I acknowledge the palawa people of lutruwita/Tasmania, where I live and work, as the traditional and continuing Custodians of the land, waters and sky. I pay my respects to the Elders past, present, emerging and future, for they hold the hopes, deep histories, memories, traditions and knowledge of Country. And I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Indigenous peoples whose countries were never ceded.

Rather than reviewing one book in depth, I have touched on facets of a range of books and websites, which I invite you to explore. May you find insight that is relevant to your life.

Many non-Indigenous authors have written about Australian Indigenous lore, with or without the permission of Indigenous knowledge-holders, with greater or lesser understanding and respect. Indigenous people are often deeply unhappy about the cultural appropriation that can occur when non-Indigenous researchers make their name by writing about cultures they have come to know. The researcher’s name is that of an individual, yet the culture itself does not belong to an individual.

Often, non-Indigenes wishing to understand Indigenous wisdom read books by non-Indigenous authors, which can be a good starting point but can also be outdated and contain inaccurate interpretation. The following three books are a fresh departure; they have been recently written by contemporary Australian Indigenous knowledge-holders recognised by both their own communities and Western academia. They explain, to the degree permitted, Aboriginal culture and its relevance to the world, presenting concepts in new ways that are easy to understand.

Songlines: The Power and Promise, Margo Neale & Lynne Kelly, Thames & Hudson, 2020.

This is the first publication in the ‘First Knowledges’ series edited by Margo Neale. Five books in the series have been published on different topics, one more is planned. This series is particularly important because of the collaboration for each book between Indigenous knowledge-holders who are pioneers in their fields and invited non-Indigenous authors who have deep understanding and experience of the subject matter. This ‘spirit of reconciliation’ creates a ‘third archive’, available to all, combining the Aboriginal and Western archives (p.5). Margo Neale is Head of the National Museum of Australia’s Indigenous Knowledges Curatorial Centre and an Adjunct Professor of the Australian National University’s Centre for Indigenous History. Lynne Kelly is an Australian writer, researcher and science educator. She is an Adjunct Research Fellow at LaTrobe University.

This book vividly describes Songlines and how they are integrated living knowledge repositories, dynamic and evolving, yet with an unchanging deep content. They are ‘… our knowledge system, our library, our archive from which all subjects are derived’ (p.3). The abilities and authority of the Custodians of the Songlines are depicted, and Songlines are instanced. Songlines may also be called Dreaming in English. Among many other things, Dreaming explains and accurately dates phenomena and events within the period of Aboriginal presence in Australia, such as sea level rise and fall and volcanic eruptions, differently dated by scientists until quite recently. It can explain even recent phenomena such as the 1974 Darwin cyclone; ceremonies were created for this.

Songlines can also be seen as Songspirals (p.100), ever extending layers and depth of knowledge, from basic knowledge in childhood to increasing complexity and depth of the same knowledge in young adulthood and beyond. This reinforces the idea that ‘this recycling of time is embodied in the expression “When you look behind you, you see the future in your footprints”’ (p.2).

Application of neuroscience shows how Songlines are embedded in memory. It can take 30 to 40 years to be taught all the knowledge associated with Songlines, so a robust system is needed to impart and retain the knowledge.

Songlines are learnt through the rhythm of walking, singing, dancing, painting, using the whole body, not just the brain. Whole-body, multi-sensory engagement enhances the creation of new neurons (neurogenesis), thereby strengthening long-term storage of information. Knowledge is embedded through repetition. In ceremony, performers bring a new interpretation to every song without changing the deep content. This ensures repetition without boredom, optimising learning. To retain knowledge, one must constantly revisit and ideally build on it in new ways. Memory aids for anyone to learn bodies of knowledge are also described.

Examples are cited of collaboration and integration between Indigenous and Western archiving and knowledge. Anangu Elders had the idea of digitising their knowledge of Songlines as they feared the songs were being broken up and that younger generations, distracted by technology and perhaps not realising the importance of knowledge of culture, might not have future access to this knowledge when Elders had died. The Aboriginal-managed Ara Irititja (https://irititja.com/) was the result, an intercultural, interdisciplinary project supported by the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University. Also notable was the multimedia, multi-dimensional exhibition at the National Museum of Australia – Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters (https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/songlines).

sand talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Tyson Yunkaporta, The Text Publishing Company, 2019.

Tyson Yunkaporta is Senior Lecturer in Indigenous Knowledges, Deakin University.

The author directly addresses readers in a light-hearted but not lightweight way, revealing the magnitude and implications of many subjects from his own experience, thinking and scientific knowledge. He recounts insightful conversations with other Aboriginal people, and poses questions throughout the book. The book incorporates many symbols and their interpretations, which the author and other knowledge-keepers drew in the sand and discussed, traditional way, hence its title. Symbols can be old or new or combinations. They can be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on (meta)physical viewpoint and place in the kinship web, among other things, and we can learn from these different viewpoints. Symbols depicting different types of mind and their different purposes in Lore are described on pp.168-171: kinship-mind, story-mind, dreaming-mind, ancestor-mind, pattern-mind, and mind that expands and combines all of these on p.196 ff.

