Skip to content
  • Open today 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission

Musician and Gamilaraay language teacher Nardi Simpson, linguist and Western Desert language expert Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis, author and Aboriginal educator Dr Paul Collis, and Indigenous policy expert Sarah Burr, 4 February 2018

ELLEN KOSHLAND: Hello. I am Ellen Koshland and I am director of The Poet’s Voice and it is my great pleasure to welcome you to this occasion, Word for Word, at the National Museum of Australia. Thank you all for coming on this beautiful Sunday evening. It adds enormously to this gathering to acknowledge that we are on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting, and offer our respect to their elders both past and present, and that respect is extended to the other Aboriginal and Torres Islander people who are also here today.

The Poet’s Voice has sought for some number of years now to create events of good listening in the public realm. We are delighted, honoured and I would actually say privileged to be offering this event in conjunction with Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters.

It is a milestone exhibition and it sets a whole new standard in exhibitions as I’m sure any of you who have seen it [would agree]. From my point of view, the reason that it does this is because it is so multidimensional. We have painting, sculpture, weaving, video, digital portraits, overhead domes — all of this. And the reward from these many dimensions, is that we are given access to the full sophistication of the knowledge systems that have been operating for tens of thousands of years. Knowledge of astronomy, horticulture, desert navigation, as well as all this connected to great songlines of stories of fear, solidarity, humour, resistance, escape, etc. And not just from one country, or one community, which is common, but from communities connected across this entire country.

And shortly, I will be asking Margo Neale, who is the principal Indigenous advisor to this Museum and the central figure of holding together the marvellous team that put this exhibition together, to come and welcome you as well. But I wanted to say to you, Margo, and to the whole team publicly: thank you. You have given us a great gift of immersion and communication and understanding.

Just before I move on, I want to say a little bit about the occasion today and the Word for Word project. I am sure you would all join me in having been thrilled with the great, extraordinary flowering of Aboriginal art that has taken place since 1971. Of course, that great flowering and renaissance and extension was drawing on years and years of art that goes back in this country for, as I’ve said, tens of thousands of years. But the thing that was really special about this renaissance and extension, even into urban centres, is that all Australians recognise and respect that great visual tradition.

Unfortunately the recognition of the great language tradition of Indigenous Australians has lagged behind that. If we compare ourselves to our neighbour, New Zealand, where all children learn Maori in school and most adults know more than 100 words of Maori, it is very sad that very few Australians knew many Indigenous words beyond place names.

Thankfully, major change is underway. And as you know, many, many communities across the land are creating dictionaries ensuring their language is not lost. People like Nardi Simpson, who is with us today, a wonderful musician, incorporates language into her songs. Lizzie Ellis, who is another one of our contributors, is a linguist, preserving and teaching language. Robert Browning, on the away programme, does a great deal to bring language into public awareness.

Today’s event is just a small contribution on our part to say: yes also, we believe in the power and critical centrality of language. And we do this by asking individuals to share with us a special word of language that is important to them and why it is important. And the reason we do this is that language is about much more than a set of vocabularies. It’s about a whole way of knowing the world, what your priorities are, what your values are, and it is central to culture, story, and country.

And so, we are incredibly lucky in the four individuals who are going to share a word with us today and I’d like to say a little bit about them.

Sarah Burr — where are you Sarah? Right there — grew up in Meanjin — Brisbane — and has lived in Canberra since 2011. She works in Indigenous policy. Her background is in land management and economics and her interests include Aboriginal sustainable development across cultural land, business, and gender spaces. She also has major roles with the YWCA Canberra, the ABC, and the University of Canberra. Thank you, Sarah, for being here.

Lizzie Ellis, who is right here, is an Ngaanyatjarra woman and linguist from the Western Desert. She has worked as a researcher, interpreter, translator, language teacher for more than 20 years, and many organisations seek her expertise, whether filmmakers or government, agencies, title makers, and researchers. She has also worked as a curriculum developer and is currently the recipient of a three-year Australian Research Council Discovery Indigenous award.

