Thursday, August 18, 2011

Indigenous Tales of The Dreamtime

Emily Gap N.T.
An Introduction for non-Australians

Indigenous Australians were the original inhabitants of the continent we know today as Australia. They include Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. Together they make up 2.5% of Australia's population today.  It is believed that they are amongst the oldest races on earth with estimates suggesting that they first arrived on this continent between 40,000 and 125,000 years ago. They are an ancient people with a rich and unique culture. There is enormous diversity across the many nations and clans, with an estimated 250-300 spoken languages with 600 dialects. Sadly fewer than 200 of these languages remain and most are in danger of being lost.  Like many non-Indigenous Australians I see the preservation of Indigenous languages and their stories as of critical importance. Recently, while travelling in Central Australia this was brought into sharp focus for me.

An encounter with the 'The Three Caterpillars'

Mparntwe or Alice Springs is home to the Arrernte people, Indigenous Australians who have called this beautiful place home for at least 45,000 years.  It is at the geographical centre of Australia. The photo opposite is of a place called 'Emily Gap' that I visited in July while exploring Central Australia. At this place you will find Indigenous rock art that tells the story of how three caterpillars named Yeperenye, Ntyarlke and Utnerrengatye created the MacDonnell Ranges.

 The Arrernte people, believe the ranges were formed by giant caterpillars that entered this world through one of the gaps in the escarpment of the area. In traditional stories the caterpillar ancestors, Yeperenye, Utnerrengatye and Ntyarlke are the major creation forces of the Alice Springs area. These stories tell how they arrived from all directions, first stopping at Mparntwe, a particularly sacred site in Alice Springs, where they battled with the Irlperenye (green stink bug).

'Three Caterpillars' - Emily Gap
The Caterpillars fled when the Irlperenye (stink bug) started to kill them. The ranges around Alice Springs are the seen as the remains of the many caterpillars. The gaps in the ranges like Emily Gap indicate where the stink bugs tore the heads from the bodies of the caterpillars. The rock formations around the area are and the few surviving Yeperenye went on to sculpt the rivers and trees along the tops of the ranges.

'The Three Caterpillars' were painted on the cliff face at some point in time. The dark red and light orange stripes were created by red ochre and white lime blended with animals fats and applied to the rock surface.

Indigenous Dreamtime stories are associated with specific Indigenous clans and nations and their lands and these stories are passed on to younger generations by elders and storytellers. They have survived for thousands of years but the loss of traditional languages and the separation of many Indigenous people from their traditional land is a threat to their survival. While some of these stories are secret, or are seen as of such a sacred nature that they are only told by specific people to certain people (e.g. told by men to men, or by women to women), in the last 40 years many Indigenous Dreamtime stories have been shared through children's books.

As a non-Indigenous Australian I love these stories and would like to see more of them written down by the people who own these stories so that others can enjoy them. Thankfully, many are being recorded but just as many aren't. For example, to date I haven't come across a written version of 'The Three Caterpillars' that I learned of when exploring Alice Springs.

Some of my favourite Indigenous Stories

Some of my favourite Indigenous Dreamtime stories have been passed down to all Australian children through the storytelling and wonderful art of Dick Roughsey (1924-1985) or Goobalathaldin to use his tribal name. He was from the island of Langu-narnji in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. His first picture book 'The Giant Devil Dingo' received wide acclaim for the richness of the storytelling, the distinctiveness of his painted illustrations, with their vibrant colours, fascinating detail, and the integration of art and word. It tells of Old Eelgin, the grasshopper woman who was evil and had taught her giant dingo Gaiya to kill men for food. But one day Gaiya meets his match in the Chooku-Chooku (butcher-bird) brothers.

Another of my favourite works by Roughsey is 'The Rainbow Serpent' first published in 1975 and still available. It won the Children's Book Council of Australia award for best picture book in 1976. Goorialla (the Rainbow Serpent) travelled across Australia to find his tribe. As he travelled his tracks formed the mountains, the creeks, lagoons and rivers. The Bil-bil brothers plot to kill him. When Goorialla's anger is spent and he disappears into the sea the world is changed.

