This article was produced by Common Ground. We’re working with Common Ground to amplify First Nations voices, and spread awareness about the Australian environment and its wildlife. Learn more about our journey together here.
The word “koala” can be traced back to the Dharug language of the greater Sydney region. It derives from the word “gula” or “gulamany” meaning “no drink” – referring to the observation that koalas rarely need to drink water.
Koalas and the Dreaming
With more than 250 First Nations across the continent, each having their own customs and culture, it’s no wonder koalas feature in numerous Dreaming stories.
A creation story from the Gumbaynggir people of the Mid North Coast of NSW is Dunggirr Gagu (the Koala Brothers) story. It’s a story about rising seas isolating the Ngambaa people. They were saved by the Dunggir Gagu that used their long intestines to make a bridge back to the mainland.
Koalas are also tied to Mount Yarrahapinni in the Yarriabini National Park, about 40 minutes north of Kempsey. A culturally significant place for the Gumbaynggirr, Dunghutti and Ngambaa nations, Yarriabini means “koala rolling.”
“The mountain at Yarriabini is believed to be a koala Dreaming site. Two giant koalas had a fight there and went rolling down the mountain.” – Gumbaynggirr Elder Uncle Mark Flanders.
Some old stories say that koalas have power over the rains and, if disrespected, can cause big drought.
“Koobor the koala is the drought maker. Long ago in the Dreaming, Koobor was a boy constantly neglected by his relatives. Consequently he had learnt to live on the leaves of the gum tree.” – Kullilla and Muruwari man Michael J Connolly.
Koalas as totems
Totems help define First Nations people’s relationships with each other and with Country. They also help define the roles and responsibilities of the clan, family or individual. They are sacred and often take the form of a plant or animal. It is usually forbidden for a person to kill, eat or harm their totem animal.
With a totem comes spiritual responsibility. The koala may be a totem in many First Nations in eastern Australia, including Birpai of Guruk (Port Macquarie) and Awabakal of the Hunter Region. First Nations people are responsible for the protection of their totem.
Koalas as a resource
For some First Nations, the hunting and eating of koalas was forbidden due to their spiritual significance. Many stories describe the koala’s importance in the supply and safeguarding of water, encouraging protection over consumption.
But for other First Nations, it is thought that traditionally the koala was a food source. If the koala was allowed to be eaten, often certain rules or law applied. For example, laws relating to the non-use of koala skin and fur.
“Koobor the koala made a law that, although the people may kill him for food, his skin may not be removed or his bones broken until after he is cooked.” – Kullilla and Muruwari man Michael J Connolly.