Dr Paul Collis — Paul, where are you? There! — Is a Barkindji man born in Bourke, in the far west New South Wales on the Darling River. He worked in Newcastle for much of his young adult life in education and in Aboriginal community development positions including teaching Aboriginal studies to Indigenous inmates in prison and juvenile detention. He’s had a wonderful novel just published called Dancing Home, which is an exploration of contemporary Indigenous masculinity and it won the 2016 David Unaipon award for a previously unpublished Indigenous writer. Thank you Paul, for being here.

Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay — comes from the Eora people with roots in Sydney’s inner west and country New South Wales. A magician, song writer, writer and performer, Nardi is a founding member of Stiff Gins. She’s a language teacher, cultural knowledge practitioner and she’s involved in sharing and growing Indigenous knowledge and cultural practise throughout New South Wales. Thank you also for being here.

I will invite Margo Neale to say a little bit about the exhibition and the event. I know you will all be richer for these people sharing these words with us. Thank you.

MARGO NEALE: Ooh, good. I have your notes, I can do it again!

[Laughter]

Hello, thanks for being here today on sunny, sunny Sunday. And of course too — it is a very privileged audience, we closed the door. We wouldn’t let the other thousand in, so you’re very exclusive. They’ve gone fishing. So being by the side of the lake has that advantage if you like.

So the staff, thanks for the staff too. I know they get recompensed in dollars but it’s still very nice of you to come here on Sunday. They often have to ’cause that’s when all the people come, the weekends.

Now I’d like to respectfully acknowledge the first peoples of this region — to second Ellen’s [acknowledgement] — and their ancestors on whose lands we come together for Poet’s Voice. These people today are known as the Ngunawal, Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, but of course, as all over Australia, with claims from others. I recognise the host peoples’ continuing connection to this place. A connection that spans some 25 to 30,000 years. Today, our local Indigenous communities continue this legacy, and it’s a cultural legacy that continues to enrich Canberra’s ongoing story.

Pause there. Jude Barlow who was supposed to speak today instead of me — I’m your backup — who’s from the local Ngunnawal people, unfortunately was unable to come. So she’s asked — endorsed me — acknowledging the peoples from here.

Just as the nation’s capital has for 90 years been the seat of government in a place where Australia’s political leaders have met, for Aboriginal people it has been thousands of years longer than that. So the first peoples performed age-old ceremonies of celebration, initiation and renewal. Particularly this is a pretty important site for a whole range of things and I’d be here half a day if I told you all of them. But, the mob from the coast would meet over there where the foreshore is [points in the direction of the lake]. This was just a river, not a lake. The mob from Yass would come up and the mob from the mountains would come down and everyone would kind of hang around and wait for an invitation to enter onto this particular piece of land for the bogong moth ceremony mostly. That’s to sort of fatten, fill and make your skin glossy, ready for the winter.

Pity it stopped. We could all do that — except the fat bit. I think I’d just like to mention too that the first peoples here, these groups included — we only hear Ngunawal, now Ngunnawal and Ngambri. But the groups recorded here include the Ngunnawal-speaking Wallabaloo people, the Ngambri-speaking Walgaloo people, the Gundungurra-speaking Pajong people, and the Ngarigo-speaking Molonglo and Manoro peoples, and others. But just so as you know, this place was very rich with a lot of comings and goings of people have a very long connection here.

Of course, Ngambri or Kamberry is a name of the ancestral group after whom Canberra is named, ostensibly. Everything is arguable. But that’s the story at this point in time.

Today, other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from across the country come here to live and work and of course, we acknowledge them too — many for generations, families over generations. And at that point I would sort of like to acknowledge all the elders in this audience. Now I don’t know what chronology, age, that is because I’m sure on that basis I’d be in. But anyway, all of those who have come here who have knowledge and wisdom of whatever, Indigenous or not Indigenous, I welcome you to this event today. And my other Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters who are also studded throughout the audience, of course.

