Indigenous astronomy and song series

Indigenous astronomy and song series

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to navigate across vast areas of land and sea, sophisticated knowledge systems were necessary. Their terrestrial and astronomical knowledge was remembered in cultural expressions, such song series (or song lines) which provided memory maps used to travel long distances across the landscape or seas. These songs and their rhythm (which are often composed of different languages) aided travellers crossing the land, telling them where to find food, water, and shelter by using landscape and skyscape features.

Song series

In Aboriginal[1] and Torres Strait Islander[2] traditions, the land and sky are connected; what is on the land is reflected in the sky. This is, a common idea found among Indigenous cultures of the world. Since the stars are static and predictable (in the short term) they can be used to remember the movements of ancestor spirits, to signal changing seasons, and for navigation. They serve as a visible reminder and storyline for oral traditions that record knowledge systems to memory[3].

Sacred narratives and stories, remembered through oral traditions (ie song, dance, story) and artworks, connect Aboriginal language groups across large regions, forming a network of travel routes that criss-cross the continent. These routes are used for trade, ceremony, and for traveling great distances in safety. Song series specific to a story continuum criss-cross the continent and intersect with others at specific locations, often marking an important landscape feature. Like a chapter in a book, locations reveal significant cultural sites and the oral tradition attached to it; these are all part of an overall narrative in which the full story unfolds. Often, these sites are maintained through song or ceremony, as one journeys along the route.

Song series record important knowledge encoded as memory texts, such as significant landscape features and places to find important foods, medicines, shelter or water. These networks are found across the continent and beyond; from the Kimberley to Sydney, and Tasmania to Papua New Guinea. As a traveller crosses boundaries, the language of the song series changes, but some aspects remain. These oral stories and song not only record important knowledge, but they link communities across country.

The Baiami Song Series

Baiami is a powerful ancestral creator-being found in traditions of several Aboriginal communities, such as the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi of central and northern New South Wales. According to the song series, Baiami made the Earth, water, sky, animals and people. He also makes the rain fall and grass grow, and welcomes good people to his ‘home’ in the Milky Way - a place of peace and plenty - on their passing. Baiami is often found in association with the Rainbow Serpent (Wawi in Wiradjuri, Kurrea in Kamilaroi) and dingos (Mirri/Merri/Mirrigan)[4] .

Represented as the stars in the Western constellation of Orion, Baiami is associated with a variety of rock holes and waterholes that dot the landscape. These rock holes are places to find water when all other sources run dry and are important to maintain and protect. The locations of these rock holes and methods used to keep them clean and protect them are passed down to the younger generations by the Elders through oral tradition. Euahlayi Senior Law Man, Ghillar Michael Anderson, describes how one of these sacred rock holes is maintained and capped[5]. He also tells us that opals of two different colours - a red one from Thargomindah or Quilpie, Qld, representing the planet Mars, and a blue/green one from Lightning Ridge, NSW, representing the planet Venus - were brought together at the rockhole at Mortdale, near Narran Lake, for ceremony during the time of a Mars-Venus conjunction. The planets were seen as the eyes of Baiami (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1 When Mars and Venus conjunct (come together), they are said to be the eyes of Baiami. Image: Stellarium.

Baiami’s influence is also linked to hills and mountains that were used as stepping off points, to jump back up to his home in the Milky Way after he created the landscape. These include Mt Yengo (Fig. 2, left) in the northern Hunter region of NSW, and Kengal (The Rock), near Wagga Wagga, NSW. The three hills making up Kengal are said to be the three dingo companions Baiami left behind when he ascended into the sky. Mount Yengo, considered one of the most sacred landscape features in eastern Australia, is said to have a flat top as this is where Baiame stepped up, jumping into the sky.

A continuation of this song series can be found in many parts of Australia, including on the country of the Kokatha and Ngalea peoples of the Great Victoria Desert, South Australia.[6] Here, the land was made by Nyeeruna, a creation ancestor also associated with Orion, having many similarities with Baiami. His Rainbow Serpent companion was also responsible for the caves and deep holes in the landscape, and the wind blowing through them was the sound of the serpent’s breath. Further north in Anangu country of the Central Desert, he was known by the name Wati Nyiru[7]. These song series serve as oral texts that connect oral traditions across the country, linking them to larger narratives that serve as a memory map to travel and trade across the entire country.


