The truth about Nory Ann

On Thursday, December 11, 1924 the Western Mail published  this story about an Aboriginal women known as Nory Ann who had recently died and claimed to be 107 years-old.

In a recent issue of a country newspaper appeared the following:

Obit Nory Ann, who passed away at Wagin. Prior to her death, Nory Ann claimed to be the oldest aboriginal in the Great Southern and for that matter in the State.

Early day settlers said that when they were in their teens, Nory Ann was a grown woman. Her relatives declare she was over the century and fades out of the picture at 107 years of age, according to the inscription on her coffin. The remains of the old woman were laid to rest in Wagin, with several relatives following to the graveside.

When a photograph of the aboriginal woman was received by the Western Mail the editor forwarded it, together with the paragraph quoted above, to a Mrs Daisy Bates, one of the foremost authorities on Aboriginal life and customs.

Mrs Bates was located at the Ooldea aboriginal settlement on the Great Western railway and this was her response to the claims of Nory Ann’s great age.

On Christmas Day 1825 the British flag was hoisted at Albany, King George's Sound by a little company of soldiers of the king who formed the first soldier settlement in Western Australia. On Christmas Day 1925, the soldiers of the king may joyfully celebrate the centenary of the pioneer soldier settlers of that far away time - their own British forbears.

There died recently at Wagin an aboriginal woman who, if the report of her age was correct would have been eight years old on that same Christmas Day, 1825 that marked the changing of her peoples’ territory into a British continent, taken over in trust for the British people for all time.

According to the laws of her people, the great Bibbulmun race, the greatest homogeneous race in all Australia, which occupy the whole of the south west corner of the State, Nory Ann would have been betrothed in infancy to one of her mother’s brother's sons, or one of her father's sister's sons - the only legal betrothal in all Australian tribes.

At the age of 14 or 15 she would have exchanged her state of dajjeulk (betrothed girl) for that of korda-yog (married woman), this is at the time when the little settlement of Perth formed in 1829 was in its infancy and GK Moore and a few other venturesome British pioneers were breaking the road for the rest in the wilds of the south-west.

At the age in which young girls married, 13 - 15, Nory Ann therefore would have been the living ancestress of seven native generations, for 15 into 107 goes seven times and two over.

The peculiar genealogical system of the aborigines throughout Western Australia and in that portion of Central Australia with whose native tribes I am familiar, begins and ends at the third generation.

There are definite terms for grandparents, parents and children. The south-western terms were: dem-gur or moran-gur (grandparents), maan-gur (father), nob or kooline (children). When a fourth generation - a very rare event - happened in a group, the child, if a girl, was the mother (ngangk or gai-ung) of her dem-gur. If a boy, he was the mother's brother (kongk) of his dem-gur. When a fifth generation came, the child was the sister or brother (jook - sister; ngoont - brother) of the dem-gur.

In a sixth generation, the baby was the son or daughter, or the niece or nephew of the dem-gur. In a seventh generation the babies would be dem-gur to the ancient dem-gur of seven generations back. To put it simply, if Nory Ann had been 107 years of age, her descendants if living would comprise the following relationships.

  • Her children (nob or keeling)
  • Her grandchildren' (dem-gur)
  • Her great grandchildren (mothers and mothers’ brothers - ngangk and kongk)
  • Her great-great grandchildren, sisters and brothers (jook and ngoont)
  • Her great-great-great-grandchildren, sons and daughters (nob, keeling, also moy-er-uk – nephews and nieces)
  • Her great-great-great-great grandchildren, grandsons and granddaughters (dem-gur).

When I was commissioned by the State Government in 1901 to compile a history of the native tribes of Western Australia, it was intended that the compilation should be made from all existing government and published records. After a close study of the bibliographies - Moore's, Greys and Salvado's, I found them to be at variance with each other in important essentials. As all the writers were of equal importance, permission was asked and obtained to go personally amongst the tribes and obtain information at first hand.

