A Coolamon in Canberra – Ivan makes his Mark

Peramangk and Kaurna Elder Uncle Ivan Tiwu-Copley recently travelled to the nation’s capital after an invite from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), to attend the  ‘Ngulla Wellamunagaa – Trees that have survived and revived’  Exhibition launch at the National Museum of Australia.

The opening, which was on the 4th of December 2019 featured a Coolamon that was made by Uncle Ivan using the branch from a 400-year-old Red Gum Tree. For two months from October 2017, Uncle Ivan worked on the Coolamon, using an old and small tomahawk, and then spent roughly 100 hours chiselling and hand scraping it. He used a sharp, hand chipped flint stone to get a smooth finish.

The Coolamon was then treated with Red Ochre and oils from plants and trees by Uncle Ivan who followed traditional methods to finish it, ensuring it will be preserved for hundreds of years to come.

The Coolamon was used in a healing ceremony on the 10th Anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2018 at a community event. It represents the ‘cradle and so many mother’s arms that were left empty after children were removed’.

Uncle Ivan was on hand to answer a few questions for Reconciliation SA about the Coolamon and his travels.

1. Can you please tell us about the Coolamon?

This Coolamon was made using traditional methods and took shape by itself, my hands only scraped out the shape and rubbed oil and Red Ochre Into its Fiber. Hands being the key word, whilst thinking of all the Mums, Fathers, Uncles and Aunties that would have been looking at such cradles represented by this Coolamon, and seeing it empty and wanting to touch it to bring back memories of when their children were present. Wondering and waiting for them to come back and in many cases, never.

2. How does it feel to have made it?

This was an honor and a journey of emotions regarding my own mother and families’ experiences.

3. How does it feel to see the Coolamon displayed in the country’s capitol?

This was again a great honor, humbling and an amazing acknowledgment of the event in 2018 of the 10 years on from the Apology and that the organizers and people there on the day had touched the Heart of everyone present by touching and feeling the Coolamon and remembering and honoring those removed without permission.

4. How did this opportunity present itself?

AIATSIS in Canberra asked if I could come to Canberra for the launch and organized travel to the opening with all the other Traditional artists and Stolen Generation story tellers that were involved. 

5. What significance does Indigenous arts and crafts being displayed in such high-profile places have for reconciliation?

The variety of the collection Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and artifacts displayed in Canberra for the event was about the human connection to the land and what relationships were removed through past policies. It was there for all Australians to see and be a part of the learning process, acknowledgement and understanding thus bringing everyone closer together in the spirit of true reconciliation through stories and cultural expression that has been here for thousands of years as the oldest living culture in the world.

For more information on the exhibition, click below:


In a twist of fate, back in Adelaide at the same time, the Healing Foundation was holding an event to honour the Stolen Generations. Stolen Generation Survivor Dawn Trevorrow, was honoured at the event, but her son, Ngarrindjeri Elder Uncle Mark Elliott (pictured – right) was unable to attend the event, as he was in Canberra on a work trip. But Uncle Mark was able to attend the exhibition launch along with Uncle Ivan (pictured – left), and see the Coolamon on display, which was made in representation of the Stolen Generation.

1. You recently travelled to Canberra, can you tell us a bit about your trip?

I was recently employed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and travelled to Canberra in my first week to join a meeting of all the Aboriginal Engagement Management Unit (EMU) working within the Centre of Excellence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics (CoEATSIS). It was a great way to meet all the people that I will be working with and learn about the work going into the 2021 Census.

2. What does it mean to you to be able to travel to Canberra to see a part of culture displayed?

By chance a good friend, Ivan Copley, was also in Canberra to attend the launch of the AIATSIS art exhibition, Ngulla wellamunagaa (trees that have survived and revived) as he has a Coolamon in the exhibition. It made me very proud to see a section in the gallery devoted to Ngarrindjeri art and culture, including work from Aunty Yvonne Koolmatrie and other family members..
Seeing this in Canberra brings about conflicting feelings as this was the place where many decisions were made that adversely affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and damaged culture and yet here was a gallery, attended by politicians acknowledging country in the local language, which they are encouraged to do and celebrating Aboriginal culture.

3. How did this opportunity present itself?

The ABS are committed to forging strong connections with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia and supported me to attend the launch. Otherwise it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

It would seem it was more fate than “being at the right place at the right time”, as even though Uncle Mark was not able to attend his mothers honouring back in Adelaide, he could see the Coolamon on display, which represented his own mother.

He was also able to observe another display which was on exhibition at the museum. A display of Aboriginal culture which was dedicated to the Elder’s own mob – Ngarrindjeri.

For more information on the Ngarrindjeri exhibition, click below: