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The 'society' at bora ceremonies: a manifestation of a body of traditional law and custom in Aboriginal Australia relevant to native title case law.

It is the local organization which controls the initiation ceremonies. Howitt (1884:458)

It is widely reported that each group at a gathering camped on the side nearest the area they had come from so that the plan of the whole camp was a microcosm of the regional distribution of bands. Peterson and Long (1986:33)


Although bora ceremonies are no longer performed in Queensland, the regional jural and socio-political activities of contemporary Aboriginal groups in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales have some affinities to bora gatherings, such as community meetings, funerals, regional sporting events or cultural festivals. Both traditional and contemporary activities were and are determined by the underlying structures of kinship and social networks that connect people over a wide region (see Macdonald 2011 a, 2011 b:309,324).

In the 19th century bora initiation ceremonies in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales drew together people of all ages from different localities and diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and were essential to the renewing of Aboriginal polities. Roth (1910:81-82 cited in Sutton 1978:118) observed, for example, that certain groups, he called them 'messmates', maintained a regional social network and Elkin wrote:

We must remember, too, that though an initiation was occasionally held by members of only one tribe, Initiation as an institution was fundamentally intertribal. Normally, groups from neighboring tribes were present and took part in the social and ceremonial activities, which marked the occasion. The presence of the visitors as witnesses and participants validated the initiation. Indeed, novices usually spent some months before the momentous event with "relations" in distant groups of their tribe or else in other tribes. Initiation, therefore, was not just into full membership of a particular tribe, but also into an unlimited, intertribal institution which was concerned with the Aborigines 'most cherished and most guarded, spiritual possessions. (Elkin 1975:142)

Gatherings at initiation ceremonies generally reflected the wider reaches of people's social and political relationships and alliances in a regional system that was constituted of clusters of groups with linguistic, ritual and social differences. In the legal context of native title cases anthropologists are commonly asked to identify the Aboriginal 'society' that holds, and has held continually, the body of normative as well as traditional laws and customs that confer ownership rights on certain groups of people. (1) It is often not clear to legal representatives of states and the Court, as well as Native Title Representative Bodies, whether the people who claim ownership over a particular area are a 'society', or whether they are part of a 'society' that confers rights and interests in land and waters, i.e. the difference between a landholding group and the 'society' is unclear to them. This remains the case despite the decisions to accept the notion of a 'regional society' in the De Rose Hill case and the recent regional sea claim over Torres Strait. (2) These issues have arisen out of the Yorta Yorta case in which it was decided that a society is to be understood as a group of persons bound together by the acknowledgment and observance of a body of laws and customs, and that the latter 'arise out of and, in important respects, go to define a particular society' (3) (see Burke 2010; Palmer 2009). The Federal Court (4) has also stated:

   The relevant ordinary meaning of society is "a body of people
   forming a community or living under the same government"--Shorter
   Oxford English Dictionary. It does not require arcane construction.
   It is not a word, which appears in the NT Act. It is a conceptual
   tool for use in its application. It does not introduce, into the
   judgments required by the NT Act, technical, jurisprudential or
   social scientific criteria for the classification of groups or
   aggregations of people as "societies". The introduction of such
   elements would potentially involve the application of criteria for
   the determination of native title rights and interests foreign to
   the language of the NT Act and confining its application in a way
   not warranted by its language or stated purposes. (5)

Commonly a subgroup of such a 'society', as understood by the Court and in native title case law, claims a specific area within a broader region and it is evident that the laws and customs are not completely particular to that subgroup but that they are observed beyond its territory at a regional level. Thus, one of the tasks of native title anthropologists is to find the relevant socio-cultural attributes and institutions that may define the required 'society' that holds the normative laws and customs. However, in Aboriginal Australia identifying neatly bounded social or cultural entities has long been ethnographically problematic.

Drawing mainly on R.H. Mathews' data on bora gatherings at Kunopia in 1891, Gundabloui in 1894 and on Tallwood Station in 1895, and more recent anthropological work on governance and social networks, I suggest that, despite linguistic and other cultural differences between the people who participated in these initiations, these gatherings reflected a broader, open regional system that had common laws relating to land, and that both reflected and created a regional polity. This polity can be understood as a manifestation of a grouping that can legitimately be identified as one manifestation of the 'society' so often sought in native title cases.


Difficulties with the identification and definition of clearly defined social units or cultural identities are not new in Australian anthropology (Bauman and Macdonald 2011; Berndt 1959; Hiatt 1996). Many early writers had difficulty identifying social and cultural entities. Frequently these attempts to organize, classify and categorize social life evoke the impression of cultural homogeneity and boundedness that nearly always dissolves on closer examination of the broader social context.

Early ethnographic writers used 'tribe' (quite often defined by one language and one territory), 'community' and 'nation' to describe perceived bounded units in Aboriginal Australia and tried to find neat fits on a number of local and regional levels for social, cultural or political institutions. The terms 'community' and 'nation' were often used interchangeably and understood as an aggregation of 'tribes' that displayed related languages and/or common social and cultural traits. The usefulness of entities such as language group or cultural bloc have recently again been outlined by Palmer (2009). Subdivisions of these larger groupings were also mentioned in the early ethnography. In southern Queensland and northern New South Wales Barlow (1873:174), Mathews (1906, 1917), Howitt (1904), Parker (1905), and Mathew (1910:129,147) indicated that smaller landholding groups identified with distinct areas existed within a 'tribe' or 'language group'. Mathews' attempt to describe the composition of social units reflects the difficulties with distinctions and categories:

A tribe of Australian Aborigines may be described as an aggregation of a number of families or groups, which may, for convenience of reference, be termed subtribes, who speak the same tongue and whose territory is situated within specified geographic limits. These families, groups, subtribes, or whatever name we may call them by, find it to their mutual advantages to keep on friendly terms with each other, so that they may be all the better able to defend themselves against a common foe, or to make raids upon outsiders. They intermarry one with the other and attend each others ceremonial gatherings, so that they are imbued with the bond of comradeship, and are all interested in the general welfare. (Mathews 1906:939)

Keen (1997:262) points out that the majority of later monographs by Warner (1937), Meggitt (1962), Strehlow (1947), Myers (1986) and Keen himself, for example, also tended to write about 'apparently distinct peoples' such as the Murngin, Warlpiri, Aranda [Arrernte], Pintupi and Yolngu, which may conjure the impression that these groups were neatly bounded entities.

