Category Archives: Essays

Brilliant discourse, extraordinary insight, breathtaking revelation, but wait – there’s more…

Australian Indigenous Art

Rosie Nangala Flemming

What is art? What is its nature? What purpose does it serve? What is its value? These are but a few of the fascinating ‘big questions’ which have, for centuries, occupied the minds of many.  In this essay I will consider the interpretation of art, and question the extent to which it demands a three-way conversation between artist, artwork, and viewer. I will focus specifically on the interpretation of Australian Indigenous art and I will also attempt to ascertain whether there are characteristics of interpretation which are confined to Aboriginal art, or whether they are universal.

In the infancy of colonial Australia, Aboriginal art was considered as either a contradiction in terms or simply as a ‘primitive’ curiosity. Indeed, the creation of artwork per se was not an inherent part of Aboriginal culture. After all, the concept of l’art pour l’art was a limited, and Eurocentric, philosophy. However, contrary to the ignorant expectations and assumptions of the white settlers, the Indigenous peoples did have an extraordinarily long history of sophisticated culture, a large part of which placed great importance on creative representations. Since those early days of settlement there has been a slow, but inexorable, shift in both the attitude to, and the cultural production of, what was originally so loosely termed ‘primitive art’.

A large part of this paradigm shift has been due to an inevitable, and reciprocal, learning process. On the European side there has been the dawning of a much needed understanding, sometimes arrived at through enlightened attitudes, but often driven by pragmatism and the need to satisfy the demands of international opinion. On the Indigenous side there has been an adaptation to circumstance driven by the need to survive.

Part of the unnatural, but essential, process of adaptation undertaken by the Indigenous communities has been a transfer of styles, methods, and mediums to suit the incumbent circumstances. Driven by commercial necessity, the ‘artistic’ manifestations of traditional rituals, ceremonies, and representations, have been deliberately processed to suit the demands of an increasingly global market place. During this evolutionary process a certain amount of obfuscation has become attached to the perceived ‘meaning’ of the resulting works. Some of this obscurity has been deliberately invoked by the artists, for a variety of reasons, and some has been ‘self-imposed’ by the viewer, sometimes through simple confusion, and sometimes through a need to fulfil their own sub-consciously imposed demands of the work. In an attempt to understand this process I will examine parts of its evolution.

In some ways Charles P Mountford represents the curious dichotomy in attitude, which was often encountered within that generation of white Australians who developed and pursued an interest in Aboriginal Australians during the early to mid twentieth century, and which, to varying degrees, persists to the present day. Having left school at an early age, Mountford gained employment as a telephone mechanic with the Adelaide Post Office. Through his work he began to encounter and observe the Indigenous inhabitants of the remote parts of South Australia and the Northern Territory. His career as a part-time ethnographer began when, after finding rock carvings in the Panarimitee Hills, north of Adelaide, he combined with anthropologist Dr. Norman Tindale to write a paper on them.[1] Although his writing, and use of the vernacular, frequently indicates that his thinking was influenced by the prevailing (colonial) attitudes, his activities (such as participation in, and dismay at the results of, an inquiry into the shooting of Aboriginal people near Uluru) clearly show his respect for Aboriginal culture, and are indicative of his belief that Aboriginal life was richer and more complex than most white Australians conceded.[2] Mountford observed that despite their lack of material goods, the Aborigines enjoyed a rich philosophical and cultural life, which was founded on their concept of the world’s creation.[3]

Foremost amongst the contradictions evident within Mountford’s writing was, perhaps, his fascination with the ceremonial and religious aspects of Aboriginal culture. It is a curious, and ultimately cruel, irony that many ‘Europeans’ have been most intrigued with that in Indigenous culture to which they are least welcome. For many collectors, the most prized targets are those objects, which are held most sacred by the subjects of their fascination. Most often these valued objects will have an essential aura of mystery and secrecy, closely guarded by their owners who consider it their ancestral duty to protect those objects from violation by the uninitiated. This conflict is still in evidence with the perceived differences between the expectations of the viewer of Aboriginal art, and the expectations that the artist or artists may have of the viewer’s perceptions. When describing the practises of Pintupi (Central Desert) artists, Fred Myers reported that “The painters presume their own cultural discourses: they expect that those who see the paintings will recognize in them the assertion/demonstration of the ontological link between the painter, his/her Dreaming, the design, and the place they represented.”[4] What the painters presumed was a viewer’s recognition of their connection to the subject portrayed in their work, whether it were their connection to country, or to mythos, or both. What Aboriginal artists do not presume, however, is that a viewer would be privy to the specific details of the intricate meanings, which are often entwined beneath the surface of the images depicted. Nor do they intend, or allow, that the act of presentation of the image to the unqualified viewer carries with it the right for such a viewer to access that privileged information. On the other hand, the naïve viewer, unfamiliar with the significance of, and sensitivities associated with, the various layers of meaning of the paintings, often expects to be provided with a complete and comprehensive interpretation of the work.

 In his work Aboriginal Art Wally Caruana describes art as being central to Aboriginal life. It has powerful significance as a means of connection between the present and the past and between human beings and the natural world. Furthermore, he tells us that art is a means of portraying the relationship between people and the land, while expressing both individual and group identity. In defining Aboriginal Art prior to the arrival of Europeans in the late eighteenth century, Caruana explains how it was created purely to fulfil traditional cultural needs. He contends that in varying degrees this is still true today. In this ceremonial context, ‘art’ may only be created and viewed by initiates. With the changing focus of the contemporary context however, a significant body of work has emerged which is intended for wider public consumption.[5]

This change of direction brings with it challenges in approaches to interpretation and education. Traditionally, designs derive nuances from their ceremonial, social and political context. Consequently, their interpretation is dependent on the amount of knowledge of this context possessed by both artist and viewer. Awareness is furthered by an understanding of the ‘ancestral landscape’. The level of knowledge within a community follows a specific hierarchy. For specific images, the more ritually senior man will be in possession of a range of meanings. These images may be invested with the power to transform the nature of the thing upon which they are displayed. The profane may become sacred, or the mundane, extraordinary. The application of the designs may evoke the presence of supernatural power, transforming a body from a state of dullness to one of brilliance. The senior man will choose to convey these meanings when describing ceremonial works, or may confine them to appropriate levels for alternative purposes such as youth education, or general display. It is by this means that artists are able to present their work without compromising the religious nature. Caruana describes this as being two broad levels of interpretation: the ‘inside’ level, which is restricted to those with appropriate ritual standing, and the ‘outside’, which is available to all.[6]

In Aboriginal culture, status is attained through the acquisition of knowledge rather than material possessions. Art is an expression of that knowledge. By using inherited designs, artists are asserting not only their identity, but also their rights and responsibilities. Traditionally Aboriginal societies are based on systems of kin groups and ‘moieties’. Moieties are two complementary groups, one or the other to which all people and natural phenomena belong. These moiety affiliations play an important role in determining an artist’s access to a wide range of subjects, and the way in which they may be depicted. If, through patrilineal inheritance, artists have direct rights in a particular ceremony or ‘Dreamtime’ story, they are considered the owners. They will then work in conjunction with those of the opposite moiety having secondary rights in the ceremony. These secondary rights are derived through matrilineal descent. Hence, art, as a ceremonial activity, requires cooperation between two groups having a specified relationship. This ownership of designs may be considered as equivalent to copyright.[7]

