Wet Tropics BioRegion
|Area (approx. 500 km²)|
|Location:||Far North Queensland|
|Mountains:||Flagstaff Hill (Port Douglas)
The Yirrganydji people (aka Irukandji) are a group of Australian Aborigines who are the Traditional Owners and original custodians of a narrow coastal strip within Djabugay country that runs northwards from Cairns, Queensland to Port Douglas (Mowbray River), Queensland.
The Yirrganydji people were, until relatively recently, regarded as seafarers who shared in common, descent from predecessors who once all spoke Yirrgay (which to early linguists noted as a dialect of the Djabugay language), and were particularly associated with the coastal strip, river mouths, islands, and seas along the coast between the Cairns Trinity Inlet and Port Douglas.
- Yil-gun-gee [Gribble 1891]
- Yerkanji [Roth 1910]
- Irukandji [Tindale 1938]
- Yirkandyi [McConnel 1939]
- Yirkandja [Connolly 1984]
- Yettkie [Parry-Okeden 1897]
- Yirkai [Roth 1910]
- Yerki [Gribble 1932]
Yirrganydji country extended along the coastal strip, south to the Cairns Trinity Inlet and Woree [including Cairns and Mt. Whitfield]; and went north to the Port Douglas District including offshore islands such as Admiralty Island, Double Island, Haycock Island and Low Isles. Yirrganydji territory also extended west to Freshwater Creek and Kamerunga on the Barron River, Spring Creek on the Mowbray River and at certain spots along the Lamb, Macalister, Rifle and Cassowary Ranges.
Yirrganydji sea country extended east into the Great Barrier Reef with connections to reefs between Green Island and Low Isles. Some of the reefs include:
Alexandra reef [Mowbray], Wentworth reef [Mowbray], Egmont reef [Mowbray], Korea reef [Yule Point], Garioch reef [White cliffs], and Unity reef [Wangetti].
Upolu Cay, Paradise Reef, Oyster Reef, Hastings Reef, Michaelmas Cay/Reef, Jorgensen Patch, Saxon Reef, Hope Reef, Nicholas Reef, Onyx Reef, Spur Reef, Satellite Reef, Norman Reef and Batt Reef.
According to various elders of the Yirrganydji people:
"Yirrganydji country went as far as Woree to the foot hills of Mt. Sheridan. As you go south to the White Rock area, you are now entering the country of the Yidinyji people. Any Yirrganydji and Djabugay crossing Skeleton Creek were in risk of getting speared. You have to sing a special song when crossing that creek. There is a meeting site there on the southern banks of Skeleton Creek where tribes came from everywhere to meet here."
"Yirrganydji country went north to Port Douglas. Yirrganydji used to camp at Four Mile Beach close to where the Mowbray River exits into the sea. Other tribes used to come to Port Douglas for meeting too, like the Kuku Kulunggur [Yalanji] people used to come down from Mossman area, Kuku Muluridji from Mt. Molloy / Mareeba area as well as the Djabugay / Nyakali from the Mowbray River Valley and mountains going south."
The Yirrganydji people lived in units of Yila: la [married couples] with their Pipunpay [children] and older relatives, often on the sand dunes of the beach and close to water ways or native springs. Tyimurru [shelter huts] were erected using Yapulam [Brown hairy mary/loya cane] or River mangrove, which were tied with strips of Pukul [fish tail loya cane] or Tumpul [stripped bark]. The roofing was completed with the bark of Kiti or Wurpu [Paper bark / tea tree].
Fires were very important to all Aboriginal people of Australia. To the Yirrganydji, the Piri [fire] was used for cooking food, preparing medicines or artefacts, keeping warm, and chasing away the mosquitoes and sand flies. Fires were usually made close to the entrance of a shelter.
The Yirrganydji were a hunter-gatherer society. They would move about from place to place within their traditional country following the seasons and food resources. Men would hunt for the large game and fish, while the women would gather and prepare the plant foods. Women would also be the predominant caretakers of the children.
The Yirrganydji people sought food from waterways (creeks, rivers, coast and sea) such as Kuyu (fish), Nyingkarra / Kuykal (eels), Ngawuyu / Patyikal (turtles), Tyala (oysters) and Kanytyil / Tyunparra (crustaceans).
The Yirrganydji people also hunted animals in their region such as Tulpil (wallabies), Tyuntyurru (bandicoot)s, Puta: tyi (scrub pythons), Kanyal / Ngunal / Patya Patya (lizards), Kukiny (flying foxes), Punta: rra (cassowaries), and other Tyarruy (birds).
Ma: (Fruits and vegetables) that were gathered were: Karu: / Tanti (yam), Ngalka (figs), Munumpa / Wakatay (plums) and Ngapala / Kurrntu (nuts) and (berries). They would also treat and prepare toxic items such as Mutala (Orange mangrove fruit), Tanykatcha (Grey Mangrove fruit), Yiwurra (Black bean), and Patil (Cycad nut), from the rainforest, coastal plains and mangroves to add to their diet.
Fire burn offs were an important part of the annual life cycle and were performed at various times of the year. They were a way on managing the country, cleansing and encouraging regrowth as well as attracting food resources back to the country. It also lowers the risk of a major Tawaray [bush fire] which could be devastating to both the country and people. Fires were usually carried out during the Kurraminya [dry season] from April to October. From October through to March was a dangerous time for fire burn offs with the exception of a small burn off before the onset of the Kurrapana [wet season].
Annually, they would meet with their neighbouring groups at various sites along the coast. They would fight, trade, feast, celebrate, and sometimes intermarry. Some of the meeting sites include: White Rock, Palm Cove, and Port Douglas. Some meetings were only for special occasions such as the initiation ceremony for male members of the tribe.
The trading of goods between tribes would consist of Miya Miya / Milka (nautilus shell necklaces), Yimpi (Dilly baskets), Wakuy (swords) and Matyay (shields). Regular trades were made between the Yirrganydji and neighbouring tribal groups of the Djabugay, Yidinyji, Gunggandji, Kuku Yalanji, and Kuku Muluridji.
The Barron and Port Douglas areas exported hour glass pattern dilly bags, round based dilly bags, beeswax necklaces, straight shell shafted spear throwers, a variety of bamboo spears, square cut nautilus shell necklaces and cockatoo top knot head dresses.
They imported Bent spear throwers, swords and shields from Cape Grafton...
Historical Facts and Observations
John Gribble 
John Gribble, the founder of Yarrabah mission in 1892. In his 1891 diary journal, he records the tribe on the Lower Barron River:
Dialect of Cha. boo.gi
Walter Roth 
Walter Roth, Protector of the Aborigines, visited the Yarrabah Mission and Cairns District during 1890-1910. He produced a number of bulletins on Ethnography on the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, which were later re-published in his 1984 book, "The Queensland Aborigines – Volume 3". In this book, Roth observes the aboriginal tribes of the Cairns District:
“For purposes of trade and barter it may be said that the Cairns, and until recent years, the Cape Grafton Blacks travel along the coast-line between Port Douglas and the Mulgrave River; The Barron River Natives wander up the coast as far as Port Douglas and inland to Kuranda and Mareeba; the Russell River boys ‘walk about’ to the Pyramid Mountain, the Mulgrave and Johnstone Rivers and Cairns…"
[Roth Vol. III, Bulletin No. 14. 1984:18]
Ernest Gribble [1897; 1932]
Ernest Gribble, the son of John Gribble, took in charge of the Yarrabah Mission in the 1900s. In his 1897 article, E.R. Gribble completed a paper on ‘Class systems’ to the Australian Anthropological Journal. He mentions three aboriginal tribes:
Goonganji of Cape Grafton Myarah of Mulgrave River Dungara of the Lower Barron River [Gribble 1897:2]
Ernest Gribble later released a book in 1933, "A Despised Race – The Vanishing Aboriginals of Australia", which observes 'The Natives around Cairns':
‘Goonganji’ and spoke ‘Goongi’. The tribe on the lower Barron River was called ‘Yerkanji’ and spoke ‘Yerki’. On the upper Barron dwelt the ‘Narkalinji’ speaking ‘Narkali'. The tribe on the Mulgrave, a large and powerful tribe, much feared by all the others, was called ‘Yetinji’ and spoke ‘Yeti’.
Ursula McConnel [1935, 1939-40]
Ursula McConnel, one of the earliest anthropologists made an article called ‘Social Organisation of the Tribes of Cape York Peninsula’ in 1939-40. McConnel states the Aboriginal groups in the Cairns Region:
South of Port Douglas is another group – the indyi or andyi tribes of Mowbray, Barron and Mulgrave Rivers, surveyed originally by Roth and later by me in 1931. On the Mowbray River are the Tyabogai-tyanyi, a branch of whom on the Barron River are known as the Nyakali. On the south side of the Barron River are the Bulwandyi; low down on the Barron River are the Yirkandyi…
Norman Tindale [1938-39, 1940]
The results of Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdell's Harvard-Adelaide Universities Anthropological Expedition in 1938-39 shows the distribution of Australian Aboriginal Tribes in 1940. The listing for Irukandji [Yirrganydji] is as follows:
Irukandji - narrow coastal strip from Cairns to Port Douglas (Mowbray River); on tidal waters of Barron River at Redlynch...
In April 1955, Norman Tindale writes a letter called, 'Aboriginal Tribes about Cairns' and was sent to Dr Hugo Flecker, president of the North Queensland Naturalist. On the letter it states:
According to our information, the Irukandji lived along the coast at Cairns, while the Tjapukai lived up the Barron River, coming only as far as Redlynch during times of ceremonies...In 1937, I spoke to all the old remaining old men and obtained detailed information which I think can be relied upon...
