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In public museums as well as private art galleries all over Australia, you will find the highly prized works of William Barak. With good reason: they are beautiful. They also tell the story of the culture of Australia's indigenous Kulin people – before, during, and after the arrival of white European colonizers. It's a story Barak knew well because he lived it.
Beruk Barak was born near what is now Melbourne, Australia, in 1823, roughly 40 years after the British sailed into Melbourne Harbor. It wasn't long before the white settlers started pushing the native aboriginal people around, scamming them out of their land.
Barak's Wurundjeri clan was one of five tribes to form an alliance called the Kulin Nation. The Kulins referred to the land that had fed their people for millennia – 60,000 to 100,000 years – as the "Yarra." To them, the Yarra was sacred. At the time of Barak's birth, it was deeply under threat. So too, therefore, was Kulin culture.
Barak's was not a world of plenty but one plagued by starvation and diseases that were decimating the Kulin people. As a young man of 19, Barak joined the "Native Police Corps," established by the newly installed colonial government with the goal of "civilizing the aboriginal men." Barak thought it would be a good place from which to make friends and better understand the white settlers. In a bridge-building gesture, he changed his name from Beruk to William.
One day while on the job, William Barak helped his white police counterparts to track the location of the Ned Kelly gang, a notorious group of outlaws, bank robbers, and police murderers. The white men ordered Barak to approach the Kelly gang first. A normally enthusiastic and mild-mannered Barak reproached them, calling them cowards. Barak realized then that the Native Police Corps were being used by the white settlers as human shields as well as to capture and even kill other natives.
So, like many of the native troopers, who deserted or quit the force within three or four years, Barak took on a new role: He became a spokesmen for his people and mediator between them and the colonizers. Leadership was in Barak's blood: his father Bebejan was a ngurunggaeta – clan head – and his Uncle Billibellary the most senior elder of their region.
In partnership with his cousin, Simon Wonga, also a ngurunggaeta, Barak petitioned the colonial Australian government to grant a tract of land near Melbourne for the exclusive use of the aboriginals, in perpetuity. This way, Barak reasoned, the remaining members of the Kulin Nation could reclaim a small piece of the Yarra to keep their people and culture from complete extinction.
After years of delays and many more Kulin deaths, the government finally relented. In 1862, Barak led 40 men, women, and children into the bush to found a new community. They named it Coranderrk. Within three years, the completely aboriginal town had a thriving dairy, butchery, and school. This was no guarantee of longevity, however, for only 12 years later, in 1874, white settlers hungry for more land petitioned the government to divide Coranderrk, giving half to them and moving the aboriginals again, this time to the remote wilderness on the Murray River.
Barak immediately organized a protest against the attempted land grab. He even brought the national press to Corranderrk. In a famous interview published all over Australia, Barak declared. "Me no leave it, Yarra, my country. There's no mountains for me on the Murray."
But he didn't stop there. He and his followers walked 60 kilometers (more than 37 miles) to the Australian Parliament to plead their case. In the end, Barak's charisma saved Corranderrk, but the government slashed funding for the community. When Barak asked that the finances of the town be turned over to the people themselves to allow them to become self-sufficient, the government refused. Still, Barak was seen by his people as a prominent figure in the struggle for aboriginal rights and justice. When cousin Wonga died in 1875, Barak succeeded him as clan leader.
During his years at Coranderrk, Barak recorded the culture of his people through storytelling and art. He often invited white settlers and dignitaries to visit the reserve to educate them about their traditions. Over time he gained greater respect and fame in settler society, and even abroad, for his skill in the arts as well as in diplomacy and bridge-building between nations.
In the 1880s, Barak retired from politics. For the next 20+ years, he chronicled the traditions of his people on the Yarra through art. In addition to expressing his own identity, Barak recorded the traditional ways of his culture for future generations and left an enduring legacy for the non-indigenous to learn about aboriginal culture. Today, the art of William Barak is prized by Australians and displayed around the nation.
Barak died at the age of 80 in 1903. The man known as the King of the Yarra was buried at Coranderrk, in a simple grave marked by a wooden cross.
In 1924, Corranderrk was closed by the Australian government. Nearly a century later, Barak's voice could still be heard when a small portion of the land was returned to local aboriginal people. William Barak's legacy is famous throughout Australia as a symbol of indigenous resistance to colonization and a spokesman for the rights of oppressed cultures. That's why we're proud to name him a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
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Message us (above) or tell us in the comments (below) and we'll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST.