The Third Archive – The Promise of Songlines

The painting featured above, held in my personal collection, is of the Tingari Songline by George Ward Tjungurrayi, a Senior Knowledge man of the Gibson Desert (Barbara Lepani).


Songlines: The Power and Promise

How to do justice to this small paperback, Songlines: The Power and Promise, written by Margo Neale Ngawagurrawa, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Australian Museum, and Lynne Kelly, Research Fellow at La Trobe University and a world renowned expert on orality, the way in which scientific and technological knowledge was transmitted over time through myths, rituals, chants and art as mnemonic devices?


This small book, published by the National Australian Museum with Thames and Hudson, is part of the First Knowledges series that Margo Neale is editing.

Listen to ABC Late Night Live for their discussion of this important work.

The aim of the series is to give readers an in-depth understanding of Indigenous expertise in six areas: Songlines; architecture, engineering and design; land management and future farms; healing, medicine and plants; astronomy; and innovation and technology—in line with Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and overturn outdates ways of representing, or misrepresenting, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Australia stands at a pivotal point in its relationship with the First Nations peoples of this land whose culture is the oldest living culture in the world, stretching back at least 65,000 years well into the last ice age. Having overturned the doctrine of Terra Nullius, issued a parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generation, the children of First Nations families who were forcibly taken from their parents under various Aboriginal Protection legal regimes, Australia is being called on to respond to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Our First Nations people came together in 2017 to look for a path forward in shaping their place in Australian society. They issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart, an invitation to the Australian people to enshrine their Voice in our Constitution and to establish a Makarrata Commission for treaties between First Nations peoples and the Government of Australia, and the truth telling about our history. The Australian government is still grappling with how to respond to this invitation, despite a groundswell of support across the Australian population for its three requests.

Meanwhile, although First Nations peoples have long featured prominently in Australian sporting codes, especially football, and their art is now one of the most recognised forms of art practice sought after by galleries all around the world, First Nations peoples are beginning to find their voice as influential politicians, writers and intellectuals. Having mastered the whitefella knowledge system, they are finding ways to give voice to ways of understanding the knowledge systems of First Nations people—encoded in their songlines. This comes at a momentous time in Australia’s history as we confront the devastating consequences of whitefella knowledge systems and ways of thinking that have led inexorably to a combination of global warming and environmental degradation that is threatening the viability of human habitation in vast areas of the world.

Retailing for only $20, Songlines: The Power and Promise is one of the most important books any Australian might ever read, if we are to claim the right to our identity as Australians, rooted in this land and its history.


Drawing on her archival experience as a museum curator and researcher, Margo Neale (featured at right) suggests that the Songlines project can be conceived as a Third Archive, a bridge between the First Archive of Indigenous knowledges, kept alive in the songlines that crisscross Australia, and the Second Archive, that of the Western Knowledge system, imported into Australia through colonisation and settlement and transmitted through our education systems and institutions of government, business and civil society. Check

The Western archive is characterised by two types of knowledge organisation that are foreign to Indigenous knowledges:

  • Firstly it is based on a strong sense of dualism; the use of oppositional categories such as man/woman; man (human)/nature; mind/matter; spirit/materiality, which again is expressed in time differentiated into past/present/future.
  • Secondly knowledge is objectified; it is knowledge about, not with, and it is highly segmented into different areas of knowledge speciality that are in turn reflected in the education system and the professions and areas of government responsibility.

Only do recent developments in earth systems science and ecology provide a pathway for a more integrated approach, recognising that the world is actually comprised of complex, interconnected systems on multiple levels. That the policy silos of government activity fail to take account of this, and stumble in the face of so-called ‘wicked’ problems—problems that defy easy single cause solutions.

Neale and Kelly suggest that the Third Archive would aim to combine the advantages of the Western archive, such as material preservations, with Indigenous people’s own knowledge system, while transcending the objectifying systems that underpin the Western archive. As an Indigenous archivist herself, Neale suggests that the Indigenous impetus to assimilate aspects of Western archival processes into their own master archive, the songlines, is a natural part of the contemporary circumstances of Indigenous cultures in the wake of colonisation. In this sense the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Western archive by Indigenous artist-archivists become acts of cultural empowerment (p.60).

Pursuing this theme, Neale suggests the First Archive (the Master Archive) is held in Country as an organic, living and breathing personage often referred to by First Nations peoples as ‘our mother’. She asserts that thinking of Country as an archive endows a level of authority on Indigenous art that has not been previously acknowledged (p.66)

Another point that Neale makes is the active role of both Indigenous and Western archivists in the interpretation, ongoing maintenance and recreation of an Indigenous master archive and a third archive (p.67)

It reveals how compartmentalised the disciplines are in the Western knowledge system, unlike the integrated Indigenous archive. When the two systems collide, Indigenous cultural practice unsettles the order of Western practice to produce a vehicle for cross-cultural fertilisation so that each can learn from the other (p.76)

For me, this is the true promise of this meeting of Indigenous and Western knowledge systems with their very different ontologies and epistemologies. It provides for the liberation of whitefellas, like myself, from the dualistic objectifying ways of knowing and learning (epistemology and pedagogy) of my own Anglo-European cultural background, to embrace a much richer and more emotionally satisfying way of experiencing and seeing my world. One that is more in tune with the nature of reality as a multi-layered complex system of interconnected, interdependent relationships:

  • Where time is not linear, but the interplay between past, present and future.
  • Where language does not define what ‘is’, but allows for the ephemeral and liminal aspects of knowing.
  • Where the sacred is not some rarefied ‘other’, but completely embedded in the materiality of the world.
  • Where we humans have given up our claim to exceptionalism as uniquely ‘made in God’s image’, but experience ourselves more humbly as part of Country in all the multiple meanings that Indigenous knowledge systems portray.

