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Just because it’s not in a book doesn’t mean it’s not history!

Categories: Culture, Human Rights, Indigenous People

by: Bakchos
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I have decided to digress from the main theme of Blak and Black for this post and have a quick look at the role of Aboriginal song and dance cycles in the history of Aboriginal culture and to consider briefly whether these song and dance cycles can properly be considered as history, in the same way that Milman Perry found that the oral poetry of Yugoslavia in the 30s contained aspects which were historical to the extent that they helped define the way that society viewed itself and its place in the bigger world.

I have taken this digression as a result of a comment received on Blak and Black today which to all intent and purpose argued that all Australian Aboriginal literature that was recorded in books by Europeans was nothing more than unsubstantiated myth. I found this rather insulting not to mention ignorant, condescending and racist.

The material for this post is largely drawn from Australian Aboriginal Oral Traditions by Margret Clunies Ross. I will provide a full reference list at a later date.

The Nature of Aboriginal Oral Tradition

Among Aborigines themselves the most important oral genres are those of song and dance, especially in their relationship to ritual. A man, and in some parts of Australia a woman, who is a ritual leader and expert in some aspect of ceremonial, usually song, has great prestige in his or her community which comes through control of knowledge and the forms in which knowledge is encoded. In Arnhem Land ritual is referred to in Aboriginal English as “Sunday business” and a ritual entrepreneur is a “businessman.” This usage accurately reflects one important aspect of the Aborigines’ own conceptualization of their oral traditions: songs, dances, icons, and even whole ceremonies are sacred and often secret, but they are commodities nonetheless which are owned by clans, executed by other clans who stand in a managerial relationship to the owners (Barker 1975-76), and sometimes exchanged with other groups in return for rights to perform an alien song or dance or in return for desired trade-goods and ceremonial artifacts (Thomson 1949, Roth 1902:144, Akerman 1980).

As the earliest observers realized when they took the word corroboree into the English language, the essence of much Aboriginal tradition lies in its multi-media nature. Together song, dance, and the painting of totemic icons or the construction of ritual grounds give expression through art to Aboriginal perfomers’ conceptualization of totemic beings. These powers are considered to have been active during a period known as The Dreaming when enduring shapes of the world were made. Totemic beings may be world-creative powers of a transcendental nature, such as the Baiamai of South Eastern Aboriginal groups or the Rainbow Serpent known through much of Northern Australia (Maddock 1982:107-17). The transcendental powers are characteristically represented as being immanent at initiatory rites, where the idiom of human procreation is turned on itself as men remove boys from the care of their mothers to be reborn as initiates in the sacred mysteries of the transcendental cults (Maddock 1982:121-41; Hiatt 1975b:143-62; R. M. Berndt 1951).

Some totemic beings are parochial powers, closely associated with the creation of individual clan estates and striking natural features upon those tracts of land. On one North Central Arnhem Land estate, for example, named Djunawunya, seven named sites were created by the supernatural powers Giant Fishtrap, Water Goanna, and Kingfisher (Hiatt 1982). One of these, Water Goanna, is believed to have created sites on various other estates, but the other creators are localized at Djunawunya and thus are important symbols of identity for Djunawunya people. Fishtrap, for example, is regularly drawn as a sand sculpture at Djunawunya mortuary ceremonies. The celebration of parochial totems in song, dance, and visual media is particularly important in mortuary ceremonies, for it is through mortuary rites rather than through any specifi c genre of personal eulogy that a dead individual is acclaimed.

