Cloak of many makers
Ancient skills are being reborn thanks to support for Indigenous programs
The jaw bone of a possum; the leg bone of a kangaroo; the sinews extracted from the tail of an Eastern Grey Kangaroo; with such traditional tools and materials Tiriki Onus has learned to craft possum skin cloaks as generations did before him.
The jaw bone is used to inscribe the inner pelt with depictions of culture and country; the leg bone as an awl to punch holes for the sinews which will ultimately stitch many skins into one cloak.
Mr Onus, inaugural recipient of the Hutchinson Indigenous Fellowship 2015, learned of the importance of the cloaks from his father, "Lin", and grandfather, Bill. The Yorta Yorta man’s pursuit of the skills needed to craft a cloak in the traditional manner was an odyssey into culture and identity.
Once, everyone received a cloak at birth, with skins added through their life. "Once it was a skill everyone had, but as we were moved off our land those skills were lost," Mr Onus says.
He gathered stories of different techniques. He learned of ochre inscriptions made fast with emu fat. He tracked down a game meat supplier for possum skins and experimented with methods of stretching and preparing them. He learned the skill of extracting the soft, silken tail sinews – "like heavy-gauge fishing line" – with his own wooden tools before splitting them into fine threads for sewing.
His fellowship included an open workshop in September at the Wilin Centre, where his skills were applied and shared in stitching the first traditionally made cloak in many years, which Mr Onus donated to the centre.
"I was bequeathed a great amount of knowledge from my father and from his father and now I have been able to bring it to another level for myself and others," he says.
"It started out with me wanting a possum skin cloak, but it turned into a journey that’s a lot bigger than me. It’s incredibly exciting that I have been part of that on going journey, how the tradition of those cloaks is not lost."
The Hutchinson Indigenous Fellowship enabled his community research, his experimentation with tools and materials, and the workshop. Among the beneficiaries of his recovery of ancient skills is his daughter, Ninda, born during his fellowship and gifted her own possum skin cloak.
As far as I know, Ninda is the first person in our family to be born with her own possum skin cloak in seven generations.