In his work, also entitled Aboriginal Art, Howard Morphy relates how this art had become known to Europeans through its place in colonial discourse. Its early European history, he said, was one of invisibility and denial.[8] If works exhibited skill of execution or satisfied concepts of aesthetics from within the European tradition, then they were likely to be attributed to an alternative source. An example of this colonial attitude is the notorious case of Sir George Grey who, in 1837, declared that the Wandjina rock paintings of the Kimberley could not be a product of Aboriginal hands. Grey’s ignorance of the country and its Indigenous inhabitants was exemplified by the poorly prepared expedition which he led into the north-west of the country, with disastrous consequences. The invisibility of Aboriginal art was consistent with the concept of terra nullius, as its existence would have made its creators similar in characteristic to the colonists, thus impinging on the portrayal of these original inhabitants as the ‘other’ – uncivilised beings who were unworthy of consideration as a valid population.[9]

This attitude of rejection of art that did not match the formalist requirements of the European conventions, still prevailed well into the twentieth century. In the 1940s and 1950s, the watercolours of Albert Namatjira received much acclaim, as much for their interpretation as being symbolic of what “civilized” Aborigines were capable of achieving, as for their skilful rendition in the style, which he had so adroitly acquired from his European teacher. Ironically, these paintings were also to achieve a good deal of controversy, being seen by some as much as a denial of Aboriginal art as recognition of it.  The comparison between the European and the Indigenous concepts of art was further complicated by the fact that for much Aboriginal art, such as ceremonial sand painting, or body painting, the act of production was at least as important as the finished product, which was often ephemeral by nature.

For the traditional Warlpiri community of Yuendumu, in the Western Desert, the closest equivalent to European paintings is their sandpaintings. These sandpaintings are large and should be completed within a day to conform to the ceremonial schedule of ritual gathering. They are both situational and ephemeral. They are not self-contained texts but, rather, more akin to ‘performance pieces’ where an observer is encouraged to recognise their meaningfulness, but not their meaning. The meaning for these Warlpiri designs does not exist in the imagination of an individual artist, but in a dynamic collective, and religious discourse, which is not immediately available for transfer to the onlooker. To see these designs, learn about their meanings, and ultimately to be allowed to participate in their creation and display, demands a reciprocal conversation. The designs are learned and used within a variety of social and ceremonial settings. This is a process, which is exterior to any given painting and, therefore, is a process for which sophisticated critical knowledge of art forms is no substitute.[10]

In the European tradition, an artwork usually has well defined attributes of form, fit and function. It will usually take the form of a painting or sculpture, it will fit within the confines of a picture frame, or mount on a pedestal, within a gallery or public viewing space, and it is generally designed to provide the viewer with some sort of aesthetic or intellectual stimulation. However, the production of Aboriginal images is far removed from this static Western perception of art. From the Warlpiri observations, we see that the Aboriginal tradition of art is not confined to specific forms, does not fit into predefined spaces, and functions as a dynamic cultural, social, and ritual ingredient in the daily life of the community. The stark incongruity in these concepts has necessitated innovations in the adaptation of Aboriginal artworks to allow them to operate in the prevailing modern day exhibition space.

In this evolution, new materials and techniques have been embraced by the artists. In the same way that ‘country’ and ‘Dreaming’ are connected by common systems, such as kinship and moiety, while substance and detail vary between isolated communities, so these new forms of artistic endeavour differ in style and substance, as befits the applications of their associated community.

In Central Australia, the creation of objects for the market place, instead of the ritual and social purposes of the community, took on the new form of acrylic paints on canvas. As they moved out into the broader cultural arena of the galleries where they were displayed and offered for sale, the meaning of these objects moved out of the control of the artists. Nevertheless the Central Desert artists claim these new forms to be both “traditional” and “authentic” and that they are mularrpa – true stories, or turlku, from the tjukurrpa – the mythological past of the dreaming. Because of this, the Pintupi, from Central Australia, continue to think of their commercial work as being derived from ceremony and rock paintings, and as having value other than the pecuniary value established in the saleroom. [11]

In western Arnhem Land the rectangular form of bark painting available today is the product of an eighty-five year history of cultural contact and is derived from the interconnected motivations of Aborigines and of non-Aboriginal collectors seeking an appropriate medium of cross-cultural communication.[12] This area is the home of major rock paintings found throughout the rocky plateau, a source of attraction for researchers and collectors who found that the artists of the region also painted the interiors of their bark shelters. The Kunwinjku artists of Arnhem Land embraced these developments and see their art as a means of communicating their view of the creation of the world with a new world audience.

An interesting aspect highlighting the potential for the loss of significant cultural practises, when adapting rich and multi-faceted traditions to the limited form viable in commercial markets, is what Geoff Bardon called ‘the Haptic quality in the Aboriginal culture of Central Australia’.[13] He described the Aboriginal temperament as having a predilection to the sensitivity of touch, known as haptic sensation. This tactile quality differs entirely from the visual sensation in eyesight and was not only employed prolifically in the creation and reading of art work, but in much of the way of life. Sand mosaics, body decorations, and tjurunga patterning were created by finger painting with ochre colours or by chipping into a stone or wooden object. Rather than by visual perception, these objects would also be read almost entirely by touch. The artist understands and reveals his work through touch and not necessarily by looking at it.

Ever since the arrival of the white man, Aboriginal people have had a sad history of subjugation and exploitation. As recently as this month the Melbourne Age carried a story telling of 83 year old Aboriginal elder Banjo Morton who led a walk-off of his Alyawarr people from Ampilatwatja settlement in protest at their treatment under the 2007 ‘federal indigenous intervention’. The report describes the Alyawarr people as saying they have been treated as outcasts and isolated from white man’s decision making. Sixty-eight years previously, Banjo Morton had forced the owners of a cattle station in the NT to pay Aboriginal stockmen £1 a month when he led a walk-off in 1942. “We were getting paid only in rations, clothes and boots and we had a good win although we still grumbled it wasn’t enough,” he says.[14]

Although the current production of Aboriginal art offers many opportunities for Indigenous communities, there remains the ever present danger of exploitation and appropriation. Since demand increased in the early 1980s, a network of artists representatives, cooperatives, agents and dealers has developed. Many communities followed the lead of Papunya painters who formed an artists’ cooperative in 1972. Twenty years later, some twenty to thirty cooperatives had been established throughout the Central and Western deserts, Arnhem Land and the Kimberley.[15] In an interview with the assistant manager of the Aboriginal Galleries of Australia, a leading gallery in Spring Street, Melbourne, I was told that the majority of art work on display was the product of the gallery’s regular stable of artists. These artists worked with materials supplied by the gallery, producing the work on demand, in the gallery’s own studio near Alice Springs. Many of these works are for sale with price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars. I was unable to establish the manner or amount of remuneration received by the artists, but was left with the uncomfortable suspicion that it may be entirely disproportionate to that price commanded by the gallery.

In Bad Aboriginal Art, Eric Michaels raised the question as to whether, despite the vast cultural and semiotic distances separating us from the Warlpiri, some sense of the truth of Warlpiri philosophy may be communicated, through their paintings, to the uninitiated viewer. He questions whether they might convey some authentic vision beyond the cultural specificity of the iconic and semiotic codes employed in their construction. Are they considered as ‘art’ simply because of their agreement with current fashions of form and technique, elevated in value due to their ethnographic curiosity?[16] I think these are important questions, deserving of consideration across a broad range of Aboriginal art.

