No ordinary book – a gift from the heart of Yolŋu culture: ‘Songspirals’ by the Gay’wu Group of Women
March 9, 2020
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.
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…
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.
Songspirals pp.23, 40, 41
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.