Douglas Seaton 
In 1957, Douglas Seaton produced another article on 1 September to the North Queensland Naturalist called "The Initiation Ceremony of the Tjapukai Tribe". In this article, Seaton also mentions the Yirkandji tribe:
The leaders of the Yirkandji [Cairns area] used to travel up the Barron River by canoe to the place of initiation, which was a pool of the Barron...
[Seaton No. 118, 1957:6-7]
P.C. Griffin 
P.C. Griffin, contracted by the A.I.A.T.S.I.S. Library, Canberra, to visit the Yarrabah Mission and record the Aboriginal culture and language of that area. In his 1968 book, "Yarraburra, Myths, Legends and Rock Paintings of the Yarrabah Aboriginal Reserve", Griffin records:
At the head of Trinity Inlet were the Yedtinji tribe...their language Yeti...Other neighbours in Trinity Inlet spoke the language Jabugai; and the area at the mouth of the Barron River was occupied by the Yerkanji people.
Daniel Connolly 
Daniel Connolly recalls about the early days in the Mowbray River Valley when his family [Connolly] and the Reynolds' family settled in the early 1900s. In his 1984 book, "Chronicles of Mowbray and Port Douglas and the pioneering saga of the Reynolds and Connolly families: an historic record", Connolly recalls:
When Grannie [Reynolds]'s family settled in the Mowbray Valley there was no trouble whatever with the Chabbuki tribe. Another tribe of aboriginals camped at White Cliffs, reportedly a very ferocious tribe, was the Yirkandja tribe, who roamed as far as Spring Creek.
Billy Jagar - King of Barron
Billy Jagar, leader of the Yirrganydji people, received a King plate in 1898 with the inscription of 'King of Barron'. He then received a second King plate in 1906 with the same inscription.
King Billy Jagar later died in 1930 in his Gunyah/Payu [traditional shelter hut] on the Cairns Esplanade at the age of 60. It is recorded by the Cairns Post, 11 March 1930. Jagar was born in the 1860s on the southern side of the Barron River, before the establishment of Cairns in 1876.
- Bottoms, T. (1999) Djabugay Country: An Aboriginal History of Tropical North Queensland. Allen & Unwin. Sydney
- Yirrganydjii Tribal Aboriginal Corporation (n.d) Yirrganydjii display on the Cairns Esplanade (originally reported at http://www.cairns.qld.gov.au/files/esplanade/Cultural%203%20Node.pdf/)
- Normal Tindale's Catalogue of Australian Aboriginal tribe's entry for Irukandji
- Tindale, N. (1940) The results of Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdell's Harvard-Adelaide Universities Anthropological Expedition, 1938-39 distribution of Australian Aboriginal Tribes in 1940
- Yirrganydji Elders - Pers. Comm. (2011).
- Skeene, George (2000) "The Yirrganydji cultural project" in Rainforest Aboriginal News. No.5, (Jul 2000). p. 12-13
- Jones, D. (1976) Trinity Phoenix: A History of Cairns and District. Cairns: Cairns Post.
- Gribble, J.B. (1891) Diary Journal of Reverend John B. Gribble, 1891. Unpublished Manuscript, Cairns Historical Society, Cairns.
- Roth, W.E. (1984) The Queensland Aborigines - Volume 3, being Bulletins 9-18, "North Queensland Ethnography", Records of the Australian Museum, Sydney, 1907-1910. Ed. K. F. MacIntyre. Facsimile Edition. Aboriginal Studies Series 4. Carlisle: Hesperian Press.
- Gribble, E.R. (1891) Class Systems: of the Goonganji, Myarah and Dungarah tribes, being tribes on Cape Grafton, Mulgrave River and Lower Barron River, No. 4, Australasian Anthropological Journal: 84.
- Gribble, E.R. (1933) A Despised Race - The Vanishing Aboriginals of Australia. Sydney: Australian Board of Missions.
- Ursula McConnel (1939-40) Social Organisation of the Tribes of Cape York Peninsula, North Queensland. "Oceania" 10, No. 1 and 4: 54-72, 434-445.
- Tindale, N. (1955) Letter to Hugo Flecker about Aboriginal Tribes about Cairns, April, 1955
- Seaton, D. (1957) The Initiation Ceremony of the Tjapukai Tribe 26, no. 118. North Queensland Naturalist: 6-7.
- Griffin, P.C. (1968) Yarraburra, Myths, Legends and Rock Paintings of the Yarrabah Aboriginal Reserve. Aboriginal Institute of Aboriginal Studies [A.I.A.S.], Canberra.
- Connolly, D. (1984) Chronicles of Mowbray and Port Douglas and the pioneering saga of the Reynolds and Connolly families: an historic record. Cairns: D. M. Connolly.
- Ausanthrop Australian Aboriginal tribal database Accessed 15 May 2008
- ABC Radio Hindsight Abstract on Yirrganydji ancestor 'King Billy JagarAccessed 12 October 2008
- ABC's 'Speaking Out' The Long Journey of Billy Jagar's King Plate, regarding Yirrganydji ancestor 'King Billy Jagar Accessed 12 October 2008