The Swamp

The Swamp

New artistic mediums, such as short film, have enabled an evolution of storytelling and knowledge translation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Twelve Canoes website presents traditional storytelling and knowledge in contemporary artistic film format, using elements of art, music, photography,  video and narration to form a meaningful story to reach a worldwide audience.

Storytelling, tradition and innovation: how Aboriginal culture has survived

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture has a strong oral tradition of storytelling. This format has been used for thousands of generations to transfer knowledge, morals and values. Traditional stories often contain information about the landscape and people’s relationships to it, and how to look after it. Because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is an oral one, in the past, many of the stories have been written down and re-told by non-Indigenous people. This can be problematic, as intent and meanings can be lost or misrepresented. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have taken great pride in telling their own stories, and recently more and more are telling their stories in film as a means of expression and to reach a wider audience.

The Twelve Canoes website presents twelve artistic films made by the Yolngu people of Ramingining, in the northern part of Central Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. The films were made through a collaborative project, with the intent to convey traditional knowledge and history and keep culture alive1. The films are an example of how storytelling can be adapted to modern contexts and technologies to reach a wide audience, to share important knowledge in an effective way. The emotional capabilities of cinema are intended to allow audiences as individuals to connect with the stories in a cinema-like way on their computer screen2.

“The Swamp” is one of the twelve films, that focuses on Yolngu connections with the Arafura Swamp, a World Heritage-listed tract of freshwater wetlands that extends to 130,000 hectares during the wet season. The swamp is central to the lives of most of the people, historically, culturally and spiritually. The swamp is a place to gather bush tucker, fish, hunt, and spend time together, as their ancestors have done for many thousands of years. Their way of managing the land keeps the ecosystems in balance, as people have been part of these ecosystems for thousands of years.

“We have history and culture here, that our ancestors have been growing for more than forty thousand years. They passed that culture on from generation to generation. Now it’s our turn to pass it on, not just to the next generation, but to people everywhere, all over the world. That’s because our way of life is changing fast now, and what you see on this website is for every generation to remember and keep our culture alive.”3

In some ways, Ramingining sounds idyllic, but it is also has its challenges. Ramingining is a very small town with just a store, a clinic, a school, a police station, an arts centre, a resource centre, houses, and not much else.4 Conventional work in Ramingining is scarce. Increasingly there is engagement with the arts and craft, which in turn helps keep some of their traditions alive, in addition to tourism. Most people from Ramingining know six or seven languages; English is spoken only out of necessity, and often in rudimentary fashion. It is isolated, and hunting, fishing and gathering are still practised, in both traditional and non-traditional ways. But at the same time it is very much connected with the 21st century, as people turn to the internet to do their banking and many have mobile phones5.

The film acknowledges that the world is rapidly changing, even in these remote places. Once, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived a similar lifestyle to the Yolngu, in connection with country. Now, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people maintain connection with culture and country from cities and towns that may not be on their traditional country. But looking after country is still important for these people, as it remains a key part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. One of the key messages of The Swamp film is that looking after country should be important for all Australians.

Classroom activity - The Arts (Media Arts) Years 9 and 10

In these classroom activities, students will watch the film “The Swamp” and identify through class discussion elements of the film used to engage audiences, and how the film has used these to construct an alternative point of view. Students will then use Google Earth to investigate both the Arafura Swamp, and their own place, and make a diagram or mind map describing elements that make each place and the connections between them, with a focus on the natural environment. Finally, students will spend time in a local natural environment and make their own short film or photographs to tell a story.

Curriculum connections

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

  • Experiment with ideas and stories that manipulate media conventions and genres to construct new and alternative points of view through images, sounds and text (ACAMAM073)
  • Evaluate how technical and symbolic elements are manipulated in media artworks to create and challenge representations framed by media conventions, social beliefs and values for a range of audiences (ACAMAR078)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 9 and 10 in The Arts (Media Arts):

  • analyse how social and cultural values and alternative points of view are portrayed in media artworks they make, interact with and distribute
  • evaluate how genre and media conventions and technical and symbolic elements are manipulated to make representations and meaning
  • produce representations that communicate alternative points of view in media artworks for different community and institutional contexts

Activity 1 – “The Swamp”