I believe that the philosophy which underpins the interpretation of art is one which is not bound by parochial borders. As with Aboriginal art, many great works of Western art are founded in ancient stories steeped in religion. And as with Aboriginal art there are many abstract expressions of Western art which may appeal to the unknowing or uninitiated viewer from a purely visceral or sensuous viewpoint. A Botticelli masterpiece, such as the Birth of Venus, or Primavera, can appeal to the viewer on a number of levels, consummate with their level of knowledge, recognition, and understanding of the rich symbology within. The more educated viewer, conversant with the figures and stories of classical mythology, stands to gain the most from the viewing experience. However the viewer unfamiliar with the underlying meaning may still marvel at the inherent beauty, and feeling, of the work.

In both European and Indigenous spheres, all contributors stand to benefit from a positive and comprehensive dialogue between the artist or artists and the viewers of their work. For the viewer, the opportunity for greater understanding offers a richer experience. It allows access to a fertile source of fascinating and illuminating history and mythos. It can demystify, and so enhance appreciation of, the inherent beauty of a work of art or theatre. For the artist it provides an appropriate response, both practical and social, for their labours. It helps them to fulfil their role as story teller. It opens communication with a wider range of interested participants. In the Australian Indigenous context, it also offers the potential for narrowing the cultural divide and assisting on the path to reconciliation between groups too long divided.


Bardon, Geoff. Aboriginal art of the western desert. Adelaide: Rigby, 1979.

Caruana, Wally. Aboriginal art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Charles P Mountford, photographer and ethnographer. (accessed February 8, 2010).

McCulloch, Susan. Contemporary aboriginal art: a guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 2001.

Michaels, Eric. Bad Aboriginal art: tradition, media and technological horizons. St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1994.

Morphy, Howard. Aboriginal art. London: Phaidon Press, 1998.

Morphy, Howard and Margo Smith Boles. Art from the Land – dialogues with the Kluge Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1999.

Mountford, Charles P. “The Aboriginal Art of Australia.” In Oceania and Australia, Eds. Mountford, Buhler, & Barrow. London: Methuen, 1962.

Murdoch, Lindsay. “‘Outcast’ Aborigines stage red desert walk-out.” The Age, Feb 13, 2010: 1.

Myers, Fred. “Representing Culture: The Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic paintings.” Cultural Anthropology Vol 6, no. 1 (1991): 34.

Taylor, Luke. “Flesh, bone, and spirit: Western Arnhem Land bark painting.” In Art from the Land – dialogues with the Kluge Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art, edited by Howard Morphy and Margo Smith Boles. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1999.

[1]    Charles P Mountford, photographer and ethnographer

      Accessed 8 February 2010

[2]    Charles P Mountford, photographer and ethnographer

      Accessed 8 February 2010

[3]                 Charles P Mountford, The Aboriginal Art of Australia, in Oceania and Australia, Buhler, Barrow and

                     Mountford, Methuen: London 1962 p208

[4]            Fred Myers, ‘Representing Culture: The Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic paintings’ Cultural   Anthropology, Vol.6, No. 1 (1991). p34.

                Fred Myers is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at New York University. He is the author of a monograph on western desert people, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self (University of California Press, 1986) and co-editor (with George Marcus) of The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Anthropology and Art (University of California Press, 1995). He is currently completing a book on the production and intercultural circulation of western desert acrylic painting. [Notes on contributors – Art From the Land p261]

[5]            Wally Caruana, ‘Introduction’ from Aboriginal Art (1993).  pp 7, 10

                As well as being the author of author of Aboriginal Art, Wally Caruana is Senior Curator at the National Gallery of Australia where, since 1984, he has been chiefly responsible for developing the collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. He has curated several major exhibitions at the Gallery including The Painters of the Wagilag Sisters Story 1937-97. He co-edited the catalogue for that exhibition with Nigel Lendon, edited Windows on the Dreaming (National Gallery of Australia & Ellsyd Press, 1989). [Notes on contributors – Art From the Land p261]

[6]             Ibid  pp 10, 11, 14

[7]       Ibid  pp 14, 15

[8]          Howard Morphy. Aboriginal art. London: Phaidon Press,1998.  p19

                Howard Morphy is a Senior ARC Research Fellow at the Australian National University and Professor of Anthropology at University College London. As well as Aboriginal art, he has written and edited a number of books including Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge (University of Chicago Press, 1991). [Notes on contributors – Art From the Land p261]

[9]    Ibid  pp19, 21

[10]           Eric Michaels, Bad Aboriginal art: tradition, media and technological horizons. St. Leonards: Allen &          Unwin, 1994.  pp50.1, 51.2, 52.3

[11]   Fred Myers, ‘Representing Culture: The Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic paintings’ Cultural Anthropology, Vol.6, No. 1 (1991)  p27

[12]   Luke Taylor, ‘Flesh, bone, and spirit: Western Arnhem Land bark painting’, Art from the Land – dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal art, Eds. Howard Morphy and Margo Smith Boles, Charlottesville: University of Virginia,1999 p27

[13]   Geoff Bardon, Aboriginal art of the western desert. Adelaide: Rigby,1979. p22

[14]   Lindsay Murdoch,  ‘Outcast’ Aborigines stage red desert walk-out, The Age,13 Feb 2010, p1

[15]    Susan McCulloch, Contemporary aboriginal art :a guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 2001

[16]   Eric Michaels, Bad Aboriginal art: tradition, media and technological horizons. St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1994.  pp59, 60.1

Aura by Carlos Fuentes newly translated by Lee Braden

I am fortunate enough to have a good friend in Puerto Rico. We first became acquainted several years ago through our mutual appreciation of literature.  Over these years, we have shared many interesting discussions on literary works and their authors. Being Puerto Rican, she has been a great resource when questions have arisen regarding the brilliant and intriguing works of the Spanish / Hispanic canon. Among the wonderful writers on whom she has enthused is Carlos Fuentes. I had to admit to being largely ignorant of his work.  To help address this lack in my reading, my friend organised for the delivery of a small volume by him. It duly arrived in my letterbox, here in Melbourne. To my surprise (and that of my friend) I discovered that the new book, prefaced with a biographical note and introduction written in scholarly English prose, had its main body of text written in Spanish.

I’m afraid that I can’t claim to be much of a Spanish speaker. Au contraire.  However, on reflection, my initial surprise and frustration made way to excited anticipation. After all, what better way to read an author’s work than in the voice in which it was imagined, and then captured? How better to get the feeling of rhyme and metre, of colour and cadence? Here I have been presented with not only an opportunity to enjoy the language of Carlos Fuentes, but to learn a little of it as well.

I am so excited with the prospect of meeting Senor Fuentes…

Here is my own English translation of the Spanish text:

Aura – The translation




Hearing the Country – a study in Indigenous Australian ethnoecology

Hearing the Country – studies in Indigenous Australian ethnoecology is a copy of my journal, created as an exercise and assessment task in the unit of the same name, undertaken under the illuminating and inspiring guidance of Professor John Bradley, at the Monash Indigenous Centre of Monash University (previously the Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies). The original journal was hand written and composed weekly, with a variety of my own illustrations and paraphernalia attached. What a fascinating period of learning this was.