At the same time many of these writers observed that social networks were essential for the renewing and reproduction of societies and socio-cultural norms and values (see Burke 2010; Keen 1989, 1997, 2004; Myers 1986; Palmer 2009; Peterson 2000; Sutton 2003). Sharp (1934a,b; 1958), for example, as early as the 1930s emphasized social networks and rejected 'cookie-cutter' models (1958) and likewise Sutton used social network theory in the 1970s writing about the Wik people (Sutton 1978).

Keen maintains that it is essential to 'get away from the idea of discrete Aboriginal "societies", "cultures", "groups" or "communities" as basic elements' and to substitute it with a more regional perspective. He suggests considering 'regional networks of connection among Aboriginal people, examining social interaction or practices along a continuum from those with a somewhat local scope to those making wider regional connections' (Keen 1997:261), and approaching Aboriginal 'societies' as open, unbounded clusters of groups that were loosely integrated in a regional system.

It has also been clear for quite some time that precise boundaries of social and cultural entities as well as of territories in land-locked regions of Aboriginal Australia were and are rare. Therefore the 'society' encompassing any number of subgroups cannot be clearly defined or bounded by a common language and territory, for example. Indeed there are a number of regional networks or unifying systems; and depending on what kind of criteria the definition of a society is based upon, numerous different societies can emerge (Burke 2010:59), which may expand or contract depending on context (see Redmond 2011).

One way such a nexus of relationships can be conceptualized is through an examination of the efforts Aboriginal people in a region invested in organizing and holding large-scale gatherings for the induction of young people into public and religious life and who were the participating groups. These gatherings were not of a purely esoteric nature, but served a number of purposes. They were also important for education and general business dealings (Gunn 1937:21; Mathews 1894:114; Parker 1905; Thomas 2007), as well as entertainment, indeed Parker (1905:70) writes of 'sports and corroborees'. However, in the 19th century one of the most important factors that determined who went to the effort to organize and participate at bora gatherings was the need to begin or to continue the initiation of young people into society. Ridley remarked in 1855:

Even aborigines who have been accustomed to associate with white men, and earning wages by regular service, retain a strong attachment to this hereditary custom, and when a bora is to be held in which their tribe is concerned, nothing can restrain them from attending it; nor dare youths who have until they arrived at the age of manhood been under the chosen direction of white men, neglect the mysterious rites through which their fathers passed. (Ridley 1861:445)

The incentives for people to come together included arranging marriages, progressing young people through their next initiation stage, recognizing the prestige of the hosts and organizers of the gathering, trading, dispute resolution, and consolidating and expanding social nexuses. The consequence was the reproduction of regional polities. There is evidence of this across Aboriginal Australia. Peterson (2000, see also Meggitt 1966), for example, observed that the male initiation ceremonies in central Australia, which are integrated at a regional level, are the ceremonies that have been maintained (by major investment of time and money) and have survived the contact situation, because they are essential for the renewing of social networks (see also Sutton 1985). These interactions result in cultural reproduction and the enforcement of laws and customs, thus, suggesting that this institution reflects a wider society in a region.

Despite their regional importance, these polities created by such big gatherings seem to have weakened quite quickly given the evidence of the levels of conflict and transgression reported from around Australia, especially over women, and required constant renewal. Indeed, as Myers (1980, 1986) observed of the Pintupi, for them the main achievement of a large gathering in arid Australia was actually getting everybody together and holding it. However, even though the polities instantiated at these gatherings seem to have been fragile and had to have been in need of constant reconfiguration, they nevertheless were a manifestation of something appropriately conceived as the 'society' of the sort envisaged by the Courts.


Aboriginal ceremonial and ritual life received substantial attention from early ethnographic writers, because it was believed that it might give some important clues to the origin of religious systems in an evolutionistic scheme. Thus, a substantial amount of data was collected on initiation ceremonies such as the bora. Of Mathews 171 anthropological publications, for example, '50 are partly or wholly concerned with ceremony' (Thomas 2007:189). Between 1894 and 1917 Mathews described bora ceremonies performed in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales in which a number of groups were involved. He wrote about the way diplomatic messengers were sent out to distant places inviting people to a bora gathering, the arrival of groups composed of people of all ages and genders, the bora camp, the preparation of the ceremonial grounds, the paraphernalia, the prohibitions, the mythology, the food procurement, etc. (see Mathews 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1907, 1917).

Mathews developed a typology of initiation ceremonies based on materials from other researchers, correspondence with people in remote areas and observing ceremonies among a number of groups in New South Wales and Queensland. One of his many maps (see Map 1) shows how he generalized and conceptualized regions associated with particular types of initiation ceremonies that were commonly performed there.

