John Bradley, Scott Cane, Kim Mahood, Margo Neale and Mathew Trinca, 23 February 2018
MARGO NEALE: Good morning everybody. What an obedient mob you are. Just hope you can keep it up. Well actually, it’s me you’ve got to keep in check really. Anyway, look, welcome to the National Museum of Australia. It’s fabulous that you could all come. The symposium was, as you know, advertised rather late, so clearly we got the cream of the crop. And thank you, and you’re in for, I hope, a day that has some of the tone of the exhibition: cheeky and playful and conversational, but always respectful. Before I go any further though, I really would like to acknowledge Jude Barlow, who’s sitting here, and invite her to come to the podium, or whatever we call it, and welcome you to country. She’s a very well-respected well-liked member of the Ngunnawal community. Don’t call yourself an elder yet? You do?
JUDE BARLOW: I’m too young.
MARGO NEALE: She too young, she too young. Me too. Anyway, so Jude Barlow, thank you so much for coming. She’s been in very hot demand by the Museum lately, so we really, really do appreciate.
JUDE BARLOW: Good morning everybody. As Margo said, my name is indeed Jude Barlow, and I’m a Ngunnawal woman. My family are the Wallabalooa people, a family group within the Ngunnawal nation, and it is, as always, a pleasure and a privilege to be here amongst friends once again to represent my family and my ancestors. Now we Ngunnawal people, we have lived, hunted, and raised our families on this beautiful country for over 30,000 years, and our story is one of struggle but eventual redemption. Because you see, our voices and our hearts still sing our values, our culture, and the spirits that lead us, because we know who we are, and we celebrate that.
As a representative of my people, I speak with the voice of my family and ancestors when I welcome others to Ngunnawal country, and in doing so, I continue a cultural practice that has been passed down the generations. So today I welcome you to the land of my ancestors and I honour my elders past and present, and especially I honour the memory of my beloved dad, Eric Bell. So welcome, each and every one of you. Welcome and travel safely, following songlines that have stood for thousands of years. Welcome to Ngunnawal country.
MARGO NEALE: Thank you so much, Jude. Now you can go do something tedious like shift your office. Sorry to bring you back to the ground so quickly. Well, there’s somebody who’s coming on next who will take you up again, and that’s Mat Trinca, our esteemed Director of the National Museum of Australia. He’ll talk about the significance of songlines, the Museum, and our role in telling history, Australian history in its broadest and deepest sense.
I have to say, just to embarrass him, because he always embarrasses me, I have to honestly say I could not see us being able to do a project like this, of this significance with these logistics, the intense — it’s just intense for a very long time, actually, and you just need someone to stay on the road with you, because he has to deal with, as directors do, with the practicalities of everything else and balancing act and could very easily say, ‘Oh, this is getting too hard, it’s too long, too much money.’ You could do that. But I have to say, not at all. He’s been unbelievable, of course. As you may also know we’ve had a lot of very important Indigenous exhibitions here in the last five, ten years, but quite rapid in the last few years that Mat Trinca has been the director, so I really commend him. If I was doing a job interview for him, he might be — Anyway, Mat, thank you very much for coming in earlier.
MAT TRINCA: Good morning everybody, and thanks, Margo. That’s very kind, but in truth, the easiest thing in the world is to stay the course with great work, and I do think that in — I’m going to take a leaf out of Mick Dodson’s book, actually, and not just talk about songlines as an exhibition but as a kind of a portal, a whole body of work, and with this body of work it has been rather easy to stay the course, not just because of the great commitment of our staff, led by Margo, I think extraordinarily ably by Margo in the course of this project over seven or eight years, but also because of the faith invested in us by the communities who really are the stars of this show, clearly, across Martu country, the APY lands, of Ngaanyatjgrra country as well in the west. Across all those three vast territories, the communities there have really been the people who strongly advocated for and articulated the need for this body of work, and I am deeply grateful to them.
I want to just first begin by adding my acknowledgement and thanks, actually, to Jude’s welcome to country. It’s a great thing to have great friends in the peoples of this land, and Jude Barlow is a great friend of the Museum and indeed of many of us in the room. It’s important, I think, to begin this day but also all the work that we do here at the Museum with that deep acknowledgement that we live and breathe, work on the lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngambri peoples, and joyfully, as a result of the welcome that they give us here in this part of Australia. So I do acknowledge them and their elders, and indeed, especially today, want to acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, from wherever they might be, who are in the audience.
And in offering those thanks, it seems to me that we’re doing something very basic and fundamental in the context even of the discussion that we’re having here today, and that is reflecting on how lucky we are — and I know people have heard me say this before, but I never tire of saying it — how lucky we are to be living in a country with this very deep and dynamic human history that stretches back millennia, stretches back into deep time.
I think it’s a special thing to be able to walk across this country and know that as you do so, you follow in the footsteps that have been laid down, in a sense, over many thousands of years, and that’s a powerful force, an animating force in all our lives if we just think about it and internalise what it means to live in a lived landscape ourselves that has such a long human story. I think it’s especially germane to this discussion today to reflect on the fact that every part of that terrain, every part of this land, has been the subject of a very deep tradition of story-making and storytelling that connects landscape to lived human experience and indeed wider ways of being and knowing, and in this — I’m going to use the word ‘exhibition’ after having said I wouldn’t, taking Mick’s admonition to heart from the opening.
But in this body of work around songlines, trekking the Seven Sisters, I think the deep truth of this extraordinary genealogy, this lineage of human story-making and telling in the Australian landscape is made manifest and it’s brought to wider attention, and we learn about the passage of the Sisters across this vast swath of land and their pursuit by the shape-shifting sorcerer, sometimes by turns called Yurla in Murray country or Wati Niru in the other lands I’ve spoken of already. And this is, in the words of Kim Mahood, who’s here, and who you’re fortunate enough to be hearing from later this morning, I’ve just got a quote, a section of what she wrote in the catalogue. ‘This is a tapestry of places and events committing knowledge to memory by embedding each component of the story in a particular place and recording it in song,’ and it is, now paraphrasing her, a landscape seething with threat and desire.
Noel Pearson has described more generally the First Peoples’ songlines of Australia as this continent’s Iliad and Odyssey, or perhaps it’s Book of Genesis. And I think these kinds of analogies do have some utility, especially for helping non-Aboriginal peoples make sense of the scale and the narrative power of songlines. But of course the meaning and the fundamental importance of songlines are entirely their own, and they manifest the deep relationship between country, culture and cosmology. And it is true that there are many peoples in the world, not just the Greeks, who have narratives that centre on the idea of the Seven Sisters. It’s a common trope in human storytelling, anchored as they often are in the Pleiades constellation of the night sky.
So in another respect, these Seven Sisters stories, the Seven Sisters stories of songlines, which are in themselves incomplete in the broader Australian context in the sense that they focus on a part of the country, songlines stories about — the Seven Sisters stories rather are common to many First Peoples of this land. But these stories sit alongside other great traditions that have sought to connect this star cluster and human experience on Earth. And I want to leave it, and rightly leave it, to the peoples of Martu country, of Ngaanyatjgrra country, and the APY lands to speak their stories of the Seven Sisters and explain their meaning and relevance as they have done in this exhibition, and will continue to do in other places as well. It’s for them, really, to tell those stories.
But I do want this morning, because I have the chance really, to thank them from the bottom of my heart for sharing them, sharing those narratives with us through this show, and I think that openness is really a gift. It’s one that’s taken a lot of courage and commitment of those people, a preparedness really to take us inside their world and to patiently explain their stories, and in another respect to trust in our capacity to tell those stories accurately, or at least render them accurately and respectfully. I for one am frankly overwhelmed at what’s been achieved in this body of work. I’m overwhelmed by their achievement, and indeed the achievement of Margo Neale and others at the Museum who’ve worked hand in hand with the peoples of the lands over many years, from about 2010 in fact. So to Margo I also want to offer my heartfelt appreciation for the sheer excellence of this program and what has been achieved in bringing these fundamental narratives of this land to a wider public.
I also want to acknowledge the work of the Australian National University, to Howard Morphy and Diana James, and other partners in the project, ‘Alive with the Dreaming! Songlines from the Western Desert’, which was funded by the Australian Research Council, and also to Sarah Kenderdine and her team for their work in creating what I think is one of the great experiences I’ve had in a museum anywhere, and that is the experience of being in the dome. Renders that story, as well as a visit, almost virtually, to Cave Hill.
Now, the National Museum has a central commitment to bringing to life the Australian story, if we can call it that, in all its dimensions, and we take it very seriously, and at the core of that I think is that responsibility to represent the histories and experiences of the continent’s First Peoples in their own words by working with them and being guided by them. And as a museum we also place a great deal of emphasis in, really, context and broader social meaning. For us, for instance, works of art are not just aesthetic delights, but rather their real importance lies in their cultural relevance and power.
And I think that’s one of the key features of the Songlines exhibition, really. This exuberant delight in the power of stories, story-making and storytelling, whether it’s in the direct voice of elders inviting us into their world, or the works of art, or the multimedia installations, or the records of live performances, all the elements in Songlines comprise a vision of humanness as something that’s deeply enmeshed with the practise of making and telling stories, making narratives of our lives. And it’s this, I think, that is part of the reason, at least, that the show has provoked such strong emotion and widespread acclaim amongst a broader public.