And thank you to Ellen Koshland for putting this on. It’s a tremendous commitment and passion on caring so much for our languages and then by extension, our country and our culture. And she’s done this and I was thinking she might say it earlier, but this is not the first time that they’ve done big gigs like this at the Wheeler Centre and, it’s just out of pure — she’s not with an institution or anything, she doesn’t have to go and get big grants, I think she’s just personally dedicated to this. So I think we need to acknowledge that. [Applause]

And also, the ever-productive and ever-energetic Nikki Anderson, who’s the one who first approached me. She’s lurking somewhere around there out the back in the floral. Yes. Now I too am a member, although not part of, from here, I’ve been a member of the Indigenous community here for some 40 years. What’s not on my business card is that I was born and raised in Gippsland to an Irish father and Aboriginal mother, and I’m a member of the Kulin Nation, with strong Wiradjuri and Gumbaynngirr ties, clan connections. Which we refresh every year, which we have for 30 years now, on the Clarence River with a New Year smoking ceremony and sometimes out of our place out here in the bush. So we do the best we can to keep as much of our culture alive and shared as possible in that way.

Now I never spoke really in those languages but I did speak fluent Gubupuingu and Jumbupuingu and other languages like that for a ten-year stint in the Arnhem Land in the ’70s. I was young enough to learn them then.

Now on the opening remarks, I really don’t need to say is in 2007, an Anangu elder, Mr David Miller, he leaned over a table to a number of people here in Canberra and in very hushed but weighty tones, said, ‘Our songline’s all been broken up and we want you mob to help us put them back together again.’ Now that’s a huge statement in a whole range of ways because he was talking to museums and universities who would be seen to have a hand in some of the breaking.

So this was some sense of urgency that we view the loss and fragmentation of languages in the same way. Language is culture. Culture is language, and by extension songlines are also our language lines. So the conjunction of these two events tonight are eminently appropriate.

Let me just tell you a quick little story that’s in there about language, and you’ve met this lady digitally a number of times and then her name’s Alison Milyka Carroll. She tells her story in the catalogue, ‘Seven Pots for Seven Sisters.’

‘A name is much more than the name, it’s a key to knowledge.’ Some of you will have read it. She said to her granddaughter, one day, you know, ‘Go get me some imangka imangka leaves.’ And the granddaughter goes, ‘Duh.’ You know, what all the young ones are doing? And says to her — and she was quite alarmed obviously as a repeated event. And so, her and the other elders from the Ernabella Arts Centre got together and said, ‘We’re going to do something about this. It’s no good at just knowing the name twig or plant or even the generic language word like tjulpu for bird.’

So as a group they thought and I put the quote up in there, ‘Who are a group of women that work together in our culture that know about their country and the plants and the animals around them and use this knowledge as they travel? The Seven Sisters of course.’ Thus, in there you’ll see seven sisters for seven pots and each of the young people were given parts of the story by which particular pot they did. When you transform, and the witchetty grub and the honey ant, the fig tree and the various seven kind of transformations that occurred and it was through that that they taught the story. They collected the stuff. They took pictures or did drawings. They wrote words. They had the language … the rangers, land management people worked with them. So become an enormous language slash culture slash songlines-learning exercise. And that’s so seven pots, plus that lustful pursuer, in the blue room that you may see there. So the smallest details were recorded.

Just another quickie before I finish. Kim Mahood, too, you may have read in the catalogue as well, said something like this in there, that language and song is used to call up country. It’s the most ancient form of archiving or indexing. Story and song is how a country is known and remembered. Song created the land, yet the land created song. The expression, ‘Sing out the land’, names and locates places, retains and transmits knowledge contained in the master archive which is country. So story was patterned into songs that told these names of what you could eat and when you could get it. And always water, water, water.