I have stated that I believe Aborigines have traditionally regarded song and dance as the high forms of their culture and there is ample evidence for this. Such an assertion raises the question of the status of story-telling among traditional Aboriginal communities and the relationship between spoken and sung genres. There is no doubt that Aboriginal people value story-telling. Constance Petrie’s report of her father’s experiences in the 1840s as he accompanied a group of Aborigines to the Blackall Ranges in search of Bonyi nuts strikes a true note to anyone who has experience of Aboriginal camp life:

After the camp fires were made and breakwinds of bushes put up as a protection from the night, the party all had something to eat, then gathered comfortably round the fi res, and settled themselves ready for some good old yarns, till sleep would claim them for his own. Tales were told of what forefathers did, how wonderful some of them were in hunting and killing game, also in fighting. The blacks have lively imaginations of what happened years ago, and some of the incidents they remembered of their big fights, etc., were truly marvellous! They are also born mimics, and my father has often felt sore with laughing at the way they would take off people, and strut about, and imitate all sorts of animals (Petrie 1904:12).

On the other hand, Roth was probably right when he made the following assessment of the status of “fables and stories” in North Queensland:

The light in which such stories are regarded varies markedly in different districts. In the N. W.-Central areas, the women, and those men who are “lazy” —i.e., those who are always loafing around the camps—are the best hands at telling them: an individual in the full vigour of mental and bodily physique looks upon it as womanish and childish, almost derogatory, to know anything concerning them, and will almost invariably refer to his gin when any such matters are enquired of. At Princess Charlotte Bay (east coast), on the other hand, it was the men who prided themselves on spinning these yarns, and many a night I have spent in the camps listening to their narration, each tale being interpreted for my benefit (1902:7).

There is good evidence that many Aboriginal communities have special forms for enculturating children (C. Berndt 1952-54; Lucich 1969; C. and A. Ellis 1970; Kartomi 1970 and 1984), while others have nothing that one might specifically call children’s literature or song (Hamilton 1981:114).3 The function of story-telling in traditional communities is probably best considered as partly existing in its own right, and partly as an adjunct to forms of the high culture, notably songs. The esoteric nature of most Aboriginal song has made the development of spoken texts which interpret the song to various audiences well-nigh inevitable. Donaldson (1984:248) has rightly observed that “the less a song’s language is understood, the more prominent become accounts of what the song is about.” She was writing about dying Aboriginal traditions in present-day New South Wales, but the proposition holds true for Aboriginal cultures in a more healthy state as well. The repertoire of recorded Aboriginal tales, in which we find many narratives of wandering creator beings and the sites they created, and tales of supernatural beings who have human as well as animal characteristics, corresponds to the repertoire of sacred song and dance, and almost certainly acts as a sort of Begleitprosa to it.

Aboriginal songs, whether sacred or secular, are characteristically allusive and often very short. In cases where songs accompany ritual, each song verse is brief but either it is repeated many times, as in Central Australia, or variants using a finite corpus of song words are improvised by the singers, as in Central and Eastern Arnhem Land. In some cases, as when a song accompanies ritual imported from another part of the country, the audiences may understand little of the referential meaning of individual song words (Roth 1902:144; Keen 1977; Donaldson 1979), and in most Aboriginal communities the language of song is different from that of everyday discourse, sometimes markedly so. This difference is achieved by several means, including the addition of syllables to words of the everyday language, phonological changes, such as metathesis, possibly the use of archaisms (Alpher 1976), and morphological simplification, but above all by the use of a special lexis. As an example, I quote the opening lines of a song I have recorded from the song series Djambidj owned by Anbarra people from North Central Arnhem Land. The subject is the totemic being Djodja, Marsupial Mouse:

djodja wambarg nganaiei: Marsupial Mouse eats wild honey
djodja wambarg nganaiei: Marsupial Mouse eats wild honey
wana-wanamurna rrumadaiei: enormous [mouse] with prominent teeth…

(Clunies Ross and Wild 1982:34)

In this brief section, only the word djodja, name of the spirit being, occurs in Burarra, the spoken language of the singers. Wambarg corresponds to wama, the Burarra word for wild honey, while ngana is the everyday word for mouth, here given euphonic syllabic additions. In the third line wana-wanamurna, glossed as “enormous,” has its everyday cognate in Burarra wana, “big.” As for rrumada (rrumadaiei), I do not know a Burarra equivalent.