The process rather than the content of thinking leads to new thought. Using this process, you can see connections between things, find patterns, find potential risk and increase, and look at the spaces in between, which are actually ‘relational forces that connect and move the elements of a system’ (p.91).

Basic protocols include respecting and hearing all points of view. Law-breaking comes from placing yourself above others: Perpetrators are only criminals until they’re punished, then they can begin afresh to make a positive contribution to the group. In this way, people won’t lie or shift blame by twisting rules to escape accountability. They can look forward to a clean slate and therefore be willing and equal participants in their own punishment and transformation, which is a learning process more than anything else (pp.32-33).

Also, we can learn in totally unexpected ways even from people with whose views we disagree. For example, the author engaged in conversation with flat-earthers and, although he still didn’t believe in the flat-earth theory, the conversation sparked his ideas for more efficient packaging and packing methods.

He speaks of interdependence, that what is done to one is done to all. An example of how this is conveyed in Lore is through combat with stone knives. This takes place with combatants knowing that whatever cuts are inflicted on the loser, the winner must also have inflicted on them at the end of the fight. He suggests that such combat might be a good way to reduce the potential aggression of young men rather than sending them to war. What are the implications of this? Maybe we would run out of enemies and no longer go to war.

He describes cycles – kinship, seasonal, stellar and others. Kinship cycles are reset after every three generations, so your grandparents are classified as your grandchildren along with the complex interrelationships that those entail. This is why ‘grannies’ in Aboriginal English refers to both your grandparents and your grandchildren. Every time you meet someone and establish your relationship to each other, you are bringing together multiple universes from each of your relationships. Seasons bring different animals and plants for food, with particular health benefits while in season but not at other times.

The vibrant, meditative ‘dream walk’ (text p.256 ff), the author’s sound installation in the Revealed exhibition in Melbourne in 2017, leads the book to its final chapter, which begins with his ‘big idea’: to create Indigenous knowledge centres around Australia where thinkers and knowledge-keepers could gather to grapple with solutions to the world’s sustainability issues. In conclusion, he presents the Indigenous process and sequence in all activities of life of ‘Respect, Connect, Reflect, Direct’, often followed in reverse by non-Indigenes, to much less effect.

Journey into Dreamtime, Munya Andrews, Ultimate World Publishing, 2019.

Munya Andrews is an author and barrister who is ‘fascinated by comparative religions, languages, mythology and science, and intrigued by the way they interact and inform each other’ (p.114).

With such deep interest and broad knowledge, the author draws many parallels between Australian and other Indigenous and religious traditions around the world. Through words, diagrams and photos, she brings to life a wide range of topics, drawing from her own Bardi culture in Northwestern Australia and from other Indigenous cultures around Australia. Each chapter is followed by Dreamtime Reflections – questions for the reader to ponder in relation to their own life.

In the chapter titled ‘Bush Doctors/Bush Medicine’, she talks about Sickness Dreaming. This can refer to places that are not safe to visit, sometimes underlain by uranium. Visiting these sites without appropriate cultural protection can cause sickness or even death. The chapter contains a photo of a cave painting warning against one such site. 

Sickness Dreaming can also be a family dreaming (Dreaming is more commonly an animal or plant Dreaming of one’s family, such as the author’s examples of Crocodile or Yam). As such, it confers protection and immunity on that family and gives the healer belonging to that Dreaming a deeper understanding of the sickness. The author quotes her teacher, David Mowarljarlai: … we don’t get sick because we are that sickness… and immune to ourselves. We just represent that sickness (p.85).

She points out that the idea of representing sickness can empower us to take charge of our health. Aboriginal health is holistic and incorporates cultural explanations. She suggests that we befriend rather than fight any sickness, and ask for its lessons. This way, we have better understanding and acceptance.

She speaks of the Ngangkari traditional healers of Central Australia, many of whom also work in parallel with Western doctors to promote good health among their people and others who ask for their help. For more detail on the healing tradition of the Ngangkari and life stories of healers,see Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari, Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation, Magabala Books, 2013. Also see https://www.npywc.org.au/what-we-do/ngangkari-traditional-healers/ and https://mosaicscience.com/story/australia-traditional-bush-healers-ngangkari/

Islam Dreaming, Peta Stephenson, UNSW Press, 2010. Peta Stephenson is an academic specialising in the study of cross-cultural relationships between Indigenous and non-white immigrant communities in Australia (author bio).