So, songs, and by songs you’d use words and language, are learned as people travel to the places named in the song. The rhythm of the walking was taken into the body and through the body song becomes dance which in turn becomes ceremony. And that inma, that ceremony on the wall you see there, that is the primary mode of transmission of knowledge in those traditional times and clearly still for those people.

But, language is dynamic and it is forever changing and we must acknowledge that in this transcultural time. It’s a big blotter just like the Dreaming’s a big blotter. And when I was in Arnhem Land I saw a Gunavidji man, I think I was 21. This old Gunavidji man is teaching me everything, holding up the billycan, the bark, pointing to that tree saying, ‘This one bilicanor this one manumaroo or this one, and this one teebun,’ as he’s holding up teaspoon. And he’s saying, ‘This one teebun, and it’s old, old, old Gunavidji word.’ So, already, teaspoon was an old Gunavidji word, so in his mind as in the mind of many who are absorbing new words, there are a few other — lots of words like that that you’d hear and say, ‘Well that sounds familiar.’

And the word ‘songlines’ itself … you know the other thing is of course cross-cultural, songlines is a cross-cultural word it’s a passport to both Western and Indigenous knowledge systems. And Aboriginal people we work with have taken it on, without question it’s their word. Some people said, ‘Oh it’s a white word.’ Well you try and tell the people we’re working with that it’s not — whitefellas are going to take it back now and you’re going to have a black one.

Now, of course, it means, you know it really covers everything ’cause each of the regions has their own, like tjukurrpa is the one you’ll hear in there … there’s no actual equivalents as you guys are going to hear in a minute. There’s no actual equivalents ’cause it’s always imprecise and evasive ’cause there’s no actual translation. But generally it’s used instead of tjukkurpa in some areas and what’s the other … yeah, altyerre and kutjuku in the Cape and all the other local ones.

So I’d just like to conclude really by saying that, well Andrea Mason actually said here at the opening and at the Museum — at the Songlines opening — and she says, that if the heart of the nation is healthy and this exhibition is from the heart of the nation, then the nation is healthy. And I’d extend that to say, the same goes for language which is the heart of songlines as much as it is the heart of our culture, the first culture of this continent. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

(CLAPSTICKS BEING PLAYED)

SARAH BURR: Hi, I’m Sarah Burr, and I’m going to share with you the Wiradjeri word yindyamarra.

First I’d like to thank the organisers of the event today. I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people whose land I’m standing on right now. And thank you Simon as well, a Wiradjeri man who’s just played beautiful clapsticks for us.

Yindyamarra. It’s difficult to directly translate into English because it’s a verb that asks us to respect, honour, be gentle, be polite and act slowly — all at once.

It’s more than being respectful. It’s more than honouring an individual or country or culture. It’s more than gentle slowness or politeness. In a way, it’s a reflection of love toward someone or something else but not necessarily a romantic love or even a platonic love.

I chose the word yindyamarra after hearing some Ngunnawal and Wiradjeri elders speaking at an event here in Canberra recently. And they asked the participants of the event to trade each other with yindyamarra, and I thought, what a wonderful way to bring old lore and culture to a modern event while also sharing things in a very practical way. So the best analogies I can come up with to describe yindyamarra to you is to tell you about my Nan. Tell you about my [Indigenous word], tell you about my [Indigenous word] and tell you about the [Indigenous word].

The most pure application of yindyamarra in my family is our relationship with our mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Mae. She’s going to be 102 in May and is extremely strong and clever. When we visit her, we immediately slow down and soften. We’re more gentle with our physical interactions and we move more slowly and speak more slowly. When we’re gentle with our physical touch to her, we’re giving her gentle cuddles and we’re holding her old hand bones and her thin skin in ours.