And in many ways I think the exhibition reminds us that storytelling, story-making, is deeply productive of human experience as well as reflective of it. And in this I’m thinking of Jonathan Gottschall and others who’ve written about the ways in which stories help us navigate life’s complex problems and actually ensure our survival, and this way of thinking we’re the product of our stories as much as the producers of them. And perhaps we may, in fact, cease to be human without them. Perhaps it’s storytelling itself which literally brings us into being and makes us human. And I think that this itself is a story, it’s an insight, at this time when the rise of technology can sometimes almost make us feel as though our central humanness is in danger of being overwhelmed. Who hasn’t worried where the rise of AI and the world of ones and zeroes will end, worried about what it will mean to be human by the end of this century, of the twenty-first century?
At the heart of Songlines, I think, there’s this deep affirmation of the irreducible connectedness of story and human life, with the clear implication that our stories and our narratives are the chief source of a shared human distinction and meaning. So, not for the first time, I’m struck by how the vigorous, dynamic story-making and storytelling of Indigenous Australians actually can prompt us to a wider apprehension of what really matters in our lives.
Here again is a guide to us, to how we might think about what it means to live as a human on the planet, and how we might strive, in a sense, to recover this capacity, to be deeply human and really to belong in fundamental ways. When you look at it that way, what a gift. What a great gift these stories, these songlines, have been for all of us who are lucky enough to walk and live in this land and to share in its stories.
I commend to you the rest of today’s proceedings. I wish I was able to join you for the rest of the speakers today, but I know that you’ll be thrilled, delighted, and taken into places you hadn’t quite have imagined throughout the course of the day. Thank you for your time.
KIM MAHOOD: Recently did this story of Margo —
MARGO NEALE: Drop their story.
[Addressing the audience] That was very inspiring. It never ceases to amaze me how deeply Mat gets it. It actually almost embarrasses me because I’m often thinking, ‘Oh my god, how come I didn’t get that?’ So it’s really inspiring, and I don’t mean to embarrass him, but you all will agree that there’s a lot of things said in there that does what we hope this exhibition will do, and is broadened thinking to the whole sense of humanity and relationship to each other and to country, that connectiveness, which we think is probably what touched people to get the responses that we have.
Now, I have to do something really boring like housekeeping, sorry. He might pop in and out if he’s allowed. He is a higher boss. So I can’t find the housekeeping, so you’re saved. It’s here somewhere. I suppose the most important part to say is that it’s being recorded and streamed, so I got a bit nervous about the stream, but evidently we’ve three-and-a-half people and it’s all gone, and the recording, of course, we can edit that if there’s any big issues. Because I don’t want anyone to feel cramped in having the conversation that they want to have, and I am looking forward to a sort of real free-flow conversation with not too much formality at all, so you won’t get the established standing up here talking in the normal formal sense, mostly. For some people feel better doing that, and that’s cool.
Now, I’ve been introduced, there you are, and I’m also of Aboriginal–Irish descent — I always say, ‘This is not on my business card’ — of Aboriginal–Irish descent. I was born and raised in Gippsland. I’m from the Kulin nation but have stronger connections really with Gumbaynggirr country, clan connections there, and with Wiradjuri.
So I would also like to acknowledge Jude Barlow’s welcome, and the local people here and acknowledge their presence who — I won’t even repeat that, but I also would like to acknowledge others, Aboriginal people that have long connection to this region, and they include the Ngarigo, the Namich, the Walgalu, the Wallabalooa, Pialligo, Monaro and many others, because this was very much a transit zone around here. And even though it’s been the seat of government for 90 years, it has been the seat of government for Aboriginal people for 20–30,000 years.
The knowledge and stories about this place are really just bubbling to the surface. It’s quite different here than many others, because there’s no capacity for native title determination here, so people got to sort it out in the community. So it’s an ongoing story, that one. [Clears throat] Excuse me.
As you can see from the program, there’s a fabulous line-up of speakers. We’re all very excited to hear them and I hope they don’t get nervous. If they do, we’ll knock it out of them. I’d like to acknowledge the community. I’m just going to work out — Can I take this mouse right across or do I have to stand there? I can’t do both.
Like I said before, I hope the tone of the day is in the tone of the exhibition because as you probably know, the exhibition is the — oh, sorry, the communication portal, as Mr Dodson so descriptively referred to it. Now I think that what I do need to say is I’d like to acknowledge community custodians of the Seven Sisters, who are virtually — I just want to know how — oh, here. Okay, sorry. Sorry about my ignorance.
I just want to acknowledge their presence. Not in the room. They’d find this terribly boring. They had their day before the — they’re still having their day — but in the days before the opening, and I’ll just scroll through so you get an idea of who’s who. These are in the catalogue if you’re lucky enough to have one, so you can read more about who they are. But they are very present, as you know, in the exhibition. Digitally, virtually, even without being it, they’re very present. And before the exhibition opened, in the days before, there was this fabulous situation where the mobs had all sort of — representatives at least, of the mobs had all sort of come together from all of these different regions. And a man called Mr Bernard Newberry, from Ngaanyatjarra lands did, in fact, replicate in a way the way this whole exhibition was originated. It was an initiative on his part to call together all of the Aboriginal — oh, this is, I’m showing the presence in the exhibition. There’s Mr Newberry. And he thought, ‘Well, what a great opportunity. We’ve got all these people here, why don’t we all sort of catch up with each other and join up these songlines?’ It’s been like a TV series. They don’t necessarily know what came before or what came after.
So he took on the initiative. ‘Find us a room, have your cameras ready and recording, and I’ll bring them in.’ It was almost like in little groups at a time, and they spoke all in language and there’s Mr Newberry on the right [points at slide], and they did most of a day, which is still in language because we now have a fabulous project which we call a legacy project, which will unlock a lot of that and we’ll record it. We’ll go back and do all the usual processes and then encourage him to infect others to do the same. So the songlines, in fact, will never end, and this project will go on in that way, but from community initiative. Slow, fast, who knows, stop, start — but we’ve already set it in place for the legacy.
And here he is already talking to a Martu man [points to slide]. So he’s Ngaanyatjarra and he’s talking to a Martu young fella, so this cross-generational transfer is sort of in progress well before, and similarly others are doing the teaching the young fellas about the stories by bringing them here.
[Points to slide] This is Brenda Douglas from the APY lands. And of course Inawinytji Williamson who was a very — I want to acknowledge her specially as a very senior, powerful woman, powerfully positive woman who we needed, who was a go-to person, and Darla James, who’s here, has had a very long relationship with her and she’s such a can-do and it made everything much easier, and we learnt a lot from her.
Now, Curtis Taylor who’s also — he’s one, so we could talk about the young fellas here. The whole project was actually an example of what the big concern is for the elders because Curtis was involved with the film, as you saw in the exhibition, and the only other young person really that actually did stay with the game, was Tapaya Edwards. Unfortunately I don’t have his image here. But he’s got the clue. You’ve just got to do it a different way from now on if you want to keep these songlines alive, and this is what the day’s about, future-proofing the songlines, but basically ground-proofing them for future-proofing. And he’s onto it.
Now, I’d also while we’re at it like to acknowledge other people who are involved, but clearly you can’t do everyone. But just those close to the ground here with us on the exhibition and different parts of the journey who worked with me is Christiana Keller and Sita for the last 18 months, [inaudible] and Claire Freer worked with the Art Centre Hub, and before that the members of the ARC and the ANU, that Mat has already mentioned, and Andy Greenslade who’s just come on board for the next part of our journey. Sorry to anyone I’ve missed. But there you go. And Kim Mahood who’s sitting down there; you’ll hear about her in a minute. She was a great contributor for the exhibition texts.
So today, as I said, is very focused on the exhibition. Why? Because it has been truly an overwhelming response. I was going on about — I mean, look, people say congratulations to me and it feels terribly embarrassing. Really, this exhibition has taken on a life of its own. It’s sort of like you’ve had a difficult and very protracted birth and then this wonderful child appears and it’s developed its own life and it runs away, and you can admire it from a distance. So it kind of feels like that, that it’s really absolutely taken on a life of its own. Clearly, because there’s a lot of people involved in its — I’m talking about the actual exhibition, not the whole process, which is a lot of people involved in that conception and development.
So what it does — Oh, one more thing I must say. Yesterday, we were taking the groups around. I’d been saying, ‘Oh, this is remarkable. People flying all the way from Darwin and Perth,’ and we’ve got one of them here today, Lisa, to see this exhibition. I mean, it’s — Well, that’s sort of quite a commitment really. And it’s word of mouth. And then yesterday, I don’t know who it was with. Was it you, John? Yesterday, someone said, ‘I flew from New York.’ There she is. Hands up! And I said, ‘Not only for this. Surely you had other visits.’ ‘No, I heard about it on Facebook,’ and you can tell us later when we open up. ‘Saw it on Facebook in November and just had to come.’ So it’ll be very interesting to hear from you later.