Songlines as Archives

Songlines are an embodied knowledge system: knowledge is carried by the human body and transmitted to others, primarily through performance prompted by actual and visualised features of the Country (p. 84)

In this book, Neale demonstrates how as a set of complex arterial connections, the Songlines comprise an organic network of lines crisscrossing the continent along distributed nodes of concentrated knowledge, often referred to as sites of significance. She draws on the anthropologist Alan Rumsey’s insights that Aboriginal archiving is an inscriptive and interpretive practice through which ‘Country’ becomes ‘story’ (p.61). In this way the Aboriginal archivist—whom in Western terms we think of as artists in the recording of such knowledge in collaborative artworks by knowledge holders—activate the knowledge embedded in a site so that a kind of mutual knowledge transfer occurs between place, person(s) and history.

As an example of this process, Neale points to the 2013 collectivist project Always Walking Country, a multimedia installation work comprising time-lapse footage of the execution of an epic 3 metre x 5 metre painting titled Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground).   In this project, eight senior women knowledge holders used the process of the painting to archive knowledge for the young rangers charged with caring for their Country at Parnngurr. Neale goes further to suggest that the time lapse recording of the process of making the painting reveals how it was also a ceremony making on canvas. In this way layers of knowledge and intellectual processes are embodied in this archive. They include history (bush days before the white man), the movement of the Seven Sisters and other ancestors across the landscape, and nuanced knowledge of plants and animals, seasons and fire, permanent water, ephemeral soaks and underground seepage (p.62-63).

For this reason the painting as archive is also a manifestation of Jukurrpa, the eternal Law/Lore of creation, enmeshed with the activities of everyday life (p.64).

Songlines not only tell stories; they also encode other meanings, storing vast amounts of knowledge about the environment, culture and law (p.91).

Knowledge Transmission

The strongest clash in values between Indigenous knowledge systems and Western knowledge systems lies in who ‘owns’ the knowledge, who has the right to ‘transmit’ it and who has the right to ‘receive’ it.

The Western knowledge system rests on a strong split between secular and religious knowledge.

Religious knowledge about the realm of the ‘God’ of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and their prophets (Moses, Jesus, Mohammad) are known as the religions of the book, archived in religious texts (Talmud, Bible, Quran). Their commentaries are the world of theologians (Rabbi, Priest, Imam) who are educated and authorised through their relative schools of divinity. The authenticity of this knowledge is sourced to a God, whose authority is beyond human authorship, and knowable through religious faith and devotion as an inner experience, supported by ritual and prayer. The purpose of such knowledge is human wellbeing, morality, ethics, and ideas of goodness as expressions of God’s intent

Secular knowledge about the realm of the world is organised around academic disciplines, each with their own methods of research and authentication of what is regarded as valid, and what is regarded as without validity. It is a world where knowledge is constantly contested through research and reasoned analysis. It is the world of philosophy and the humanities, of the sciences and their applications into the various professional and academic disciplines—philosopher, historian, sociologist, political scientist, economist, medical doctor, physicist, chemist, engineer, veterinary doctors, journalist, ecologist, biologist. This list is endlessly expanded through specialisations. In this knowledge system the knowledge holders are those esteemed as experts by the strength of their published research—knowledge that is accessible to all (except where controlled through commercial agreements or matters of state security), but whose intellectual property is owned by the individual researcher/author. The purpose of this secular knowledge system is not intrinsically about wellbeing, ethics and goodness per se; it is about the search for truth and efficacy—be that for competing ideas about what is good, for the purposes of competitive advantage in commerce or national prestige, or for destructive purposes linked to warfare and security.

Australia’s Indigenous knowledge systems do not separate the secular and the sacred; both are embedded in the idea of Country as an all encompassing term of the materiality of life, landscape and seascape, as well as the spiritual world of the creation ancestors, and the concept of the Jukurrpa, the eternal law/lore of how to live sustainably in accordance with how the world works, which in turn has shaped human social organisation and kinship systems.

The full extent of this knowledge system is held by the Cultural Custodians, the Elders who have gradually acquired this knowledge through ceremony, initiation rituals, and who have received its innermost secret aspects according to how they have been judged by their elders before them, in terms of temperament and behaviour. With this comes great responsibility. As Neale puts it, the full extent of the Indigenous master archive can be accessed and worked only by the custodians with the knowledge and authority to do so, and who engage with it creatively to keep it alive as their life’s purpose (p.61).