The ceremonies performed in the study area of this paper fall into Mathews' Area 2, classified as the bora type ceremonies (Mathews 1898a: 67-69; 1904; 1906-7). (see Map 2) One of its key rituals consisted of tooth extraction from initiates. Circumcision was not performed. According to Mathews, bora ceremonies were held by the 'Kamilaroi, Yookumble, Wallaroi, Pickumble, Yuollary, Wailwan, Moorawarree and a few others' (Mathews 1898a:67). Some of these groups had different names for bora ceremonies. They were called in Moor-a-warri boo-al (6) and in Bigambul mue (Howitt 1904:769), for example. However, this type of ceremonial institution has generally become known by its Kamilaroi name, bora. (7) Mathews maintained that the bora initiation ceremonies of the Kamilaroi 'tribes' were virtually identical to the initiation ceremonies of the Kogai of southern Queensland (Mathews 1904:34).

He grouped Kogai and Kamilaroi together, as they appeared similar due to co-operative arrangements to hold initiation ceremonies. The Kogai 'tribes' included, according to earlier ethnographic literature, people from a vast area between the Maranoa and Warrego rivers. The Kamilaroi or the 'various tribelets of the Kamilaroi community', as Mathews (1917:423) called them, lived between the Hunter river and the Barwon river, taking in the basins of the Namoi and Gwydir rivers. However, none of these people appears to have come together all at one time. Rather, groups who were neighbours interacted and invested considerable efforts to activate their potential relationships in the wider reach of their social networks. The bringing together of large numbers of people of disparate groups was an organisational feat. Ridley reported in the early 1870s that notice was given at least three months before the opening of a bora to others, depending on how far away they resided. In the 1890s it took Jack Bagot, for example, nearly one year to notify his neighbours about the bora he was hosting on his country at Gundabloui (Mathews 1895). Peterson's description of Warlpiri people who travelled thousands of kilometres to organize male initiation ceremonies in the 1990s (Peterson 2000) is reminiscent of the process that Jack Bagot went through 100 years earlier (see Map 5).


The first initiation ceremonies in Australia observed by Europeans were mentioned shortly after the declaration of sovereignty. In February 1795 at the head of Farm Cove in Sydney initiation ceremonies were observed (Collins 1804:365-374 in Mathews 1902:101) and in the early 1830s at Wellington near the Macquarie river (Henderson 1832:145-148 in Mathews 1902:101). The first bora ceremonies were mentioned mid 19th century. Gardner remarked n 1854 that regular gatherings called borrah took place at different locations. (8) One year later, in 1855, Reverend William Ridley appears to have made the first substantial remarks relating directly to ceremonial life and large gatherings of Kogai, Pikumbul and Kamilaroi speakers in the Queensland and New South Wales border area. He reported that during his expedition through this region, he had just missed by a fortnight a large meeting at Callandoon:

On the 27th I reached Calandoon [Callandoon station], on the Macintyre ][river], the upper part of the Barwon. A fortnight before 360 blacks had been assembled here, chiefly natives of Balun [Balonne river] and Mooni [Monnie river]. They had gone away westward again, and though I followed them 30 miles, I could not come up with them. I spoke with about forty who are constant inhabitants of Calandoon. They could understand a good deal of my Kamilaroi (as they proved by translating it into English), but I could not understand their Pikumbul. (Ridley 1861:443)

According to Oates' informants at Goodooga in New South Wales, the ceremonies attended by the Muruwari were strongly linked with groups in Queensland. They recalled that a big ceremony had been held in 1920 at the Tinnenburra Mission and that a number of different peoples from a wide area of Queensland had attended (Oates 1988). Table 1 lists some documented bora ceremonies performed in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales that are relevant for this study. For an extensive survey of bora ceremonies and sites in New South Wales see Sutton (1985).

Table 1 shows a concentration of documented ceremonies in the 1890s. It is likely that as Wesson (2000) remarks for eastern Victoria and far south-eastern New South Wales that many of these gatherings went unnoticed by white settlement due to their remoteness. It has often been said that particular boras were the last ones. Gunn (1909) claimed, for example, that the last bora was held at Tallwood in 1895 and Oates' informants told her that the last one had been performed in 1920. However, Sutton spoke with senior men and women in northern New South Wales in the early 1980s who had performed boras in the 1930s (Sutton 1985).


Ridley reported that generally in all parts of the country a traditional system of initiation into the rank of manhood' existed and that the bora was 'the great national institution' (Ridley 1861:445, 1873:269-271, 1875:153-156). The main purposes of the initiation ceremonies were to teach young people about esoteric knowledge, which included spiritual and physical aspects of the landscape, and reinforce authority structures. Mathews remarked in his first article on boras:

The Bora is a great educational institution for the admission of the youths of the tribes to the privileges, duties and obligations of manhood, and is the most important ceremony practised by the aborigines. The youths who are initiated, are carefully instructed by the old men in their traditions--their moral and religious codes--and the laws of consanguinity and intermarriage. The ceremonies are intended to strengthen the authority of the older men over the younger, and to impress in an indelible manner those rules of conduct which form the moral law of the tribe. (Mathews 1894:99)

Major breaches included the infringement of marriage laws (Ridley 1873:267), unprovoked murder and lying to elders (Parker 1905:78). Howitt maintained that offences that incurred the death penalty included disrespect towards the old men, and the interference with unprotected women or the wives of other men (Howitt 1884:450). He observed that ceremonies about mythological beings and events contained 'moral lesson', which he thought were not obvious to the European eye:

I have heard the old men say, for instance: "If you do anything like that when you go back, you will be killed"--that is, either by magic or by direct violence. (Howitt 1884:450)

The complex reality of governance and social control in Aboriginal societies depended both on fear of supernatural sources that could inflict punishment on wrong doers and the punishment for infringement of social rules by senior men. Mathew (1910:129) remarked that 'the older men and especially those of conspicuous courage and force of character laid down the hereditary law and saw it enforced'; and McKellar wrote about three young men who in 1927 deserted some of the long and painful initiation ceremonies and that 'for many years they rode around the bush with fear in their hearts in case the old men would catch them' (McKellar 1984:58). These formal situations relied on governance based on the authority of older men and women, which carried over into everyday life. Dread of the consequences of wrongdoing, was a forceful device that induced people to try to do the right thing towards country, spirits and people (see for example Keen 2004:253-255; Kenny 2004).