So I think the other thing is that — So what we need to do with this is — What is it that touches people? How do I unpack this? What’s its legacy? How’s it going to help inform what happens next in terms of even exhibition style, mode? What does it say about Australian history? What does it say about art? Because, you know, in a way, it’s not an art exhibition. It’s not a history exhibition. It’s not a science exhibition. It’s all of them and whatever else we might discover lurking in the corners when we speak about it today.
It’s both an Australian Aboriginal exhibition and a universal story of mankind. It offers us that connectivity, that Mat was talking about to each other, and to our planet, if you like, in a fragmenting world. This is what we hope will help the internationals buy it, too, that it’s connected to them as well. So with this sort of authenticity and spirituality, it has the power to truly unify us as fellow travellers, even if momentarily. So I think it grounds us. It has the capacity to ground us together with our common ancient roots. So that might be big, but I think we can move in that direction or other directions that may come out.
For those who were on the tour yesterday and me, like Mat, you may have heard some of this before if you’ve been on the tour. I’ve been saying this for about what, about five months? It is a spiritual mantle that I have and I think it has some pertinence to this and it goes way back to the Asia Pacific Triennial days, and the character and quality of an exhibition is determined by the character and quality of the journey that precedes it. And hopefully the journey that postdates the exhibition.
Now, when you think of the genesis of this exhibition, and I’m going to be more generic here. Some elders came to us, [inaudible] and others, with an urgent plea. It was particularly David Miller on the ground I’m thinking of. But it was overall the feeling that, ‘We need your help to put the songlines together. They’ve all been broken up.’ That’s the sentiment. And they’re talking particularly about the younger people and it’s not being passed on, and all you people here would know that the Aboriginal story, the histories are embedded in the land, and the way it keeps alive is through constant activation. So that was a concern. So they wanted to — they’re proactive, they knew exactly what they needed to do, and they wanted to ask to help them track it. We’re knowledge-holders from the other side. Track it, deposit to the Ara Irititja Project, which is the Aboriginal-managed archive in Alice Springs, so when the young fellas and girls come to their senses as they absolutely, entirely believe they will, it’s there at least when they’re gone.
So hopefully we can, through this process, exhibition and all the things that come from it — also have a couple of other strands running in that direction. So this is the thrust of the day. Excuse me — lots of talking. So when that’s the genesis, then of course you’re talking about a journey, a journey exhibition then — the songlines are journeys across the land. The curatorial process then has to be, the research that preceded has to be a journey. The curatorial process has to be a journey, therefore the exhibition has to be a journey. And given its genesis, then, the — [as papers fall] Oh, more stories on the ground. Then given its genesis — I did say ground-proofing — So given the genesis, therefore, the Aboriginal people, the custodians, are not an advisory group. They’re not a reference group. They have to be the curators. So we are a curatorium. So all those that had input formed a curatorium.
Sorry, I was talking about the journey, and that’s what the pictures are showing you, some of the journey on the ground. So this is a very small selection of the curatorium who were here on the day, basically, for the photo. We went to their office, they came to our office, and they hung around and engaged in the dome once it was opened and stayed for quite a while.
So it’s very much, then, a multi-media, sort of like a boundary — I think of it in terms of it’s a bit of a boundary ride, our exhibition, that fits everywhere but fits nowhere. And that’s how it needs to be. It’s multi-dimensional, of course, and you have Murray George and Anawari Mitchell here with the VR, the Collisions VR that Lynette Wallworth will speak about later, and I’ll also mention something about it. And guess who we found in there? It’s him! And her!
So you know, again, the range of people who’ve visited and done the whole experience — well, it’ll come at you in the day. It’s just unbelievable. Yesterday was the Underwater Sea Cable Task Force who were an after-hours delegation, here on Monday — from the Solomons, Vanuatu, PNG — I mean, you could just talk about the range of people, not who you would normally expect, so I have to say we must have broadened our audience somewhat.
So this is a multi-dimensional exhibition, you know. It’s a boundary ride, as I said. It pioneers new terrains, crosses boundaries, and I think offers portals into other worlds and ways of seeing. Now this is the intention and this has been sort of the feedback. So it can be experienced, as I said, as either a finite exhibition with immersive multimedia or as a history narrative with universal relevance to all civilisations. But beyond the visual surface, it expresses a knowledge system, or rather it exposes a knowledge system embodied in the land, drawing on the universal themes or issues of ecology, climate, geography, and cosmology in an experiential way.
The visitors to this exhibition engage in a wild chase across the Australian deserts as part of the ancient creation saga, along the songlines through the deserts that have already been mentioned, but the visitor’s basically invited to journey and walk in the footsteps of the Seven Sisters. And when I say tools, it’s one thing to get a sense of what the songlines mean as corridors of knowledge or pathways of knowledge, but it’s another thing to get a sense of how they work. So without getting too twee about it, we did, we used the top of plinths in a subtle kind of way, and the paintings are not there because they’re paintings. They’re there because they’re portals to place, and again Mat touched on that.
So I’ll just finish up with — from a community perspective, generally speaking, it’s clearly — I’ll show you what I’ve got left — it is clearly about the Seven Sisters songlines and their journey across those deserts. That’s what it’s about, right? And there’s no — from a museum perspective, it’s an Australian history exhibition and I think, from a visitor’s perspective, you can’t actually tab it. It’s all of the above and a whole lot more. And I think the comments — I think if I could seize on something, it’s that everybody felt like they were part of the exhibition in some way.
I mean, this is the one I think I hear most commonly. They feel part of it. They feel like they’re the participant in the performance. They feel like it unlocks some doors. Oh, the classic, the one I really like — Christine Nichols came up in the conversation saying — the publication online said, ‘It rearranged the furniture in my head.’ So, you know, I think that’s something worth thinking about. And others are basically that really, there’s heaps, but very much they really love Aboriginal things. They go to lots of exhibitions and they admire the people and the culture and the artwork but they never really feel it’s anything to do with them. And this one, they’re coming out saying, ‘I feel like it’s everything to do with me.’ In fact, like a responsibility in a way that has a practical capacity to do something, so they’re saying things because the fellas, the digital, the virtual elders or the elders at the front are saying, along with us who are all part of the curatorium, and if you look closely, you’ll get it — if you live in Australia, you need to know your story. Very Aboriginal way of thinking, you need to know your story. Well, you might not know it because you’re only looking at the last 220 years.
So we’re here to teach you your story. And I think that sort of comes through by the fellas popping up all over the place through the show. So it is about together, we are fellow Australians travelling, living on, sharing this continent here. It’s a lovely bunch of really generous people simply, simply saying, ‘This is our story, we’d be happy to share it with you.’ So I think there’s something in that to unpack.
Now, I’ve stuck to time! That’s remarkable! So let’s see what other perspectives are stimulated by this exhibition and particularly, you’ll see with these speakers, particularly couched in their own grounded experience. So on that note, I would like to let the journey begin with Kim Mahood. Now Kim is, as far as being grateful for her artistry with some of the text panels, we would like to have her talk about the way stories — oh, I didn’t tell you that, but anyway, the way stories — future-proofing the stories. Some of it is about retelling them in different modes to match changing circumstances and of course, if these songlines and stories aren’t changing continually, they will not stay alive. So, you know, they have to be contemporised and told by different people in different ways. So I’d just like to introduce you to Kim when I can find — were they my pages that fell over? Not that I need them.
So Kim, as many of you will know, is an author. She’s a curator, she’s a writer. She’s a bush girl. She has a truck with a dog in the back, and she’s the author particularly of the award-winning memoir, Craft for a Dry Lake and the much-circulated essay which is how I sort of knew of her, ‘Kartiya are like Toyotas’. If you haven’t read it, you must. Her latest book, Position Doubtful, explores that relationship between Aboriginal and settler Australians and between people, art, and country in the Tanami Desert. She’s coordinated enormous collaborative projects. She has to be the queen of collaboration across art, as custodian, scientists — facilitated lots of cultural environmental mapping projects. And she worked as a consultant and facilitator and writer for the Canning Stock Route Project. You may have seen, which art is — a pioneering piece of work and model art project, We Don’t Need a Map. And of course this one, Seven Sisters and Seven Sisters Songlines.
So her practise actually explores that interface between Aboriginal and Western representations of landscape in Canberra but, I’d say, much more, really. Just haven’t got the words for them yet. So I’d like to invite Kim up. You’ll be a bit lonely. So can we all —? Thanks, Kim. We’re all into embarrassing each other here today.
KIM MAHOOD: Absolutely, absolutely. I’m so small I barely show over the podium. Let’s see — I’ll just see if I can — get technology to work. There we are.
I always feel a bit of a fraud in this sort of context because basically where my knowledge comes from is being a dogsbody with a Toyota. And you just happen to be there to facilitate people to do the things they want to do. Margo asked a few of us to bring in some case studies. I did work on the Songlines project and it was a revelation and just a fantastic privilege to be part of and a bright learning process as well.
But the story I’m going to tell is actually from the area which I work in most of the time, which is the town of Tanami in southeast Kimberly, with people I’ve been associated with since I was very young. And the story, the actual songline is the ‘Two Dogs Dreaming’ story. This is a painting which we’ll return to, done by the rangers at Mulan, which is the small community next to Paraku, or Lake Gregory.