The sacred sites along the songlines, can be viewed as terminals to which only a few archivists have the password (rights and knowledge) that gives them access to deeper, more secret and sacred histories, the story behind the story, which is often told in a language considered to be ancient and not accessible to others (p.54).

Parallels with Tibetan Buddhism

Through my long immersion as a student-practitioner in the Tibetan Buddhist knowledge system I am familiar with this process of secrecy and deeper meaning. Unlike the Indigenous Knowledge system, Tibetan Buddhism has a rich textual tradition. But it has also kept alive a strong oral tradition, of knowledge passed by a Buddhist master who is recognised as having not only learning but also spiritual realisation, to his/her student. The teachers talk of the outer, inner and secret meaning, and in terms of the provisional versus the absolute meaning gained through realisation.

This is particularly important in the Dzogchen mengakde (oral pith instruction) transmission lineage. Different levels of meaning are transmitted, mediated by the master’s recognition of the student’s spiritual maturity and by the student’s ability to ‘hear’ the meaning contained in the words. As my Buddhist teacher would endlessly explain to his western students, brought up to expect ‘new information’: the more and more you listen, the more and more you hear.

This Buddhist knowledge system refers to the Three Wisdom Tools required:

  • Listening and hearing—when you listen, what do you hear?
  • Contemplation and reflection—meditation and experiential understanding
  • Realisation and application—taking it to heart in all thought and actions

As well as the teachings tradition, Tibetan Buddhism also uses an elaborate system of rituals and practice ceremonies embodied in multilayered, mythical and metaphorical language and imagery. Access to these meanings requires a special ceremony known as empowerment (wang), followed by a period of intensive practice that combines visualisation and sacred sound (mantra) working with the student’s subtle energy system, which sits alongside the Western construct of the physical bio-mechanical structure of the nervous system-body complex.

Furthermore the Tibetan Buddhist knowledge system also includes the tradition of termas (treasure teachings) that are revealed by a special category of master known as tertons. Such teachings may be revealed as sar ter (earth treasures), gong ter (mind treasures) and pure visions. The sar ter are guarded by spirit protectors known as terdaks, and are literally pulled out of the earth/rock face, and often in the form of secret dakini script that only the rightfully appointed terton can decipher. Interestingly Western anthropologists working in Tibet have witnessed such a revelation of a sar ter; an idea and possibility that defies the logic of Western knowledge systems.

How Art Speaks for Country

Margo Neale draws on Yirrkala elders to express the enormous role that art plays in keeping Country alive and cared for under Jukurrpa law/lore: Country cannot speak for itself, so art must speak for Country (p.54). Country is the connective tissue; kinship between people, place and paintings is inseparable (p.157). Art also has a political purpose, for Indigenous artworks are spiritually powerful designs owned by clans to recall ancestral events (p.158).

The Elder custodians of many Western and Central Desert communities came together to work with Margo Neale to put on a major exhibition, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, which was held at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra over the summer of 2018.

In the Foreward to the Exhibition’s Catalogue, Inawinytji Williamson, senior law woman and traditional owner of the Seven Sisters Songline for the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands, explained the importance of this Songline in this way:

The Seven Sisters Tjukurrpa, our Dreaming creation law, is very important to us, we hold it strongly and teach it to the generations that come after us. This Tjukurrpa belongs to many people in the north, east, south, west and the centre. Many people tell this story in different languages. We have brought the song, story and paintings full of Tjukurrpa, the creation spirit of the Seven Sisters, to put in our Canberra exhibition. We want to show this major creation story here so many other people can look, learn and increase their understanding. All people, white and black, can come and see and understand…

Neale reveals how back in 2012, some fifty Anangu people gathered to do inma (performance) for an episode of the Seven Sisters story in preparation for a public performance at the National Museum of Australia as part of Canberra’s centennial year of celebrations. She records: the rhythm of walking Country as a way of remembering was emulated in the rhythm of dance movements as the dancers took the song into their bodies informing the dance and the vocalisations, unifying past, present and place with the human and the ancestral (p.81)

Songlines must be performed, not simply sung, as the performance is drawing on all the arts (dance, song, painting, story telling), to sing up Country to maintain its vitality and fecundity. Through dance there is a whole-body transmission where the message is conveyed through sound, tone, body action beat and words (p.90-92).

Neale points out how contemporary Aboriginal art done for non-Indigenous audiences using Western materials is functioning like a passport between cultures, enabling cross-cultural access to knowledge that has been scripted into the work (p.156). For those of us lucky enough to have visited the Seven Sisters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, the curation of this exhibition with its complex layering of art and story and involvement of the knowledge custodians, provided such an immersive experience that it had a transformative impact on whitefella understanding of Indigenous culture and its knowledge system.

The Promise of Songlines

Drawing on her work on orality in different cultures and her own experimentation of using landscape as a nmemonic device in her neighbourhood, Lynne Kelly (featured at left) urges us to learn how to work with Country to develop our own personal relationship with place, where we live. Unlike the knowledge we acquire from texts, or look up on the Internet, if we ground our knowledge in place we can discover a way of building ever more complex layers of understanding—capitalising on the way our brain actually works as a memory system.