Early observers such as Ridley (1861,1873, 1875), Mathews (1894-1917), Howitt (1884), and Parker ([1896, 1898], 1978; 1905) collected cosmological narratives about a powerful sky being and ancestral figures belonging to the natural world, which appear to have been common and widespread in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales (see, for example, Parker 1905:6, 95-104; Ridley 1861, 1873:269 and 1875). During his journey through south-western Queensland in 1855 Ridley recorded that all Aboriginal people he had spoken to had 'definite traditions concerning supernatural beings' and some spoke of a 'Being who made all things' and instituted laws (Ridley 1861:444-445). The Kamilaroi called him 'Baiame'. Ridley wrote:

Some of them say that Baiame formerly appeared to their fathers; and a white man assured me that the blacks had told him of laws given by Baiame to their forefathers. But I never heard them speak of Baiame as a ruler, nor ascribe wisdom and goodness to Him.

They also believe in the existence of many demons, of whom Turramullun is the chief. They say that Turramullun is the author of disease and medical skill, of mischief and of wisdom also; that he appears in the form of a serpent at their great assemblies. (Ridley 1861:445)

Other groups in the region, called Baiame (a Kamilaroi word) 'Ananbu' and/or 'Minnumbu' (Ridley 1873:368; 1875:136). Howitt wrote that

The teachings of the initiation are in a series of "moral lessons" pantomimically displayed, in a manner intended to be so impressive as to be indelible. There is clearly a belief in a Great Spirit, or rather an anthropomorphic Supernatural Being, the "Master" of all, whose abode is above the sky, and to whom are attributed powers of omnipotence and omnipresence, or, at any rate, the power to "do anything and to go anywhere" (Howitt 1884:459).

Similarly Parker (1905) wrote about the cosmology of this region and recorded that Euahlayi women had also 'some means of, mystic access to Byamee, though they call him by another name (1905:6)', 'Boyjerh (1905:8)'.

Another common feature of these gatherings was the consistent acknowledgment of people belonging to particular areas (Mathews 1896, Parker 1905, Radcliffe-Brown 1954). At the beginning of a gathering, Parker observed that newcomers would pronounce the names of the places they came from and then everyone present would cheer and 'the enumeration of geographical names' continued and was performed a number of times (Parker 1905:64-65). Radcliffe-Brown (1954:105) made similar remarks based on the information obtained from 'old men' whom he had interviewed in the early 20th century on 'the original system as it was about 1840 or 1850'. He wrote:

The first stage of the ceremony was the arrival of the visiting clans, each of which made its own separate camp on the side of the ceremonial ground that was in the direction of its own territory. On the arrival of a clan the hosts, and any others who had already arrived, went to that part of the ceremonial ground where the "Bora" ring had been put in readiness. The arriving local clan presented themselves at the ring, and the men then danced round on the inside of the ring, the spectators remaining outside, and as they danced they shouted out the names of important places in their own territory. (ix) They thus identified themselves with their territory, their "taurai" to use the Kamilaroi word. (Radcliffe-Brown 1954:105-6)

These rituals relating to the acknowledgment of a group's country were performed on a daily basis during the public sessions of the gathering, which everyone attended and was essential to the ceremonial proceedings. The public parts of the bora, which normally included food procurement, took up the better part of the entire meeting period. The restricted sessions at the Tallwood bora ceremony, for example, lasted nine to ten days, about a quarter of the period of the event (Mathews 1897:140). Only some rituals and particular areas at a bora site were off limit for women, children and uninitiated men (see Map 7).

Women were involved in these public ceremonies and were essential to the proceedings. Parts of the bora ceremony relied on the presence of women, such as the rituals concerned with the 'surrendering the boys, the 'return of the boys', or smoking and cleansing rituals after the restricted sessions of the ceremony (Mathews 1895). Parker (1905:62,65,68,70) even observed that the old women sang boorah songs during the restricted ceremonies, just out of view of the male proceedings. Other rituals seem to have been semi-restricted, as younger women had to disappear into huts positioned around the ceremonial ground where they could hear but not see what was happening. Sutton collected data in the early 1980s from men and women who had performed these ceremonies into the 1930s in which both men and women had separate leadership roles (Sutton 1985). The role of women in these ceremonies was complementary. A similar situation was documented at the same time in central Australia (Spencer and Gillen 1899).

'Belonging to country' was also expressed in the way a bora camp was organized. Each group from a different 'country' was positioned so it faced the direction of its own country indicating its separate landed identity (see Mathews 1895:413). Peterson and Long (1986:33) write that these camping arrangements are common at traditional ceremonial gatherings in many parts of Australia. This suggests that everyone had a good general knowledge of where everyone else's country was located and who was from where.

From these common features it appears that bora events and forums were the major institutions for education, authority affirmation, social and territorial control and governance, where laws and values were made explicit.