At Jerramungup, some 50  miles north of Bremer Bay on the south coast, the only five living generations in one family were met with the fourth and fifth of which were half-castes.I remember the names of the first, second and fifth of these. Ngal-baitch, a fine and wiry old lady with wrinkled face, absolutely white hair and more than a suspicion of white beard; Ngurian, her daughter and Dajjung, her great-great-grand son, whom Ngal-baitch called brother (ngoont) and whose mother Ngal-baitch called ngangk (mother) also (fourth generation).

At Albany the oldest and last native, Wan-din-yil died in the 1900s while Ne-nin-yan, the last of the Two Peoples Bay group, died at my camp at Katanning in 1907. Notuman was the oldest Katanning native then living. She was the sacred charge throughout all her later years of the kindly Piesse family who never refused her most extravagant demands. Wiarung-an was another grandmother at the Katanning camp, but her peoples’ waters were far east of Katanning.

Her son and all her grandchildren were castes. Ngilgi was the last Augusta and Donnelly River native woman and Ngal-yart was the only Murray and Pinjarra district woman then living, Ngalyart died in 1908. Wagin, Williams, Bridgetown, Narrogin, Bunbury, Busselton, Collie, Kojonup, Ravensthorpe, Esperance and other points, were all visited, their scattered native residents interrogated and their genealogies carefully compiled, but Ngal-baitch was the oldest native woman then living in the south-west.

One old resident of Kendenup (“Kendenup Annie”, the late John Hassall called her) had been camped at Wej-ung (the place of the wej or emu, the present-day Wagin) during my visit to that district, but shortly afterwards Annie started to walk to her birthplace, Kendenup, where she arrived simultaneously with me.

There was no other native except herself in that desolate area. "I must come back to my own kalleep (hearth, fire, home) to die," said Annie. "If I died in a strange place how could I find my own dead people in their kalleep beyond the sea, where they have all gone?" The Hassall family being absent at the time, poor Annie only lived a week after her return to her old home ground.

As far back as 1907 the few living representatives of once numerous groups were found far away from their own waters. At the camp near Katanning there were natives from Eucla, Balladonia, Mt Stirling, Mt Ragged and many other places far south and east and north-east of Katanning.

As the members of the various groups died out the ranks closed in. Men and women from east of the dividing ranges mixed with the Beelgar (river people) and Waddarn-gur (sea people). In the old native days, they only held formal intercourse at initiation and other gatherings, with those groups, so during my tour of the south-west there was not one group in any district whose members belonged to that area.

The old Wejung district group were members of the blood totem, Ngoop bo-rung-gur (ngoop - blood; bo-rung-gur - elder brothers). They drank the blood of all game they killed. As far as I can remember, there was not one of this group living in 1907. East of Wagin a very interesting group had lived beside their waters in the days before the white man. These were Januuk Bo-rung-gur, "spirit" totem people, of whom but one member, Kajar the husband of Warung-an, was living in 1907.

As this was one of the only two Spirit totems found in Western Australia, the legend of its origin may not be out of place here. In the Nyitting (cold) times of long ago a yung-ar (man) had followed a yong-gur (kangaroo) a long way. He was "running down" the animal singly, daaj nrardongm – a great feat amongst all tribes. When the yong-gur tried to rest, the yung-ar ran up to spear it and all day yong-gur had to run and run without stopping to rest or eat.

Darkness fell and the yung-ar had not come up to his kill. He could not go back to the camp in the dark and so be had to lie down in his tracks without the protection of the kangaroo's marra (hand). When a man killed a kangaroo and night overtook him before he could return to his camp, he cut off the marra (hand or paw) and wrapping a string from his hair belt round the paw he attached it to his wrist or his meer (spear-thrower).

The Great Spirit Kangaroo seeing that he kept the old food law of the kangaroo, "looked out" for him during the darkness. But the poor yung-gar had no yong-gur marra and so he lay down in great fear through the night.

When the first faint light came, he looked about him and there close beside him, was a great stone jannuk (spirit), standing erect and carrying his dow-uk (club) over his shoulder. The yung-ar looked up at the jannuk and said to the spirit within the stone; "You looked out for me through the dark night and now you will be the bo-rung-gur (elder brothers, totem) of my people always."