This fascinating book draws on the author’s interviews with nearly 50 Indigenous Muslims. They may have no Muslim forebears but have ‘reverted’ [converted] to Islam through their own conviction, or they may have Muslim forebears. Their forefathers may be Makassan fishermen from Sulawesi (now part of Indonesia) who visited Northern Australia between 400 and 100 years ago to harvest trepang (sea cucumber). They may be descended from Afghan cameleers who travelled across much of the Outback from the 1850s, or from Southeast Asian men who worked in the pearling industry in Northwestern Australia and the Torres Strait islands from the 1860s. They may follow Islamic practices from those regions that have been passed down in their families, or they may have studied Islam formally. Their Indigenous foremothers were sometimes Christian and might or might not have converted to Islam. Yet for all of them, Islam is important in some way and its formal or informal presence has kept families and communities very close. Sometimes the experience and understanding gained from two or more heritages makes it easier to flexibly adopt one or another at different times. Many of the interviewees have found in Islam a religious identity that in the Australian context does not mean renouncing their Indigeneity and does not ‘insist on the kind of spiritual subjugation and cultural assimilation preached by Christian missionaries’ (p.201).

The author describes Yol?u burial customs that follow Makassan custom and chants that derive from Islamic phrases, also noted by other anthropologists. She also quotes a Dreaming story recounted by one of the interviewees that explains differences between Yol?u people and Makassans.

Khoisan are the First People of Southern Africa, also known as Bushmen and by other names, depending on time and context. They long pre-date the waves of Bantu (Black Africans) who arrived from the north and west of Africa. There are parallels with the traditional lifestyle of the Australian Indigenous people. The San traditional lifestyle is mainly nomadic hunter/gatherer clans in their own territories while the Khoikhoi also nurture herds of domesticated animals in their territories. Essentially, their traditional life cannot be separated from their relationship with Spirit and deep care for their territory’s land, water, animals and plants. Over the centuries, many have been killed or enslaved, imprisoned for crimes against white man’s law which they did not understand, intermarried by choice or otherwise with Bantu or Europeans, and forced from and disconnected from their land and culture. Some still live on and are deeply connected to their own land.

More Indigenous Australians are now writing about their cultures, but I have not yet found direct writings by Khoisan. However, a number of Westerners have lived with and learnt from them and, like many non-Indigenous researchers of Australian Indigenous culture, have made their names writing about them. Several such books from the last few decades give some understanding of Khoisan connection to Spirit. These include Boiling Energy (Katz); Healing Makes Our Hearts Happy (Katz, Biesele, St. Denis); Ropes to God (Keeney); San Spirituality (Lewis-Williams & Pearce); and, from earlier decades, books and films by Laurens van der Post.

The Stars Say 'Tsau': /Xam Poetry of Dia!kwain, Kweiten-Ta-//Ken, /A ...A book that stands out is the stars say ‘tsau’: /Xam poetry of Diä!kwain, Kweiten-ta-//ken, /A!kúnta, /Han?kass’o and //Kabbo, selected and adapted by Antjie Krog, Kwela Books, 2004. Antjie Krog is well known for her radical poetry about race and for her reporting on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She prefers the term ‘Bushmen’ rather than Khoisan.

This very poignant book contains the yearnings and laments of the five Bushmen prisoners listed in the title, who spoke the /Xam dialect and worked in a local home near Cape Town. The householder and linguist Dr. Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd painstakingly transcribed and translated their words into English in the early 1870s. Antjie Krog adapted some of these translations as free-form poetry. Her introduction outlines the pertinent history and the book is illustrated with drawings and watercolours by some of these Bushmen. A biography and photo of the poet precedes the section of their adapted poetry, with insight into certain poems. Although the writing has come through the filters of language and time, my heart was pierced by the Bushmen’s anguish and despair at being disconnected from land and culture and by their lucent Kanalaritja - An Unbroken Stringmemories. The first poem is ‘the broken string’, mourning the broken string of the rainmaking tool belonging to the poet’s shaman father, symbolising the loss of the Bushman culture.

Contrast this symbolism with that of the unbroken string of the palawa women’s shell-stringing tradition described in kanalaritja: An Unbroken String, Honouring the Tradition of Tasmanian Aboriginal Shell Stringing, Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, 2016. This book is a profoundly moving anthology of photos of shell necklaces, places and shell stringers, and poetry, prose and articles describing places, people, memories and past and unfolding history. These were contributed by participants in Aboriginal Community workshops to pass on the shell-stringing tradition to younger generations.

How can we non-Indigenes ensure that we value and uphold Indigenous wisdom, seeing it as dynamic and constantly evolving from ancient wisdom, not simply fixed for all time? Many First Nations people have generously shared their wisdom. Can we respectfully accept and acknowledge this generosity and incorporate their wisdom into our lives without cultural appropriation?