Fig. 2: Mount Yengo is used by Baiami to step off the land to his home in the Milky Way. Image: Wiki Creative commons license.


English Year 8 - Indigenous astronomy and song series

In this classroom activity, students will examine the concept of a song series by examining two examples. The first is the Seven Sisters song series, which stretches across Australia. The second involves a Baiami song series that crosses parts of eastern Australia. These activities will give the student an overview of the meaning behind concepts of song series, how traditional knowledge relates to the land and sky, and how it was passed on from generation to generation.

These activities link closely with the Year 8 English module for Indigenous Astronomy, showing how song series link into Aboriginal star maps, as well as the Year 8 Health module, which features aspects of the Seven Sisters song series in the context of harassment and appropriate relationships.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content description from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Explore the interconnectedness of Country/Place, People, Identity and Culture in texts including those by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors (ACELT1806).
  • Analyse and evaluate the ways that text structures and language features vary according to the purpose of the text and the ways that referenced sources add authority to a text (ACELY1732).

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 8 in English:

  • explain how language features, images and vocabulary are used to represent different ideas and issues in texts
  • select evidence from the text to show how events, situations and people can be represented from different viewpoints
  • understand how the selection of language features can be used for particular purposes and effects

Inquiry-based learning questions

  • Why are oral traditions important for the communication of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges?
  • How do oral traditions (as texts) link to the landscape and are reflected in the skyscape?
  • What language features are used to convey ideas and knowledge in song series?
  • What does the use of multiple languages contribute to the song series and the communication of traditional knowledge?

Activity 1 – The Seven Sisters song series

Suggested timing for activity: 45 minutes

Required resources: TV or computer, pen and notebook

Students will watch the selected videos about the song series, then discuss aspects of it to address core curriculum points.

Students will watch the two digital dome experiences from the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition[8].

Students should keep notes about the content, the use of narration and visual effects.

Questions for class discussion:

  • How does the song link language and narrative to the landscape?
  • How is the use of language and speaking patterns used to convey information in the film?
  • How is the use of imagery and sound used to enhance the narrative?
  • Does the song series involve a moral lesson? If so, what is it?
  • What other forms of knowledge are encoded in the songs, stories, and art?

Activity 2 – Documentary: Star Stories of the Dreaming

Suggested timing for activity: 20 minutes.

Required resources: computer, paper, notebook.

The class should be introduced to the video documentary “Star Stories of the Dreaming”[9], which contains a detailed insight of Aboriginal Astronomy and connection to song series, as narrated by Euahlayi Elder and Lawman, Ghillar Michael Anderson. The broadcast version of this video documentary runs for 52 minutes, but an edited version for the classroom will be made that runs approximately 20 minutes. This will allow students to identify and describe ways the film links country, places and identity through language features such as images, soundtrack, and narrative control.

  • How is the telling of story linked to landscape and skyspace features?
  • What aspects of the oral tradition related to country, places and culture can be adapted for a new context?
  • If we change one aspect will it result in changes in another?
  • What if a critical site was destroyed?
  • How do your interpretations of these aspects influence your own knowledge, values, and cultural assumptions?

Introduce students to the Baiami song series and how it links to the stars.

Show them the documentary, having them keep notes about the use of multiple languages, how the traditions link to country, how storytelling connects people to culture and helps them remember knowledge.

Get the students’ thoughts about the film and start a discussion about their findings.

Discuss how damage to country affects these traditions, and how this can affect the people and culture.

Notes

1https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/songlines-indigenous-memory-code/7581788

2https://www.sea.museum/2016/05/31/songlines-the-art-of-navigating-the-indigenous-world

3 Kelly, L. (2016). The Memory Code. Sydney: Allan & Unwin.

4 Clarke, P.A. (2007/2008). An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Ethnoastronomy. Archaeoastronomy, 21, 39-58.

5 Fuller, R.S. et al. (2014) The Astronomy of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples and Their Neighbours. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2014(2), 3-27.

6 Leaman, T.M. and Hamacher, D.W. (2014). Aboriginal Astronomical traditions from Ooldea, South Australia, Part 1: Nyeeruna and ‘The Orion Story’. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 180-191.

7 https://theconversation.com/songlines-tracking-the-seven-sisters-is-a-must-visit-exhibition-for-all-australians-89293

8 https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/songlines

9 http://enlightning.com.au/node/5

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.