A note: Anthropologists have found that the answers they find in their work are often dependent upon the questions they ask. It also depends on how the anthropologist filters those answers through their own subjective understanding. Therefore, I recognise that when writing about complex topics I have not personally experienced, I cannot write from a place of absolute truth or authority. I accept that I am writing as a person who exists outside Aboriginal culture. I do not wish to speak for these people, only to build on important conversations.
Storytelling = Book?
Mountainous stacks of dusty books piled like bricks, each home to an enormous community of letters. Connect the letters to the words, to the sentences, to the chapters. You piece together a story from the tiny paper block in your hands. For many of us, this is the essence of stories. We are transported into fictional worlds through the tangible chunks of pre-prepared information that we passively consume.
However, this is not the only way to understand storytelling. In Australian Aboriginal culture, traditional stories take an oral form over a written form. As a social and cultural ‘glue’, storytelling for Aboriginal peoples is essential to understanding cultural beliefs, social relationships and world values.
Unfortunately, the voices required to tell these stories are increasingly silenced in favour of a storytelling approach that appeals to the White Australian Reader (see the subheading ‘How the Australian Publishing Industry Buries Indigenous Voices’ near the end of this article.)
The Importance of Aboriginal Storytelling
Storytelling in Australia’s Indigenous communities is foundational to social life. Through this mode of oral and visual communication, knowledge is passed through generations. Therefore, stories are not merely forms of entertainment, but more importantly, are essential for cultural survival.
Yarning is a conversational practice that involves the communication of stories and the expansion of knowledge. It prioritises indigenous modes of communicating in a way that is respectful and cooperative
Stories of the Dreamtime
What is the Dreamtime?
Dreamtime stories are the oral representation of the spiritual Dreaming: a period in which life was created by Ancestral Beings. Dreamtime stories can take a visual form in art; a practical form in customs and rituals; a physical form in dance; an acoustic form in music; a spiritual form in totems; and a geographical form in the land. Taken together, these threads of yarning create an all-inclusive spiritual whole known as The Dreaming.
The Rainbow Serpent
While Dreamtime stories vary between tribes, the Rainbow Serpent is collectively understood by most. Rock art featuring the Ancestral being dates back over 6000 years, making it one of the oldest unbroken spiritual beliefs in the world. The Serpent represents a powerful force of nature and spirit; it controls the flow of water and creates life.
This story and belief in the Serpent as both creator and protector of life influences how Aboriginal people interact with the environment and others around them. For example, with immense respect to the Rainbow Serpent’s powers, Aboriginal Australians from some tribes are careful not to disturb any bodies of water that the mystical creature might inhabit. Communities are founded on beliefs in the spirits and stories of the Dreaming. In this way, storytelling guides social cohesion and culture. Tales are told not through the pages of a hardcopy book, but rather, through more subtle belief systems and ways of living.
Anthropology: The Importance of Being Open to Multiple Perspectives
Many ethnographies (fieldwork studies by anthropologists) have revealed variations in the meaning of Dreamtime across different Aboriginal groups.
For instance, the meaning of Dreamtime for the Tiwi, Wuradjeri and Jigalong communities is that of a ‘past reality’. Other groups, such as the Mardudjara, Murngin and Wailbiri, view Dreamtime as a past and present reality. (See anthropologists C. Mountford, R. Berndt and D. Bell).
Whilst there are some common threads in the case of the Rainbow Serpent, the specific Dreamtime story told will depend on the climate and culture of the Indigenous group telling it.
A huge part of giving voice to Aboriginal storytelling is recognising that there are a multitude of voices contributing to variations in those stories. Not all Aboriginal experiences are the same, and people from different areas understand different story meanings. Aboriginal Australia is not one group; there are over 500 different Aboriginal clans across the nation (each with distinctive languages and cultural beliefs). Sometimes, by speaking generally to ‘Aboriginal people’, we speak to only one of these voices whilst silencing the rest.
This perpetuates a futile process: Internet sources suggest that we are progressively providing space for the words of Aboriginal stories. This gives the illusion of reconciliation, understanding and advancement. But if we look to the silences and question: what has been left out? It often seems that only one (rather generalised) story prevails as the ‘truth’.
Accordingly, this speaks to the complexity of Dreamtime concepts. It indicates that discussion of Dreamtime perspectives in a universal or simplistic way might be tenuous, inaccurate and inconsiderate.
As someone from Western culture, it is difficult for me to comprehend and speak competently about the Dreaming. This is because Western norms (such as the idea of linear time) are absent from Dreamtime stories.
Storytelling through Art
Rather than a written language, storytelling for Australian Aboriginal people takes form through symbols and icons in artworks. The collective use of different symbols creates stories of cultural significance. Varying combinations would teach essential survival techniques through generations. Similar to the complex and diverse meanings of Dreamtime stories discussed above, the interpretations of these symbols (iconography) vary significantly depending on the audience.
Art is important for Aboriginal Australians because it allows for an expression of cultural identity and solidifies a connection to country.
Gunbim Rock Art (Kakadu)
In the Northern Territory, Kakadu is home to one of the largest concentrations of rock art in the world. Kakadu’s rock art (Gunbim) is over 20,000 years old. It provides a record of Aboriginal life over thousands of years.
It is said that the Mimi spirits were the first Creation Ancestors to engage in this form of rock painting. By mimicking the spirits, Aboriginal peoples learned how to communicate through this artform.
The Anthropological Significance of Rock Art
Non-Aboriginal people occupy positions outside of the stories inscribed on rock surfaces. We see rock art as works of intricate beauty, but our eyes briefly glimpse at each piece, barely puncturing the surface before moving onto the next. Most Aboriginal art creations were not intended to be viewed in such a segmented way. Rather, paintings form a complex web of interconnected events and beliefs. Each symbol represents only a chapter in the story. And each symbol must be read and understood in relation to others if a story is to be wholly understood.