Three bora gatherings near the townships of Kunopia, Gundabloui and Tallwood in the first half of the 1890s were documented by R.H. Mathews with the assistance of his correspondents at or near these places. This case study shows the wider social reaches of a cluster of residential groups who are likely to have included not only members of the land-holding groups of these particular localities. Wesson (2000) has shown in a similar manner how people in 19th century Victoria travelled substantial distances to gatherings organised by their social networks.

The locations of these bora gatherings lie in a region that is associated with a number of groups who spoke different languages (Kogai, Pikumbul and Kamilaroi), used different section names and owned and occupied a number of separate areas in the drainage system of the lower Darling Downs. (see Map 3) These gatherings were held at places, which had enough resources to produce surpluses in food to be able to sustain a large number of people for an extended period (see Hitchcock 1993; Mathews 1907:5; Peterson and Long 1986:44, 48, 50).

In the 19th century Reverend Ridley, a Kamilaroi speaker and linguist, remarked that the language 'Kogai bears very little resemblance to either of the dialects [his 'Kamilaroi and Uolaroi'] he was familiar with, yet he found 'connecting points' (Ridley 1861:438). Also Parker noted differences; the Euahlayi language from the Narran river was 'not identical with that of the great Kamilaroi tribe to their south-east, but was clearly allied to it' and myths, beliefs and practices were particular to the Euahlayi, but at the same time had 'a link with the ideas of peoples dwelling much further west' (Parker 1905:2). The Pikumbul language Ridley found shared vocabulary with both the Kogai and Kamilaroi languages.

In Mathews' classification scheme, the study area falls within a region in which 'tribes' are divided into four sections, descent reckoned through the female side and children inheriting a totem from their mothers. He wrote that these groups were part of a wider 'community' or 'nation', which shared systems of classification and ceremonies, conceding that they had different dialects and sometimes languages (1898a,b,c). However, even in his own scheme it emerges that there were at least two large entities in the region: the 'Kamilaroi nation' and the 'Kogai-Yuipera nation' (Mathews 1898c:335-336, 1904), both using a section system. Ridley (1873:265) correlated the Kogai sections with the Kamilaroi sections as follows:

    Kogai               Kamilaroi

Wuzgo/Wuzgogun       Murri(m)/Matha(f)
Unburri/Unburrigun   Kumbo(m)/Butha(f)
Urgilla/Urillagun    Ippai(m)/Ippatha(f)
Obur and Oburugun    Kubbi(m)/Kubbotha (f)

He indicated that the Kogai section names were compatible with the ones of the Kamilaroi and functioned in a similar fashion. Howitt (1889a:37) wrote that people who lived on the borders of language groups 'might use the terms of both languages in describing their section', and Parker (1905:20, 22) maintained that the Euahlayi traced in the section system descent through the female line and totems were inherited from mothers. Both 'nations' had matrilineal moieties. Amongst the Kamilaroi they were known as Kupathin and Dilbi (Howitt 1904:104; Radcliffe-Brown 1930:230) and among the Kogai they were known as Wutheru and Yungo (Mathews 1904:33). Another widespread trait in south-eastern Australia, according to the early ethnographic literature, was a totemic system in which the principal totem was inherited through one's mother or mother's brother (Sutton 2003:95).

Despite differences in language, local ritual style and social orientation, they had unifying systems, which included 'matriclans' (Radcliffe-Brown 1930), compatible moieties and section systems and religious beliefs that drew them together for short periods of time for institutionalized ceremonies, where they affirmed their common laws. Below I describe what we know about the participants of these events and from where they came.

Kunopia Bora, 1891

Between October and December of 1891, a bora ceremony was held on Gnoura Gnoura creek, about 3 miles north-westerly from Kunopia on the Boomi river (Mathews 1895:411) in New South Wales. People came from station and fringe camps of Welltown, St George, Noona, Willarie, Moogan, Winton, Mungindi, Yarawa, Welbundunga, Callandoon, Bengalla, Boonanga, Benarba, Moree, Whalen, Midkin and Warrira. (see Map 4)

At least 250 men, women and children (in his loose papers Mathews remarked that '250350 blacks of all ages and sexes') participated in the Kunopia bora. (10) Billy Wightman ('King of Kunopia') and Jimmy Gelar ('King of Willarie') were in charge of the Kunopia ceremonies. (11) Other senior men present at the bora included Moogan Billy, Jack Bagot (Mathews 1894:106) and Charlie Hippi; at least 22 young men, aged between 12 and 30 years, went through different stages of initiation. (12)

Gundabloui Bora, 1894

Circa mid 1892, not long after the Kunopia bora, Jack Bagot Murri (13) the 'headman of Gundabloui', started to 'muster' his neighbours whom he wanted to invite to the bora on his country. He got back to Gundabloui not long before Christmas 1893, where he dispatched follow up messengers to the places he had visited (Mathews 1895:411). It had taken him over a year to notify all required and potential parties about the bora on his country and to negotiate its proceedings.

The Gundabloui bora took place during the months of January, February and March of 1894 on the Moonie River, (see Map 5) 'about 12 miles below where it is crossed by the Queensland boundary, and also about 12 miles above the confluence with the Barwon River' (Mathews 1895:411). Some 203 persons participated: 96 men (about 43 were 'young men'), 58 women and 49 children. New initiates counted 'about 20;3 of whom were half-castes' aged between 12 and 30 and about twenty-three young men were in the second stage of their initiation (Mathews 1895:426).