We’re more polite. There’s definitely no swearing. And even though the volume of our voices increases so that she can hear us, the tone becomes much kinder. We respect her space and her stories. Our priorities change. We talk about what she wants to talk about which is usually AFL and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

We never interrupt and we honour her and don’t let her lift a finger the entire time we’re there. She never wants for a hot cup of tea or any biscuits. I think the biggest mark of respect we give her is that we talk about her constantly, like now. We’re so proud of her and so honoured to even be related to her.

Others recognise the need to practise yindyamarra around her too. For her knowledge, she’s been interviewed for books and for a documentary that became the movie, Utopia. And for her values, the other elderly people that she lives with treat her with yindyamarra and reverence. She’s a true queen.

I’m sure many of you practise yindyamarra in your daily lives without realising it. The object of your yindyamarra might not even be human. It might be a special place, like the way you act when you go for a walk through the Brindabellas. Or maybe when you go for swim in the Murrumbidgee. Or it might not even be the way that you treat an elder. It might be the way that you treat your own [Indigenous word] your [Indigenous word], your partner and your siblings.

Maybe you haven’t acted in a yindyamarra way, recently. But someone has treated you with respect, honour, gentleness, politeness, and slowness. I’m very lucky to be treated this way regularly by [Indigenous word] and my [Indigenous word] who are both here today. Respectively, they have travelled to the other side of the world to come and see me and they’ve looked after me when I’ve been unwell.

I witness yindyamarra happening every day and it gives me hope for the future. That our society does have the capacity to be kind and to slow down and enjoy what is beautiful in this life.

I think the act of yindyamarra is in all of us and because it is rooted in our cultures and our Dreamings and the stories we tell. I’m sure you’ve all seen the wonderful exhibition here at the Museum already. And I’m sure you’ve all witnessed the thread of yindyamarra running through the exhibition and running through the Dreaming of the Seven Sisters. Although yindyamarra isn’t a Martu or an Anangu or a Pitjantjatjara word, the Seven Sisters Dreaming is shared across many other nations in Australia and the Pacific, including the Wiradjeri nation where, in the Wiradjeri [Indigenous word], in the sky-law or in cosmology or Dreaming, the Seven Sisters are known as the [Indigenous word]. The [Indigenous word] display yindyamarra to each other by helping each other run from their pursuer, throwing off the scent with their cheekiness and their cleverness. They protect each other, they hide, they work together to evade capture all while caring for country.

The Seven Sisters’ acts of yindyamarra, honour and respect the importance of women and of country and of kinship. Even at their trickiest, they are kind and gentle towards one another.

I’d like to ask you now to practise yindyamarra towards others, to the land we are leaving our footprints on and to the cultures or traditions of others. I hope that by giving you a sense of what yindyamarra means, both in definition and in practice, we can all begin to exhibit these behaviours. You might have seen recently the divisions and upset caused by the 26th of January, our Survival Day discussions and all of the upset that it can drag up. You might have heard different Aboriginal and Torres Islander leaders or spokespeople around the country disagree with the significance of ceremony such as what comes to country. You might have read the Uluru Statement From the Heart, and learned about truth-telling or makarata, reconciliation and self-determination. So instead of engaging with negative emotions and deficit language, let’s all bring a little bit of gentleness, politeness, slowness, honour and respect, a little bit of yindyamarra to our families, communities, and the world. Thank you.

[Applause]

LIZZIE ELLIS: Hello, my name is Lizzie Ellis. My word for today is tjukurrpa. My parents and grandparents explained to us that the word tjukurrpa means, everything in our world. Tjukurrpa is [Indigenous word]. Sacred. This word is used many times in the Seven Sisters Songlines exhibition here at the NMA. [To the rest of the panel] Did I get it right?

A very long time ago, our world as we, the Ngaanyatjarra and western desert people and other Aboriginal people in Australia and internationally came into being. The ancestral beings created our world. We call this the tjukurr time. The creation time. Commonly known by everybody in Australia as the Dreaming. They created everything in our world. Land, water, plants, food, people and even our languages and much more. This is how we perceive tjukurrpa. This time has no equivalent in the European culture.

