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John Bradley's compelling account of three decades living with the Yanyuwa people of the Gulf of Carpentaria and of how the elders revealed to him the ancient songlines of their Dreaming.
With oral traditions slowly being lost, Singing Saltwater Country is an important record of traditional Aboriginal knowledge and ways of life for future generations.
At the age of 20, John Bradley left his rural Victorian family home to become a teacher at Borroloola Primary School, in the fragile riverine and island country of far north Australia. There began three decades living with the Yanyuwa people, building a relationship of trust and intimacy that led to his learning their Dreaming stories and his family becoming part of theirs.
The Yanyuwa elders had realised they needed to record their stories and ways of life, because too many old people were dying and a generation had drifted away from their culture due to the influences of the modern white world and the tidal wave of change that government welfare policies, disease and alcohol have brought to remote Aboriginal communities. Currently, only eleven old people speak the Yanyuwa language and they feel a great sadness that future generations will never see the great and sacred ceremonies or hear the songs of the old people.
The elders agreed to teach John their Songlines, their ‘ways of knowing’ (called ‘kujika’, pronounced goo-djee-ga), if he would record the teachings in a form that would preserve them for future generations. John and his wife Nona’s drawings of the Songlines are part of that process, as is the very personal story he tells here.
About the Author
John Bradley also worked with the Yanyuwa as anthropologist on their land claims and sacred sites. He is now deputy director of the Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies at Monash University.
Table of Contents
1 "That meat - he's got a song"
2 "You have to learn him, you belong to Mambaliya"
3 "Not like the bread of white men"
4 Knowing what Old People knew
5 Chasing after the Dingo
6 Tangled Up in the Law
7 Broken Songs
8 "It makes the country tremble"
9 Putting it down
This extract from Singing Saltwater Country comes from the beginning of the book, during John Bradley’s early days at Borroloola
My first year at the school in Borroloola had yet to be completed. In the evenings of October and November, the clouds would gather in great piles on the southern horizon. From deep within them lightning flashed, illuminating their outlines, and the distant roll of thunder was a continuing accompaniment to night noises of crickets and dogs, children playing on the darkened road and parents calling out for them to come inside.
The walk to school at 6.30 a.m. left me covered in sweat; by mid morning the humidity had drawn a heavy lethargy over me. Teaching was a nightmare because the air conditioners battled, wheezed, roared and still failed to generate cool air. I had come to know the Yanyuwa term for this time, na-Yinarramba, ‘the build up’—that time between the hot dry season and the first wet-season rains, a sultry season of indeterminate length that would end only when the first rains fell.
One Saturday morning during na-Yinarramba I sat on the veranda, drawing sketches of dugong, sea turtle, butchering techniques and hunting equipment. I had built the veranda onto my home; it was a deeply shaded place with rails jammed tightly into rough, forked, paperbark-pole uprights, with beams from the same paperbark tree running horizontally to the roof. The roof was made of large sheets of thick paperbark, weighed down with cross poles and tied with wire. Over the ends of the veranda and creeping up onto the roof was a green vine that I still only know by the Yanyuwa term ma-maynja. This veranda was my living room, dining room and work place. It was cool, capturing the slightest breeze, and a comfortable position from which to observe the place I called home.
On that still afternoon, as I sat there drawing, I heard the sound of bare feet running and looked up to see one of my marruwarra (mother’s brother’s children), Harold. He stood before me, bent over, hands on knees, and between puffs he said, ‘Hey, Cuz! Dad wants you down the camp: they’re gonna tie all the young boys up!’
Harold and I drove down to the camp, northwards via the bitumen road that stopped at the clinic, onto the rough track that descended down to Rocky Creek, over the crossing formed by huge, naturally occurring slabs of rock; then, shifting into low gear, we ascended the steep northern
bank that led onto the plain where the Yanyuwa lived.
As I drove I asked Harold what he meant by ‘tie all the young boys up’. He replied, ‘Got a hair belt—they gotta be rdaru then.’ The word rdaru, I knew, meant a boy ready for initiation, for circumcision. Both Harold’s father, Don, and Leonard had told me that such an event would soon be happening, and that I could come and watch.
