My heart was full as I read this unusual and generous book. When I had finished, I felt two things: humility and gratitude. Along the way there were many ‘light bulb’ moments, when aspects of Yolŋu culture that had been confusing or which I had previously misunderstood, became a bit clearer.
Songspirals (published 2019 by Allen & Unwin) was written by the Gay’wu Group of Women (or ‘dilly bag women’s group’), consisting of Yolŋu women from north-east Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north, and non-Aboriginal women. Four sisters and a daughter, and three non-Aboriginal researchers from Macquarie University and the University of Newcastle, have collaborated on cultural and research projects over a decade and also co-authored three other books. Songspirals is an invitation to come on a journey of exploration and understanding.
The women describe songspirals (sometimes called songlines or song cycles) as:
… the essence of people in this land…We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.Songspirals p xvi
The book was written to share something of Yolŋu culture, language, song and law, that have guided and protected people for thousands of years. The women write of milkarri:
We Yolŋu women from North East Arnhem Land … we cry the songcycles, we keen the songcycles – this is what we call milkarri. Only women keen milkarri. Milkarri is an ancient song, an ancient poem, a map, a ceremony and a guide, but it is more than all this too. Milkarri is a very powerful thing in Yolŋu life.Songspirals p.xvi
They share particular songspirals in the book, describing the deep knowledge and deep names of places, animals, clans, things. They also give the clearest explanation I have read of ‘Country’, of what it means within Yolŋu culture and spirituality:
Country is home, it sings to us and nourishes us. It is the feeling of home, the feeling of the seasons that communicate with us. It is all the beings of home. It is everything that we can touch or feel or sense, and it is everything beyond that too. It is everything that belongs in Country, with Country and as Country, including us. And it is the relationships between all those beings too. We come into being together…Songspirals pp.23, 40, 41
Yolŋu keep Country alive with language…the land grew a tongue and that tongue is the Yolŋu people…
Everything communicates and comes through the songspirals.
This communication between animals, between land, animals and people, between the tide, the sun and the moon, is about giving and receiving messages, about the seasons, about the weather, about people’s and Country’s safety and well-being.
I felt humble because of the breathtaking generosity of the women in sharing so much about their culture and their lives. Woven through the narrative are stories from their families, illustrating the resilience, pride and energy of Yolŋu in the face of appalling arrogance and dismissal on the part of non-indigenous people, from the very earliest contact to the present day. The depth and complexity of culture and languages that have been kept alive and vibrant through difficult times, shine from this book. All the authors ask in return is that: ‘...you respect this knowledge, to be respectful and be aware of the limits of what we are sharing.’ Songspirals p 258
Issues such as land rights, the destruction that mining inflicts on the land, bilingual or ‘two-way’ education, the dangers that come with losing language, and the ‘homelands’ or ‘outstations’ movement, (where indigenous people moved away from missions and towns, back to care for Country) are discussed in the book. It is clear that living on homelands is about health – the physical and mental health of people and of the land – NOT a ‘lifestyle choice’ as once dismissively described by a former Australian Prime Minister. Non-linear concepts of history, of time and of relationships, are also touched on.
These are hefty topics and the book is not an ‘easy’ read, partly because of the depth of the issues and partly because of its unusual narrative style, which cycles and repeats as do the songspirals it describes. But I was grateful for the opportunity to read about these important issues, not from commentators or political figures, but from Yolŋu women themselves. And the language – Yolŋu matha words are used liberally throughout (there is a glossary to help) and it’s a wonderful way to be introduced to the complexities and richness of one of Australia’s First Languages.
There is so much more I could say about this book and about the authors: sisters Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs and Banbapuy Ganambarr, their daughter Djawundil Maymura, and Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright.
I would encourage readers to visit the website of the Bawaka Collective to find out more about their work and research.
Also check out the music of other family members in the band East Journey. These musicians write and sing songs which are closely linked to much of the content and meaning of Songspirals.
Siena Stubbs, another of the younger Yolŋu generation, wrote and self published a book (since published by Magabala Books) called Our Birds: Ŋilimurruŋgu Wäyin Malanynha when she was just 16 years old.