Dick Roughsey and Percy Trezise (1923-2005) formed a strong partnership to produce many wonderful books together. While Trezise was not Indigenous he became Roughsey's brother in a traditional Aboriginal ceremony and was given the name 'Warrenby'. Roughsey lived with his wife and their six children on Mornington Island, but often spent half the year on the North Queensland mainland. He and Percy Trezise discovered and studied the art of Aboriginal cave galleries in the Laura region of Cape York. The Quinkin gallery inspired the award-winning books 'The Quinkins' and 'Turramulli' the 'Giant Quinkin'.
'The Quinkins' is a wonderful story that tells of the Yalanji tribe of Cape York and their encounters with the Quinkins, spirit people of the land with two tribes: Imjim and the Timara. Imjim were small fat-bellied fellows who stole children while Timara were funny and whimsical spirits who like to play tricks. They were tall and very thin and lived in the cracks of the rocks, and they didn't like the Imjim. This is the story of two children, Boonbalbee and Leealin.  This book was an IBBY Honour book in 1980, and was the Children's Book Council Book of Australia Picture Book of the Year in 1979.  As I travelled through northern Australia and looked at the crevices in the rocks the echoes of this story made me think, "could these be Quinkin rocks?"

There are so many of their titles that I love and have enjoyed sharing with children. These include 'The Cave Painters' by Percy Trezise (1988) which tells of the experiences of two Bullanji children Nonda and Mayli as they travel to visit their mother's people, the Yalanji who live in 'Quinkin Country'. 'The Magic Firesticks' (Trezise & Roughsey) is another story of the Yalanji people in Cape York and tells how the people discovered the way to light fires, not simply sustain fires once they were alight. After monsoonal fires quenched all their fires two young men (Bandicoot and Curlew) travel to a far off Fire Mountain where it was said Didmunja (a wise man) had magic sticks which could produce fire when you wanted it.

'Banana Bird and the Snake Man' (Trezise & Roughsey) tells of a time when people who were later to become birds, animals, plants and reptiles were still in human form. The snake men of Cape York were cannibals who would kill people and hang them in trees to be collected later when they were hungry. This story tells of the triumph of Coucal the brother of Banana Bird man who avenges his brother's death and destroys the Snake men. 

Another wonderfully simple book is 'When the snake bites the sun' told by David (Bungal) Mowaljarlai, which was retold and illustrated by Pamela Lofts. This delightful story of the Ngarinyin tribe of Western Australia, tells the story of the sun and why it is as it is today. This was one of a series of simple picture books for preschool children produced in the 1980s some of which are still available. Other books in the series included 'Dunbi the owl', 'Echidna and the shade tree' and 'How the birds got their colours'. We owe Pamela Lofts (who lives in Alice Springs) a great debt for recording and illustrating many Indigenous stories. You can find a full list here.

Tiddalik Rock (Wollombi NSW)
'What made Tiddalik Laugh' has been produced in various versions of varied authenticity. It is based on the 'Cylorana platycephala' (or Water-holding Frog) that swells as it swallows water. It is sometimes referred to as 'Molok' as well as 'Tiddalik'. The version I first read was Joanna Troughton's beautifully (and amusingly) illustrated version, although this might not be the most authentic traditional version of the story. Tiddalik woke up one morning with an unquenchable thirst. He began to drink all the fresh water he could find till he was satisfied and every creek and billabong was dry. All the creatures and plant life began to die, so the other animals decided to do something about it. But how could they get the water back? Wombat had the answer, make him laugh? But how? The amusing solution involved Platypus in Troughton's version of the story. The story is said to have originated in South Gippsland Victoria but is common along the Eastern seaboard of Australia, so this is unclear. The photo of this rock (opposite) known as Tiddalik rock is located near Wollombi in NSW.

'Enora and the Black Crane', by Arone Raymond Meeks is another fine example of a traditional story being turned into a picture book. Arone Meeks is a member of the Kokoimudji tribe from the Laura area of far North Queensland. This story tells of Enora and how his killing of a crane led to birds acquiring their colours and him becoming the black crane. Winner of Australian IBBY Award for Children's Literature (1994), CBCA picture book of the year (1992) and UNICEF Ezra Jack Keats International Award Silver medal (1992). Arone Meeks also illustrated Catherine Berndt's wonderful book 'Pheasant and Kingfisher' (1987) that was shortlisted by the CBCA in 1988 and won the Crichton Award for Meeks in the same year.