Week 1

Western ways of Knowing

Cogito ergo sum

Je pense, donc je suis

I am thinking, therefore I exist…

Rene Descartes 1596-1650


“There was the catfish, with spikes growing out of the sides of its head, and if you got pricked you’d know it, as Dave said. Andy took off his boots, tucked up his trousers, and went into a hole one day to stir up the mud with his feet, and he knew it. Dave scooped one out with his hand and got pricked, and he knew it too; his arm swelled, and the pain throbbed up into his shoulder, and down into his stomach too, he said, like a toothache he had once, and kept him awake for two nights, only the toothache pain had a ‘burred edge’, Dave said.”

Henry Lawson, The Loaded Dog


The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”, or “Der Hexenhammer” in German) is a famous treatise on witches, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, an Inquisitor of the Catholic Church, and was first published in Germany in 1487. Jacob Sprenger is also often attributed as an author, but some scholars now believe that he became associated with the Malleus Maleficarum largely as a result of Kramer’s wish to lend his book as much official authority as possible.

The main purpose of the Malleus was to attempt to systematically refute arguments claiming that witchcraft does not exist, discredit those who expressed skepticism about its reality, to claim that witches were more often women than men, and to educate magistrates on the procedures that could find them out and convict them. Kramer was denounced by the Inquisition in 1490.”



John Bradley’s introduction to our Hearing the Country class emphasises the Problem Based Learning (PBL) approach which we will undertake and especially the importance of the class and smaller group dynamic in this process, to the extent that he suggests that if one is uncomfortable with the group approach then it would be a suitable time to either depart or get over it. Knowing my shyness and my awkwardness in group situations, I will have to work hard to achieve the latter. This is not to say that I won’t or don’t enjoy it – au contraire – but nevertheless I will feel the pain of my self-consciousness.

This journal will be multi-modal; it may contain poems, pictures, music, feathers, whatever. I have an image of the coat of many colours. A sort of patchwork quilt. It seems that reflective writing should be two things: it should be an intra-subjective response, that is to say a reflex or immediate response to the relevant events, and it should also encompass an inter-subjective response; a response based in reflection.


Reflecting on knowing takes me back to London in the 70’s. I was passing the boss’s office when he called me in. He was a supposedly brilliant young engineer, recently graduated at the top of his course, from Cambridge. He knew I was an Aussie, and as he had just returned from a business trip to those shores, he wanted to subject me to a little criticism of my country. Poms are often like that. “Don’t know what the fuss is all about”, he said. “I thought it was fairly miserable. Ugly. Stark. Untidy. Can’t possibly compare with the hues and transitions of our English country side. What do you see in it?” For a moment I was dumbstruck. When I recovered, I replied, “Well Mr Bertenshaw, I’m afraid that if you were in it, but couldn’t see it, or feel it, then I can’t possibly describe it to you in such a way that you would understand it. But you’re quite correct in suggesting that the English and the Australian countryside have little in common”. He wasn’t the first to have made that observation!

I enjoyed the English country-side with its well ordered hedge-rows, its subtle pastel hues, and meandering streams. I had, too, recently enjoyed the awesome majesty of the Nordic fjordlands, with their grandiose ice-flows, vast snow-clad expanses, and precipicious pine forests. But nothing touched me as did the bush at home.

As a small boy living in the high country of north-eastern Victoria, I would often stand in the forests on the mountain-side above my home and feel moved. The smell and the sound of the eucalypts, the buzz of the cicadas, the shimmering light shafts throwing patterns all around me, fairly took my breath away. I didn’t just love it: I was rooted in it. I was part of it and it was part of me. Through my life, I have often wondered if this great affinity with my country is something that I, that an Australian, might be born with, or whether it is something which we learn as we grow. Is it something that can evolve?

Today, I am wondering if this could be related to the sort of ‘knowledge’ which I am looking forward to encountering in these coming weeks.

Week 2, Tuesday

How do we understand things: being in an environment / landscape / country / home or the outback; a crossway view

Our first PBL experience. John introduces the method as having four phases: Phase 1 is ‘initiating Learning’ which equates to being handed the ‘package’ which will be the subject of today’s ‘problem’. Phase 2, ‘Sharing Knowledge and improving understanding’ begins when we, as a group, begin to examine, and question, the ‘object’. Phase 3 is the ‘solving’ of the problem. There is no ‘true’ answer to this but, rather, multiple understandings. In fact this is further compounded by the fact that no ‘problem’, per se, is enunciated in the first place. In fact framing the ‘problem’ may possibly contribute significantly to providing the ‘solution’. Phase 4 kicks in now – when I am reflecting on what we have learned from this experience.


We began by splitting into groups – always an interesting experience in itself – after which John passed each group its ‘package’. This was also, of itself, an interesting experience; what were we, individually, expecting? No doubt, each of us had conjured up an idea of what form these packages might take. Now for the moment of truth. In fact, initially, it seemed a little deflating. Instead of an emu’s egg, a lump of native bees’ wax, an ancient stone scraper, or an eagle’s feather, we were passed a small sheaf of A4 paper. No redolence of red-gum, or tempting tactile feedback here. But there was colour. It emanated from elegant sketches of distant coastal country. We were soon enough consumed with the task. These pages were labelled as ‘environmental detail’ and, with their accompanying vocabulary, clearly constituted a sort of pictorial Aboriginal – English dictionary, and a botanist’s text-book. But where was the country? What was the language group? Were there common elements and if so, what were they?

As well as the ‘problem’ in hand, it was particularly interesting observing the process now set in motion. No doubt each of us watched to see how the group dynamics would work and how the different individuals might interact. There was a healthy measure of mutual respect shared between all and a stimulating and mature approach to the eliciting and sharing of our thoughts. I felt relaxed and pleased with this promising beginning.



Now we know that the language portrayed is that of the Yanyuwa. We learned, too, that this is a language and these are a people with whom John is familiar.

After our PBL session, John told us a story of a car-ride in Brisbane and I will try to relate it.

He was driving through Brisbane with his wife navigating in the passenger seat, and some Yanyuwa ladies seated in the back. As they struggled to correlate the Brisbane street directory with their desired destination, the discussion between the driver and the front seat passenger was becoming more and more animated.  Finally one of the back seat passengers cried out, “What on earth are you arguing about (or the Yanyuwa equivalent)?” The wayward couple explained the cause of their frustration and, by way of illustration, the navigator passed the book of maps to the interrogator. After some serious examination of the object, which caused some degree of delight and fascination, the lady interrogator announced that she, too, must have one of these “for my country”.

This was the genesis of a book of maps for Yanyuwa country which was later to become an invaluable item in assisting these people in their struggle for the recognition of their country, and their inherent rights, with their colonial oppressor, the European invader. The book was compiled by Yanyuwa families, with John Bradley and Nona Cameron, and was called “Forget about Flinders: a Yanyuwa atlas of the south west Gulf of Carpentaria”. And it was this book from which the pages of our first package came.

John gave us a very interesting over view of the language and the many ways in which it differed, not just structurally, but functionally, from that with which we are most familiar. We are seeing truth as a relative concept; shedding the strictures of the Cartesian duality. We are learning that it is important not make generalised assumptions. The concept of ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’ knowledge is an overly simplistic one.  What we are privileged to be experiencing is Yanyuwa knowledge. Yanyuwa is a ‘gendered’ language, which is a rare linguistic phenomenon. It has ‘men’ and ‘women’ dialects, and as our dictionary was compiled by a man, it falls into the former camp. But it is more than the structure which is fascinating. We enter territory hitherto unfamiliar to an English speaker. It is a place of strange concepts, sometimes ethereal and sometimes ephemeral, but always more holistic in interpretation than our usual western expression. In this language and understanding, this knowing, physical events transcend their mundane manifestations and become sentient beings of another order. Ordinary events such as weather, with its rainbows, thunder, and lightning, assume the extraordinary  expressions of the Rainbow Serpent, with its voice thundering and its tongue flashing.

