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Thursday, December 8, 2016

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The Kamilaroi People

Kamilaroi History

Kamilaroi History

The people of the Liverpool Plains were known to their southern neighbours as the Corborn Comleroy or the "Greater Kamilaroi". They formed part of a wider "nation" which extended from around Singleton in the Hunter Valley through to the Warrumbungle Mountains in the west and up through the present-day centres of Quirindi, Tamworth, Narrabri, Walgett, Moree and Mungindi in NSW, to Nindigully in south west Queensland.

As a result of their close proximity to the first European settlements in Australia there is a considerable amount known about their tribal structure and ceremonies. To dismiss their society as that of hunter gatherers is too simplistic though the vagaries of a fresh water supply compelled them to live this way particularly in the Upper Namoi.

Reports by early European explorers and settlers give frequent accounts of mosaic burning to encourage fresh herbage for animals and the stacking of grass seed for future winnowing and harvesting.

Extensive trading with neighbours also occurred with weapons and artefacts manufactured from Myall wood (a type of acacia) being particularly prized in the Hunter Valley and grass tree gum (used to fix axe heads) also widely traded.

Similarly it is known that the Kamilaroi people had at least five types of spear, several varieties of boomerangs both for hunting and warfare, digging sticks, and a variety of stone axes. Very sophisticated rope making and weaving was undertaken.

Hierarchically the Kamilaroi were ruled by a chief but this was not a hereditary position being elected from a Council of sub-tribes who were defined by their hunting grounds. Violent disputes could occur if these hunting grounds were violated by neighbours. The society was patriarchal with women being very much subordinate to men. It was also polygamous meaning that the more possessions you had the more wives you needed to carry them. Society was built on a totemic or caste system which defined very strictly with whom a marriage could be undertaken. For men the four groups were, Ipai, Kumbo, Murri, and Kubbi. The corresponding groups for women were Ipatha, Butha, Matha and Kubbitha. The early writers described these as Emu, Bandicoot, Black Snake, Kangaroo, Opossum (sic) and Iguana (Goanna?). Whilst a patriarchy, lineage was most often determined by the mother. You were not permitted to marry a member of your own totem but only members of a specific other totem. An Ipai must marry a Kubbitha for example, a Murri a Butha.

Outback Sunset

Stunning Sunsets

Marriage however could not take place until a young man had been initiated which occurred at an initiation ground (Buurru) which included a bora ring. The bora ring consisted of two circles interlinked by a straight path often surrounded by marked trees which also had spiritual significance. Initiation was a lengthy process and marked with the presentation of a white rock which was retained by the initiate in a possum skin bag worn around his neck. There are recorded instances of deaths of Europeans who stole or interfered with these sacred objects.

Initiation ceremonies and corroroborees were attended by other sub-tribes or even other tribes. Networks of messengers (Marbull) were used whose "message sticks" conveyed by symbols the number who had been invited and the time and location of the event. Messengers had free passage through all territory being under the protection of the Chief and could also pass freely through other tribal lands.

Whilst some corroborees had religious connotations, others were simply entertainment. There is an instance of a Queensland corroboree being performed by the Kamilaroi near Quirindi in much the same way as Europeans watch plays. Other entertainment included games with possum skin balls and returning boomerangs.

As well as couriers the Kamilaroi had Doctors (Wirringan) and Wizards (Koradji). The land provided a rich pharmacopoeia and the doctors were adept at making poultices and sucking "poisons" from the body. Other treatments included earth baths. The wizards are far more shadowy known to commune with spirits and protect the tribe from malevolent spirits or Krooben. The Kamilaroi believed in a supreme being who lived above the heavens named Baayamai. As with western religions Baiamai has a series of intermediaries with which humans deal. In common with many other native races around the world the Kamilaroi placed particular religious significance on Orion and the Pleiades star cluster.

Kamilaroi burial ceremonies were elaborate with the body wrapped in bark and sometimes a possum skin cloak and in the case of hunters with all those things needed to continue their hunts as it was believed they would continue to hunt at night. The grave was a round mound 1.5 metres high which was then covered over with saplings to keep animals at bay. An 1840 description of the burial of a chief also included the carving of three trees with diamond shape symbols and women adorning their faces with white pipe clay for a week. The grave would be visited for three days then the tribe would depart to a place safe from evil spirits.

Historical Locations

Historical Locations

John Fraser in his work, The Aborigines of NSW, written in 1882 said:
"They have virtues we may profitably imitate; they are faithful and affectionate to those who treat them kindly; they have rules of family morality which are enforced by severe penalties; they show the greatest respect to age; they carefully tend and never desert the sick and infirm; their boys are compelled to content themselves with meager fare, and to bring the best food which they have found themselves and present it to the aged members of the tribe."

The Kamilaroi were regarded as fierce warriors and there is ample evidence of intertribal warfare, and the kidnapping of women from other tribes.


The effect of European contact was little short of devastating and its exact starting point unknown. It is believed that escaped convicts may well have been the first white men in the area followed by squatters taking up illegal residence prior to the arrival of the European explorer/surveyors.

Whilst there is little evidence of out and out warfare in the upper Namoi region, again likely to be a product of limited surface water, in the Kamilaroi territory further to the West warfare did occur. There is also little doubt that atrocities occurred with the innocent on both sides being victims. It is also clear that the level of European reprisals to Kamilaroi attacks was far greater than the crimes justified.

William Telfer in his account of the early settlement of the Liverpool Plains wrote:
"The Kamilaroi tribe who were more of a peaceable disposition to the white race very few outrages were done by this tribe and then it was the white man's fault interfering with their women so those poor savages must have had a cause against their white persecutors."

"The Squatters of the early days done a lot of taking possession of the country for the British Government they were assisted by the feuds between the different tribes of Aboriginals siding with one tribe against another.