And the songline is — [inaudiable] a male and a female who create the lakes. They come down from — They come across from the east and then down Sturt Creek. They separate. The male dog, the black dog, creates the deep lake, the darker blue saline lake, and the female, the white dog, creates the western shallow freshwater lakes. They meet at the junction, at the bottom, and they kill a couple of emus. They have a big party, they come out along the top — I’m not sure, I don’t think I can work the technology to show you the actual site, but it’s a creek.
Hang on. Let’s see if I can do this. Here we go.
So they come down here, down here. They meet here, they head out, and they go out along this creek and they go into the ground. That’s where they are still today. That’s actually just an aerial, a Google shot of the site that they travel along called Bungabiddy Creek.
The other interesting thing about this site is that in 2008, Jim Bowler, Mark Smith, and Peter Veth did an archaeological excavation at Jim’s behest because the suggestion was that the lake, which was a mega-lake back in the sort of Pleistocene–Holocene era, had been occupied for a very long time. And what happened was that they unearthed a core stone, a flagstone that, because it was in-situation, they were able to date at 50,000 years.
Anyway, a couple of years later, I was part of one of the many projects I facilitated. I was sort of co-coordinator with the artist Mandy Martin on a project called Desert Lake, to bring together the sort of art, science, and stories of the area. Many had done something similar in the Channel Country and had approached me because I had a sort of lot of resources we could immediately go into fairly deep terrain because I’d been working out with the Walmajarri at Lake Gregory for many years. Anyway, one of the things Mandy wanted to do was to have a painting where we all collaborated, Aboriginal artists and white artists together, and I guess part of what I want this story to do, too, is show how the best-laid plans of whitefellas get derailed and what a good thing that usually is.
So anyway, I thought the site where this excavation had occurred was a good location that we could all go out and work on. It also lent itself to the five-panel sort of layout or template because of the creek, so I put together, I painted the template and here we are onsite, and I’m just — of course, I spoke with all the traditional owners about it being an appropriate site. They were very — that was fine. They were very happy to do that. So on the day we were all out there, the sort of whitefella team and all the elders and a whole lot of rangers. There were more rangers around on that day than I’d seen in years because something exciting was happening and normally there was only sort of two or three, but we had about seven present on that day.
I was explaining what we were going to do along with the senior custodian of that particular site and story, Hanson Pi. So we were discussing how we would set about doing this, and this contingent of —coterie, I often think of them — of women elders listened for a while and then they said, ‘No, that’s not going to happen. Not like that. This part right here, that’s a men’s story. Women can’t — it’s far too dangerous for women to mess with. And so the men have to paint it’. There just happened to be, because of the circumstances — you know, this would not have happened if we hadn’t been trying to do this project. There we were, there were seven young and middle-aged men all there together and all their sort of, you know, aunties and grandmothers and people who can actually make them do things that us whitefellas can’t. And they sort of said, ‘Nope, the women have to stay up here on the ridge and just more or less make the place safe, and the men have to do the painting.’
Mandy was pretty put out. You know she’s not used to having her plans sidelined, but there was a much greater authority there on the day. So, now the only painter among them was Hanson. None of the other guys had ever painted anything, so they took the template down next to — it was very close to where the actual cobblestone, the core stone, was found. And they have a discussion, and at this point I’ll just say, there’s no problem for me at all showing these images. It was just that I was not able to witness the process on the day. And in fact, the photographs were mostly taken by John Carty, who was the sort of anthropologist on that particular project and of course now is over at the South Australia Museum.
So they started out by looking at what they were going to do. Hanson had, there was a tiny image of a painting his father — who is now deceased — was also a custodian for that location, had painted the story of the two dogs killing the emus and then going into the ground. So he had a tiny little image of that in an Indigenous Protected Area pamphlet. So they used that as a reference point and Hanson then decided he would make the first marks. And it’s quite significant what he’s doing here because he has now inherited the story that was his father’s and his uncle’s, of the two men who were carried by the two dingos as stones and they put down nearby and become the brothers, the two hills, the Nunbijara. And so Hanson, the first thing he does is paint in the Nunbijara who are associated with his father and his uncle.
Then the next thing they’re going to do is put in the tracks of the two dogs. Initially they coopt Hanson’s little dog Socks and paint his paws to see whether that will work. Socks refuses to cooperate, so the guys take a panel each and they paint the tracks in. And what is interesting here, of course, is that this is the first time these particular young men have had the opportunity to participate in such a sort of practical way with retelling this story, re-engaging with it.
Of course, the whitefellas think this is great. The blokes, they get down to participate in the serious stuff of painting while us women have to stay up on the ridge and talk girl stuff, like skin names and whatever. And of course, they get in the photograph. The work, as you can see, is really starting to progress, and at this point, the painters decided to go down somewhere. It’s a pretty bleak old location, as you can see. They decamp down into the nearby creek, which is the actual route that the two dingos take as they head for their funnel for their waterhole that they’ve gone into the ground.
John continued to stay with them and take photographs. The only other person who remains with them is Bill Fox, who heads up the Nevada Museum of Art and the Environment, and he was over to sort of participate in the project. He’s sitting like a guardian gnome in the scrub behind. Bill witnesses something which he interprets as the painting out of the [inaudible] mark, you know, from the original template, for the path of the dogs, and then laying in a new path. That may be what happened. I also think what’s quite likely is that because they all started out independently, everyone painted the dingo tracks in a different way. So the purpose of it was to make a new path and just paint them all the same, which is what they proceed to do. Either way, one person is then chosen to paint all the tracks, and this is what they end up with.
Now you can see how incredibly proud they all are. They’re really delighted with what they’ve done, and of course, the painting now has far too much gravitas to be allowed to be taken out of the community and be part of the exhibition, which is what it’s for. And there’s $4000 going spare to pay for it, so Hanson and Jamie asked me to produce another template. They don’t seem to be too bothered that this sort of middle-aged white female is being part of the story, and they do the replica which doesn’t have the significance. It can leave the community, and they get the money. But, and so here it is. Here’s the replica. It’s on show in Alice Springs at Araleun Arts Centre and Hanson is telling the two dog story to an absolutely rapt audience. And what’s happened for him in the process is that the, the [inaudible] goes, and the two brothers have kind of morphed and they have become — It’s just been too irresistible, the sort of, this songline sort of convergence, the location convergence, because the site where the two dingos go into the ground is right next to where the brothers are.
So he actually changes the ending of the story with this sort of rapt whitefella audience, and it’s the first time he’s been in that sort of situation and it’s gone to his head a bit, actually. So he gets really wound up about this, the two dingos. He interprets the black dingo as the younger brother whose hair is still black and the white dingo as the older brother whose hair’s gone white. As it happens, the wife of the now deceased older brother is there on the day in the audience, and she pulls him up on it. She won’t let him get away with it, you know. Forget the audience, anything else, and he has to sort of back-pedal and recant and apologise. And she’s still alive. She’s still a very strong woman, someone I work with a lot and, you know, just one of those fantastic people that thoroughly enjoys articulating their deep knowledge.
But Hanson has, in his way, and he is now the surviving senior custodian of the story — he takes on the account of the discovery of the cobblestone, the core stone, by the archaeologists. And so he paints that story. The dark lair is deep time. The stone which has been the flagstone, which is evidence of that very long association that exists — it sits right here. What is above is the present day and into the future, and that point where that stone has been found, Hanson sees as where the Dreaming sits there, at that site, where deep time and the present day come together. And what he’s done is paint an H for Hanson right at that spot. Now his uncle and his father were the two stones that the dingoes put down, male or female, who cares in Hanson’s view, and he has associated himself with that stone which was found by the archaeologists and in that way has coopted the scientific story into both the Dreaming and into himself. He’s taken it over.
Where the story goes from here, I don’t know. It’s just a fascinating process which I watch with — it’s always amusing to see what people do. It’s humbling, it keeps you on your toes, and I’ll leave my part of the story here. Thanks.
MARGO NEALE: Now, that’s a perfect example, huh? Thank you, Kim. That’s very real. She’s a storyteller for sure. And if people want to open up, you can have a little talk about it. You want to talk to Kim? Questions? Make comments? We’ll do it as we go.
Now you have to do the dreaded mic thing. Say who you are, then you say something. So anyone around with a comment? I mean, we don’t have to do it now. You might still be digesting it, in which case, you can have a bit of indigestion later.
[comment from audience]
No, no, sometimes you — sometimes people feel compelled to ask a question.
Okay, not so, so we’re moving on now to Scott Cane. Scott is a consultant, another man deeply grounded in stories and the country and worked very collaboratively and closely with community over the years. He’s a consultant, archaeologist and anthropologist who has lived and worked throughout Australia for the last 30 years. Is that all? If anybody’s telling, he has provided expert advice in sort of native title claims and resulted in assisting in the successful recognition of rights to over 400,000 square metres of land.
He’s written — How I came to know of him, because for me, too, in this exhibition, I’ve moved into many territories that were previously unknown to me, archaeology and anthropology. So I knew him through the [Indigenous word], the spinifex people and First footprints: The epic stories of the First Australians. And it, too, for those who haven’t read it — or seen it, it’s as visual as it is textual, it’s very — again, it’s very much like what’s happening here. It it fits in both places, and it deals with the visual as sort of cultural narrative.
