Possum skin cloaks then and now – same same but different
Dr Vicki Couzens is a Keerray Woorroong Gunditjmara multi-media artist. Couzens has been instrumental in the revival of the possum skin cloak making tradition in Victoria.
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“Which way that Story?”: An Introduction
Whilst colonising practices forcibly interrupted many cultural traditions and ways of Being and Doing, contemporary times have seen cultural re-awakening flourishing in Aboriginal communities across south-eastern Australia. Revitalisation of Possum Cloak knowledges and practices as a living legacy in community, is a notable historically significant cultural regeneration phenomenon of our times.
The Possum Skin Cloak has re-emerged as a significant icon and collective symbol of our Aboriginal cultures across south eastern Australia. The creation of Possum Skin Cloaks is part of a continuing story cycle, singing Country, keeping Country strong through the reclamation and restoration of cultural knowledge and practice.
Possum Skin Cloaks tell our stories of belonging, stories of place and stories of the sacred and spiritual; representing the unique and distinct tribes and language groups of south-eastern Australia. The effects of the revival of Possum Skin Cloaks as a community cultural practice have been significant and profound. The making and wearing of cloaks instils a sense of pride and evokes a sense of belonging and connectedness to culture and Ancestors.
The most significant aspect of this cultural phenomenon being the embedding of Possum Cloaks and Possum Cloak Story as an iconic sense of communal, collective identity and pride in Aboriginal people across the south east of Australia. This heightened sense of belonging engenders a deeper sense of understanding our un-ceded sovereignty and leaves a lasting legacy within individuals, families and our communities.
From the beginning of Possum Story in 1999, and in particular, since 2006, the ensuing years have seen Possum Skin Cloaks become firmly re-established as a cultural practice across Victoria, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and parts of south eastern Queensland.
Community cloak making workshops facilitate trans-generational engagement, opportunities for: the transference of knowledge; for listening to stories; given knowledge and responsibilities and the strengthening of family and kinship networks.
Possum Skin Cloaks were an important part of our ritual and ceremonial life. Today, they continue that tradition and are used at Welcome To Country ceremonies, for everyday use such as warmth, bedding and baby carriers, various public events in both Aboriginal and mainstream communities, and other community ceremonies and milestone events such as educational graduations, naming ceremonies, births, marriages, deaths and burials.
Making Possum Skin Cloaks triggers a need to find out more about them: how were they made? where and how were materials sourced? what did we use them for? what is our language for possums, cloaks? what ceremonies did we use them for? who wore them? These questions, in turn, trigger the need to learn more about other related cultural knowledge and practice.
Cloaks need language and through this language the knowledge and stories needed for hunting, ceremony, dance and song are conveyed. Communities and individuals seek these knowledges and begin to relearn their ‘mother tongue’; dance and sing story and create ceremonies; strengthening pride and identity in an affirming creative cultural way.
Cultural and spiritual healing
An encounter with a Possum Skin Cloak can be an immediate, powerful and lasting healing experience. In some communities cloaks are used directly for healing. Cloaks are taken and wrapped around a person who may be experiencing emotional issues or suffering with ‘sorry business’. At other times, cloaks have been laid across hospital beds for those who are physically ill.
When a cloak is put around someone’s shoulders, when they are enfolded within, there is a visible and tangible sense of empowerment. Emotions are seen and expressed in smiles, words and actions. Some stand taller, beaming smiles and telling of what they feel. Some will stand quietly, reflecting on their feelings, and others will sit and go within to fully experience what they are feeling.
However cloaks are encountered, they reach to a person’s spirit: Possum Cloaks are the embodiment of spiritual healing.
No-one is unaffected.
Possum Skin Cloaks were a vital part of Aboriginal people’s lives in pre-European times. Cloaks were used in daily activity, to keep warm, to sleep in and to carry our babies. To make a cloak was a very labour intensive and time-consuming process with both men and women contributing to this process. Brush tail possums were most commonly used for cloaks. To capture the possums, the men would seek them out in trees with hollows, where possums nest.
As skins were gathered, they were stretched and cured; incised with designs of clan and Country; coloured with ochres and sewn together with kangaroo sinew, some Cloaks comprised fifty or more skins.
Various species of possums supplied an extensive range of resources and tools for primary human needs of warmth, shelter and nourishment. These resources were procured from the skin, fur, bones and flesh of the possum.
Possum flesh was eaten and roasted in fires. Whole de-haired skins were used as water-carriers and storage containers. Small bags were hung around the neck to carry pegs or in mourning, ashen remains; fur was rolled with hair to make string; string and skin pieces were created for body adornment ie: necklaces, arm bands, head bands, dance belts; skins sewn together made a ball used in a game called ‘marngrook’, a game of keepings off between two teams.(Smyth 1972, Cahir 2005, Howitt 1996, Dawson 1981). The lower jaw bone was hafted to a handle producing an engraver which used to carve designs into wooden implements. Nothing was wasted.
Each individual had a Possum Skin Cloak. As a child outgrew being carried by his mother, and after transition from child to young adult a cloak was made for/with them which was theirs from birth to death. The cloak became their life story, a living visual biography.
Skins were added and scored with markings that depicted clan and Country; symbols marking pivotal events or milestones such as initiatory rites of passage. In this way the cloak became powerfully connected to an individual:
…each man’s rug is particularly marked to signify its particular ownership… Howitt 1996 in Blacklock 
The time spent in the gathering of resources, in production and the ceremonial and spiritual significance contributed to the high esteem and economic value of Possum Skin Cloaks.
- F Blacklock, Aboriginal skin cloaks, National Quilt Register http://www.collectionsaustralia.net/nqr/fabri.php
Possum Skin Cloak Story Reconnecting Communities and Culture: Telling the Story of Possum Skin Cloaks Kooramookyan-an Yakeeneeyt-an Kooweekoowee-yan. A project submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Vicki Louise Couzens, Masters of Arts, RMIT 2011