Professor Taçon (Griffith University) emphasises that rock art is not archaeology or a historical topic of scientific interest. It is an integral part of living culture with continuing relevance and importance for Indigenous Australians today.
Aboriginal Storytelling Layers
The knowledge that emanates from paintings often has multiple ‘levels’. The first level is the ‘public story’. This story can be accessed by younger people and non-Aboriginal people (balanda). In order to access the ‘full story’ of a symbolic painting, an individual will have to progress through certain ceremonies. The story revealed to them will depend on their willingness to take on the responsibilities that go with knowledge. Here, storytelling differs significantly to Western perceptions. In Western culture, we read a book passively and absorb a story. Contrastingly, storytelling in Aboriginal culture involves a multi-directional relationship with its viewers, who are themselves, part of the story.
Storytelling Through Dance and Theatre
Aboriginal people are immersed in the stories they tell. This means that stories do not always take the form of a physical item or artwork, but can be expressed through bodies and movement.
Aboriginal storytelling told through dance bring the land, animals and Dreamtime to life. Carefully crafted costumes made of fur and feathers add depth to the staged stories. Sometimes, dances are used as initiation traditions to celebrate new phases of life. For example, coming of age dances for teenagers, welcoming them into adulthood. Here, storytelling in Australian Aboriginal communities is a thread that stitches all aspects of social and cultural life together. It is more than a source of entertainment embedded on the distant pages of a hardcopy book.
Storytelling and Dance Today
Throughout the late 20th century, some modern forms of Australian dance and theatre have integrated Aboriginal dance into performances.
Bangarra Dance Theatre has created beautiful performances using Aboriginal dancers and unique soundscapes to represent the spiritual experience of Aboriginal dance and storytelling throughout the globe.
This year, the Bangarra Dance Theatre has created a visual performance called ‘SandSong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert’. It tells the unique story of the desert homelands of the Walmajarri. The artistic piece brings light to the ancient knowledge of People and of Country as it has been preserved through Songlines for hundreds of generations. Described as a ‘journey’, it draws on stories and knowledge of the past in order to create new narratives for Indigenous futures. In this way, storytelling through dance is not a singular event. Rather, it is a process that pushes new narratives into the future whilst appreciating and acknowledging the past.
How the Australian Publishing Industry Buries Indigenous Voices
Sadly, the voices and viewpoints of Aboriginal Peoples have been silenced in favour of the dominant worldview. This governing worldview is encased in Australia’s colonial history and ideology of white superiority. The stories of Aboriginal Peoples are told through voices other than their own: through the internet’s voice, through my voice here.
Ironically, in the ways we try and give voice to Aboriginal Australians, we also take it away. This is clearly seen in the publishing industry.
Ella Simon & Through My Eyes
In 1978, Ella Simon, A Biripi woman from New South Wales, published an autobiographic style story titled ‘Through My Eyes’. Throughout the editing process, her works (which were originally in oral form) were continuously broken apart and restructured to fit a textual form. Her storytelling style was simplified and standardised. This changed the reality of Simon’s cultural experience and reflected a condemnation of oral culture as illiterate or incorrect.
As argued by Australian academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Aboriginal women’s biographies are relational. Stories hold a ‘social glue’ function in Aboriginal communities. Therefore, they generally include the perspectives and voices of the group. The edits of Through My Eyes, however, involved a culling of the Indigenous ‘yarning’ approach. The distinctive multiplicity of voices was stripped from the narrative to neatly fit the Western convention of a singular protagonist.
The story told was no longer one of Aboriginality told through the eyes of Ella Simon. Rather, it became a narrative of what it means to be Aboriginal from the perspective of a ‘white Australia’ ideology.
This is just one example of the many Eurocentric frameworks within which the stories of Aboriginal authors develop. The publishing industry, therefore, often imposes a non-indigenous perspective on indigenous knowledge.
Disjuncture Between Western Law and Indigenous Way of Being
Can Our Current Legal Framework Protect and Foster Indigenous Storytelling?
The answer is no. Australian copyright law cannot appropriately deal with Indigenous storytelling.
The first reason for this is that Australian copyright law does not protect any spoken form. Aboriginal stories are often transmitted by oral means (for example, through dance and song) and are therefore not protected by copyright laws (which require something to be expressed in physical form).
Secondly, the period of valid copyright in Australian law is the life of the author plus 70 years. However, some traditional stories in Aboriginal communities have existed for hundreds of years.
Thirdly, Australian copyright law emphasises individuals’ rights, rather than the communal that apply to traditional stories.
For these reasons, many Indigenous authors have had to write down their stories, contradicting their cultural norm of oral story transmission, just to be recognised and protected by the law. Increasing diversity within the publishing industry is important, but we must be careful not to mould stories to a Western ideal in a subtle assimilation process.
According to the ‘Rethinking Diversity in Publishing’ report (2020), the best way to respectfully give voice to Aboriginal Australians in the storytelling industry is to encourage industry professionals to reflect on their practices. This includes hiring more diversely and learning to value non-white, non-middle-class audiences.
Jones, Jennifer 2009, “Perpetuating White Australia: Aboriginal Self-Representation, White Editing and Preferred Stereotypes.” In Creating White Australia, edited by Jane Carey and Claire McLisky. Sydney University Press.
Leslie Dean, Colin 1996, The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime: An Account of Its History, Cosmogenesis, Cosmology and Ontology.
Simon, E 1978, Through My Eyes, Rigby, Adelaide.