Jack Bagot, Billy Wightman and Jimmy Gelar were the main organizers of the ceremonies at Gundabloui in 1894. Other senior men included Jimmy Nerang Ippai (emu), Billy Kumbo King of Umbercollie (carpet snake) and Moogan Billy Kubbi (pademelon). (14) The camping arrangements at the Gundabloui bora reflected the geographical orientation of the participants' traditional countries as 'each tribe occupied that side of the main camp which faced the direction of their own tauri, or country' (Mathews 1894:108). The people from Kunopia, Mungindi and Welltown camped together; the people from Mogil Mogil, Collarenebri and Walgett camped together; and those from Moonie and St George also had their own camp. The Narran and Namoi 'tribes' had been invited, but did not attend for unknown reasons (Mathews 1895:413).

None of the initiates reached the final stage of their initiation by the end of this bora; three being necessary according to Ridley (1861:445) and five according to Parker (1905). Shortly after its conclusion, in April 1894, one of the main organizers, Jimmy Gelar, who was closely associated with Willarie, passed away. (15) This is likely to have been felt as a great loss in the region.

Tallwood Bora, 1895

The third gathering of this case study, the Tallwood bora, (see Map 6) was held on Redbank Creek, a tributary of the Weir River, between July and September 1895 (Mathews 1897, 1907). The 'headsman of the local Talwood tribe' was a man called Steve Ippai (emu totem); he had been present at the Gundabloui bora. One of his 'coadjutors, Jimmy Nerang Ippai (emu totem)', had been in Mathews employment as a 'front pole man' when surveying in the district around Goondiwindi, Mungindi and Kunopia in 1875 and 1876 (16) (Mathews 1897:137; see Thomas 2011 for more details). Moogan Billy and Jack Bagot were again present and involved in organizing the event. According to Mathews, the people who attended the Tallwood bora were for the most part the same people who had assembled at Gundabloui (Mathews 1897:140). However, not as many people arrived due to a severe drought. The people of Mogil Mogil, Gundabloui and Mungindi had been waiting to the south, at Gnoolama [Gnoolooma] on the Moonie, for rain, to be able to proceed to Tallwood. Eventually only a few men and women of these places arrived. Mathews wrote that they 'had been sent to represent the tribes to which they respectively belonged, the rest of their people remaining at Gnoolama' (Mathews 1897:139). Also only a few people from Meroe arrived eventually. No one from Willarie, although close to Tallwood, attended which may possibly have been due to the recent death of Jimmy Gelar.

Circa 150 men, women and children participated, 24 of them were initiates. The majority 'belonged to Queensland; but the New South Wales boundary, the Barwon River, being so near, a number of natives of the latter colony were also present' (Mathews 1897:141-142, 1907). According to Mathews and Donald Gunn, the owner of Tallwood Station who observed parts of the ceremony, representatives of at least three linguistic groups were again present.

Mathews wrote:

The tribes from Goondiwindi and Welltown spoke Pickumbil, the St George people spoke Kogai, and the Kamilaroi language was spoken by all the rest; but these three dialects appeared to be mutually understood by most of the people present. There were twenty-four novices initiated, five of whom were half-castes. (Mathews 1897:141)

Like at the Gundabloui meeting, the camping arrangements at the Tallwood bora reflected the location of the participants'countries. Mathews (1907) published a plan of the bora camp held on the left bank of Redbank creek, (see Map 7) showing where the different groups camped according to the location of their country:

The camp of the local tribe, which was the first to occupy the ground, was about seventy yards from the creek and formed the datum point around which each of the other tribes pitched their camps on arrival. The Goondiwindi and Welltown people camped to the eastward of the local Talwood tribe; those from St George on the northwest; the people from Kunopia and Meroe on the south; whilst the Moogan, Mungindi and Gundabloui tribe encamped on the south-west. (Mathews 1897:141-142)

Map 7 Mathews' Plan of the 'Bora' Camp on the left bank of Redbank Creek, a tributary of the Weir river, at Talwood (Mathews 1907:6): No. 1: local Talwood tribe, No. 2: Goondiwindi and Welltown people were camped to the eastwards, No. 3: Kunopia and Meroe, No. 4: St George contingent, No. 5: Moogan, Mungindi and Gundabloui 'mob', No. 6: public 'special corroborees' spot, No. 7: ngooloobul the private meeting place for the initiated men, No.8: large ring called boora, No. 9: representation of the arbour or playhouse of a bower-bird weeda (a mythological eminent 'medicine man), No. 10: image of Baiamai (mythological high being), No. 11 : Baiamai's wife, No. 12: Baiamai's fire, No. 13: imitation of an eaglehawks nest, No. 14: representation of a tree that had been struck by lightning, No. 15: smaller circle/ring, No. 16: original camp of the Kunopia contingent, No. 17: original camp of Talwood hosts--during the setting up of the camp a young man died and the entire camp had to be moved to the other side of the creek, No. 18: private women's meeting place similar to the initiated men's ngooloobul (Mathews 1907:7-8).

It is significant that the representatives, who had been sent to the bora by the marooned groups at Gnoolama [Gnoolooma], included both men and women. This strongly indicates that to be able to conduct the ceremonies, men and women were required. The ceremonies included public rituals performed by men and women, and witnessed by all people gathered at the event (Mathews 1897:152, 1896:326; Parker 1905:61-68). Mathews described, for example, how after planning the proceedings of the events at the Tallwood ngooloobul (the private meeting place for the initiated men), the men performed a dance 'calling out the names of places in their country, each name being received with shouts, after which they start for the camp in single file' (Mathews 1896a: 152). At the camp the women and novices joined the men:

On nearing the camp, the novices and women join them, going into their proper class positions, and all of them dance round on the cleared space near the camp, the men of each tribe again calling out the names of a few principal places in their country. The women dance outside the men, having green bushes in their hands, from which they pluck handfuls of leaves and cast them at the men as they dance past. (Mathews 1896a: 152)

Although 'women occupied a structurally disadvantaged position in ritual life' (Keen 2004:247) in these ceremonies, they were indispensable. Public ceremonies were performed nearly every afternoon during the gathering period and calling out places one owned was also observed by children:

Little boys and girls who had accompanied their parents would sit down or play about a short distance off, watching the men and women.

