Possum Skin Cloaks

Country: Australia

Possum skin cloak tradition belongs to Aboriginal cultural groups across south eastern Australia. Through government policy and practice since colonisation, Aboriginal cultural practices have been prohibited including language, dance, story and song.

Possum skin cloaks are significant material cultural expressions. They were a vital part of Aboriginal people’s lives in pre-European times. Cloaks were used in daily activity, to keep warm, to sleep in and to carry our babies. In ceremonial spiritual life they carried a deeper significance and purpose being used by the women to drum on for corroboree, or shrouding at young men’s initiation ceremonies, burials as individuals were interred in their cloaks and so on.

Lee Durroch in Echuca Biganga cloak

In 1999, the contemporary Possum skin story, Kooramook Yakeenitj- Possum Dreaming was gifted to Vicki Couzens through a vision from the Old People, Ancestors and Elders of her Country who were the makers of the Lake Condah Possum Skin Cloak held in the Melbourne Museum. Melbourne Museum has two nineteenth century cloaks, the Lake Condah cloak collected in 1872 and the Maidens Punt or Yorta Yorta cloak collected in 1853.

It is a significant cultural and spiritual Dreaming Story being reclaimed, regenerated and continued across south eastern Australia. Cloak making as a cultural practice has been explored in contemporary times by others such as Bill Onus, Val Heap, Wally Cooper, Kelly Koumalatsas and Gayle Madigan. These practitioners created contemporary cloaks as part of their own cultural heritage and the Senior Cloak Makers of the contemporary possum cloak story acknowledge their work.

Possums are a protected species in Australia today and are not permitted to be hunted anymore. In the contemporary Possum Cloak Story, Possum Cloak Story teachers and communities employ modern tools and methods in their reclamation journey. The skins are procured from suppliers in New Zealand.

The cutting and sewing of skins is done with contemporary tools—scissors, needles and thread. A pokerwork tool is used to ‘burn’ designs into skins (a method learned from Aboriginal Elder Nola Kerr, who used this method on a kangaroo skin cloak). This method is used for both its practical and aesthetic qualities as the contemporary tanned skins do not have the texture to take the process of incising; and the ‘burning’ process leaves clear and appealing markings on the skins. Ochre is still used to colour designs, although some use contemporary paints such as gouache and acrylics.

Today, possum cloaks have been restored to their central role in a flourishing culture—people are again making and wearing cloaks for family and community celebrations, exhibitions, teaching, for community and public ceremonies.