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The Yorta Yorta, also known as Jotijota,[a] are an indigenous Australian people who have traditionally inhabited the area surrounding the junction of the Goulburn and Murray Rivers in present-day north-eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales.
As was customary with many tribal names in the Murray basin – Wemba-Wemba, Latjilatji, Muthi Muthi, Nari-Nari and so on – the Yorta ethnonym is derived from reduplicating their word for ‘no’ (yota/yoda).
Yorta yorta, which appears to be a language isolate, is often treated as a member of the Yotayotic branch of the Pama-Nyungan language family. It refers to a dialect continuum of closely related languages traditionally on either side of the Murray River from west of Echuca to east of the Cobram/Tocumwal area, and south-east along the Goulburn River as far as the Mooroopna/Shepparton. It was a first language for many of these groups down to around 1960 but elements of the language are still transmitted in families by descendants to this day.
It shares few similarities in vocabulary with the languages used by neighbouring tribes, and lexically seems closest to Pallanganmiddang.
The Yorta Yorta were divided into clans, of which the names of ten were enumerated by Edward Micklethwaite Curr based on the situation in the 1840s:-
- Wongātpan. (150 persons)
- Tōwroonbanā. (50 persons)
- Wollīthiga. (50 persons)
- Kaīilthiban.[b](50 persons)
- Moītheriban. (300 persons)
- Pikkolātpan. (100 persons)
- Angōōtheriban. (100 persons)
- Ngarrimōwro. (100 persons)
- Toolenyāgan. (100 persons)
The numbers may well estimate the historic population, since evidence from oven mounds in the area suggested a higher population density in former times, and it is known that the area was ravaged by smallpox epidemics.
In modern times, the Yorta Yorta comprise a number of historically distinct tribes, as well as clans and family groups descending directly from the original Yorta Yorta. Tribes that now come under the general umbrella term of Yorta Yorta include the Bangerang and Kwatkwat. Clans groups represented include the Kailtheban, Wollithiga, Moira, Ulupna, Yalaba Yalaba, and Ngurai-illiam-wurrung.
Native title claim
In a Native title claim submitted in 1995 by the Yorta Yorta people, it was determined by Justice Olney in 1998 that the “tide of history” had “washed away” any real acknowledgement of traditional laws and any real observance of traditional customs by the applicants. An appeal was made to the full bench of the Federal Court on the grounds that “the trial judge erroneously adopted a ‘frozen in time’ approach” and “failed to give sufficient recognition to the capacity of traditional laws and customs to adapt to changed circumstances”. The Appeal was dismissed in a majority 2 to 1 decision. The case was taken on appeal to the High Court of Australia but also dismissed in a 5 to 2 majority ruling in December 2002.
In response to the failed native title claim, in May 2004 the Victorian State Government led by Premier Steve Bracks signed an historic co-operative management agreement with the Yorta Yorta people covering public land, rivers and lakes in north-central Victoria. The agreement gives the Yorta Yorta people a say in the management of traditional country including the Barmah State Park, Barmah State Forest, Kow Swamp and public land along the Murray and Goulburn rivers. Ultimate decision making responsibility was retained by the Environment Minister.
- Adam Briggs, hip-hop artist.
- William Cooper (1861–1941), helped establish the Australian Aborigines’ League in 1935. He led the first Aboriginal deputation to a Commonwealth minister, and another to protest the treatment of Jews and Christians in 1938. His daughter, Amy Charles, was the matron of the first Aboriginal hostel established in Melbourne. In August 2010, the Yad VaShem Holocaust museum in Israel announced they would honor William for his protests on behalf of Jews after Kristallnacht. Yad Vashem plans to endow a small garden at its entrance in Cooper’s honor. Cooper’s name was submitted for recognition when it was discovered that Cooper’s rally was the only known private protest against Kristallnacht in 1938.
- Isaiah Firebrace, singer who won the eighth season of The X Factor Australia and represented Australia in the Eurovision Song Contest 2017. Firebrace’s father is Yorta Yorta.
- Jimmy Little (OAM) (1937–2012) was a musician whose career spanned over six decades. His 1958 song “Give the Coloured Boy a Chance” (written by Jimmy Little, Snr, and recorded by Jimmy Little) was the first written and recorded by an indigenous Australian for the modern music industry. He was the first indigenous Australian entertainer to appear on television (1999). ARIA inducted Little into its Hall of Fame.
- Sir Douglas Nicholls (1906–1988) was a professional athlete, pastor with the Churches of Christ, pioneering campaigner for Aboriginal reconciliation, the first Aboriginal person to be knighted, and the 1976 first indigenous Australian to hold vice-regal office (Governor of South Australia), serving as Governor of South Australia 1976 to 1977. In 1935, he became the first indigenous Australian to be selected in the Victorian interstate Australian rules team.
- Burnum Burnum (1936–1997) was an activist, actor and author.
- John Thomas Patten (27 March 1905 – 12 October 1957), known as Jack Patten, was a professional boxer, civil rights activist, war veteran, and writer. He is remembered for being president and co-founder of the Aborigines Progressive Association, leading the first delegation of aboriginal people to meet with a serving prime minister, organising the 1938 Day of Mourning conference, writing and editing the first aboriginal newspaper, The Australian Abo Call, initiating the Cummeragunja Walk-Off in 1939, and for leading the campaign which led to aboriginal people being able to legally serve in the Australian military.
- John Trevor Patten (born 13 June 1936), Australian bantamweight boxing champion between 1958 and 1962.
- Wes Patten (born 17 February 1974), actor, television host, and former NRL player with the South Sydney Rabbitohs, St. George Dragons, Balmain Tigers and Gold Coast Chargers. Roles in television and film include playing opposite Cate Blanchett in Heartland (1994) and Hugo Weaving in Dirtwater Dynasty (1988). Other roles include stints on A Country Practice, Wills & Burke, and G. P..