A more recent book which I love is the 'Papunya School Book of Country and History' (2001). This isn't really a Dreamtime story, it is the story of the Anagu people of Central Australia. It offers a balanced telling of the people, their place, their culture and history. It does a good job in speaking of some of the difficult issues arising from the impact of white settlers. It is a wonderful collaboration between well-known non-Indigenous advocate Nadia Wheatley and Indigenous writers, storytellers and artists from the staff and students of Papunya School.

Another more recent community collaboration is 'Our World: Bardi Jaawi: Life At Ardiyooloon' (2011) by One Arm Point Remote Community School.  Ardiyooloon is home to the Bardi-Jaawi people and sits at the end of a red dirt road at the top of the Dampier Peninsula, 200km north of Broome in the north-west of Western Australia. 'Our World: Bardi-Jaawi Life at Ardiyooloon' takes readers inside the lives of the children of a remote Indigenous community; lives that are very different to those experienced by most Australians. Worthy Honour book in the CBCA awards for 2011 in the 'Eve Pownall Award' for Information Books.

Yet another wonderful collaborative book is 'Playground' (2011) compiled by Nadia Wheatley with illustrations and design by Ken Searle, has been short-listed for the 2011 Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Awards. This is an unusual book isn't quite a graphic novel, but then again, it isn't simply a reference book.  Drawing on the stories of 80 Indigenous Australian Elders, 20 Indigenous secondary students and with Indigenous Historian Dr Jackie Huggins as adviser and critical friend, Nadia Wheatley has created a unique collaborative work.  The book offers a wonderful insight into experiences of childhood for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from 1900 to the present.

With stunning photographs and illustrations, it takes us into the daily life of Indigenous children (past and present) who are connected with their land from birth. The stories and drawings help the reader to understand Indigenous life in all its facets - learning, playing, understanding and respecting the earth, the first days of life, relationships in families, what 'home' was, languages, daily food gathering and hunting, the place of song, dance, art and ceremony.  With the arrival of European people there have been adaptations, but Indigenous children remain embedded in their culture. Daily life is different, but Indigenous children are still learning from country and community. This book would be a good introduction for readers who want to know more about Indigenous people not simply read their stories.

Some other great resources


Based on an Aboriginal Dreamtime story of Waatji Pulyeri (the Blue Wren)



Lovely example of Indigenous Storytelling, 'How the Kangaroo Got its Pouch' A Wirrajuri tale



Some brief further notes on Indigenous Australians

In Central Australia the Indigenous people are called the Anangu. Within this group there are many different language groups including the Pintupi, Warlpiri, Anmatyerre, Pitjantjatjara and Arrente. All Indigenous Australians come from different 'Ngurra' (homelands or traditional countries) and within their rich cultural traditions have stories, drawings, dances other cultural practices that have been passed down through the generations for millennia.  There has been a wonderful balance and 'bond' between people and their land. They see their ancestors as their teachers and for thousands of years they have taught their children the knowledge of ancestors and a history seen within the very rocks, water courses, hills, fauna and flora of their place. This has been passed down often (but not exclusively) through story. Often these stories are told in the context of place and have been oral, but in the last century some of these stories have been written down so that they can enrich all people, even if perhaps not understanding their full significance.

There is a deep sadness that many non-Indigenous Australians feel that there has been some loss of language and stories of these unique people. It was with a mixture of joy and sadness that I caught glimpses of the rich connection between Indigenous people and their land while I travelled across Central Australia.  The joy comes from the richness I could see in this connection, but the sadness is that for many Indigenous Australians this connection is made more difficult by their dislocation from traditional lands. My hope is that more Indigenous stories will be captured in written and spoken forms.

3 comments:

CatWay said...

I think this website (which was just recommended to me in a PD)
http://www.abc.net.au/dustechoes/
has some lovely presentations of Aboriginal Dreamtime stories.

My son (who is 5 y.o.) loves stories of the Rainbow Serpent. So, I appreciate the list of other books we could look for.

Green Mama said...

Thank you for this post- it brought back some wonderful memories. I loved those books as a child, and I remember using papas grass at the beach to swish away my footprints so the bad creatures couldn't follow them! A fantastic list of resources- thank you

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your the link suggestion Catherine and for your comment 'Green Mama', nice to hear from you both. Trevor