I parked my car and was directed by the women over to a large group of men. They sat in a circle around four quiet boys with downcast eyes, all of whom I knew to be about ten to thirteen years of age. This was my first time at any formal ritual. This was obviously going to be different from the general fun dances of Ngardiji and Kalwanyarra, which I had often seen. I felt clumsy about the protocols. The men just looked at me without much concern or interest, and I stood awkwardly alone.
Then a voice said, ‘Come here, wukuku (maternal grandson).’ It was Stanley Matthews. Once, as I watched a dance late one night, Stanley had leant across to me and said simply, ‘You call Leonard “brother”.’ It had been with this simple phrase that my adoption into a Yanyuwa family was sealed. I was to call Stanley kuku (mother’s mother’s brother). Stanley had talked to me often, teaching me much about the intricate ways of Yanyuwa kinship.
Stanley made room for me on the blue ground-sheet on which the men sat, the boys in the middle. He told me they were about to sing kujika for the young boys, but first had to work out which kujika. The boys were all of the Rrumburriya clan, but there was a question whether they should sing the Tiger Shark from Manangoora or the kujika that ran on the west side of Muluwa (Cape Vanderlin).
Here was information coming in a rush. Some of the terms I knew— the clan name and some of the place names—but here was kujika [Songlines] being talked about in terms of specific locality and movement. I could not understand much of the Yanyuwa: it was being spoken fast and dominated by men who had little regard for English. But I could make out the inevitable directional markers: kari-nguthunda— from the north, waykaliya—downwards, downstream.
The men argued to and fro and then, suddenly, all argument ceased and they began to sing. Paired boomerangs beat in accompaniment. My heart beat in my throat: this was kujika! Not the quiet kujika sung by Old Isaac at Milibundurra, with its silences. Here was lusty singing, rising from deep within the singers, some with eyes closed, others concentrating on the moment, while others sang with what can only be described as rapture. Occasionally an old man would cry out in encouragement, ‘Arrkulawu! (Once more)’, ‘Kanymardawu! (Twice more).’ Some were weeping, tears streaming down their cheeks. I was told by Stanley, and Don who was sitting near to me, that it was because they were ‘happy for their country; they were hearing it again’. Amidst all this the boys sat in passive silence.
The singing stopped. Stanley explained they had been singing Sharks and Stingrays on the north-west coast of Vanderlin Island; it was the kujika for the boys; it was their Dreaming. Before they began to sing again, a number of men came and sat behind the boys, each holding a ball of wuthari, string spun from human hair. The men were either their actual or classificatory brothers-in-law (banji or rnabirnabi).
Again the kujika started up. A group of old men sang; it seemed they knew intuitively which verse to sing. Then a second or so behind them the other men would start to sing. It was as if the leading singer was followed by an echo. Then some sang high and others low, providing a deep, resonant foundation, and there were yet others who sang quietly to fill in the spaces, so that there was not one place in that group of men that was not covered with the sound of country. A singular intensity pervaded the Jamanki ceremony ground.
Each boy’s brother-in-law, sitting behind the boy, wrapped the hair string around the boy’s waist. This was the marker of their status as rdaru—boys who were no longer boys, but not yet men—suspended in an in-between, liminal space.
The singing did not stop. Some fifty metres to the south a group of women danced. An old man, my mimi (mother’s father), Jerry Brown, saw me watching them and yelled over the noise of boomerangs and voices, ‘a-Walanyba—woman gotta dance that one when they hear kujika’. The women danced south to north, stopped, retreated and then began again. They created a beat by clapping their thighs together as they danced, another rhythm for the kujika, and cried out in high-pitched calls. As they moved, the earth beneath their feet was inscribed with long parallel lines. While the women danced and called and the men sang, the rdaru sat silent and passive amidst it all.
Stanley kept up a running commentary of what was being sung in the kujika: catfish, cuttlefish, hammerhead shark, birds diving into the sea for fish, stingray, tiger shark, and other Yanyuwa fish names he could not translate. After about fifteen minutes he leaned over and said, ‘We have to finish him soon; we are going have to put him back down.’ He must have seen my quizzical expression, so continued, ‘You can’t leave kujika stranded; he has to go back down into country: that’s where he comes from.’ As he finished, a number of singers began a deep, low ‘Uuuu’, which, it seemed, rode just under each verse of the kujika as it was sung. Some of the singers smacked the ground with their open hands and as they did the intensity of the singing increased. Then each pair of beating boomerangs was lowered to the ground. Finally another song began, different from kujika, which Stanley said was ‘to hold the kujika in the ground till next time’.