Our word tjukurrpa has many other meanings as well. One: beings who created our world during the tjukurr time, the creation time. Two: natural features within our environment associated with our creation story. Three: news, story, message. Four: dream. Five: birthmark, totem.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have attempted to explain the meaning of our special word, tjukurrpa. Many anthropologists have tried to explain the meaning of tjukurrpa, and some have done a great job, but others have done a terrible job. [Laughter] Here I read out anthropologist Fred Meyer’s explanation of the word tjukurrpa. I quote, ‘Because the tjukurrpa touches on so many dimensions of western desert peoples’ lives, it possesses no single of infinite existence. Instead, it represents a projection into the symbolic spaces of various social processes, hence the social meanings of the tjukurrpa only become apparent in the penetration into every aspect of Yanungu (Aboriginal) life, by providing a guide to all social order, social activity and communication.’ Unquote.

Wow, not bad for a white man, eh? The Seven Sisters songlines is a very important and high order tjukurrpa and that tjukurrpa not only lives in the past, it continues in the present and into the future, because we the people make it live by telling the stories, retelling the stories and singing the songs, continually singing the songs and dancing the dances.

I will give you a few examples of how tjukurrpa is part of everyday life. Wanarn, one of the communities represented in the exhibition is one of the communities in the Ngaanyatjarra lands, where I come from. And it’s commonly known as the Seven Sisters because the Seven Sisters travel through there. Wanarn Waterhole was created by the Seven Sisters and the pile of rocks next to the waterhole are the sisters. Yurla, the man chasing the Seven Sisters is there too as a rock just to the south. And the Seven Sisters are here as the big rock and the waterhole. To the side here is his friend, which is mentioned many times in the exhibition. And that friend is next to the airstrip.

The young children there, they tell many stories about the Seven Sisters in the classroom and some of the things that they’ve said … come up with. Things like, ‘The Seven Sisters, they never had a television.’ Or sometimes, a child would draw a picture. I’ve seen a drawing of the Seven Sisters sitting in a cave watching television.

[Applause]

We also say hello to the gum tree that is Yurla, the man who was chasing the Seven Sisters on the side of the road. And we call him djamu, grandfather. Hello, djamu. And there’s also another gum tree closer to Warakurna which is Yurla. Yurla is the Ngaanyatjarra word for Nyiru. In Pitjanjatjarra they say Nyiru.

At the one near Warakurna, we ask Yurla to bless us with the successful hunting trip. Young men from other Ngaanyatjarra lands, communities, are fearful of going to Wanarn, because the Seven Sisters are in an agitated state due to being chased by Yurla, the man, and they may accidentally cause them harm.

Thank you very much for coming and listening.

[Applause]

PAUL COLLIS: Hello everybody, my name is Paul Collis. Can you hear me? Good. I can’t hear very well. I don’t know why.

I come from Bourke. It’s about 600, 700 miles from here. Up near the Queensland, South Australia border, on the river Darling. The Darling River was named after Sir John Darling, but it had another name and it still has that name and more and more Barkindji people are starting to call the river by its original name. And that’s the word I want to share today. They call that river Baka and we are Barkindji as I said, derivative of us. Baka roughly in translation, in English, means ‘my darling’, coincidentally. I wonder what them old fellas would have thought when they said, ‘What’s that you say, that word? The Darling River, hmm, which way. ’

I hope they smiled when they found out that they called the river what it means.

Bill Gammage, his great book, The Biggest Estate — if you haven’t read it, get it, it’s an extraordinary piece of work. In that book he says, upon contact with that regional people, whitefellas found the country in pristine condition. More water flowed and animals were able to move freely between people. Nothing was prevented and in fact, it happens that the word that whitefellas used mainly to describe Australia in those early settlement days was ‘park’. Park, like Hyde Park in London. The land was so well managed that you could drive a carriage through it, the bush, as you would through Hyde Park in London.

