk about reconciliation, it’s always, “Oh, come on all your blackfellas, tell us your story. And will you dance for us too? And you will do this for us too?

Well, wait. What are you really going to do?

Uncle Wayne Thorpe is a Gunai man from the land of Krowathunkooloong in Bung Yarnda (Lake Tyers). He was talking to Jack Latimore.