When I commented that there had been a lot of singing, both Stanley and Don smiled. Stanley said to me, ‘That was only mayjbi; later we have to sing this song all night until sunrise, that’s the proper kujika.’ Again, there was no time for questions. It was late. The initiates were led away by their brothers-in-law and, after brief discussion, the older men who had sung and younger men who had sat on the outside of the circle stood up and drifted away towards their respective family groups. Many of the men and women wished me goodnight; a few asked me about what I had seen and heard. Stanley walked with me, saying that it was now all over and I could go home, but over the next few days there would be other things happening and I would be welcome to watch.
I walked back to my Suzuki. Don, Jemima and their children were beside it, waiting for me. I felt the kujika had entered with force deep into my chest. As I drove away from the camp, I tapped on the steering wheel, trying to recapture the cadence, the rise and fall, of the kujika. I was exhilarated but confused. I had been told I had heard kujika, then something called mayjbi. What was mayjbi if it was not kujika?
That night I sat on my veranda thinking through what I had seen and heard. The kujika had been led by old men—Old Tim, Old Leo, Jerry Brown and Old McCracken. It was they who provided leadership as the kujika was sung; then a second or two behind them it was answered; then a new verse, again answered by the other twenty or more men also singing the kujika. This song about country seemed to become coated in numerous layers of its own sound—a song with multiple echoes. Orchestrated with this was the steady beating of the paired boomerangs, the women’s rhythmic slapping of thighs and high-pitched calls, and the old women’s keening for their grandsons about to be initiated. On the periphery, the excited banter of those of all ages who had gathered to hear was punctuated now and again by dog fights. This ceremony, a-Marndiwa, was the beginning of a young boy’s introduction into Law. It was what could be called sacred, yet rather than being arcane and rarefied, it was saturated with everyday humanity. It was a place where the whole community—all those seemingly disparate families—came together, to acknowledge their kinship and their country and their Law.
I was close to tears on that afternoon and even now, over three decades later, these first experiences of Yanyuwa kujika have remained with me as memories of enormous power and emotion. Over the next few weeks I followed the process of the a-Marndiwa ritual, where young boys became men, and spent a lot of time at the Jamanki, the ground where most of the ritual was centred. I heard kujika and many other songs. I heard the kujika of other clans too, as their young boys began the ritualised journey to manhood. I realised that the women knew their clans’ kujika, although they did not sing them. The women listened to particular verses, following where on country the song was travelling, and commented amongst themselves on the quality of the performances.
As I heard kujika from the mainland, and kujika from the islands and sea, I gradually built up images of these sung journeys across the country. I even managed to capture a verse about the Rainbow Serpent: Bujimala yilyilyi darriyu. I could remember it and sing it back to myself in quiet moments. I was enraptured by this verse: I knew the country where it came from. I had seen the deep, clear waters of the lagoon called Dardakinya; I had sat under the shade of the fringe of pandanus palms. As I sang the kujika, rarely above a whisper, this place was vivid in my mind. I was careful not to sing aloud, for my singing was jirda, bitter not sweet; it was wardingalki—its essence was bad because it was so out of tune. Yet, even so, its power stirred me. I knew this verse was a powerful invocation of the Rainbow Serpent who animated the lagoon, and of the people who had long revered that place. How much more a complete kujika must mean to those who sang them in their fullness and entirety.
Those who had sung them fully had been old men, with those under forty only beating in time with cupped hands. I wondered if perhaps they were not allowed to sing, but I came to understand, over the months and years, that the silence of the young was a source of grave concern to the older men and women.
1 That meat - he's got a song
2 You have to learn him, you belong to Mambaliya
3 Not like the bread of white men
4 Knowing what Old People knew
5 Chasing after the Dingo
6 Tangled Up in the Law
7 Broken Songs
8 It makes the country tremble
9 Putting it down
ISBN: 9781742372419 ISBN-10: 1742372414 Audience:
Tertiary; University or College
For Ages: 11 - 14 years old For Grades: 7 - 10 Format:
Number Of Pages: 336 Published: 1st August 2010 Publisher: Allen & Unwin Country of Publication: AU Dimensions (cm): 23.4 x 15.3
Weight (kg): 0.45
Edition Number: 1