NAIDOC Week 2016 is nearly here and has the theme of Songlines: the living narrative of our nation. Songlines records the travel of ancestral spirits who ‘sung’ the land into life. Aboriginal language groups are connected through the sharing of Songlines with each language group responsible for parts of a Songline [NAIDOC Website].
This year’s theme provides an opportunity to explore the narratives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages from Dreaming and Creation stories through to accounts of historical and contemporary events. The State Library collections hold a range of Dreaming stories, particularly for younger readers as well as academic references that discuss the spiritual connections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to land, sea and water.
One of the lesser known collection items is a text edited by Luise Hercus and Peter Sutton titled ‘This is what happened: historical narratives by Aborigines’. Contact history is the underlying theme, however the stories are told by Aboriginal people in language! Many of the stories included in the publication are oral histories passed down through generations and written for the first time by Hercus and Sutton, who are linguists but also take on the role of editors in compiling these narratives.
Sutton acts as a transcriber for one of the earliest contact stories – ‘Dutchmen at Cape Keeweer’ a story dating back to 1623 and told by Jack Spear Karntin in Wik-Ngatharra. Kanthanya (Jack’s traditional name) was born in 1905 near Aurukun and his story has been passed down to provide an account of Carstensz’s voyage in the vessels Pera and Arnhem in 1623 following the path of an earlier journey undertaken by the Duyfken. Sutton recorded Jack at Wathanhiina (Peret Outstation) via Aurukun in December 1976.
However, while Jansz and the Duyfken was a voyage of exploration, Carstensz was ‘under orders to capture inhabitants of newly-discovered lands as a way of acquiring information about the resources of the country’ [Hercus & Sutton, p. 89]. This led to a several confrontations and stand-offs, before a group went ashore on 7 May 1623 ‘for the express purpose of capturing one or more Aboriginals, but were attacked by a group of over 100 people who retreated when a musket was fired’ [Hercus & Sutton, p. 89]. Several days later, Carstensz shot and captured an Aboriginal man who died while rowing back to the main boat. The experience of Western Cape was summarised by Carstensz as ‘this is the most arid and barren region that could be found anywhere on earth; the inhabitants, too, are the most wretched and poorest creatures that I have ever seen in my age or time’ [Hercus & Sutton, p. 90].
Jack Spear tells his version of events in Wik-Ngatharra of that day. “Thewen” nhul-eya nhamp-ey inhtha “Cape Keerwee” inhtha epam. It’s Thewena actually, not ‘Cape Keerweer’. The remainder of the story provides a snapshot of an early Dutch settlement and refers to the existence of a well and house remains as the only signs of the visit by Dutch boats. Boat yota, inya-ng-inyey, Dutchmen iny-ey, ya’a minama-nh [Many boats were there, which the Dutchmen had built] Wuucha kenya-na-n [They built a house]. Jack also took Sutton to visit this location and recorded a longer, animated story with Jack and two other men using Wik-Ngathana and Wik-Mungkana languages.
There are other fascinating stories within the text – from the early contacts and visits by Macassars to Northern Australia to conflicts with Native Police and contemporary accounts of Mission Life and the struggle for land rights. Queensland languages include Umpila, Gugu-Badhun, Oykangand and Kukatj.
Written narratives are only one part of Songlines; other items within the collections include animated stories, art and music. All of these help tell the stories and shared histories of our nation; this NAIDOC Week State Library encourages you to discover these!
Indigenous Languages Coordinator, Queensland Memory
State Library Indigenous Languages Webpages
References and Further Reading
Aboriginal Nations (1995) The Dreaming: a thirteen part animation series. QVC 398.20994 DRE VHS
Bond, A. (2012) Songlines into Brisbane. HDVD 994.31 BON
Connolly, M. (2009) Dreamtime Kullilla dreaming stories 5 Aboriginal dreaming stories. HKT 398.20899915 CON
Dixon, R. M. W. (1991) Words of our country : stories, place names and vocabulary in Yidiny, the Aboriginal language of the Cairns-Yarrabah region. G 499.15 1991
Frankland, M. (1996) Contemporary Aboriginal music songlines. QKTL 781.660994 con
Harrison, M. (2013) My people’s dreaming : an Aboriginal elder speaks on life, land, spirit and forgiveness. 305.89915 2013
Heeres, J. (1899) The part borne by the Dutch in the discovery of Australia 1606-1765. RBQ 919.4041 HEE
Hercus, L. and Sutton, P. (1986) This is what happened: historical narratives by Aborigines. J 994.0049915 thi
Kerwin, D. (2010) Aboriginal dreaming paths and trading routes : the colonisation of the Australian economic landscape. J 994.004 KER
Kerwin, D. (2011) “Language and Landscape: European words in Aboriginal spaces”. Out of the Port session. Available online as a webcast via SLQ Website.
Mason, D. (2000) Dreaming : Aboriginal legends from Lower Cape York Peninsula. G 398.208 2000
Scragg, S. (2013) Retold: A retelling of stories and songs from Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait by Margaret Lawrie. DVD 27464
Sharp, N. (1993) Stars of Tagai: the Torres Strait Islanders. G 994.38 1993
Steele, J. G. (1984) Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River. Q 994.3102 ste
Tindale, N. B. (1974) Aboriginal tribes of Australia: their terrain, environmental controls, distribution, limits and proper names. Q 994.0049915 tin
Winterbotham, L. (1957) ‘The Gaiarbau Story: Some native customs and beliefs of the Jinibara tribe as well as those of some of their neighbours in south-east Queensland’, Queensland Ethnohistory Transcripts. Q 994.30049915 SOM
NAIDOC Week website