Another member of this talented clan, Maminydjama Maymuru, has a successful modelling career as Magnolia. For this young woman,
…living in both worlds has given her a deeper understanding of both worlds and of life. In the Yolŋu way, she talks through the songspirals and that is where her message comes from.Songspirals p 133
For the authors of Songspirals, it is crucial that the next generations keep the language and culture strong while they negotiate living in two worlds. This is for the young people, their well being, health and connection to the things that will keep them strong. But it is also for the wider community, the land, the nation.
There is so much wisdom in this book, so much to absorb, to try to understand and to think about. I thank the Gay’wu Group of Women for their teaching and their generosity.
I’m not sure when I realised that the practice of removing indigenous Australian children from their families (resulting in what is now known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ and the subject of the 2008 National Apology by then Prime Minister Keven Rudd) did not only happen way back in Australia’s history, but was still happening during my childhood in the 1960’s. The understanding that while I was growing up, safe and secure in a loving family, other children my age were in very different circumstances – grieving the loss of their parents and communities, frequently subjected to abuse and neglect in institutions charged with their care – appalled me, as I know it has many other Australians. This is not ‘history’ (locked in the pages of a text book about the past) but the lived experience of generations of Australian families.
The White Girl (Queensland University Press, 2019) is in part an exploration of this blot on Australia’s record. The reader experiences 1960’s rural Australian life through the eyes of Odette, a strong and loving grandmother to Sissy, who she has cared for since her daughter Lila left their town after giving birth to her baby. Odette does not know where Lila is and has had to get on with the task of raising a granddaughter, drawing on her considerable personal resources of inner strength, kindness and respect for her culture and ancestors.
But this was a time and place in which overt racism was part of the everyday for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and Odette and Sissy experience the worst and the best of people as they go about their lives in their small community. The local policeman, Bill O’Shea, went to primary school with Odette and they were friends back then – but he is now an alcoholic reaching the end of his career and prefers to turn a blind eye to the goings-on in town, including the bullying and aggressive behaviour of Joe Kane and his eldest son Aaron, who takes against Odette and Sissy and threatens harm.
Then along comes a new police officer, Sergeant Lowe, who is determined to be the new broom the town needs and who takes seriously his responsibilities as the official guardian of the Aboriginal people in it. Unfortunately for Odette and Sissy, what this means is that he is set on removing Sissy from her grandmother’s care because in his view, an Aboriginal family is no place for a child to grow up, especially one who could ‘pass’ as white – like Sissy.
Matters are complicated by Odette’s health problems and she must find a way to protect Sissy from Lowe while dealing with her own uncertain future.
Along the way the reader is confronted by difficult truths about black/white relations at this time. For example, Lowe has a chart in his office on which he has listed each Aboriginal child in the local area, along with descriptions such as half-caste, quarter-caste and octoroon. Sissy is listed here, categorised as near white (p 115) Later, Odette reflects that:
…white people were fascinated with the skin colour of Aboriginal people, and what it might indicate…(She) understood that what this woman really wanted to know was how she’d inherited the white blood she carried and who it had come from. Odette didn’t know the answer to such questions. All she knew was that the women in her family loved all their children, regardless of the suffering and violence that had created them.p 146
Through Odette, Tony Birch suggests that the appalling and cruel behaviour exhibited by white people in authority over indigenous people, comes about because in order to carry out unjust government policies and laws, they needed to see Aboriginal people as ‘other’ and somehow at fault. Odette comments to her friend Jack:
Think if you were the police, Jack, knowing that one day you’d be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family. If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn’t do that job. This fella giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry with us. Maybe even hate us. The only way they get by.p 164
The novel also deals with the so-called ‘exemption certificate’ that some Aboriginal people applied for. In essence, it was a document stating that they were no longer to be considered Aboriginal – which meant no longer subject to the laws and regulations governing every aspect of life for indigenous people under the Aboriginal Protection Act. Where you lived, if you were allowed to travel, who you might marry – these were all controlled by the relevant Protector or his delegates. Birch deals sensitively with what I am imagine has been a contested and difficult issue for many indigenous people, families and communities.