Week 3, Tuesday

“Talking about my country”. Landscape as narrative.



Today’s PBL is an account called “Talking about my country …” by Tim Rakawurlma. I am a great fan of stories: love hearing them; love telling them. It’s a story of country, told, JB intimates, by an old fellow to an interpreter. In our groups again, we take five minutes reading time and then begin to consider the text. Armed with last week’s  knowledge, we feel fairly confident that we have, once again, entered the country of the Yanyuwa – beach country, salt pan country, dugongs, turtles, and white-bellied sea eagles; all redolent of the Yanyuwa. So too, the language.

The narrator is travelling, running, flying through his country. It seems vast but the vastness is in stories and memory. So many stories, connections; Law. He is giving permission for a traveller to enter his country – it’s OK but first the traveller should listen and learn about this country and what is important; what Law should be observed. We are told about the old man’s connections.

He describes the country by his familial connections to it. He nominates its Dreamings. He ascribes its names. Names are important. He indicates which is specifically that of his own Dreaming, his own country. He describes its use and its users; its water and its ceremony.

Jalbarramba bularrku


The way to sing the country.

The cabbage palm, Karrkakuwajua, big name.


Ngarna warima

He tells of the power of his knowledge; how his songs can stop the wind. He talks of the incursions of strangers and of his own personal history. He describes the place where an aeroplane has crashed. Was he running drugs?

Having granted the traveller permission and the knowledge he needs to travel in this country, he asks him, in return, to bring him a picture, a story of his country, to taste its water.

And then, Reflective …

JB tells us that he himself is the translator. There was indeed a plane crash and he has been commissioned to ascertain whether it is possible to install an airstrip near the crash site without disturbing any sensitive places. A young man has offered to take John to his grandfather who can provide this insight. And so Timothy’s tale begins.

What we find through this old man’s ‘emotional  geography’ of his country, embodied in place, in body, and in mind, is a unique Indigenous epistemology. We see how people animate ‘place’ through their experience, memory and emotion. We observe the importance of names in that naming is, in a way, a declaration of ownership. It expresses the right to know and call into being those places which are definitive of the people of country. A person calling a name without permission is acting out of place  and shows they do not know what the place contains nor the importance of its Law. As we learn from this gift of story from old man to visitor, sharing this knowledge plays a critical part in the owners’ duty in educating children of, and visitors to, their country.

Tim’s story is also an illuminating guide in the way that Yanyuwa people have specific relationships, with roles and responsibilities, which they inherit through both maternal and paternal descent. It gives an insight into the way that the Yanyuwa have four kinship groups tied to four lines of patrilineal descent. Each person belongs to one  of the four clan groups;  Mambaliya-Wawukarriya, Rrumburriya, Wuyaliya or  Wurdaliya.

For Indigenous people,  it is these kinship relationships and ancestral narrative links to country which come together to form that critical part of their being which we call memory.

Week 4, Sunday

“Everything has a name. Everything has a place”. Classification, whose world view?

We were presented with two PBLs this week. The first was some pages taken from The Living Torah with notes by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. It was Hebrew text with English translation and illustrations of the birds and animals to which it related. Why did John give it to us?

Overall it appears to be a consideration of which creatures were kosher, which were not, and what the underlying logic was behind their differentiation. In searching for the point of the exercise, most of our groups overlooked the emphasis on classification which was also the emphasis of this week’s readings. I wondered whether there was any further reason underlying John’s selection of this document. He certainly considered it a document of significant import. Maybe the clue was given when he recited the opening section of Hebrew text later on: he spoke it like a natural. I wonder if he is Jewish, which adds to the intrigue of his close relationship with our northern communities, or if his convincing recital is just a product of his natural ability as a linguist.

We began to consider classification systems.

PBL 2 furthered this – We were each handed a bag full of Yowies – little plastic models of a wide variety of Aussie animals and proceeded to sort them into groups – in any order which we fancied. Many and varied were the systems chosen. They were grouped by biological type by the scientists amongst us. Some were grouped by apparent family order. Birds were separated from sea creatures which were separated from land dwellers. Somebody chose an order based on edibility. Somebody else chose an order based on who would eat whom – a food chain basis. This was fun but it was also effective in emphasising the automatic tendency we have for placing things into categories.

Ultimately we considered our approach in the light of that taken by the Yanyuwa with their primary and secondary classification of julaki according to habitat, of waliki, and of arlku.

Why do we classify?  The Torah is a sort of Law; it is teachings, knowledge, song.  We consider the difference between oral and written traditions. Colonialism has a history of causing a reduction of knowledge, necessitating a codification of oral Law. Classification is constantly changing. Why? Some distinctions are unstable; they blur and shift. Habitat is not a stable system. For instance, freshwater and saltwater is not a stable distinction. It is interesting to note that some Indigenous knowledge may have western knowledge embedded. The Yanyuwa term for Barramundi reflects the western knowledge of how they reproduce.

There is more to classification than just the biological – there are seasonal aspects, and what begins as biological may develop into social Law.


Week 5, Monday

“People, animals, birds and things fit too”: residues of the lived experience in the environment

This week was our first where our PBLs were not to follow the usual (western) format – we were to be given no explanatory handouts; no props, no guides.

How do I come to know without these props to assist? What resources will I draw on?

We were provided with a series of very intriguing bags and boxes. Our task was to interrogate their contents. What are these objects? What stories do they tell?

We gathered in quite large groups. By chance, rather than purpose, this week my group contained all the ‘oldies’. This was good; the main resource which we draw on is shared knowledge, experience. And in this group there was a good accumulation of these things. One of our members (Elizabeth?) had done a previous course in skeletons and droppings which was very useful as she was able to make useful preliminary assessments of the more likely type for the creature whose remains we were now handling.

We were given a large array of skeletal structures; there were skulls, spines, claws, beaks, tusks, spikes, and extraordinary parts which were very difficult to judge. There were stones, rocks, bits of tin can, and carved wooden implements.

All of them were something Australian. Some of them were clearly suggestive of that which we had recently read: What are these? asked JB, holding high some small stone tools. A dingo! Replied someone, most aptly.  More precisely, the fat of the dingo. And here, solid and heavy, and unmistakeably shaped, were the eggs of the sea-eagle. And this shape – what does it so strongly suggest? Look at this shadow – it is a nipple feel the smoothness of the breast. This stone is woman.

We passed each piece between us. We touched them, smelled them, caressed them, weighed them, admired them, and enjoyed them. Was this one from the sea? Did this have a practical use? How about a spiritual use? Have you ever seen one of these before? Where did you see it?

When there is no paper, when there are no words, how do we learn?

We share our knowledge; we learn from each other; we assist each other; we inspire each other to look beyond the obvious and the superficial; we watch the scales fall away as the layers of the stories unfold.

Week 6, Sunday

“Talking to country”: language and meaning, the filter of language

Where last week we had to consider ways of knowing where we had not previously been confronted with something, we were this week to extend this approach to language. We were to consider the similarities and the differences in language, and the reasons behind these. We were to consider meanings and how we construct them. To this end we were provided with a sheet of text – a story written in the Yanyuwa language – and asked to translate it into ‘regular’ English.