Not only the recondite vocabulary but also the polysemous nature of individual key words in Aboriginal song makes interpretative glossing inevitable. In a society in which knowledge is not free for all, but must be dearly bought, control over the process of interpretation traditionally belonged to senior men and women, particularly the former. Sacred knowledge was imparted to young men gradually over the span of their lives, though it was recognized that some were more gifted and creative than others (Hale 1984). In some societies initiands had to speak in a special kind of antonymous language while they were being inducted into the religious mysteries (Howitt 1904:ch. 9; Hale 1971). Even songs that belong to the genre of occasional verse and which are not centrally connected with religious rites often need to be interpreted on more than one level. Donaldson (1979:79-81) published a text composed by a young Arnhem Land singer, David Marrputja Munung-gurr, which has to be interpreted on two levels: it appears to be a naturalistic description of pelicans feeding on fish, but to those in the know there is an exophoric reference to a Toyota truck also called “Pelican” for which “scooping up water” means getting stuck in the mud.

Little systematic attention has so far been paid to either emic or etic classifications of Aboriginal traditional genres, with the exception of the writings of Ronald and Catherine Berndt (1962, rpt. 1982:53-55; 1964:198-216 and 326-47; C. Berndt 1973, rpt. 1978:72-90). Their classifications tend to place greater stress on the use to which oral traditions are put in Aboriginal society than on the form, style, or content of the given material. The problems inherent in this approach have been outlined by Hiatt (1975a:1-3). One of the major criteria of the Berndts’ classification system is whether the text serves a secret-sacred or a secular purpose. Here the system immediately runs into trouble with texts of the “same” tale that appear in both secular and sacred contexts, or, as Aborigines say, where we have an “outside” version of an “inside” myth. It has yet to be determined whether there are major formal or conceptual differences between the two versions in such cases, but most evidence to hand suggests that the differences lie more with the interpretations brought to bear on basically similar material and not with structural changes to the material itself. However, the criterion of use or performance context does have some role in determining Aboriginal oral genres, as do formal and cognitive criteria. Thus the Arnhem Land genre of manikay (clan song) is distinguished from other named genres in the region by its conventional performance contexts as well as by its form and subject matter.

Aboriginal communities in different parts of Australia have had a considerable variety of distinct oral genres. There have been some differences in the range of genres practiced by individual groups. Many communities had whetting songs, often sung by women (Grey 1841:309-16; Howitt 1904:345-46), and other formalized incitements to battle which frequently included insults and obscenities (Roth 1902:16 and 21-22). Haviland (1979a:33) reports a special sort of extemporaneous song from Hopevale in Queensland, called ganhil, which allowed people to praise or abuse others with impunity. The formal accompaniments to many kinds of tournament or inter-tribal warfare are now almost defunct, no doubt partly owing to white suppression of violence outside the European law. One has the impression from ethnographies, however, that they were once an important tradition. Sorcerers’ songs are reported from a wide area, and especially from Central and Southern Australia, where “clever men” played a central part in the religious and social life (Elkin 1977). Songs concerned with love magic and the ensorcelment of a desired lover are widespread (R. Berndt 1976a and b; R. Moyle 1979:20-25), as are what the Berndts called “gossip songs,” usually complaints about sexual infi delity and the jealousy it arouses in the forsaken lover. An example of the type is Djalbarmiwi’s song, translated by Catherine Berndt in Hall (1981:209).

Other common genres include “playabout” and other comic songs, lullabies, and curing songs. In many Aboriginal traditions there are numerous examples of occasional verse, made by an individual composer to commemorate a striking event. The inspiration for such compositions is often said to come to the singer in a dream-vision in which an ancestor or Dreamtime being gives him the idea for the new creation. A good example of an occasional song is Paddy Biran’s Song, translated from Girramay by R. M. W. Dixon (Hall 1981:375-76; Dixon 1980:57-58), of which this is the first part:

Ngaa … now then mist which lies across the country a bulldozer nosing into Guymay-nginbi the place becoming cleared mist which lies across the country a bulldozer nosing into Guymay-nginbi dynamite which exploded …

The song laments the desecration of traditional sites sacred to the Girramaygan people by an American pastoral company, using bulldozers and dynamite. The mist hanging over the country is conceived as the land’s reaction to its despoliation.

At the other end of the continuum from occasional song is that which is tied to ritual performance. Here we find a great wealth of genres, connected principally with increase rituals, initiation, and death. These include not only the songs used on such occasions but the ritual choruses and invocations that accompany them. Apart from the work that has already been published on men’s and women’s secret cults, it will probably not be possible to publish material relating to these genres for the foreseeable future, as Aborigines have made it clear that they do not want such knowledge disseminated. Some of the most beautiful published texts from these genres were recorded by T. G. H. Strehlow in his Songs of Central Australia (1971). Here are two verses from the Northern Aranda Bandicoot Song of Ilbá?intja which refer to the Bandicoot ancestor and the ceremonial ground painting, executed in blood and eagles’ down, which represents the primeval Ilbá?intja soak on the ritual ground:

Lo, his knees, firm, hard, and strong;
Lo, his knees, hard as white quartz!
Lo, the great sire of the painted ground;
Lo, his limbs, firm, hard, and strong!

(Strehlow 1971:135)

In this survey of Aboriginal oral traditions, I have deliberately confi ned myself to those which have something to do with the human voice, though I have included dance, for it never occurs without song. I have therefore left many important Aboriginal cultural forms out of account. Those which deserve a brief mention here are the visual arts, which traditionally were often executed during rituals, and those communicative arts which are marked by the absence of language. I refer to sign language, which is extremely well developed among Aboriginal people (Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok 1978; Kendon 1980 and forthcoming) and is often used to communicate when speaking would be inappropriate, as, for example, during a hunting expedition.


  1. Our history is as meaningful for us as history written in a book is meaningful to white people. As the heading says cultural arrogrance. Anyway it’s worth remembering that just because its in a book does not mean that it is correct – just ask keith Windschuttle.

  2. facts are facts, as has been said before on Blak and Black whether these facts are committed to writing within a Euro-centric framework is irrevelant. Oral history is history just the same as written history is history. The real issue here is: what is history?

  3. Miriam that’s a good point, what is history and how can one culture judge another cultures history? How we as a culture see ourselves within the wider world is our history. WWI is now as much myth as fact and it is lesss than 100 years old. Books make no difference.

  4. Our oral traditions and history is as valid for us as any book written history is valid for the white.

  5. What right do we have to tell someone that their history is not history? As the heading to this article says – cultural arrogance.

  6. Yes Sue it is cultural arrogrance, but hopefully it’s going to come to an end. If enough people stand up and speak out against it, the world, if not Australia will hear our voices!!!

  7. There is oly so many insults a people will take. I suspect that Indigenous Australia has passed that point, it’s time for a change, It’s time for action. Respect will be a good starting point for action and transperancy a good starting point for change.

  8. Mahmud Ahsan via Facebook says:

    Australia has no time for Black history in the same way as it has no time for black Australians.

  9. That is correct Mahmud Ahsan in Australia black history is purposefully forgotten about by white in a futile attempt by white to pretend that the genocide of black Australia didn’t happen, will it did, and no matter how many Windshuttle’s say it didn’t the fact remains that in 1788 the whole country belonged to 700 Aboriginal tribes, now we have fuck all, this is actual and factual history, but it ain’t in no white fellas book.

  10. Just because its in a book doesn’t mean that it is history.

  11. White blokes shit me when the argue stupit things like our history doesn’t count just because it ain’t in a book. Fuck at least our history is honest, not like white fella history that is more spin than truth.

  12. There is many a thing written in a book that is not fact.

  13. I’m sure that the Australian Government publishes 1,000s of books a year and how many of those contain fact and truth?

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