So Scott’s going to have a little talk about song as religious belief and traditional law and is actually sort of called it like a [inaudible] with songlines — he argues that songlines record both history as myth and regard to history, provide tangible proof that Aboriginal religion is the oldest and yet least-known faith on Earth. So you can see how that dovetails beautifully with Kim’s. Thank you, Scott.
SCOTT CANE: Well, I’ve got to say that I wrote the abstract, well actually wrote the title for the talk before I’d written the abstract or the abstract for the talk before I’d written the talk. Wrote the talk before I saw the exhibition, so — I don’t know what I’m going to talk about, but it dovetails quite well, I think, with what — I assume everyone here’s been to the exhibition? Everyone’s probably been on the guided version of the exhibition? Soit helps me to know what people know when I kind of say things that they all think are nonsense.
So what I want to talk about is songlines in the context of the ongoing future-proofing and some of the things in my abstract I might not actually get to, but I’ll try, right. And to do that, I’ve got to talk about songlines as I understand them. And my glasses are so dirty I can’t even see my own paper. So for me songlines are actually better thought of as gospels, and for me they’re principles, beliefs, teachings of a religious tradition. And they’re embedded in land and they articulate society’s laws and customs in relation to that land amongst other things. I think they’re more than telling stories. I think knowledge of songlines is the primary vehicle for acquiring social prestige and political power, and I think they’re the ultimate determinant of rights in land.
Now, for me, songlines is a good term. I know Bruce Chapman used it and in an odd way popularised it and devalued it, but it is the word that Aboriginal people use themselves. I’m working at Groote Island and their people have sort of a totemic inheritance, where they become consubstantial with some element of their environment, and that’s their totem because they don’t have the word ‘totem’. That’s a European term. You wouldn’t say to a person on Groote Island, ‘What’s your totem?’ You would say, ‘What is your song?’ And if you ask that question, if I’ve got this right [referring to slide], they would — I just finished this two days ago. It’s a sketch still of all the songlines. I have some grid lines [inaudible] and the actual country, and you can see this label.
So once you know their songlines, you know who they’re related to, you know what political and religious allegiances are connections between [inaudible] and clans between clans of people on the same religious journeys. The people that live next door to each other are not as close as the people who are connected through song.
It’s a very complicated system, and there’s lots — all of those songs, all of those lines, and you can see there are a few there, are all known and sung and all alive and well. The importance of this in the context of contemporary future-proofing, as a traditional law articulated through songlines, is vital, in my experience through most of the traditional heartlands of Australia. So I go to this again, yes? [referring to slide] And these are ones that I vaguely know, as an indication of the style of songlines.
Now because songlines articulate the law, and I meant L-A-W law, they’re an essential ingredient in the transfer and maintenance of that law. Songlines, in a sense, future-proof themselves because without song, there is no traditional learning. Without educational learning, there is no traditional law. And without traditional law, there is no social status, no political power, and effectively, no traditional society.
Now, the question is then, how are songlines learned? Songlines are learned through initiation. The process of initiation starts as young men, but then as people, initiate themselves, become more of a participant in the process till they’re very old men, and when they become actually as old as me, they are free finally to a lifetime of learning. Free, they would say, to speak and act without question or contravention. They become [Indigenous word]. They become literally a human relation to the land that they have a ritual relationship to.
Now [Indigenous word] is the word for the initiation ceremonies in the desert. I don’t know what the audience knows, so I’ll say these things in general terms and hopefully it’s interesting information. If not, you know it, so it doesn’t matter. [Indigenous word] start with the movement of a special boy who takes the hair belt and goes on effectively a ritual pilgrimage with an entourage through the desert to visit places and communities as part of his religious learning. All the host communities that are encountered on that journey have to return to the host community to participate in the initiation in the [Indigenous word]. Now these are massive ritual pilgrimages. Everybody has to travel. People travel massive distances, and the initiation ceremonies might include 500 to 1000 people. There was a big [Indigenous words] last year which had 1500 people, took six months to complete. Cost was — base cost was $167,000. There’s one that’s just finished at [inaudible] down in the southern part of the desert which was big enough for the local store to not be able to feed people. It was turning over $20,000 a day just to maintain the population that was participating in this religious activity.
The ritual route is closed when these things happen. If you’re a white person, you’re a government person, you’re a policeman, a health worker, me, you can’t access the roads when the religious entourage moves through. I’ll give you a sort of a scale here. Now the largest [Indigenous word] will include — that’s the same map. Obviously that’s Europe stuck over the same space. [Points to slide.] The largest pilgrimages — I can call them pilgrimages, right? The largest pilgrimages go from — they’ll go down to [inaudible] and they’ll move through the whole centre of Australia. So they effectively go from Ireland down to Germany and down into Spain and Portugal. I mean, these are massive journeys, and I think they’re the largest religious pilgrimages on Earth. And I did a quick sort of internet check beforehand just to make sure, so if I’m standing in Jordan at the place where Moses was meant — which I’ve done — Moses was meant to look across to the Promised Land and I want to travel to Mecca, it’s only 800 kilometres, right? I can get on a plane. If I want to drive from Istanbul to Mecca, I can get on Highway 35 and be there in 35 hours. But you can’t drive through Syria at the moment.
But these distances — it’s a 3000-kilometre journey from the north [inaudible] down through the centre, out to [inaudible], 6000 in return. So these are massive religious pilgrimages in my view and, point being, I don’t think anyone knows they even happen. I don’t think anyone knows there’s a [Indigenous word] on at the moment between Haasts Bluff and Kintore, across basically most of the central part of Germany and France. Or that one that just finished at [inaudible]. They happen all the time, and I think they’re one of the most profound religious events on Earth and they’re kind of an invisible event in Australian history. Sorry, I keep moving away. I can’t start again, so I’ll just kind of keep rambling on.
Now the thing is, what are we learning, right? Well, participants in the [Indigenous word] are basically learning the gospels, which are called songlines. They are songlines or very religious traditional law. Now these religious teachings encompass thousands of kilometres of country, as I’ve said, and they link people and they define people and country. And they’re manifested in different ways, and I’m going to try something now which isn’t going to quite work, but I’ll do it anyway. Weirdly, I’m just talking about country just a little bit south of Paraku, where Kim was talking about. Here. So you have the vision, the generalised version of a big songline’s there. You get that view of the scale of these things, and of course all these are still sung and known. They’re not extinct. Seven Sisters, and then we’ll come back to that, right?
And they’ll — I don’t know what’s going to happen next — so this is a simpler — so can we go back? [Referring to slideshow] I’ve got to go back this way, don’t I? Okay, so go back — I’ve got so many things in my head I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know which thing to press. So that — so we’ll go — it’ll be there, where that thing’s wobbling. There’s three lines there, but if I zoom in on that there, just so you have an appreciation of the tapestry of songlines, and now I go down, that little bit is actually — there’s that new song. There’s two or three main songlines in green, is what he could do, which I wouldn’t talk about that, it has lots to do with your dingo or something, right? And then there’s other ones like the echidna and so forth, so that sort of simple broad space is rich with known songlines.
And then if I were to go to the top of that little pink line, that’s actually called Ngaanyatjarra, which Kim would know. It’s now called Seven Sisters. But it’s an isolated dream, exactly the same. It’s about an old [inaudible] which chases and harasses women. But it’s only that small, unless — I don’t believe it connects up to Seven Sisters, but it’s a localised, determinative, rich tradition.
Now, if I zoom in there, just for the sake of how this manifests, so it’s a little light for me to try to symbolise it — if I have the wrong thing. If I go in, it looks like that on the ground. And then if you can kind of imagine — I’ll give you this — the rock country back there, this, and that. Looks like that, in rule terms, actually as you travel on country, very sacred locations all of these, obviously, but not secretly. We all live there and camp there. But the people, the person now, you’d know who’d abide by it probably. She expresses and represents that country, it’s like that. And it’s a representation for her of justice ceremony, both a decorative component of the women in law. So I don’t know where I was going with that, but I think what I was trying to do was convey difference in perception of landscape and story.
Now, okay. So I’m going to go back to a different version of the same thing. So these are the big Dreamings, right? And the large rectangle group, very important male ritual and one [inaudible] the same, two men, and men and women, you can see there, which is lucky. My mess is actually the same as yours in the exhibition. It comes back from the Pilbara through [inaudible] country down through the walking country here. It goes down to the [inaudible], where women fly. I’m not sure since [inaudible] because by chance I was working at [inaudible] long time ago and then it comes down and up and back up in the desert goes right then arrives in the [inaudible] and goes back up before it transforms and turns, and that’s where you get somebody at seven and somebody at six?
I tried to trick a man once who was in the bush because often when you’re lying in the bush and looking up at those Seven Sisters, you can only see six stars most of the time. I’m going [inaudible]. So I said look, ‘How come I can only see six stars?’ and they go, ‘No, there are five of them. The one he likes the most, she often goes with him and spends the night.’
That’s right, and also there’s Seven Sisters and there’s Pleiades, but there’s also Taurus in between, which is part of that story. So, he comes back, he was two women. [Inaudible] the Gulf of Carpentaria, so it’s a massive story.
