The language spoken by members of four Koorie clans that lived in adjoining estates in the Port Phillip region was known as Woi wurrung. The name literally means ‘no lip (or speech)’ and refers to the way in which speakers expressed the negative, that is, ‘woi’.
Traditionally, each of the four Woi wurrung-speaking clans identified with specific areas (an estate). These estates were contiguous and, collectively, took in all of the drainage basin of the Yarra River and its tributaries. The Woi wurrung clans’ domain was bordered in the south by the Yarra River, upstream to Gardiners Creek, and in the southeast by Dandenong Creek; and in the north by the Dividing Range from Mount Baw Baw to Mount Blackwood. The Werribee River was their westernmost extension, and in the east Woi wurrung territory stretched into the Dandenong Ranges past Warburton.
Because of their obvious connection with land along the river, the Woi wurrung clans are often referred to in the historical literature as the Yarra Yarra tribe. Moreover, because it was the Wurundjeri clan of Woi wurrung that was seen around the settlement more than other groups (it being their estate), the Woi wurrung are also mistakenly referred to in the historical literature as Wurundjeri.
Alternative spellings of the language name, used in various historical sources, include Waverong, Waworong, Wawoorong, Woiwurru, Wowurroong and Woiworung.
Accurate description of each of the four Woi wurrung clans, in terms of location and relationships to others, is a matter of some complexity; the following characterisation is both general and subject to correction as further detailed research is undertaken.
- The Wurundjeri-balluk consisted of two patrilines occupying adjacent areas on both sides of the Yarra River. The first of these groups was Wurundjeri-willam who divided themselves into three locations: (a) on the southern side of the Yarra River, from Gardiners Creek to the northern slopes of the Dandenong Ranges; (b) on the northern side of the river, from its junction with the Maribyrnong River (and stretching north to take in Mount William), at Melbourne, and east as far as Kew; and (c) from around Heidelberg, along the upper reaches of the Yarra to near Mount Baw Baw. The second patriline was the Buluk-willam who occupied an area from the headwaters of the Yarra River, southeast to Koo Wee Rup Swamp, toward Cranbourne, where they bordered Bun wurrung territory, at the top of Western-port Bay.
- The Marin-balluk clan identified with the area between the Maribyrnong River and Kororoit Creek, stretching to the north as far as Sunbury.
- The estate of the Kurung-jang-balluk was on the western side of Kororoit Creek, as far as the Werribee River.
- The Gunung-willam-bulluk identified with an area south of the Ranges, around Mount Macedon and Bacchus Marsh.
Each of these clans was governed by an individual or group of senior men who had the title ngurungaeta. These individuals were men of distinguished achievement who had effective authority within their clans and ‘were considered its rightful representative in external affairs’.
Woi wurrung clans were part of the Bunjil/Waa moiety system of kinship and totemic class that characterised the Kulin confederacy of -(w)urrung speaking clans. Woi wurrung clans were in the Waa class, with the exception of the Gunung-willam-bulluk whose members were Bunjil. All Kulin clans were exogamous, that is, men always sought marriage partners from another clan. In the case of the Woi wurrung, marriages were usually contracted with Bunjil clans of the Daung wurrung speakers of drainage basins north of the Dividing Range. The connections forged in this way gave members various rights of access to a large area of central Victoria.
Reference: Presland, G., Aboriginal Melbourne, Harriland Press, Melbourne, 2001.