An interesting and important book for everyone interested in learning more about Indigenous Australian’s connection to country is ‘Song Spirals ~ Sharing women’s wisdom of country through Songlines’. The book is by the Gay’wu Group of Women (dilly bag women’s group) which is made up of five Yolnu women of north east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and three university associate professors who have helped to record the women’s stories in their own words. This book lets the reader in on the essence of Aboriginal people, told in their own words.
Songlines in Aboriginal culture are referred to as song spirals by these women as they are infinite, they move and loop and connect to other clans. The knowledge shared by this group of women has been written so that non aboriginal people can try to gain an insight into the relationship that Aboriginal people have with the land, the stories, the songs and each other. It is a very complicated subject as Australia is made up of over 500 Aboriginal nations, people and languages as can be seen in this map.The authors explain that when Aboriginal people speak of country they refer to the land, rock, soil, people, waters and winds, animals, plants, stories and songs that make up a place, the past and the present, living and deceased, the seen and unseen, with everything connected. This book also explains a particular practice in this Arnhem Land region known as Milkarri, a song spiral practice by women which is a deeply emotional practice used in times of joy, loss and grief and other significant times. Song spirals link the people to their land and heal the body. Something that is very particular in Aboriginal law is the differentiation between men’s business and women’s business and the stories shared in the book are passed down from their grandmothers, mothers, and aunties knowledge and interwoven with men’s knowledge.
The authors decided to write this book because other books on the subject have been written by white people, mainly white men, and are not always accurate. This book addresses those issues and gives knowledge in the women’s own words which they hope people will use for reflection and take lessons into their lives.
The book looks at the early days of the Land Rights movement in Australia in the 1960s and 70s, when many of the older women travelled with anthropologists, naming places, singing songs and showing them which clan groups belonged to which areas, all from knowledge passed down through generations. It speaks of the racism they have experienced and the stereotyping that has happened over many years and expresses their wishes now for the need to come together with respect for knowledge, beliefs and values.
Five song sprirals are shared in the book by the person with authority to do so. They are shared in a way that the authors feel is best, only sharing what is open for public understanding but not ‘deep understanding’. It is a stepping stone to understanding their culture. The song spirals talk about end of life and kin relationships, connection to country and water, mapping by singing of special places and communication between animals, land and people, tides, sun and moon and seasons, of which there are 6 in Aboriginal culture.
It is the most in depth book I’ve ever read on Indigenous stories and beliefs and it feels like it lets the reader in on sensitive matters that haven’t been discussed in this way before. The book is an invitation to continue learning and listening to Aboriginal people, something that tourism opens us up to. One of the ways to gain more understanding is by attending Aboriginal art exhibitions and cultural festivals, the largest of which would probably be the Garma Festival. This Indigenous festival is held every year in Arnhem Land and over 4 days visitors can experience the rich cultural heritage of the Yolngu hosts, including traditional miny’tji (art), ancient story-telling, manikay (song) and bunggul (dance). The dates for the planned 2021 festival are Friday 30 July – Monday 2 August.
And if you are looking for some contemporary Indigenous music that blends western, International and Yolnu influences, then search for Yothu Yindi, Gurrumul and East Journey who have all come from this east Arnhem Land region.Grab a copy of ‘Song Spirals’ the book, for an interesting and thought provoking read.