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Alive with the Dreaming!

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Alive with the Dreaming: Songlines of the Western Desert

April 2012

Anangu Elder, Mr Miller, leaned across a table and in hushed but weighty tones said to the assembled representatives from the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia, gathered in Canberra last year, '… you mob gotta help us … those songlines they bin all broken up now … you can help us put ’im all back together again'. This was an entreaty that Diana James, an anthropologist resident in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands for some 30 years, had heard in many different ways, until the 'old ladies' put the hard word on her in 1994 when she was working for them as manager of Desert Tracks, a cross-cultural tourism enterprise at Angatja in South Australia.

After about a decade and a half the moons lined up, as they say, bringing together the right combination of knowledge holders from the Western and Aboriginal knowledge systems. With Diana as project coordinator, the group received a generous grant from the Australian Research Council. With further backing from other supporters and sponsors, this epic project is on track to finally realise the Elders' dreams. The project title was inspired by the words of Pitjantjatjara elder Nganyinytja, 'Kulilaya, ngura milmilpatjara; Tjukurpa alatjitu! (Listen, this land is sacred; Alive with the Dreaming!)'

Put simply, the project will track particular songlines across the vast Western Desert: ecologically, archaeologically, visually and by performance. There are four teams, which are multigenerational, multidisciplinary and multicultural. One could add multidirectional and multisensory, with the researchers having to get their heads around concepts that challenge standard ways of doing business. These include delving into deep time for evidence of human, as well as ancestral activity, and relating these findings to the constellations in the night sky. Time measured in linear chronologies will be conflated with narratives in circular or spiral time, song cycles or seasonal patterns; and Country will be mapped in song, and choreographed on canvas. 'Painting the song of the land is only possible for people who hear music when they see Country'.1

The project will focus on the journeys of two ancestors: Ngintaka or Perentie (Lizard) and Kungkarangalpa (Seven Sisters), which relate to the Orion constellation and the Pleiades star cluster. Their journeys connect the people and their land, the animals that they hunt, the foods they gather, the life-giving waterholes, their related languages and kinship structures. These songlines travel a region of 486,000 square kilometres in the remote tri-state cross-border area of Western Australia, South Australia and Northern Territory with an estimated population of 8000 people.

At the invitation of relevant Western Desert peoples, we will work collaboratively and cross-culturally to record and translate the many layers of 'open' (non-secret) knowledge embodied in the Tjukurpa songlines which will be explored in multiple ways: through the performing arts of story, song and dance; the graphic language of ancient rock art and contemporary visual arts; the transitions of cultural and ecological practice profiled in archaeological digs; the kinship of people to each other and Country; and the management of cultural and natural heritage.

The songlines that map the continent are of iconic significance in the national heritage of Australia. Aboriginal people have always been ingenious in keeping culture alive through the creative use of introduced media and technologies, which otherwise can, and in some cases do, threaten cultural practice. The maintenance of culture is synonymous with survival. Thus, this living library of song and dance will enter the Western archive through innovative multimedia exhibitions, books, films and research databases to stimulate both intergenerational and intercultural understandings of the songlines. Pitjantjatjara law-woman and artist, Inawinytji, says, 'As Aboriginal people, we always take our culture with us. When we travel to the city to show our paintings we always dance and sing inma. Our culture and art is not separate, it is all one.' 2

The songlines project aims to increase the recognition and understanding of complex pathways of Aboriginal spiritual, ecological, economic, cultural and ontological knowledge; it foreshadows a radically new approach to the sharing of Aboriginal and Western knowledge in understanding and managing our cultural and natural environments.

Our research will also investigate Tjukurpa as a system of governance and knowledge organisation and, in doing so, explore alternative ways of thinking, planning and practising sustainable management of places and our natural and cultural heritage. Our interest centres not only on what is known, but how it is known, why it is known and how it is organised. This represents a significant departure from an emphasis on simply collecting and recording ethnographic material and the display of stories (traditionally undertaken by art galleries, museums and universities). This project aims to resonate with the interconnectivity and continuity that characterises Aboriginal ways of thinking and being.

My and the Museum’s involvement in the project is in the visual and curatorial components, which will result in an exhibition of the Ngintaka at the South Australian Museum in 2013 and planning for another exhibition the Kungkarangalpa – Seven Sisters at the National Museum in 2015/2016. In addition to this, I have a particular interest in forging a new collaborative model for engagement between cultural institutions and communities in which the communities, rather than the institutions, initiate the project and a council of Elders forms the central governance structure. The Elders’ council is more than a consultative or reference group, a model with which we are more familiar; instead, it is established by the Elders according to their status as traditional knowledge holders.

Unlike much research into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage, which is often entirely governed by institutions, the model of the Elders' council is central to the governance structure of the project. While it is they who say who can go where, with whom and when, the process is not simply about consultation and seeking permission; importantly, it is they who direct the research process. Researchers from cultural institutions serve the needs of the senior custodians/owners and not the other way around. In this regard, the model is comparable in some ways to anthropological research into Native Title.

We, the researchers from institutions, can provide the logistics and facilitate the project with the skills and resources at our disposal. But, training, mentoring and capacity building is a two way street, it is not the big jug to little mug dispensation of supposedly higher order, Western expertise in knowledge management. After all, Aboriginal knowledge systems persist, providing continuity to the world’s longest continuing culture, in the face of colonial interventions.

This research project will be the first attempt to map an entire songline since Charles Mountford mapped the Winbaraku Songline in the 1940s.

Margo Neale, Principal Indigenous Advisor and Senior Curator.

1 D James, Painting the Song; Kaltiti Artists of the Sanddune Country, McCulloch & McCulloch, Australian Art Books, Melbourne, 2009, p. 11.
2 James, p. 6.

This project is an investigative collaboration between the Martu, Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara peoples, the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia.

View website Songlines of the Western Desert or google ANU Songlines.