The men, who are standing just outside the ring, each tribe being by themselves on the side next their own country, put one foot forward, resting on the embankment, swaying their bodies to and fro, and waving their arms, uttering monotonous shouts at each movement. The men of each tribe go through these motions in succession, the hosts performing first. After doing this for a few minutes each group of men step over the bank into the circle, and dance in a cluster by themselves. The men of the local tribe then call out the names of a few principal camping places or waterholes in their district. Each of the other tribes in succession also call out the names of the notable places in their several countries. (Mathews 1896b: 326)

During the preparations for the ceremonies, at arrival, at the opening ceremonies and indeed daily, every group would recite the names of places and watercourses in their country to which the crowd present--the jural public--would cheer (Mathews 1895, 1896 and Parker 1905:64-65). (see Illustration 1)

The following tables summarise who participated in these three bora meetings. Table 2 lists the participating residential groups. It is likely that this is not a complete list. However, it shows that there was a core of residential groups from five places (Welltown, St George, Mungindi, Gundabloui and Kunopia; it is likely that also Tallwood belonged to the core); and that at each bora the cluster of groups was slightly different, presumably reflecting the particular relational nexus, political alliances, location and orientation of the organisers of each ceremony. Other factors that might have influenced the configuration of the participating groups may have been the need to initiate young males, working commitments or the availability of natural resources. It also may have been the case that some people changed residence. For example, Welltown, Callandoon, Umbercollie and Winton stations as well as Goondiwindi township are to each other.

Table 3 indicates that it is likely there was a core of senior men and that the number of initiates aged between 12 and 30 at different stages of their initiation varied, as up to five boras were necessary for the conclusion of the initiation cycle and not everyone made it to all events. There are additional people documented at this time in the general area (Gunn 1937:102 and R.H Mathews Collection; Ridley 1875:163, 167-168). However, it is not known if they attended these bora gatherings.


The data on the three boras attended by Kogai from the St George area, Pickumbil from Welltown, Callandoon, Winton, Umbercollie and Goondiwindi and Kamilaroi from Gundabloui, Meroe and other places, show how the frequent holding of ceremonies brought together diverse peoples from a wide area renewing, invigorating and reconfiguring the regional polity.

In creating this wider polity, and collaborating in the holding of ceremonies, shared laws and customs were reproduced despite local variations in language, custom and ritual. The governing agent that manifested itself in these temporary aggregations of groups of men, women and children can be understood as the jural public of the polity. Together with the overarching features of social organisation such as compatible section systems, moieties, matrilineal totemic clans and religious beliefs, it makes sense to speak of the participants in these gatherings as forming a 'society' in the sense defined by native title case law.

The ceremonies related people to country and associated spirits. Radcliffe-Brown (1954:106, see also 1923:424) remarked (in a somewhat understated manner) that young men who attended a bora ceremony 'learned something of the geography of the region'. The calling out of important geographical features of the participating groups' countries occurred consistently in both public and restricted parts of the ceremonies, and appears to have been repeated each day. This emphasis on place would certainly have served to reinforce the general knowledge about locations of neighbouring countries and who belonged to them. It is also conceivable that, away from home, the public acknowledgment by people from other places would have strengthened feelings of belonging and would have been an assurance of one's land-ownership as well as an affirmation of rules relating to trespass. The acknowledgment by members of the wider regional polity with whom people have cultural commonalities is still an important element of law and custom that legitimizes claims to land ownership in central Australia, for instance. Laws and values that conferred rights in land that were held at a regional level were ideally also adhered to locally.

The reaches of such societies went beyond an immediate group of people who lived together, shared a common language or owned a particular stretch of land and were open to or influenced by changing political, social and environmental circumstances. In coming together and collaborating with each other, people were explicitly recognising their commonalities including the legitimacy of each other's rights in land, and so socially and culturally ensuring their reproduction as well as the reproduction of a wider regional system. Thus, these seemingly fleeting bora gatherings of the 'society' played a key role in matters both esoteric and mundane that reinforced people's rights under their common laws and customs. Today, community gatherings and major 'land summits' or meetings, often organised by Native Title Representative Bodies to deal with conflicting native title claims relating to land, can be seen to have some continuities with the gatherings of the past.


Eight months after the bora at Tallwood, on 4 December 1895, a police officer at Goodooga wrote a letter to R.H. Matthews about plans that were under way to hold a gathering at Goodooga. Nanee, an Aboriginal man belonging to the 'Culgoa tribe, Birrie River, NSW' and resident at Goodooga, had received a message stick from Kunganooey, an Aboriginal man resident at Tinnenburra, which lies 192 kilometres west of Goodooga (see Map 3). The verbal message accompanying the message stick was 'The Tinnenburra blacks are coming in for a "corroboree"'; both stick and verbal message had been handed to a number of messengers resident on the Cuttaburra, Warrego, Culgoa, Birrie, Bokahara, Narran and Eulo rivers, (18) places associated with Kogai, Kuamu, Muruwari, Kunja, and Euahlayi/Uolaroi people.