The yung-gar speared the yong-gur and returned to his camp. When the food was eaten he gathered his people round a great fire and told them how the jannuk had guarded him during the hours of darkness and that he had spoken to the jannuk and said the stone spirit should be the totem of his people.

From that far off Nyitting time, the spirit totem people became great hunters and sorcerers. Whenever they found themselves in the vicinity of the stone spirit they went over to their bo-rung-gur. If it were daylight they cleared the ground round and about the boy-a jannuk (stone spirit) or strewed some leaves at the foot of the spirit.

If it were night time when they found themselves near their totem, they lay down and rested confidently beside it, knowing their bo-rung-gur would "look out" tor them. If they were chasing kangaroo or emu and the animal took refuge near the sacred spot, it was left unmolested.

Nory Ann was almost certainly Ngal-baitch's daughter Ngu-rian and cannot have been more than 70 years of age, if so much, at the time of her death. Ngal-baitch's group belonged to the "Border," an undefined and movable line between the circumcised tribes of the interior and the uncircumcised Bibbulmun of the south-west.

The groups of the areas bordering the Bibbulmun were a hardy stock. There was such a struggle for existence in the comparative dry areas of what are now the Dundas, Fraser, Phillips and Coolgardie districts, that only the hardiest members survived and here and there amongst the groups a fourth generation was met with, especially in the Fraser district.

Ngal-baitch and Ngurian remembered the families of six-fingered and six-toed aborigines mentioned by Helms as having been seen in the Fraser Range area. The six-toed folk owned Drollinya (Fraser Range) waters and their additional toes and fingers were supposed to have endowed them with special magic powers in hunting and food getting.

When the British pioneers ventured inland from the south and west coasts and settled in the wilds, the natives of those areas came along and helped or hindered the new arrivals according to the temperaments of both. It speaks well for the character of those early pioneers the Hassalls, Campbell-Taylors, Grahams, Dempsters, Pontons. Bussels that the natives they dispossessed should continue to visit and "sit down" on their old camping grounds without fear of molestation.

Ngurian's brothers were amongst the mob that held up Mr Hassall’s employee Scott, on a bare hill now called Scott's Lookout, where he was shepherding some sheep.

While his mate hurried to Jerramungup for help, Scott pointed his gun wherever the mob bunched and sang and whistled till his throat dried up. He came just in time and the mob disappeared, but came back by-and-bye with their women and children to Jerramungup water. The extinction of the various groups through sheer contact with a civilisation they were utterly unable to assimilate per saltum scattered the few enduring members into areas far beyond their one-time friendly limits.

Ngal-baitch's group wandered between Dundas and Fraser Range, to Balladonia and Ponton's station, down to the coast to Campbell Taylor’s place near Cape Arid, then Dempster's at Esperance, Dunn's at Ravensthorpe, Hassall’s at Jerramungup always resting securely near white settlement or station under the white man's protection.

The birth of half-castes still further disintegrated the wandering families, for the half-caste fears and dislikes his mother's people and objects to the communal food laws, while the natives despise the half-caste for his colour and his "breed."

I remember Ngurian as the wiry daughter of a sturdy mother, but she was only a young girl when the white men first penetrated the south-west areas. Her children were pure-blooded, but her grandchildren were castes and she herself may have given birth to a half-caste or two in her early wanderings.

When Ngurian settled down in the Wejung camp she allowed her white friends to increase her years as they "felt disposed." The true aborigine can count three. He has terms for one, two, three, then two-two (four) and in the south-west marm (hand) meant five, (but this is doubtful). After these numbers every number large or small was expressed by bulla (a lot).

A native was once complaining to me how he had been cheated over his dingo scalps by the whites. "Toujan, toujan (one thousand) pound, baib (five) pound, one pound, big mob jillins (shilling) all of which represented the amount of which he had been "cheated."

And so Ngurian's years increased with the telling, but she had only reached the allotted span of her white supplanters when her death occurred. Ngurian belonged to the Jee-uk-wuk or "native cherry" group, about Fraser Range, who intermarried with the Bibbulmun. Therefore, she would have relations amongst all the remnants of the old Bibbulmun and "Border" groups roaming about the south-west.