Now, any law — the law people, certainly law people I know, can certainly talk about the law and know it at least in detail across at least 3000 kilometres of that journey, and maybe longer. The people that I work with here [inaudible] my local community, which is quite a conservative one, to have an anniversary, so they wanted some Aboriginal people in the parade to show that they were there before. I said, ‘No, exactly.’ It was like, ‘Oh, no, but Scott — you know something about Aborigines, so can you get some for me?’ That’s true. So I said, ‘Well, how about I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll bring some people down from the desert who know the law here.’ I didn’t know if they did. ‘And they can actually sing the country that you farm, right?’ So they did, they came down. And to my complete shock — it’s that mob, same mob that are in your thing. They came down and said, ‘My country looks different. Well, let’s go here first.’
So this is the label. This is [inaudible], weirdly, that you’ve got in your display. That top one. Then there’s the gap, right? And this is [inaudible] where the women come and dance and then dance across the [inaudible]. I thought it might be one of the ladies but grown up. She’s quite substantial. She’s actually one of the Seven Sisters. [Inaudible]. Weirdly, same mob.
Anyway, so we moved from there, right in [inaudible], and come down to where I live on the coast near a place called Coffin Bay, which people know maybe because they’ve eaten oysters there. The country looks different. I live just behind this mountain, and I always thought this was Seven Sisters, but I get there and they go, ‘No. That’s not Seven Sisters. It’s not even near it. [Inaudible] which is actually the son of — so the two [inaudible], the sun is often a penis, often a snake, or the [inaudible]. Finishing word with an A, or sorry, a consonant, so add N-Y-A on the end, so the name’s really [inaudible], they said [inaudible] and the minute they get there, 2000 [inaudible] from when they’d been there before. You can see in the body language how tense they are even talking about it, but they also walk this location at night to find the [inaudible] and little ants.
I talked to local farmers there and they’re like, ‘My God, my farm is called Yulina,’ and the plains are called Yulana and the water basin in Potling is called Yuling basin, so the sacred names in our own geography, but all the local people thought they got it from Matthew Flinders.
So that’s a remarkable thing, right? These have been taking of normal prints so they’re a bit all over. The interesting thing about this is, I brought a new [inaudible] and look at the number of kids. So future-proofing kind of goes on and sometimes you don’t notice it. Sometimes you think there’s not a lot of people, but actually the young people are part of it.
Cool. So, my next question for developing the theme of future-proofing is, what does this ritual geographic knowledge mean in human terms? Now for me it means — and I think this is important thing, I’m going to test it on you guys, right? It means, to me, that songlines are an interactive geographic form of mythology. Now they link important and valuable places and countries and people over thousands and thousands of kilometres. And they, unlike any other religious device that I’m aware of — which isn’t all that many — they necessitate social and political cohesion.
Now, the spiritual and environmental wellbeing of every group is dependent on the spiritual and environmental wellbeing of the group next door. Now each in a sense is an independent religious chain that encompasses, as I’ve demonstrated, an area about the size of Europe. Now songlines to me are thus ultimately — oh, only two minutes left, God I’ve got to go, go quick. Okay, I’ll say this really fast. I didn’t realise I was talking so much. Terribly sorry.
Okay, so my view is that songlines are more than stories. They’re actually powerful religious vehicles for determining traditional law and determining rights in land, they link people together in a way that’s so cohesive that it actually engenders, with classificated kinship, the most unique religious device on earth. Aboriginal people are, as far as I know, the only people on Earth — and this is their contribution to the world — that have a religious and communal system of laws which actually form cohesion and is, by definition, harmonious. You can’t have social conflict because your own religious beliefs are destroyed.
So I’m going to flick through now really quickly. We’ll have to come back. And I was going to say here — Oh, I’ve got so much to talk about. Just very quickly, the black is basically exclusive native title, which drives through the Indigenous land rights. That is as good as freehold title. That whole country is owned by Aboriginal people and they have complete control over it. Seems to be based on particular songlines. [inaudible], if you look at the map, almost the whole lines from the top of the Pilbara to Cape York is Aboriginal-owned.
The entire northern defensive sea border of Australia is basically Aboriginal land. And if you think of that in political, geographic terms, this is a massively powerful position, all articulated by songlines. So the importance of songlines goes a long, long way in my mind beyond the sort of pleasantry we hear when we tell stories. It’s actually a profoundly important social and political device.
Now quickly, I’ll move on. Okay, I’ll go back. I happened to be in [inaudible] last year, and for the first time in 20 years, there was a ritual exchange. And people were coming up from [inaudible] a 17-hour journey to [inaudible] pay back a gift that was the original ritual gift that was a little bit of a hair of a child.
Now, the people bringing the ritual back were all young people. The gift was given to the fathers, the fathers didn’t pay the debt off. The next generation did, and they arrived and performed the ceremony for seven days. I just happened to be there. Look at the ages. The lady there is young. The dancers are young, really young, right? And they were paying big for six hours a day. Went for six days and the whole dance included things like [inaudible] pulling anchors and rowing boats, and I thought, ‘What is this about?’ And the gift that was given back for that little bit of hair, and that bit of hair had been kept for 20 years. Aboriginal people are famous for losing stuff.
The gift was [inaudible], sheets, those terrible [inaudible] blankets, thick furry blankets, and you get dirt [inaudible] and what it was, in this young generation, the same ceremony was performed three or four hundred years ago for the [inaudible], its about the rival [inaudible] silks and sarongs and woven mats, and it’s changing and they’re still performing the same ritual today. So as a sort of symbol of future-proofing, I think the circumstances and the importance of the law in basically coming the tradition’s educator in a real person, is growing and growing and growing. And this is proof of the understanding of the [inaudible] of Aboriginality in context of its own law.
Sorry if I went too long. Done.
I’ve got to do something here with this. Hit one more slide.
MARGO NEALE: [inaudible] Thank you so much for coming, Scott. I’ll address the slides.
SCOTT CANE: I didn’t stand a chance.
MARGO NEALE: That’s what I [inaudible].
SCOTT CANE: You’ll see it when you start from that mythology [inaudible] I was just looking for an item today and I — [crosstalk] So I apologise.
MARGO NEALE: I learned a lot. Oh, I learned a lot. And this is what I hope the day does — we all have little different bits of the elephant, and no question, it would’ve deepened our understanding of the different parts of people working and I just think that the nature that contemporary activity, how active it still is, is quite extraordinary. And the engagement of young people to the extent that it was — What really gets me is the modern day, the Adelaide area. So that’s clearly where we’re going to go next.
Just like all things we’re going to hear today, we’re only skimming the surface, but this stimulates us for further learnings.
Does anyone want to make a particular comment or question or? Happy to hang around. Just got a minute.
QUESTION: I was really struck by the comment that, if there’s conflict between the different groups then that destroys the religion. It undermines the group so you can’t have conflict, so just a quick passing comment but a really substantial one.
COMMENT: [inaudible] I think it struck a lot of people.
SCOTT CANE: That seems to me the thing, you know. What does societies contribute to the world, you know? Chinese gunpowder and compass, and Roman’s concrete, and the British maybe the internet and so forth, so what did the Aboriginal people contribute? Their greatest contribution to humanity is that system that religion and the classificatory system of kinship, which is another thing to go into, means that everybody here is by definition — If you told me that you were say, Jagamara, I know instantly you’re my grandfather and I’d behave to you like that. And that would be for everybody, and you can be in a situation if you’re part of a kinship system anywhere and say — I was talking to a friend of mine, Tracy, who’s working in Albury-Wodonga with a man called [inaudible], and I know my relationship to him. By that, and this sort of co-dependent religious tradition, means that they’ve developed a system that is kind of completely anti-conflict.
There is conflict, there’s always conflict amongst groups over women and over an infringement of some ceremony, a totemic — if you go and damage a site then they’ll go and kill you. So there’s conflict in the maintenance of the law, but there’s that reciprocity in the system that you might be like, ‘I might actually have to kill you,’ but you’re his brother there but we’ve got to perform the ceremony, so we get over it.
It’s actually a harmonious system, and there’re no system — I think — I know this is being filmed, so I shouldn’t say this — I think the whole issue with Invasion Day is missed in that context because it wasn’t a point of conflict. I imagine the Aboriginal people had welcomed, as they welcomed me the first time I went to the desert. It’s like, you’re a strange white person — I wasn’t a missionary. I got given this kinship and I was welcomed and that’s their contribution to me.
SCOTT CANE: Please, yes.
SCOTT CANE: Oh and independent, thanks. Yes, good.
SCOTT CANE: Yes, no it is true, it would be a good idea [inaudible] independent. Yes.
QUESTION: Hi, I do have young [Indigenous word] children through my ex-partner and a big family and that’s part of why I’m here, but just also I travelled here with a friend who lives with an elder just north of Port Augusta, and, not to be too controversial, but looking at the other side of where, like you’ve probably been involved with a lot of native title that you feel has had positive outcomes, but you know where there’s places where people are almost seen as twisting their kinship, or whitefellas go up north and get initiated with this other tribe and come back and say, ‘That’s our country now’ and all that kind of thing. Is that sort of an example of how the falling apart of the religious kinship, the properness does stop that keeps things peaceful and now we’re getting that ripping apart when native title has had a bad effect on people masking their real kinships and mixing it all up and such?