The text was entitled Yiwa Ramanthamara, the direct translation of which is Him/he, the one that desires to hit/kill/strike. Some translated this as (whispered) The Rainbow Serpent. I called it The Deadly Storm. Later, we learned that it was based on a cyclone which had occurred in the salt water country in1984, devastating the fleet of (white fishermen’s) prawn trawlers.

We broke into our groups but initially we applied ourselves individually to the translation exercise. We then had to attempt to find consensus before presenting our group’s interpretation. Basically the story described the cyclone as coming from the north and playing havoc on land and sea. It threw all the sea creatures about, and the birds too. And it struck the white people in their boats but spared the Indigenous people.

It reminded me, strongly, of the week’s readings. Of how apparently inanimate objects could in fact be sentient beings. How at the Dreaming site, the Old Man Rock had listened to and smelled the sweat of the Aboriginal people as they passed by, and hence could recognise them. Of how the visiting women who gathered by the waterhole with the local women, were spared by the spirit being which protected that hole because he recognised that they were invited by the locals. The white fishermen, in the storm, represented the uninvited, who were punished by the angry spirit.

I thought that the prose had a musical look; the contrast of adjacent syllables appeared rhythmic. The sounds they made in my head were like a song. It made my interpretation tend to the ‘poetic’. John criticised this. He says that we must be careful not to bring our own ‘bias’ to a translation which ought to be done carefully; as closely to the original meaning as possible.

He said there is an old Italian saying that translation is suicide. I have my reservations about this. Indeed John went on to describe how a common feature of the world’s indigenous languages is that they are an oral, not written, tradition. He even sang the text to us in Yanyuwa. It sounded like singing after all. Like poetry. That to me is what oral is about.

I have often wondered about the variations available in translations of classical texts. At Monash, when we study particular texts, such as Homer, or Plato, or Cicero for instance, then we are recommended to refer to specific translations. To one extent, this is so we are all ‘on the same page’. But to another, it is because one interpretation is considered superior to another? Why? Is it more correct; more scholarly; more true to exact meaning; more true to the original author’s intent? I have particularly wondered with Homer’s epic poems, how it is that they may have an English rhythm – did the translator sacrifice some direct meaning to achieve the rhyme? Is a literal translation preferable to a poetic one? This I suppose is the problem confronting any translator. Personally, I like a poetic translation for a poetic work.

On Message Stick today there was a feature on Aboriginal poets. The poets ranged from an elderly lady who recited some very English work of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who was once called Kath Walker, to a young rapper who was angry at the mistreatment of his people and had a great presence and style. The consensus was that Aboriginal stories lend themselves to poetry. It is the oral tradition. I’ll risk a little direct incorrectness in an attempt to capture the ‘music’.

John reminded us that, even though the connection remains, if a language dies we lose specificity. An example of this might be the loss of the 25 names for the dugong, even though its connection to the place and the people is maintained.

It’s interesting to consider what happens when foreign words, such as English, or Maccassan, enter an Indigenous language. They are absorbed into the language. Languages are living.

Week 7, Wednesday

“Knowing country”: how does it come together?

PBL: The killing of the dugong by the barramundi fishermen:

On Understanding Dugong by Dinah Norman a-Marrngawi

Translated with Dinah Norman a-Marrngawi, Leonard Norman and John Bradley

This is a translation resulting from a meeting held between barramundi fishermen and the local Yanyuwa community in the aftermath of the illegal killing, by the fishermen, of more than thirty dugong. This event was not an isolated incident and was a result of the ignorance, arrogance, and disregard for existing laws, displayed by the balanda fishermen. In the meeting, convened, chaired, and controlled by the fishermen, with no apparent attempt at prior consultation, the outraged community was offered a map of a proposed fishing exclusion zone.

I think that sometimes our group participants are too polite and controlled. Sometimes, I think it is necessary to get angry. On the question of whether Dinah was mad or not, all groups said that of course she wasn’t. But I think she was. Of course she was. She had suffered terribly and now she was being insulted by the show of contempt of the fishermen. They arrived late, made no attempt at inclusive discussion, presented their own solution as a fait accompli, and allowed only a couple of hours for the entire process before leaving. What’s not to get mad about?

By their own description, the Yanyuwa people have a special relationship with the Dugong. This is a relationship not easily understood by white-men. It transcends the normal relationship between man and animal as understood by the white-man. Instead it involves a spiritual and familial connection beyond the white-man’s experience. Because a special relationship, enjoyed by a given group, is outside the experience, or ken, of another, more dominant, group, does not make it invalid.

Who would stand by while members of their family were raped or murdered and not get mad? Sometimes we must get mad. There are people who will blithely take advantage of the lack of a forceful response in others, treating it instead as a measure of their weakness, or acquiescence, despite the fact that those offended against may be entirely lacking in the wherewithal, or opportunity, to present their own case. People such as those, who would take such unfair advantage, need to be firmly and unequivocally opposed.

Sometimes I think I come from a lost generation – where are the radicals now? Where is the voice of outrage? It seems, now, that too often, too many young people are too compliant; too ready to not rock the boat. Perhaps some are too self interested to take the risks necessary to get change. If this is the approach of Gen Y, I say bring on Gen Z.

Week 8, Saturday

Country as symbols: How do we read, are we allowed to read?

PBL: Where is she? The Torres Strait Pigeon; a collection of poems, with pictures.

What is this document? How do we interrogate this document?

This was a power point presentation put together for a gathering of rangers, from throughout the country, to introduce them to country; to show them who the Yanyuwa are.

Our PBL groups came up with a variety of observations and suggestions; some were astute, some were a little bit fanciful…

The obvious theme was that each page was poetry. They dealt with contemporary themes, rather than ancient history. They contain layers of meaning – kinship, relationships. They are all part of a larger story. Some stressed the importance of the Dugong. These are Dugong people – this is an affirmation of who the Yanyuwa are. Dugong hunters get to display their connection through the use of the oil – note the oil in their hair. We heard that the ‘Morning Glories’ are specific to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The thematic pattern is no coincidence as this is a collection of ‘who we are’.

We discussed the difficulty in translation of song poems due to their poetic form. This is the same difficulty which I had questioned in my journal notes for week 6.

Note that each song is in the present tense.

The Yanyuwa are not generally ‘visual ‘artists. Instead they create their art within ceremony. The song is the particular form of Yanyuwa art. These songs all talk of ‘affect’: they speak of the emotional interaction between species and between species and geography. They all contain, and draw on, emotional underpinning.

Some songs are considered male, others female. Some are either.

We note the poetic devices used in some of these songs: ‘listen to the north’. A poet never composes alone, but usually uses a cousin. ‘You two!’

Country is sentient. They talk to each other too.

Songs are celebrations of life!!

Make the country happy. Emotional geography.

Kujika – the songline. Kujika does have its own life, its own agency. Place is central to kujika. When singing, you must know where you have come from, and to where you go. Each verse is tied to a place.

They can’t be in the past. They can’t be in the future. They must be in the present:

It is running; it is flowing; it is moving; these are the three verbs which are used.

Songs remain with place even when the singer is gone. There is no singer left for the groper but its song is still there, in the ground.