Suggested timing for activity: 30 mins

Required resources: AV equipment to show film, notebook, pen

  1. Watch the film “The Swamp” as a class.
  2. Discuss the following inquiry-based questions as a class:
    1. What genre would you put this film into? Does it follow similar conventions to other films in this genre? E.g. Documentary.
    2. How does the film deviate from the traditional documentary format to incorporate storytelling? How would the film be different if the Yolngu weren’t telling their own story, but someone interviewed them or told their story for them?
    3. How does film deviate from traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytelling and what does this mean for audiences?
    4. What challenges are the Yolngu people facing?
    5. What did the narrator say about government policy and the management of crocodiles? How did that challenge social perceptions of crocodiles and the role of government?
    6. Does the film challenge any social beliefs about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, or change any of your perspectives?
    7. The film is for Yolngu people, but also for all people all around the world. What do you think the key messages are for non-Yolngu people?
  3. Make a list of the key elements of the film and how they have been used to create meaning, e.g. colour, sound, narration style, language. How do they engage the audience? Does it give you a new perspective in some way?

Activity 2 – Mapping story places

Suggested timing for activity: 30 mins to one lesson, may be finished as homework if required

Required resources: Computer, internet connection, Google Earth or web browser, blank paper, notebook, pens, coloured pencils

  1. Go to the Google Earth image of the area in the Where in the World section of the About Us menu heading. Search for Ramingining. Find the Arafura Swamp - see if it is visible in the aerial images. See if individual rivers and other wetlands are visible and consider what they are like on the ground, and how they would change between wet and dry seasons.
  2. Suggest how place influences the nature of life for the people of this area. Take into account the environment, the weather and seasons, likely sources of food, communications, history, economy, technology, cultural elements, recreational activities.
  3. The swamp is central to the lives of the Yolngu. Create a diagram or mind map that shows how the swamp is central to all aspects of Yolngu life. Add a brief explanation under each heading. Draw connecting lines between the swamp and each of the different aspects to show the swamp‘s centrality to all aspects of life6.
  4. Now find your town on Google Earth, and have a look at the landscape. Find your local rivers, wetlands, or coastline, mountains, and other features in the landscape. Consider how the landscape, weather and seasons influence your place and how you live, and compare it to life in the Arafura Swamp. Consider:
    1. The Yolngu people are responsible for their swamp. What are you responsible for?
    2. How do you look after your environment and the land you live on?
    3. Are there environmental problems in your place? What could be done better?
  5. Discuss as a class:
    1. A key challenge to traditional culture is the need to adapt to modern life while maintaining the core of traditional culture. Discuss how the centrality of the swamp to Yolngu life is under challenge today.
    2. This episode is specific to the Yolngu of the Arafura Swamp region, but it can also help us understand about Indigenous life in general. How does this film help you know about, understand and empathize with elements of Indigenous life in the past?

Activity 3 – Telling the story of a place

Suggested timing for activity: One lesson

Required resources: Notebook, pens and drawing materials, filming device e.g. smart phone, camera

  1. Take students to a nearby river, creek, or other natural area, e.g. gardens on the school grounds.
  2. Begin with a few minutes of quiet contemplation and observation of the surrounding environment.
  3. Start a class discussion about what they observe around them, such as:
    1. What plants and animals are here? Are any plants flowering or fruiting? What animals might come to eat it?
    2. What time of year is it, what is the weather like, has it rained recently?
    3. Is there water here? How much? What does the water look like, does it look healthy? What does it smell like?
    4. Is there rubbish? Are there other problems you can see?

      This should begin a conversation about the health of the place, and what stories they can tell about their place. Students can consider elements of their mind map from the previous activity in the context of this location.
  1. In groups of 3 or 4, students can discuss ideas to come up with a story about this place. Students will film or take photographs. The story might only take shape once filming begins. Students can take inspiration from their mind map or the film “The Swamp”. Students will use their creativity to build a narrative and include elements previously discussed – theatrical narration, colour, sound, etc. Note: If cameras are not available, a series of drawings can be produced, e.g. in a cartoon or storyboard style.
  2. Back in the classroom, student groups can show their film or give a short presentation of their photographs or drawings. Discuss:
    1. How did students use colour, sound, humour to deliver their message?
    2. Were there any surprises or new perspectives?
    3. Were messages clear, like a story, or were they thought-provoking, with many possible interpretations?
  3. Optional: Film could be edited if there is access to basic film editing software.


1 12 Canoes (n.d.) Retrieved from

2 Lewis, R. (n.d.) Twelve Canoes: A Study Guide. Retrieved from

3 Ibid.

4 12 Canoes. (n.d.)

5 Lewis (n.d.) p. 4.

6 Lewis, R. (n.d.) Page 11.

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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.