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Map of Australia showing the location of Cairns, Queensland.
Cairns, Queensland

Yidinji country

The Yidinji people of the tropical rainforests of northern Queensland have a rich and vibrant cultural heritage.

Explore how that vibrancy continues today through the expression of artists who use contemporary techniques to reflect on the past.

Setting the scene

Tropical rainforest.
Yidinji country, Cairns, Queensland. National Museum of Australia

Dorita Wilson, Yidinji woman, 2013:

If a foreigner looks at this ... they’ll think it’s just an ordinary thing: a boomerang, painting,
design. But that design tells a big story to the person who held that boomerang in their
hand ... how he made it, what he used, and why he put the pattern on there.

In the 1890s in Cairns in far north Queensland, colonial entrepreneurs were acquiring objects from the Yidinji community and producing photographs of Yidinji people to supply collectors, tourists and new colonists wanting souvenirs to send back home.

Henrietta Marrie, Gimuy Walabura Yidinji elder, 2013:

It would have been my people, it would have been my grandfathers and grandmothers ... who were making these necklaces ... the shields and the message sticks.

These were among 90 objects collected by a young Englishman, Derwent Vallance, who paid the equivalent of a month’s wages for them. He wrote to his sister, ‘Do display them well as they are a very fine collection.' Objects such as these remain a source of pride among Yidinji people today.

Gudju-gudju (Seith Fourmile), Yidinji traditional owner, 2013:

Having these objects visiting here is the first step in negotiation between the sovereign Aboriginal
nations of Australia ... It’s a negotiation between us and the British Government all over again ... for
these objects to come back home. This land holds their spirit.
Two flat pieces of wood with rounded ends, secured in a cross shape with fibre threaded through holes.
Yalma (cross boomerang)

Yalma (cross boomerang)

Gudju-gudju (Seith Fourmile), Yidinji traditional owner, 2015:

[Cross boomerangs] were used as children’s toys, but they were also used at ceremony time in story-dances about the cyclone. At night, beeswax was stuck on the end of the arms and lit, spinning circles of fire.

David Mundraby, Yidinji elder, 2012:

They make a sound like a helicopter.

Slideshow

Shield, Yidinji people, collected in the Cairns region by Derwent Vallance before 1903, 89.5 x 33 x 9 cm. British Museum, Oc1933,0403.5

Shield, Yidinji people, collected in the Cairns region by Derwent Vallance before 1903, 100 x 37.5 cm. British Museum, Oc1933,0403.9

Shields

Allan Oliver, Yidinji man, 2013:


[These shields have] all got their stories and they come from this country. They all come from these trees. They all come from our ancestors’ blood. They all come from life and death — and their rights … all taken. Only thing to survive … are their artefacts.

Gudju-gudju (Seith Fourmile), Yidinji traditional owner, 2015:

This shield [left] would have belonged to a wawun [scrub-turkey] man. The colours on the shield are the ochres and clays from country that people still use in ceremony. The white areas on the design are the djumbun [scorpion] design. The djumbun is a central totem for Yidinji people. Both this shield and the jaraga [scrub-hen] shield [right] are fighting shields.
An etching showing an oval shaped shield with different shades of brown and a white cross dividing it roughly into four quarters. - click to view larger image
Crossroads by Paul Bong

Crossroads shield etching

Today, Yidinji people continue to express their culture through art, combining traditional symbols such as the shield, with contemporary interpretations of both the past and present.

Paul Bong, Yidinji man, 2014:

My ancestors defended our country and our people with these shields. I defend my culture today with my shields — in art. The white dots on the shield represent the bullet holes the white men shot through our culture during invasion, killing out whole generations and clans of my people.

The bullet holes are in the shape of the Southern Cross because this all happened under the Southern Cross ... The breaks in the shield represent the breaks in my culture that happened through the presence of Christianity — hence the cross-shape.
A fibreglass surfboard featuring a rainforest shield design on the front, with a portrait in black and white on the reverse.
cantchant, series by Vernon Ah Kee, Yidinji, Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Koko Berrin and Gugu

cantchant shield sculpture

Vernon Ah Kee’s artwork bears a striking rainforest shield design. On the back is the face of George Sibley, Ah Kee’s great-grandfather, who was photographed by anthropologist Norman Tindale on Palm Island in 1938.

This surfboard-shaped sculpture is one of a series that critiques white Australian beach culture.

Vernon Ah Kee, Yidinji, Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Koko Berrin and Gugu Yimithirr man, 2011:

Shields are meant to be articles of war, and they’re about combat and action.

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Geonpul, in Vernon Ah-Kee, Born in this Skin, 2009:

[The beach] is where the invaders landed. It is where Captain Cook planted a flag … to signify white possession. The beach marks the border between land and sea, between one nation and another. This place stands as the common ground upon which collective national ownership, memory and identity are on public display — a place of pleasure, leisure and pride.
Necklace made from nautilus shell and natural fibre. - click to view larger image
Nautilus shell necklace

Shell necklace

Carl Fourmile, Yidinji man, 2013:

The [shell] ornaments are believed to have magical presence. They are like diamonds or gold. It gives status and energy.
A historic black and white photo of Indigenous Australian adults and children with their shields and baskets.
Rainforest people

Video stories

Learn about defending culture

Watch this video of Bindur Bullin man and Yidinji artist Paul Bong talking about shields and his art.

Paul Bong 03:35

Learn about the meaning of objects

Watch this video of Gimuy Walabura Yidinji elder Henrietta Marrie talking about what it means to have objects taken from her traditional lands returned to Australia.

Henrietta Marrie 01:57

Activity: Have a class discussion about why Henrietta thinks objects in the British Museum collection are important to local communities?

Activities



Match the picture to the text

Mix and match



What do you know about Cairns?

Take the quiz

More activities

Examine Vernon Ah Kee's cantchant shield sculpture (pictured above). Investigate the life of a grandparent or older person in your community. Make an artwork using their image, or an object that belonged to them, that conveys a significant aspect of their life.

How and when do you think the objects pictured above might have been acquired? What does this tell us about the relationships at this time between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people? What is the legacy of such collections?

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