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Rose Kirby is a Wemba Wemba woman, cultural leader and community elder from the Deniliquin and Swan Hill region of Victoria. Kirby learnt to make feather flowers by watching her mother practise the craft during her youth. Kirby's technique is the same as that used by her mother in the 1940s and 1950s. The making of such flowers was a common cottage industry for Aboriginal women in the late 1800s through to the mid-twentieth century. The flowers were used as dress adornments and as household decorations.
Kirby's mother, Elsie Green, also a Wemba Wemba woman, was born in 1896 at Caliama station in the Deniliquin area. Elsie's father (Kirby's grandfather) was William 'Bill' Ingram, a shearer who worked on stations mainly around the Edward River near Deniliquin. Both the Green and Ingram families have a longstanding connection with Moonacullah mission (established in 1916), also on the Edward River.
Kirby has described the way in which she came to make the flowers:
My mother used to make feather flowers. If we came across any dead galahs or any different kinds of birds, we had to pluck the feathers off for her and divide them all up. This would have been in the 1940s, 1950s. She'd sit there for hours making them. Where she got the patience from, I don't know. She sold some of them. She sold some to the station there at Murray Downs near Swan Hill. Many years later, when it was open to the public, I used to go over that way with the school children and I'd look out for them. But I never saw them. Whether the people used to buy them and just throw them away I don't know, but I never saw any of her work.
One day, a few years ago, I thought I'd try my hand at making the flowers and see how I went. I just collected some feathers from the backyard. It was fiddly at first but I got the hang of it - it came back to me.
Kirby wasn't aware of any other groups or communities who made feather flowers until her son moved to Lakes Entrance and told her about the women there who made them. He also sent his mum, Kirby feathers of the different birds from that lake region, which he thought, rightly, she might like to incorporate into her flower designs. Kirby uses the natural textures and colours of the feathers to create flower designs according to her own aesthetic. She uses her flowers to decorate her home and she often collects feathers that are lying on the ground during her walks along the banks of the Murray River. In her region there are ducks, parrots and galahs and she maintains a large collection of feathers from all the birds in the region, particularly the ones that spend their time close to the Murray River. Kirby is the only women in her region who still makes feather flowers.
Barbara Paulson Curator, ATSIP