Known as the ‘last chief of the Yarra Yarra tribe’, William Barak (1824–1903) was a respected leader of the Wurundjeri people and an accomplished artist.

Born in Brushy Creek (near Croydon) and raised in traditional ways, Barak lived through a time of dramatic change, witnessing John Batman’s settlement of Melbourne and land occupation through Victoria by European pastoralists. He was educated for two years in his early teens at a mission school, and served the Crown in the mounted Native Police Force in his twenties.

During this time he adopted the name 'William' and held the reputation as a very good tracker, a skill he called on throughout his life to help find missing children and, during his time with the mounted Native Police Force, fugitives. On the most famous of these occasions, he helped find bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang hiding out in thick scrub.

In 1863 Barak permanently settled in Coranderrk, an Aboriginal mission established to provide Indigenous people land of their own on which to build a community in the face of European settlement. The arrival of Europeans had drastically affected traditional ways of life and land for the Wurundjeri and other Indigenous Australians, and as a result many were affected by disease, starvation and mortal confrontations with settlers.

Barak played an important part in petitioning for the land and building a thriving Indigenous community at Coranderrk. He undertook further schooling at the mission and converted to Christianity.

Upon the death of ngurungaeta or ‘headman’ Simon Wonga in 1875, Barak became the last of the Wurundjeri ngurungaeta, an elder who was a leading advocate and spokesperson for his people.

Coranderrk was under threat by the Aboriginal Protection Board, which was threatening to close what had developed into a flourishing pastoral community. Barak represented Indigenous interests to the governing forces in Melbourne, petitioning over many years for the survival of Coranderrk. He fought to keep the land that he had worked hard to create into community, and on which he would see out the end of his life. However, the mission would decline after his death due to the racial policies of the Board.

Barak’s advocacy and leadership for Indigenous people and culture also took form in his paintings, which preserved important stories and tradition for his people.

Working with a mix of traditional and European techniques and materials, he depicted in ochre and charcoal, watercolour and pencil the customs and sacred stories of the Wurundjeri people. In particular his numerous artworks detail corroborees and ceremonies, and illustrate gatherings of Wurundjeri people wearing detailed ochre-coloured possum-skin cloaks.

These works served as important teachings to the people at Coranderrk, by sharing Indigenous tribal knowledge, language and history. They also spoke to Europeans, who gained valuable insight into traditional culture they would not otherwise have had the privilege of witnessing.

Barak’s portrait was commissioned by Scottish-born philanthropist Ann Fraser Bon, a friend of Barak’s and an Aboriginal advocate, and created in oil by artist Florence Ada Fuller in 1885. It hangs in the State Library Victoria. Barak’s own works were appreciated by art lovers and found homes in museums around the world, including at home in Melbourne’s NGV international.

Today you will find tributes around Melbourne to this influential man. You can walk the William Barak Bridge constructed in his honour between Birrarung Marr and the MCG, and view his large-scale image on the Barak Building along Swanston Street.