One of Odette’s friends answers Jack when he asks ‘What will we do, then?’ with the following:
What we’ve always done. Keep our heads down, think smart and get on the move again if the need comes.’p 247
What gets Odette through such difficulties are her recollections of a happy childhood, a loving marriage, and her connections to the natural world and the old people – her ancestors. She teaches Sissy about these things too, hoping that her granddaughter’s strong will and Odette’s love will guide her through life.
Each night, before Odette fell asleep, she asked the old people for help, that she would not lose Sissy as well.p 42
The White Girl is a beautiful book that deals sensitively with confronting issues of Australia’s past – and present.
For more information on Tony Birch and his books, see the UQP website.
For a long time now, I have been conflicted about the purpose and meaning of our national holiday, Australia Day, celebrated as it is on the day regarded by First Nations peoples as the beginning of the invasion by Europeans of their land. This year I was able to spend the day, and the evening before it, in a much more positive frame of mind, surrounded by reminders of the strength, resilience and richness of indigenous cultures. On the evening before the 26th January, I was lucky enough to attend a stunning show, Bungul, at the Sydney Opera House (shout out to my beautiful friend Anita for such a generous Christmas gift!)
The concert was a performance by musicians from Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Yirritja and Dhuwa performers from north-east Arnhem land. The music was that of the late ‘Dr G’ (Gurrumul) Yunupingu, sublime and evocative music about his country, his people and his family. Along with the music was live dance performances and a visual backdrop of images from country, dancers, and seascapes. Mesmerising and moving. The joy expressed by the dancers as they performed was wonderful. It was an unforgettable experience and I think for the several thousand audience members in the Concert Hall of arguably Australia’s most famous building, a thought provoking way to experience the eve of Australia Day.
For two hundred years, Australian society has blocked its ears to the remarkable indigenous cultures that are our inheritances. As the urgency grows daily to find a more sustainable way to live with the fragile land that supports us, it is surely time to take stock and learn from the extraordinary cultures that have always been around us, cultures such as the Yolgnu. It is time to listen.Nigel Jamieson, Director of Bungul
After the concert ended, my companions and I headed for Barangaroo, another spot on Sydney Harbour, named for a Gadigal woman who lived around the area at the time of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. There we joined a vigil of Sydneysiders who had gathered together to experience a fire and smoking ceremony, listen to indigenous people sing, dance and speak about what the 26th January means to them. It was a beautiful experience although we missed the first part of the night due to the walk from the Opera House.
On Australia Day itself, 26th January, I was surrounded by families, dancers, musicians, friends to reflect on and celebrate Australia’s incredible richness of culture at the Yabun Festival, a whole day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, languages, music, dance and much else.
All in all, these experiences added up to a much more meaningful way to spend the national day, away from the sometimes forced and artificial sense of ‘nationalism’ which can accompany this occasion. I think there is much to celebrate about my country but also much that needs to be done to redress past and continuing wrongs. So a day of thinking about and reflecting on these and other aspects of Australia’s story, was most welcome.
Now, to the book I finished just before this experience: The Mind of A Thief, which explores some of these questions.
Published in 2012 (Queensland University Press), it is the second of Patti Miller’s books I’ve read. The first, Write Your Life, is a ‘how to’ of memoir or life writing, the area for which she is justifiably well known. I have heard it said that Miller could ‘write about a blade of grass and make it interesting’ and after reading The Mind of a Thief I have to agree!
Not that this book is about blades of grass—or rather, it is about grasses, and rocks, and the sky, a particular river valley in the central west of NSW Australia, the stories that come from there, and how identity is crafted within those stories and those places. Miller was born and raised just outside the town of Wellington, though she has lived in several other parts of Australia and in Europe since.