So, next time you go for a drive, look at all the rubbish scrap that has not been tended to and think of that word baka, my darling.

I don’t know much of Barkindji language, when I was — My grandfather could speak four languages and my Nan could speak probably the same number. She’s a Kunyi woman from Queensland who was a Barkindji person from out near Louth. I said to Mum before she died, I said how come they could talk this other language. There’s some crossover words. Language is like that, it isn’t — it’s more than a communication tool. It’s more than something to name or possess something else. The Darling River was made by the rainbow serpent because it rained — the rainbow serpent is a snake. It’s woman’s Dreaming, it’s woman’s country — we’ve come through female lines, matriarchy. So those women carried our history and our laws. They held the country. Very different way of operating. I asked grandfather, I said, ‘What am I? ’ He said, ‘You’re Barkindji, boy, like me. ’ ‘How did I do that?’ When I was 11, I asked him, ‘Grandfather, why didn’t you teach me Barkindji language?’

It’d be very much, what he said, he said, ‘Who would you talk to when I go?’ He thought that the language would die out and would not be useful. He didn’t understand — I don’t think he understood how thoughts can be produced in language, a different thought. Many of the great struggles Aboriginal peoples fought today are modern problems. I can’t find a word in traditional languages that I’ve looked at for cancer for example. Did we have cancer before whitefellas got here? That’s a real serious question. It’s just assumed that we have, like all people. Maybe we didn’t. I don’t know.

Badger Bates is my senior elder. Badger’s from Wilcannia about 60 miles south of Bourke. If you haven’t been to Wilcannia, it’s an experience. My father said ‘Go’, at the end, said, ‘Teach love for the people in that area’ and they come back and say — I say, ‘Where you been,’ and they say, ‘Wilcannia. Rough. Nice country though. Darling River. We would never have known it to not run.’ I asked, ‘What is a river? What happens if there’s no water in it, is it still a river? ’

I did some research like last year about how Barkindji people managed the river before white folks got it. Two of the women, my cousins, older than me — two women said, make sure you tell that Paul to come up here. They had a story about this thing. ‘I want to tell you about this boy. I’ll tell you about [Indigenous word]. ’ ‘[Indigenous word], what’s that?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s this big thing in the water. Water sprout come up’. I bet women been holding that story for 30 years. They were on every management plan out of the last 35 years to try and protect the river. You might have seen the 7.30 Report a couple of weeks ago. People just been breaking their pumps, their meters, so they can store water, take water out of the river. Not so much — the river is almost dry. It has been dry in Bourke a couple of years ago. It’s almost dry. Across, out there, it’s flood plain, flat, for hundreds of miles either side of the river. When it rains, that water goes back in the system. You can’t get in there now because of farms.

Badger says that we know that crime rates go up in Aboriginal communities along the river bank when the water level drops down because kids aren’t out there participating in culture. They’re in town. Thank you.

[Applause]

NARDI SIMPSON: YaamaIlaalu. Yuwaalaraay country is flat. Our region is commonly referred to as northwest slopes and plains and is a place of great beauty and duality. It’s where the red dirt soil of the north and west collide with the darker rich soils of the south. These two holding beneath them hot springs, an underground water table, an opal. It’s the side of a great lake, Daruwal, a gathering and teaching and celebration place. Where wedge-tailed eagles roost alongside white-bellied sea eagles. A place created by crocodiles, though they’ve been long gone from our plains.

Yuwaalaraay is also a place where freshwater rivers flow from the north, creating in times of abundance a flood plain that spans the length and breadth of my homelands. This flood plain, with its series of gullies, holds water for weeks during flood. It also cradles the dry, and drought is far too regular an occurrence in our freshwater home.