This paper was made possible by a writing fellowship awarded by the Centre for Native Title Anthropology, a collaborative project of the Australian National University and the Commonwealth Attorney General's Department. I am indebted to Nicolas Peterson and Pare McGrath for their support and critical comments. I have also profited from discussion with Paul Burke, Lee Sackett, Garrick Hitchcock, Kevin Murphy, Natalie Kwok, Sita McAlpine, Diana Romano, Grace Koch, and Martin Thomas. I would like to acknowledge a helpful meeting with James Rose who has also been working with the Mathews papers. I also acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Karina Pelling and Michael Thompson in mapping the region of the late 19'h century's wider society of this paper. I thank Peter Sutton for his comments as well as for the permission to use his bora materials and Richard Buchhorn for giving permission for the publication of his photograph. I also thank my anonymous readers for their considered comments.


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(1.) Burke (2010:58-60) has unpacked what Hiley QC intended with this definition of a society. What the Courts envisage as the 'society' does not necessarily tally with the understanding of society in anthropology or sociology.

(2.) Tones Strait regional sea claim: See also De Rose versus the State of South Australia (No 2) [2005] FCAFC ll0(8 June 2005):

(3.) Yorta Yorta HC at [49].

(4.) Alyawarr Full Federal Court (29 July 2005:[78]) decision.

(5.) html?stem=0&synonyms=0&query=^%20%20((alyawarr) %20and%20(on)

(6.) R.H. Mathews Collection NLA MS 8006/2/8: Letter by James Miller (Police Station, Bourke) to R.H. Mathews on 16May 1897.

(7.) The phonemic modern spelling of 'bora' is 'buurra'.

(8.) W. Gardner. 1854. Mitchell Library MSS A 176. Production and resources of the Northern and Western Districts of New South Wales. Vol. 2, p. 66.

(9.) Emphasis added by author.

(10.) R.H. Mathews Collection, NLA, MS 8006/5/5.

(11.) R.H. Mathews Collection, NLA, MS 8006/5/5.

(12.) R.H. Mathews Collection, NLA, MS 8006/5/5: Letter by G. Daly, 28 November 1894, Kunopia.

(13.) Jack Bagot's section was Murri and his totem pademelon. It is not clear if this totem is matrifilially or patrifilally inherited.

(14.) Notebook on Gundabloui Bora, p. 23, Folder 8, Series 3, R.H. Mathews papers, MS 8006, NLA.

(15.) R.H. Mathews Collection, NLA, MS 8006/5/5: Letter by G. Daly, 28 November 1894, Kunopia.

(16.) R.H. Mathews Collection, NLA, MS 8006/11/3: notebook, p. 44.

(17.) These residential groups are likely to have included members of the local landholding group as well as other relatives and affines.

(18.) R.H. Mathews Collection, NLA MS 8006/2/8: Letter by James Miller to R.H. Mathews on the 4 December 1895 from Goodooga.

Anna Kenny

The Australian National University

Table 1 Some bora ceremonies held between 1855 and 1927.

Mid 1855          Callandoon on the Macintyre river.
1860 or 1861      Namoi River near Wee Waa.
1862              Lower Castlereagh and Barwon Rivers.
1862              Eurie Eurie run on the Barwon River.
Circa 1870s       Bubala/Booboora Lagoon [Boobera Lagoon].
Circa 1881-1886   Terry-hie-hie.
1884              Yarawa.
Late 1880s        On the Western Fall of New England' on the
                  country of the 'Ucumble Tribe'.
Circa 1890        Bangate Station on the Narran River.
1891              Gnoura Creek, north-west of Kunopia.
1893              Mole (may also be near Quambone).
1894              Gundabloui on the Moonie.
1895              Redbank creek on Talwood Station.
c. 1896           Goodooga.
1898              Lower Macquarie River.
1920              Tinnenburra.
1927              Nockatunga.

Table 2: Residential groups who attended the Kunopia, Gundabloui and
Tallwood Boras.

Residential Groups (17)          Kunopia     Gundabloui     Tallwood
                                  Bora          Bora          Bora

Welltown                            Y            Y             Y
St George                           Y            Y             Y
Noona                               Y
Willaric (Willerie & Willeroi       Y            Y
Moogan [Megan]                      Y                          Y
Winton                              Y
Mungindi                            Y            Y             Y
Yarawa                              Y
Bengalle                            Y
Welbundunga [Welbondongah]          Y
Callandoon                          Y
Boonanga                            Y
Benarba                             Y
Moree                               Y
Whalen                              Y
Midkin                              Y
Warrira (not found)                 Y
Gundabloui                          Y            Y             Y
Kunopia                             Y            Y             Y
Mogil Mogil                                      Y             Y
Collarenebri                                     Y
Walgett                                          Y
Moonie                                           Y
Umbercollie                                      Y?
Narran 'tribe, possibly                    N, but invited
residents from Bangate station
Namoi 'tribe'                              N, but invited
Goondiwindi                        Y?                          Y
Meroc                                                          Y
Tallwood                           Y?            Y             Y

Table 3: Summary of men, women and children who attended the Kunopia,
Gundabloui and  Tallwood boras.

Participants           Kunopia 1891    Gundabloui 1894   Tallwood 1895

Total                  At least 250    203               Circa 150

Men total (including                   96 (about 43
senior men; real or                    were 'young
classifactory                          men')
mother's brother to
take care of each
novice during the
ceremony; and 'young

Senior men known by    5               16                16

Women Total                            58

Children total                         49

Novicea/Initiates      At least 22;    43; About 20      24; 5 of them
                       as many as 30   ('3 of whom       ('half-castes'
In age the initiates                   were half-
ranged between 12                      castes') were
and 30 years of age.                   new initiates.
It appears that they                   23 of whom
were all labelled as                   'five or six
'young men'.                           were half-
                                       castes' were in
                                       their second
                                       stage of
                                       None of them
                                       had reached
                                       final stage of
                                       initiation by
                                       the end of this
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