The language in the songlines is not everyday language; rather it is the language of the Dreaming. When you sing you echo the moment of creation. In Indigenous culture the way to know something is to sing. The songline is a libretto for the land. They challenge what we think of as knowledge. The songline is owned through paternal descent, but some are called mother.

They are multilayered events.

Week 9

“How do we work it?” Exploring some case studies

PBL: Tobacco and Long Necked Turtles. (An extract from field notes, August 1996)

This week’s PBL consisted of an extract from JB’s field notes, made in 1996.

These notes are a simple description of a woman sitting by a camp-fire, cooking long necked turtles in the ashes. She is chewing tobacco. Her son is also sitting by the fire. She talks to her son in English. As she turns the cooking turtles, she rises to her feet and cries out in language, lamenting the size of the turtles and declaring her connection to this country. She sits again, and reverts to English as she reminds her son to buy her tobacco when they go to town. She sees him watching a nearby group of galahs and turns again to language when she tells him that they are company for the country when there are no people. She tells him that they carry the country; that they are lifting it up.

What can we make of this description? We are told that there are many facets; many layers to be found in this study.

It transpires that the woman described in the study is Dinah, an elder of the Yanyuwa people. I suppose that she is probably Dinah Norman a-Marrngawi – one of the translators at the meeting with the fishermen responsible for the killing of the Dugong. Dinah, I think, was the one who had given the oration, and who the white fishermen then implied to be a “mad-woman”.

We have much discussion on the implications of the reduced size of the turtles; surely an indicator of ill-health of the country. Why is the country suffering? We note that the notes were made in 1996. What is the significance of this time? The week’s reading had included an article on social consequences and management issues associated with the incursion of the cane toad. We ask JB if he knows when the cane toads first reached the gulf – it was before 1996 – but he tells us this is not relevant. What else could cause the country to ail?

We wonder about the relevance of the tobacco – picheri – but are told that there is none; Dinah just likes to chew it.

What is the relevance of the galahs? I suggest that it might be as an example of the passing of knowledge, or Law, through kin; from mother to son. Dinah shares the knowledge of the relationship of the galahs with the country. The galahs have a kinship with this place on which they are gathered. But this is probably a tenuous connection. It is interesting to note that although this interpretation gives the mob of galahs the pronoun ‘they’, a more accurate variation might be ‘she’, as the galah is a feminine being.

Somehow ‘mother earth’ enters the discussion and we are told that this is a misnomer; in fact the only land that can be your mother is your mother country.

We consider the idea of Talking to country; country as sentient being. The question is raised and considered: can country recognise English or must we speak its language? Is there a specificity of language to place?

This is a study of communication as negotiation. It is a fundamental act of negotiation – a part of land management in action. There is a profound engagement between Dinah and her kin and country. There is no distinction between secular and sacred; they are one. She is on country, and country is code for ancestors. This is the clue to what we are missing. Deceased people still live on country.

Finally we learn the untold part of the story. This is the key to that for which we searching – the reason for the country’s ills.

Three years before, Dinah’s brother had died here, and this is the first time she has returned. The turtles are small because they are still reeling from the loss of their kin. The ancestors, the old people, the brother, are all part of the same thing. The country is still mourning. It is sorrowful.


To speak to country, to sing to country, is to manage country, because you are engaging with it. How do you engage? You sing.

There are two ways to talk to country:

‘low down’ or

‘lifted up’ – emotionally engaged.

The galahs were lifting up the country.
Week 11

Can we know both ways? Exploring the possibility of engagement

PBL: Investigation of Yanyuwa Art

In this PBL we have a university grant to conduct an investigation of Yanyuwa rock art. Unfortunately there are no Indigenous people available to assist. We do, however, have the permission of the traditional owners to proceed. (This is a privilege; a special permission granted to our small Monash group – the first group to consider these paintings – by their Yanyuwa ‘owners’).

What are we doing?

Mostly we are imposing our own meanings onto the selected images. We must beware of this. We must try to shed our own meanings and see beyond, to try to understand the meanings, if any, intended by their creators. But how can we possibly know the meaning? Realising that, without some assistance we simply can’t, is a good beginning point.

One way we know things is through the recognition of symbols; what the symbols represent. Symbols consist of signifiers and what is signified. The physical symbol or sign is the signifier and what is signified depends on context; the place, the time, and what knowledge, or lack of knowledge, the observer brings to the interchange.

As uninitiated ‘European’ observers of Indigenous rock art, can we possibly know what the art represents? Do we need to know?

The interpretation of rock art was once seen as the province of archaeologists. Later the balance expanded to include anthropologists. Anthropologists placed more emphasis on the social and cultural implications off the interpretation.

But what of the novice eye? If we cannot interpret the art, is it any the less? Can it simply be? This is not a new question, and it is not specific to the art of the Yanyuwa. Even Yanyuwa people may not know what some of their rock art is, but still, they are engaged with it.

It matters not that we don’t know how old some of this art is. It is possible that it was not created by man at all; it may be a ‘photo of an ancestor’; the spirit ancestor, himself, may have placed it there. Kumba-yi barra     – ‘to place oneself’

Na – “photo” yiku – ‘it’s photo for him’ (he put his image there)

It’s interesting to note that all of these paintings are found in shelters on the islands and that all of these face south so as to be protected. Some of the painting is on the roof of a very low shelter. Why do people crawl into such a place, lay on their backs, and paint on this low roof?

Why do people create what they create?

There is a painting which is important dreaming. This Ancestor is not in his own country, and is associated with sorcery. We are told by the old people that it is an invisible bird which pulls its eggs, its babies, through the air on a rope. The birds stitch the sky together so that hail cannot fall. This is an example of social construction surrounding art. It is an image which has faded badly. This issue of fading is significant; there is another image of a stingray which has deteriorated badly over the past thirty years.

One image of Jabiru tracks (used by medicine men) includes 4 boomerangs – two pairs. These are the boomerangs used for singing the songlines. In 1893 a large ceremony was held on the island. Young men of 16 to 20 years were sent into seclusion for a few months. They were adorned in red ochre. These paintings, too, are made with red ochre. Perhaps they were created by the young men in their time of seclusion? This raises another question. If the creators were in a period of restriction, could this also apply to the images?

Amongst the paintings is a curious image, spermatozoon like. It appears to have a head, with a tentacle like tail trailing behind. No one is sure what it is. JB has seen it in a text once, but then lost the reference. I show the image to my son, the budding scientist, Joseph. He takes one look and says: “Crinoid – Sea Lily”, with great authority. Moments later I am looking at images of this creature on the internet. Kingdom: Animalia. Phylum: Echinodermata. Subphylum: Crinozoa. Class: Crinoidea. In fact the ‘head’ is its anus with cirri, attached to calyx, and the ‘tail’ is the stem.

**It’s easy to attribute meaning. But are we giving true meaning? **

Can we know the other?

Week 12

Sharing the knowledge? Bureaucrats and Indigenous knowledge

PBL: We are presented with a tatty manila folder containing a sheaf of papers. These include hand-drawn maps; surveys; stories of connection, both individual and community, to country; environmental reports; snippets of various histories, both Indigenous and ‘European’. Our task is to prepare a ministerial brief in a very limited time. The topic of the report will vary from group to group, according to the question outlined on the cover of our particular folder. All folders contain the same information.

The area under consideration is that of Manangarra and the Wearyan River precinct. This is the place of Tiger Shark Dreaming, home of the Rrumburriya clan. It is also home to Cycas Angulate; the cycad palms. The Indigenous custodians have requested protection for the area.