- Margaret Tucker, a civil rights activist and writer, she is known for her part in the 1938 Day of Mourning conference, efforts in fighting for the rights of Aboriginal people, and for having been the first Aboriginal person to have a published autobiography. She was also a musician who sung at social occasions raising funds for war efforts.
- Andrew Walker, a former AFL player with the Carlton Football Club. He was the number two draft pick in the 2003 National Draft and took one of the contenders for “Mark of the Year” in 2011. He retired during the 2016 season after struggling with injury. Andrew has indigenous Australian heritage and his tribal ancestry can be traced to the Yorta Yorta. He played his early career in country football and represented Bendigo in the TAC Cup before catching the eye of talent scouts. He was educated at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, Victoria, and graduated in 2004. In round 18 of 2011 against Essendon, Walker took a huge specky over Essendon player Jake Carlisle, which was considered by many football observers, including The Age‘s Rohan Connolly, and both match-day coaches, Brett Ratten and James Hird, to be one of the greatest marks of all-time — although ultimately it did not win the season’s Mark of the Year award. He was awarded life membership of the Carlton Football Club in December 2011.
- David Wirrpanda, former AFL player with the West Coast Eagles, known for his community work in helping to improve the lives of young indigenous Australians. The David Wirrpanda Foundation was launched in 2005. He was named the 9th most influential Aboriginal Australian by The Bulletin magazine on 30 November 2007.
- Margaret Wirrpanda, an activist; niece of Margaret Tucker, born at Cummeragunja, New South Wales, daughter of activists Geraldine Clements Briggs and Selwyn Briggs & mother to David Wirrpanda.
The track “Ngarra Burra Ferra” sung by indigenous artist Jessica Mauboy, from the 2012 hit film The Sapphires, is a song based on the traditional Aboriginal hymn “Bura Fera”. The song is in the Yorta Yorta language and speaks of God‘s help in decimating Pharaoh‘s armies. The chorus, “Ngara burra ferra yumini yala yala”, translates into English as “The Lord God drowned all Pharaoh’s armies, hallelujah!” These lyrics are based on an ancient song in Jewish tradition known as the “Song of the Sea” from the Book of Exodus. Aboriginal communities of Victoria and southern New South Wales may be the only people in the world who still sing the piece (in Yorta Yorta).
The Yorta Yorta comprised several clans of which the following are known:
- Yoorta. (also an exonym for some clans of the Bangerang tribe)
- Moira. (toponym)
- Gunbowers.(toponym, now Gunbower)
- Loddon tribe
- Echuca tribe. (used of Yorta Yorta clans south of the Murray)
- Wharparilla Flora Reserve, a small environmental reserve, the place where the Yorta Yorta first met European settlers
- The presence of the ‘r’ in the first term does not indicate the presence of a Rhotic consonant, but probably merely indicates a vowel quality similar to the aw sound in yawn
- also called Waarīngulum
- –goole represents kuli, meaning ‘man’.
- Bowe & Morey 1999, p. 3.
- Tindale 1974, p. 41.
- Bowe & Morey 1999, p. 4.
- Bowe & Morey 1999, p. 1.
- Bowe & Morey 1999, p. 6.
- Yorta Yorta Co-operative Management Agreement.
- AustLII 1998.
- AustLII 2001.
- AustLII 2002.
- The World Today 2002.
- Shiel 2004.
- The Argus 1938, p. 3.
- Goldberg 2012.
- AFL 2007.
- towalkwithyou.com 2013.
- Tindale 1974, p. 194.
- Blandowski, W. von (1858). “Recent discoveries in natural history on the Lower Murray”. Transactions of the Philosophical Society of Victoria. 2: 124–127.
- Bowe, Heather; Morey, Stephen (1999). The Yorta Yorta (Bangerang) language of the Murray Goulburn: including Yabula Yabula. Pacific Linguistics. ISBN 978-0-858-83513-9.
- Curr, Edward Micklethwaite (1887). “Book The Twenty-Third” (PDF). In Curr, Edward Micklethwaite. The Australian race: its origin, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia and the routes by which it spread itself over the continent. Volume 3. Melbourne: J. Ferres. pp. 567–592.
- “Deputation not admitted”. The Argus. Melbourne. 7 December 1938. p. 3. Retrieved 25 February 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
- Goldberg, Dan (10 December 2012). “An Aboriginal Protest Against the Nazis, Finally Delivered”. Haaretz.
- “The lyrics to Bura Fera”. We Want To Walk With You. 13 September 2013. Archived from the original on 10 April 2017. Retrieved 26 April 2014.
- Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v Victoria  FCA 1606 (18 December 1998), Federal Court (Australia).
- Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v Victoria  FCA 45 (8 February 2001), Federal Court (Full Court) (Australia).
- Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v Victoria  HCA 58, (2002) 214 CLR 422 (12 December 2002), High Court (Australia).
- Shiel, Fergus (1 May 2004). “Yorta Yorta win historic deal”. The Age. Retrieved 11 September 2011.
- Tindale, Norman Barnett (1974). “Jotijota (NSW)”. Aboriginal Tribes of Australia: Their Terrain, Environmental Controls, Distribution, Limits, and Proper Names. Australian National University Press. ISBN 978-0-708-10741-6.
- “Wirrpanda recognised for work”. Australian Football League. 30 November 2007. Archived from the original on 6 June 2012. Retrieved 30 November 2007.
- Yaxley, Louise (12 December 2002). “Yorta Yorta lose native title case”. The World Today. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 11 September 2012.
- “Yorta Yorta Co-operative Management Agreement”. Archived from the original on 13 September 2006.
- Bibliography of Bangerang language and people resources, at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies