Just about every Australian has heard about the Dreamtime. But if I were to mention a songline, what would my luck be like in finding an Aussie who could put a hand up to say, “yep, I know what you mean”?
Songlines trace the journeys of our ancestral spirits, an intricate map woven into the fabric of every inch of this continent. The stories they tell are integral to Aboriginal cultural knowledge. They are preserved in song, dance, art and story. A songline documents the creation of mountains, rivers, cave formations and in some cases, like on my grandmother’s side of the family Butchulla from K'Gari (Fraser Island) and details like how the land got its colour.
These stories have been handed down from generation to generation and based on the current accepted minimum date of Aboriginal occupation of Australia, that's about 2,592 generations. Even I need a minute to digest that, and I’m Aboriginal. That’s a long, long, long time. I’m not an anthropologist but I have been learning from a young age what my connection as a human being is to the land. A very personal journey born from a thirst for knowledge. Not so much a knowledge you can learn from a book, but one that only lasts a single lifetime then disappears if it isn’t respectfully listened to.
I come from two strong Aboriginal tribes, Garawa in the Gulf of Carpentaria which spans from the Northern Territory near Boroloola down over the border into Queensland near Doomadgee, and Butchulla from Fraser Island whose lands incorporate Maryborough, Hervey Bay and K’Gari. I often wonder if there was a particular reason why my grandfather married my grandmother; two people from totally different geographical locations. I don’t know the answer but I do always remember two old stories.
Dreaming stories that have songlines attached and funnily enough they are on both my grandmother’s and grandfather’s side of the family. Creation stories involving the Rainbow Serpent or Rainbow Snake.
There’s a saying some First Nations Australians have and I believe it to be true. “We walk in two worlds. One world being that of the dominant culture and the other world of our spiritual and physical connection to land.” For example, I explained to a friend once that K’Gari is my church as well as home and the Dreaming stories of our home are our parables. Throughout my life I’ve utilised performing arts to bridge the gap between the line that separates the two worlds I’m innately compelled to walk in.
My mother is one of seven sisters, Violet, Dianne, Euriel, Aileen (Mum), Elsie, Marsha and Glenda. Growing up Mum would always point out the star constellation Pleiades, more commonly known as the Seven Sisters and say that the constellation represented her and her sisters.
Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to work on projects that have a deep cultural significance particularly focused on Aboriginal cultural practice. Over the past few months, I’ve been researching a number of different topics for various projects. I noticed that Dreaming story of the Seven Sisters kept popping up in different conversations and in different contexts.
It was first mentioned to me a few months back by a friend who told me how this story, like many others, traverses the land. Like many stories from my childhood I’d heard bits and pieces but I'd never heard a full cycle or Dreaming story first hand from any tribe about the Seven Sisters. It interested me and I asked my friend if they knew if it had anything to do with the Seven Sisters constellation but they weren’t sure. I moved on to other projects but for months the conversation stayed with me. I didn’t know why it had resonated so strongly with me.
The story told of how seven sisters were pursued by a snake across the land and across the continent
Fast forward a few months to early November 2017. I received a call from an old student of mine who is now a producer for a radio show. She was looking for a panellist for a talk back show she produces and wanted me to talk on the topic of the Pitjantjatjara Anangu people closing Uluru to climbing. I agreed to do the panel and arrived at the station a little nervous. Joining me on the panel was Jon Willis, Associate Professor from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at The University of Queensland.
The show started out with the usual introductions and chit chat with both Jon and I giving our points of view about the Uluru closure. The host then opened up the phone lines and Jon and I had the opportunity to respond to the statements presented and answer questions fired at us by callers. At some point I was speaking about my family connection to K’Gari when Jon mentioned how he’d worked on a project to do with the Seven Sisters Dreaming many years ago. He travelled with a group of Central Australian Elders/songline holders around the country to follow this specific songline. The part that knocked me off my seat was when Jon mentioned they followed the songline and story all the way to K’Gari. Immediately the story stirred up something in me.
A week later I opened an email from a work colleague to check out a link to a digital work by renowned Butchulla visual artist Fiona Nguthuru-nur Foley. Looking at the work from Fiona I stumbled across another digital work…about the Seven Sisters. In this online digital work, the story told of how seven sisters were pursued by a snake across the land and across the continent. At that moment, staring at my screen, I was flushed with a feeling, a feeling of familiarity, of connectedness of belonging. In a world bursting at the seams with almost limitless distractions – smart phones, social media, music, television – we sometimes forget about the source of that feeling. The stories that lie beneath the concrete, stories of tribes that are no longer alive, lost at the tip of a pioneering bullet. Stories of our old people, from 65,000 years ago. Stories that have survived to the Australia of today.
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Constellation of Taurus. Illustrator: Jackie Elliott.