Our group had to report on the viability of the area for the protection order, and suitable boundaries for protection. Our first observation was that an informed recommendation for a decision of such importance would require considerably more time and resource than that allowed. Further consultation with, and clarification of the position of, the various ‘stake-holders’ (the community and interested pastoralists) was considered essential.

We thought particularly important in the local eco-system was the role of the Cycad palms. In times past, these had been an important source of nourishment in food and activity, such as bread-making, and preparation of the nut. They were, and remain, important in ritual and ceremony; in history. Important too, we thought, was the ability of local people to identify otherwise unknown species particular to this area. We noted also, a large well. Such a place would have great spiritual significance. All of these things warranted protection.

The next group had to deal with the removal of a group of visiting ferals who had erected a teepee around one of the area’s cycad palms, and were engaged in the playing of didgeridoos and dancing around the tree in a state of excited anticipation.

It transpires that the ferals are a group of largely ‘privileged’ (wealthy) university students from Sydney. They are occupying their semester break, as well as the Tiger Shark Dreaming country, with their ‘new-age’ pursuit of ‘spiritual energy’. They have heard that this is a place of powerful spiritual significance, and so they have come, with their crystals, to absorb of it whatever they can. Unlikely as it seems, this is a true account. The local Indigenous community have shown considerable patience in their tolerance of these ignorant, but youthful, intruders, especially in light of the erection of the teepee around one of the sacred Cycads! (Nothing to say of the ill –versed, and pretentious, musical activity).

Another group had to advise on a proposal to delineate an area as a floral reserve.

This raised an interesting discussion on comparison of this idea with the basic philosophy underlying the relationship between the local people and the Cycad palms. The palms have been used by Indigenous people for millennia, and are dependent on people for their health. They are cultivated, not naturally independent. As much as they depend on the Rhinoceros Beatle for regeneration, they depend on controlled fire. They are enhanced by human layering; cared for by Indigenous people. Can this equate with the ideas or ideals beneath the ‘Floral reserve’ proposal? Hmmm.

The final group had to provide advice on the viability of the proposal of a large multi-national company interested in the area as a potential tourism development site.

This might be seen as opening Pandora’s box; releasing all the nasties. On the other hand it could be argued as a vehicle for ‘opportunity’…

It is also relevant, and interesting, in these considerations to note that Manangarra also has a (relatively) long European history. This tends to blur some of the boundaries. There has long been an intermarriage of peoples and ideas and the history is no longer clearly black and white.

The examples presented in this PBL are not hypothetical, nor are they unusual; they happen all the time. There is endless interest, from all sorts of groups, in Aboriginal land. These examples are also typical of what we (students) may well have to eventually get our heads around in this sort of (governmental advisory) capacity.

We see from these salient, but typical,  examples, that Indigenous people are often required to provide extraordinary (and unreasonable) amounts of information of all sorts, including that of a highly personal nature which should be (and would certainly be regarded by Europeans placed in the same situation as) restricted. It is all about individual, and group, identification.

Indigenous people are frequently required to prove their existence!

All of which contributes to the huge challenge in creating constructive conversation between Indigenous and non-indigenous people and their organisations.

Week 13

Final Comments

It’s not what we know, but how we know it, which is of primary importance.

For our final seminar we gathered in the CAIS library, to avail ourselves of its multi-media facilities – we were to be treated to a special ‘screening’ of story and songline from the saltwater country.

We began with reflections on the recording of Indigenous Knowledge and the issues of its use by the ‘West’. We considered the differences between the Western ways of defining boundaries and those in use by Indigenous people. For Indigenous people this is not the construction of fixed barriers along defined lines. Indigenous boundaries are permeable; they are amorphous. The access and rights to different areas are influenced by many factors, such as family groups, semi-moieties, and clans. This means that the perceived boundaries vary between these groups and individuals depending on kinship and connection. In our chosen area in the Gulf, the major groups are the Wurdaliya, Rrumburriya, Mambaliya-Wawukarriya, and Wuyaliya. How individual relationships span these groups defines individual boundaries.

We note again that all living things are kin. The notion of non-human kin is fundamental; it is the axis pivotal to all knowledge. It underpins the obligation to establishing relationships. It provides for a different notion of ownership; the creation of guardians, and political relationships too. These fundamental notions have been persistently challenged by the colonial Australian state.

For the Indigenous people their place names carry stories; each name is a biography of the land. Some names are descriptors, while some have been placed by the Ancestors. Some have an etymological foundation while others don’t. Names are important. Some places are not what they appear – we look at a sand dune which is not really a sand dune – it is a wave. It has kin and it is feminine. It is called Mulawa. Mulawa is at the tip of one of the islands. We see how the songline that holds that country runs through it.

The meaning of Australia was once a libretto.

The songline is now; never the past. It is being, flowing, running, moving. It is only in the present. Even when the place is without people the songline is running, always running; waiting for a human-being – an amplifier.

The song shows us that Country is not just land. Country is a term for emotional engagement. Country can be lifted up by engagement – by being sung, or it can be ‘low down’ – when it is not engaged. The songline is an ecological view of what is present in country; it is a repository of ecological knowledge. It is also a genealogy of Country, of connectedness.

We recall that Indigenous languages are oral forms – it is only recently that they have been written. An oral language encodes knowledge in lots of ways that written language does not. Oral traditions deal with the world in intimacies (in writing, we lose all the meaning of the sound). They contain embedded meanings held by the clans, the families. When small languages die we lose an immense source of knowledge. How many generations are required to acquire this knowledge?

We examine a photograph of a very big rock. In fact it is not a rock; it is a female body – the body of the white-bellied sea-eagle Ancestress. The fact that we are even looking at this photo shows how things change: once women were not even allowed to see this rock. Now they can. A fascinating element in the picture is the two sea-eagles sitting atop the rock. They are sitting on their Ancestress. The photo was taken from a boat. In the boat was a local woman who belongs to the sea-eagle dreaming. For her this was a very powerful image; an image of kinship. She cried.

There is a further picture showing an Indigenous man with the dead bodies of beached pilot whales. What is the story? It is the story of the obligation of kin. He is the guardian of the whales and it is his duty to talk to the whales before the scientists are allowed to approach and make their study. Why? This is secret knowledge.

We discuss the picture of a white-feller biologist; Scott Whiting. Scott is an eminent expert on sea turtles. He is about to attach a tracking device to a turtle. With him is the clan leader of the sea-turtle Dreaming. They are sharing their knowledge. Scott is an example of a western scientist able to work successfully with Indigenous colleagues; he respects them and he respects their knowledge. This is a valuable, and rare, relationship, hopefully the way of the future.

We have seen how people are flexible; they are adapting to the time. We see that even the Law is adaptable; it is a matter of survival.

Finally we watch the animation of the Yanyuwa Song-line. It is narrated and then sung in the Yanyuwa language. It is sung by a white-man. Some Indigenous people, from the south, laugh at this. They tease the white-man for the perceived lack of authenticity in this situation. But the Yanyuwa don’t laugh, as they recognise his language, his singing, as authentic. This animation is leading-edge, modern technology. This is adaptation; positive change. It is eagerly embraced by the kids and their community. Maybe it is a way of saving a culture in danger of being lost; a way of preserving precious knowledge. Maybe it is a way for the future.

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