The flood plain, we Yuwaalaraay believe, is reflected in the sky. The great overflow on land and the Milky Way sharing the same name, [Indigenous word]. It is 801 kilometres north from where we are. But it is also here in the [Indigenous word] and [Indigenous word], the bowls and the shields and other cultural material from my country that sit on the shelves of this very museum.

This place is my [Indigenous word], my homelands, and the place my word has journeyed from today.

As I stand in the shade of the constellation, the great story and journey track, the song cycle of the Seven Sisters we call [Indigenous word], I think about the immense expanses of time that swim around me; the ageless melodies, stories so old, they are etched in the very earth itself. The light from a cluster of stars incomprehensible distances away. I think of the generations of people they have passed through to arrive here. Surviving and thriving through practices that, as we say, have existed since the first sunrise.

In all of their greatness, I also think it remarkable that we too are here, standing within its expanse, to be in some minute way part of that continuum. Overawed by the deep distance of past, instinctively I look in the other direction as well. As long as that distance is behind us, we can stretch forward to an equal point in the future. A time where the world and everything as we know it is unrecognisable, incomprehensible. A time we know must come but will never live to see. These stretches and expanses of time, my people have a word for, both past and future on an infinite scale. It is the same word. A single spoken sound that encompasses what has always been and what is destined to come.

That word is ilaalu. A long time ago and a long time to come. The past and the future, duality, opposites sitting within the other, making a perfect contradictory whole. Ilaalu is also the way we begin a story, but that story is for another time.

What does it mean for a place or a person or a community to have a single word for that which seems so incredibly different. Well, perhaps it means you can be in two places at once, that time can and does fold in on itself. That language as well as giving explanation can also prompt question. Ilaalu is a philosophy, a pedagogy, a geography, a study of physics that dictates your interaction with the spaces around. It means that a single word can contain within it a universe of meaning in a few short shapes of loop, breath and tongue. It means, when you live ilaalu, your world is shaped by things so great, they can only be explained through song, dance, artwork, weaving, through journeys over vast expanses and through narrative and story. All of these elements that are held in the great connectedness, the law of all living, once lived, or to be lived things.

Words such as ilaalu not only ask you to speak but to listen, so that you might come to truly understand your place, your role, your value to others. Living in ilaalu means you are never alone. You are always connected and always, always in relationship to that which has already happened and is certain to take place.

While this word, ilaalu asks you to relate to the endless stretches and folds of time, either side of this very moment, it also suggests that you think and engage with the now. This word, my word, speaks its meaning while whispering another. Ilaaluis the past and the future. Both places we can only see if we stand firmly, feet on the ground, here, Ngunawal, Ngambri, Ngunnawal, NMA, Word for Word, in this moment at this point in time.

As you’ve heard, many people, and our old people right across the country speak about tjukurrpa, the Dreaming, the Dreamtime. In Yuwaalaraay we say, [Indigenous word]. And many of them say that within this great connectedness, this time without time, the most important point is now.

I believe ilaalu echoes this belief. In this moment we gather to cast our eyes forward or back into [Indigenous word], into ilaalu. Words speaking to each other while they speak to us. And so, now … now we exist at an immeasurable point in the future where the stories we tell are inconceivably distant. Our technologies, our spaces, the way we interact, so foreign that we ourselves are alien to the singers of the first songs and the speakers of the first words.

We are also at this very point in time forgotten ancestors, faceless, nameless, existent nowhere but the dust that in turn makes up the universe herself. The people of the past were planning for us. The ones they could never come to comprehend or know and would pass like them into memory. Unbelievably, their plan included us as part the great expanse of time. In words such as ilaalu, they made the songline for us to follow and then to pass on.

I’d like to end now by thanking you for sharing this passing of time with me, for allowing me to speak to your ears or your minds or maybe your hearts. And wish you safe and happy journeys whether they be back to the place you have come from or onward to where you must be. I hope we will meet again. Ilaalu. Thank you.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

Return to Top