SCOTT CANE: I’ll talk a little bit about that. For me, I’ve seen the same thing and you see people from the urban fringe rush up and get initiated and come back [inaudible]. But also I’ve seen that now play out no over a couple of decades and I was also concerned that the sort of expansion of the religious domain was diluting it. But over time, what happens is those people start begetting a bit — there’s obligations on them. And they become part of — so I think on balance, it’s certainly a fraught journey which is the nature of its political dimension, I mean it’s not a clean line. But either — really what’s happening here with the Songlines exhibition is Western Desert people are asserting their political authority beyond [inaudible]. They’re talking here now with power. That’s the process. And for me, that’s kind of wonderful and ingenious and probably you’re part of a kinship network now.
COMMENT: Oh yes.
SCOTT CANE: You know? So I think it’s a fraught —
MARGO NEALE: A lot of people want to talk about the Museum as being another site, and it’s the way it is spoken about, but it’s now part of the songline, so any of these new sites, new people all get folded in as the ongoing story. Thanks very much, Scott.
We need to — you picked up on — I’ve got one of these here. We can pick up on — just hold those ideas and thoughts and we’ll pick up on them at the end of the time. You might have to make a choice between coffee or talk, but you know. Life’s all about choices.
So, Professor John Bradley is going to talk to us next. Talk with us, about us. He’s the artist who first came across — John, I’ve met him today at first, and I didn’t recognise him because the photo I saw in the book he did there, the thing in Saltwater country, was when he was a young school teacher in Borroloola and it was about 38 — no, he was there for 38 years. So where are you, John? So I can talk about you with you in mind.
So he looks a little different from then, so clearly I didn’t recognise him. I was absolutely intrigued because I went up into Arnhem Land as a schoolteacher with my husband in the early 70s so I kind of have a sense of that time and place although it’s a different place.
Certainly the same kind of time. Everyone looked different and wore funny clothes and had long hair everywhere and men wore little tight shorts and long white socks and you know. It was all — I won’t tell you what I wore, it was disgusting. Lots of wiglets and false eyelashes and all that stuff, as you would in Arnhem Land of course.
I kind of got a real sense of it, and I was intrigued, and I’m not going to steal his thunder because I don’t even know what his thunder is today, but I can’t really steal it because he spent 38 years there as an archaeologist or anthropologist, I’m not putting him down at all, but that wasn’t his intent, he was there for different reasons, but school finishes early, as you know, and you have long holidays and in those days you didn’t have to do a lot of work to do after school because they didn’t have all that adminny stuff they have now, so he obviously got very absorbed and this book it fabulous. I’ll just get the right, the actual title. Singing Saltwater Country. And he was mapping songlines and stuff of all the old fellas and must have made an enormous contribution by virtue of the fact that he didn’t just leave his teaching post and that was the end of that. He actually continued and is now the deputy director of the Monash Indigenous Centre at Monash University and this Borroloola experience was the 1980s. So what we’ll do is we’ll put some of these bios up on the web so that I don’t bore you too much with reading them out, but anyway he will speak for himself. Thank you very much, John Bradley.
JOHN BRADLEY: Okay, thank you very much. Thank you Kim, thank you Scott. My journey’s a bit different really, because we’re going to leave the desert. I work in saltwater country and things change when we get into that country.
So, I could’ve chosen any place at all to talk about, but I thought Manungurra is a really good place because it was really, really important to Yanyuwa people that I’ve worked with back in the 60s, right back. In fact today it’s called Canberra. This is the Canberra of Yanyuwa country, and partly because of the cyclic palms and the ability to provide enormous amounts of food for the gatherings of many, many hundreds of people for ceremonies and things like this. It’s got a bigger story because it’s one of the first ever places in recent times where we tried new technologies, new ideas to try and bring that place to life, and that’s what I want to finish with.
And my whole talk is really about young people and old people. This is the conversation. But I better pay some homage to the Seven Sisters, and in the gulf country, that’s the Seven Sisters. The blue ring octopus. And they’re very powerful. Very poisonous. When you poke a blue ring octopus they light up like stars. They have many names, each name meaning special things. And in fact, the first song I ever heard in 1980, the first time I ever went bush, was being woken up in my swag at four in the morning by a group of elderly men and women singing the Seven Sisters as they rose in the eastern sky in the cold season. And they were singing it because that song recreates the earth in you, and if any babies are nearby they are grabbed and they are tapped and it’s meant to make the babies strong as well. It also has men’s business, it also has women’s business. But that’s the Seven Sisters.
I have to acknowledge this old lady, and I should also acknowledge in the audience, I saw him arrive, John Moriarty, a Yanyuwa elder, somewhere up the back, somewhere. I saw him. But, he will know this old lady, this is my number one mum. One of the hardest teachers I’ve ever had in my life, who knows what I’m doing here today and said, ‘Well that’s your business.’ But who has really been the driving force in a community where now she represents only one of three elders who now speak the language Yanyuwa, and that’s more complex because Yanyuwa’s one of the only languages in the world that has completely different dialects for male and female, so she’s a woman speaker.
She knows the inside-outs of men’s songlines. So many times we would listen to men singing and people like Diana are singing under their breath. They would never sing aloud, but they would sing under their breath. She knew what was being sung, how it was being sung, and what was going on. And Singing Saltwater Country, that book, really came about after all the last old song men had died and people like Diana and others didn’t think the job was finished. And my job over the last ten years is really still working with songlines, and that’s what I want to do today, is just give you an example of the kind of stuff that Diana and others of her generation are doing.
To speak of songlines — what does it mean in language to speak of songline? You know [Indigenous word] in Yanyuwa but [Indigenous word] can also mean just a verse. As Scott rightly said, it can also be a person. You can point to the magpie and say, ‘That’s [Indigenous word].’ You can point at a kangaroo and say, ‘That’s [Indigenous word] too.’ It’s all got song. The path of the song is a road, so when you sing you follow the path. And somebody that really sings brilliantly literally swallows the essence of the song. If you’ve ever seen old men when they’re singing powerfully, you see that they’re right there. They’re the dingo, they’re the kangaroo, whatever they are, they’re it.
And this is how I entered the world. I was fascinated arriving in Yanyuwa country, and there was another language to learn, and so I entered this world via language. In Yanyuwa at least, songlines can never be spoken of as past tense, they can never be spoken of as future tense. They are always present. They never go away, they are always there, sitting there, even if no one is singing them they are still there. They’re running, if you like, like a pipeline of water through the ground, and if you are a human being who knows how to sing, you are the tap. And the song amplifies itself through you.
So always present tense. And I could go on with these words because there’s also a very complex series of directional markers — north, south, east, west — that can also fit to this. And then, how do we talk about people that know? The songs are always sitting there. The person who is a singer of songs, the song sits in their mouth. It sits on their tongue. It’s not in their head. It sits on their tongue, ready to sing. Always in the present tense.
So, these are the public songlines in Yanyuwa country. There are some restricted ones, but we haven’t marked them. And so, wherever this little doodad is — how do I turn it on? [inaudible]
Ah, thank you. Right. So these are the public songlines and I’ve just done something I shouldn’t have done. But that’s all right. Manungurra is down here. And that’s where we’re going to go. But you can see, as Scott said, there’s ribbons.
And another way I would describe a songline is, for the Yanyuwa at least, is that they are ecological ribbons of knowledge. They are full of environmental knowledge, meteorological knowledge, scientific knowledge of all kinds. And one of the ways I got really interested in them was when people were singing them and saying, ‘That animal’s not there anymore. We sing it but it’s gone.’ ‘Where’d it go?’ ‘Oh, maybe whitefella took it away.’ And I began to understand extinction of species through understanding songlines.
And I had one experience where I’d sat — there’s a big debate about a particular bandicoot in this country, whether it ever existed, by the scientists. And Yanyuwa people say, ‘We got a song for him. We sing him. We know him. But he’s not here anymore, he’s gone away.’ ‘Where’d he go?’ ‘Oh, maybe whitefellas took him away in a box.’ And I happen to know a fella who arrived from Alice Springs the next day that that comment was said at the first, and he was there to do mammal surveys. He had a whole lot of stuffed mammals that he pulled out of the back of a car, and the first one that he pulled out of the box was the golden bandicoot, and people just said, ‘See, told ya.’
So, one of the things in Yanyuwa country, though, that confuses people sometimes is there’s big difference between what is a Dreaming path and a songline. They don’t always match. So, the red line is the Dreaming path of the tiger shark. But the green line is the actual song. So the tiger shark travelled, gets to Manungurra, stands up, and then sings backwards. He doesn’t travel, he just sings the song back over the country that he knows is his. And this happens over and over again in Yanyuwa country. There are times when there are no Dreamings carrying a song at all. The song is its own force. The song has its own agency, rolling through the country. There is no kangaroo singing it, there is no dingo singing it. It’s just the song wanting to move. So we get into certain levels of abstraction in regards to this.
