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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3 thoughts on “Hearing the Country – a study in Indigenous Australian ethnoecology”

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