It was a hint from an Aboriginal elder, a Wiradjuri woman, that Miller herself might ‘have some blackfella in ya’, that set her on the path of thinking about and exploring the history of the town and its valley and her own family history. Through this she encounters a long running Native Title Claim for The Common. This is a section of land that was the subject of the first Native Title claim after the Mabo High Court decision (which recognised the right of all indigenous Australians to their traditional lands and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius that had prevailed since colonisation by the British.) The Wellington claim was bitterly contested by different local groups and partly, the book is about Miller’s attempts to hear and understand all sides of the story.
In doing so, she reflects on the colonists’ treatment of the Wiradjuri, a nation that stretched over a vast area of the state. She discusses how people were herded onto reserves, a process which mixed and muddied connections to country and language. Also, the children stolen from their parents, and the lack of control by indigenous people over their own lives because of laws that treated them differently from all other Australians.
However, the book is also about the author herself; her place in the history of the Wellington Valley, her connections to the land and its people, past and present. She writes that:
There was something in uncovering the story of Wiradjuri and Wellington that … felt like a balm, quieting the restlessness… as if there were nothing else I should be doing.p. 68
Among the most fascinating parts of the book for me were the quotes from the early English and German missionaries who came to live and preach in the valley. They hoped to convert the ‘Natives’ to their Christian faith. An especially telling quote is from the Rev James Gunther who, in the Wiradjuri-English dictionary he compiled in 1839, included this sentence:
Ngunguda nilla buranu ngaddunu; minyamminyambul ngumdiagirrin, which he translated to mean Give me that child and I will give you plenty to eat. (p.87)
Whoa. If ever there was a direct quote to illustrate the simplicity and horror of the theft carried out by the colonists of all backgrounds and motivations, surely this is it. Theft of land, of children, of family. Attempted theft of minds and beliefs and hope.
Another quote, from Rev William Watson in 1835, attributed to a Wiradjuri man called Gungin, who on being reprimanded by the Reverend for something, replied angrily:
What do you want here? What do you come here for? Why do you not go to your own country. (p96)
And later, Brother Johann Handt commented in 1832 that, when asked by Wiradjuri women why he wanted their children, he replied that ‘we desired to instruct their children, and to make them like ourselves, after which they replied that they had no children.’ (p.103)
Hardly any more needs to be said about the unwillingness of the Wiradjuri to see their children become ‘civilised’ in this manner.
Miller’s book explores this history within the context of her own ancestors’ culpability in the dispossession and oppression of the Wiradjuri. She discovers that one of her nineteenth-century ancestors was part of a group of leading townspeople who originally commandeered The Common—the piece of land that was, more than a century later, the subject of the Native Title claim discussed in the book.
Whether we had Wiradjuri ancestors or not, the mere fact of my white ancestors turning up in the Wellington Valley on the currents of English criminal and colonial policy mingled our histories inextricably.pp. 123 & 166
… It wasn’t just symbolic to say my ancestors took the land from the Wiradjuri in the first place. After all this time I discovered one of them, Patrick Reidy, really did take it.
I share with Miller an ancestry of British and German migrants to this ancient land: a mix of English convicts, and Germans leaving behind the political and economic upheavals of nineteenth century Europe in search of a better life. I am certain that some of these people, especially those who came in the early years of the colony, were participants in the dispossession of indigenous people as they gained freedom and were granted land—often large areas of land—in the Hawkesbury, the northwest of NSW and the Hunter areas, for example. This is an uncomfortable truth. I also feel a deep connection to this country of my birth, though it’s a connection that stretches back just over two hundred years, not many thousands as it does for those who were so dispossessed.
So, like Miller, I ‘come from transplanted people.’ Whether this makes us ‘grow a little crooked and ill at ease’ (p.145), I’m not sure. Certainly, there is discomfort, and a wish for my country to do things better now, recognise the First Nations of this land in meaningful ways, try to repair the damage done.
The Mind of a Thief does not have answers to these questions. But for me, the hopeful aspect of Miller’s story is best summed up by this passage:
I wondered about second chances and whether everyone gets them or not. Whether a whole country gets another chance to do things right and whether it ever makes up for doing it so badly the first time.p.233
This is a beautiful book that asks some hard questions without giving glib answers. I am convinced that Miller can indeed write about anything—including blades of grass—and make it fascinating and thought provoking.