Now, one of the big issues in this country is there are no singers. There are no men left who know any songs at all. We have all the recordings, and there was always debate about whether recording was good. I’ve had old men say, ‘Nope. Kids can’t learn. They don’t get it. End of story. That tape is no good.’ And one of the reasons they didn’t like the tape is because of all the conversations that surround singing.
Singing isn’t passive. There’s all sorts of other stories told. So, as the old men died people got more worried. We’d recorded, we’d transcribed, we had lots of pages of songs that were mute. And what I realised when I got to know a lot of young people, they said, ‘Well, I’m not going after those old men, they don’t tell you anything. They don’t tell me what they’re singing. Why should we go? They can’t teach us.’ Because for the old men, singing is just so much fun. It’s where they need to be, and for young people it’s like, ‘What are you singing, grandad?’ It just stops the event.
And what I’ve come to realise too, is in a community where language was no longer being spoken, kids didn’t know a lot of the detail of their own country anymore. The different birds, the different fish, the different animals. All the things that made up a song. And so, I took upon myself to start drawing.
Now you could say, ‘Well, why didn’t Indigenous people, Yanyuwa people themselves draw?’ I’ll tell you a short story. I’ve always drawn. Sketchbooks full of drawings. And I was on my veranda once, drawing, and an old man came up behind me and he said, ‘Hmm. Who do you want to kill?’ And I said, ‘Nobody.’ And he said, ‘Must be you’ve gotta kill somebody.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘We don’t draw in this country. Don’t draw.’ The acrylic art movement now does exist at Borroloola, but people are very careful that they do not paint Dreamings. There is too much politic. So the crazy whitefella can draw all he likes, and that’s good. People like this.
These illustrations are work in process, but it illustrates what we decided to do with the songlines. We decided to draw them. And everything that we could find that could be sung, so that kids, when they look at these things — these are actually A3, we’ve got plans to actually make them much, much bigger. Like, big scrolls of law, if you like, borrowing from the Torah scrolls, where they’re metres long. But at least we could start to say to the kids, ‘This is what’s being sung.’ The text at the top is translation. A literal translation of the owners’ of the songs. Because I found out actually asking people, ‘Where does that song travel?’ you got great stories. Not just the singing of it, but where does it travel? What does it do? How does it move?
And so, it starts at Manungurra, and it sings the freshwater well, it sings old people getting water. I’m going to show you an animation of just this part here at the end. [Points to animation] And you can see the bend of the river, thank you to Google Earth. And then it goes down into the river and it travels now downstream. You can see coming down of the eastern bank of the river, the songline circles. It’s active. It’s present. It is doing. Even now as I stand here it’s still doing this. And so all the place names become apparent. What happens at these place names becomes apparent. How things move.
And there’s all sorts of relationships here. Why does a crocodile live under a flying fox colony? Easy feed. So, when you really start to look at things you start to see all sorts of other interrelationships that these songs express. And so, we’ve drawn now every public songline. Huge portfolios of them. All mapped. This is where my life is at at the moment. All mapped, all done. My wife is actually the colourist, she did all the colouring. Because at first, I thought black and white ink, easy to draw, but people wouldn’t look at them. There was no depth, there was no resonance. So I actually paid my wife as an RA to colour, and it was a really important thing to do, because as soon as people saw the colour ones they interacted immediately. This is country. It’s alive. It’s doing something.
And then we head out the river mouth. Now we have songlines in the sea. I think this is a really important point. We talk about terra nullius but we also mare nullius for a long time as well. That the sea was owned by nobody, but when you see these songlines that are moving out into the sea country you’re dealing with people that know this country. This is country. This is a place. This is an active place. And the drawings are good because you can see species, but the drawings — it’s more difficult because they sing the movement of the tides, they sing the currents, they sing all sorts of other phenomena that are a bit harder to represent. Whales, all sorts of things. Rainbow serpents. They’re all in here.
Now, just as a point to you, this is a really interesting point not just because it’s politics where clans hand over, but here’s a species of shark here — this one here — that when we drew it, I had an ichthyologist friend and I said, ‘Well, that shark is there.’ And he said, ‘No, it couldn’t have been.’ And I said, ‘Well, we found a dead one. Which was smelly, but we took a photo. Here’s a photo.’ ‘No, you couldn’t have.’ And I said, ‘Well we did! And we got songs for it and people have stories for it.’ And he said, ‘But you couldn’t have.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because we haven’t discovered it there yet.’ And he was deadly serious.
Ten years later a PHD student of his found one. And the first they rang up and said is, ‘Can we call the Latin name by the Yanyuwa name, please?’ And people went, ‘Well, why? You didn’t believe us in the first place.’ So this a sort of a site of tension that can exist in these different knowledges that we are dealing with. So we come onto an island now, this island of Vanderlind Island, and we cross over the Vanderlind Island and this song is still travelling, it’s still there right now. And it goes back out to the sea and circles around for a little while. And then it comes back onto the land and it goes into this big fresh water lake where this huge rainbow serpent lives.
Now, the idea of this thing being active is actually really important. When this song is sung, they describe the rainbow serpent in incredible detail, but after every verse they sing him, they also sing a verse that stops him from getting angry. So, every verse is accompanied by a statement they make, ‘We know you’re there and we don’t want you to hurt,’ because this is the bringer of cyclones. This is the bringer of bad weather. Danger. Nasty things.
So this is where we’re up to in the Gulf country. Where colonial impact has been immense. Where languages are not being spoken. And yet, people know the centrality of song in their life. We don’t know where this is going to go. Out of the 13 public songlines we have mapped and drawn, through the use of this material, one group of young men now sing. And because they can sing, initiation ceremonies can still happen. But it has been a huge effort on their behalf. Maps. Tapes. Travelling onto country. Huge effort, and yet they’re doing it.
But of course, the old people are so critical. ‘Oh, they’re soft. You know they’ve got soft tone. They can’t say the words like they’re meant to be said.’ But they’re really proud, and on the off-moment the grandmas are still proud too. But they’re harsh critics. If this is gonna be done, do it properly. So out of the 13 songlines that we have recorded, we have mapped, we have drawn, we’ve done everything with, one has come alive. And that’s an enormous effort on behalf of young men, young women too, being prepared to engage with a multiplicity of technologies.
So where I want to leave you is with — somewhere here. I don’t know where it’s gone. Luke? Play.
Is with probably the first ever animated songline in the history of Australia. Part of what I do in my other job at Monash is using animation the help record Indigenous languages for posterity. And, hopefully it will work. Yes. We’ll recap. And this is Manungurra, but the songline is just going round and round in one place. It hasn’t even begun its journey yet. Thank you.
[Recording of animated songline]
Can I just tell one story here about this animation. It was with great trepidation we took it back into the community because this is the first one that was ever done. And we go back to the photo of Diana, and Diana is the senior woman in charge of this song. And we all filed into the room and we put it in the TV, there was about 40 people and there was dead silence and everyone is watching Diana, who stayed mute.
And I’m going, ‘Uh-uh, not working,’ until those bubbles floated. And when she saw the bubbles she looked at me and she said, ‘You’ve got it.’ And from then on the rest is history. Thank you.
MARGO NEALE: Thank you so much. I’m reeling.
I can see why people are commenting and asking questions, how do you process all of that? But if you do have a burning — if you want to talk about it now? We also have a quieter session at the end of the day if you want to allow some things to settle in the glass of the brain and bring it up, but we have the lady.
Oh, you’ve got to get one of these things.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. I’m not used to speaking in a microphone. I’m really interested — John Bradley thank you very much. And I’ve got your book and it’s all highlighted and noted, I absolutely love it. You say this song, the song seems to have its own presence. Is the song like spirit, the essence or something? Or is that reading too much into it? Is it more than just a group of words.
JOHN BRADLEY: It’s always more than — is it going? Yes. It’s always more than a group of words. Look, I don’t know how to think about this in my own head a little bit, except that once I really quizzed an old man, and this is a little translation of what he said from Yanyuwa. He said, ‘Look, understand it travels merely by itself. It does not need a Dreaming to carry it.’ And then he went on and he said, ‘The crow does not carry it,’ because we’re dealing with one of his own songs. ‘The wedge-tailed eagle does not carry it. Merely the song travels by itself but then it will pick up the crow and sing it and leave it. It will pick up the wedge-tailed eagle and sing it and leave it, and then it will merely travel by itself again.’
QUESTION: So that sort of leads into my next question. Does the song need a person to sing it or to bring it into being?
JOHN BRADLEY: Well, I talk about it — the human is the amplifier.
COMMENT: So okay.
JOHN BRADLEY: But it’s important to understand the song is always there.
COMMENT: Mmm [affirmative].
JOHN BRADLEY: It’s not going to go away.
COMMENT: That’s very — okay. Yes. Sorry, thank you!
MARGO NEALE: Now, we’re just running over for a coffee break. I know there’s some elder people burning in here, can you hold it another — catch your coffee or if you don’t burst at the seams, hold it until the end of the day to share it with us all. Sorry about that but I’m sure you’ll agree that was a very rich examples of how songlines work on country over time, and how some of the challenges of the transfer of knowledge is being overcome for the next generation.
So, coffee will be a bit brief because it takes people — because you have to wander there and wander back, so try to wander fast. Would that be good?
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Date published: 28 February 2019