In 2019, Allen and Unwin published the Gay’Wu Group of Women of North East Arnhem Land’s book, Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines. It is a most wondrous book. It’s authors who are also involved in the Bawaka Collective, are: Laklak Burarrwana, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiwawuy Ganambar-Stubbs, Banbapuy Ganambarr, Djawundil Maymuru, and three whitefella women academics: Sarah Wright, of the University of Newcastle and Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Kate Loyd of Macquarie University—all working in the area of human and cultural geography, who have been involved with the Bawaka Collective for more than 12 years.
Sarah, Sandie and Kate are all involved in the important work of learning from First Nations peoples, in a process of two-ways learning; on the politics of knowledge, and the way that different knowledges are experienced in place and the ways they have been variously adopted, reworked and contested at different scales.
As the Gay’Wu group of women say:
We want you to come with us on our journey, our journey of songspirals. Songspirals are the essence of people in this land, the essence of every clan. We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.
And as Clare Wright, historian and author, writes: to read Songspirals is to change the way you see, think and feel this country.
Laklak Burarrwana and her sisters explain: “When we talk about Country, we are using an Aboriginal English term that refers to specific places, specific Aboriginal peoples’ homelands. There are many, many Countries within Australia, many peoples, many languages, many Aboriginal nations. To talk of Country means not just land, but also the waters, the people, the winds, animals, plants, stories, songs and feelings—everything hat becomes together to make up place. Country is alive for us, it cares for us, communicates with us, and we are part of it.
The English writer Bruce Chatwin coined the term, Songlines, to refer to the way in which First Nations people encoded their knowledge systems in song cycles associated with stories about Ancestral Beings in the creation of the world in particular ecologies and the way in which this act of creation was ongoing, keeping alive the potency of the landscape and all its life forms. The Gay’Wu group insist that the term ‘songlines’ is too linear. Instead we should think of this archive of encoded knowledge as songspirals, because they go in and out, twist and turn, and defy linear time in the connecting and remaking Country. They are cognitive maps about how to live sustainably and spiritually one with Country, with multiple layers of meaning depending on one’s cultural rights to knowledge.
Just like the term ‘Country’ is not just about land, but an all-inclusive term, the idea of songspirals encompasses all types of knowledge and is kept alive through song, dance, story-telling, painting and rituals.
Each time we sing our songspirals we learn more, go deeper, spiral in and spiral out.
Milkarri is the way women sing or keen their songspirals, drawing on strong spiritual and emotional connections to Country and the Ancestors, and thus it is a way that the songspirals act to heal individuals, clans and Country.
Milkarri is an ancient song, an ancient poem, a map, a ceremony and a guide, but it is more than all this too. It is the singing and doing milkarri that brings everything into being. We cry milkarri for everything, from the smallest living creature that lives in the earth to the furthest stars that we can see, for maggots and flies, for the soil and the deep roots. It’s a big responsibility.
Co-becoming is an important way in which the Gay-Wu group of women explain a different way of thinking, a way that is profoundly relational. In their handbook of intercultural communication, they explain:
Co-Becoming describes how everything is constantly made and defined by and through relationships. Nothing exists outside of relationships – between humans, with or between other beings, with/as Country. Everything comes into being together.
“Becoming together involves more than the sum of beings. There is something bigger at stake; an enchanted, mysterious, beautiful lightness of becoming, which is often within grasp, yet always alludes. It requires us to pay close attention to our emergence, to the relationships which enable us, and it requires that we do so with an ethics of care.”
They suggest that when thinking about the idea of co-becoming, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
- What shared knowledges and understandings emerge through your interactions?
- What would a focus on co-creating and co-constructing (knowledges, understandings, policies, programs, curricula) in your interactions look like?
- Who do you co-become with?
- Which humans and non-humans are you emerging with in this particular time and place?
THE SOUND OF SONGSPIRALS
Just as we communicate with Country, country communicates to us.
The sound of the songspirals is the sound of the universe. We are in harmony with it, and by singing we wing our connections, our raki and our gurrutu. The world sings all the time. We sing and the clouds sing. The planets sing, the rain sings, the birds, the plants, the rocks, the tides sing, and we sing different ways, at different frequencies. Some songs take a long time. The world is alive with their sound. The world is their sound and ours. This is the music of nature. Many people have forgotten how to listen.
Many whitefella (non-Indigenous) Australians hunger for the strong sense of spiritual connection that First Nations peoples have through their way of thinking and being with Country. As the Gay’Wu group of women explain, spirits and spirituality are not about religion. It is older and deeper than that.
The spiritual world is here, it is waiting for us. We find it through dance and stories and songs. Some people have a god; we have life force. It’s like the oxygen in the water that forms little bubbles, the life force is inside. We hate the word dreaming. We are not asleep. We are here and have all this knowledge.
TWO WAY LEARNING
For the Gay’Wu group of women, two way learning is not just between human cultures and their languages, it is also between humans and Country.
We are multilingual, multicultural. We hold different knowledges and live in different worlds. We invite you to meet us, to learn too, to be open to your wondrous minds.
Our academic articles now have Country acknowledged as the lead author, rather than just people, to show how Country shapes, teachers and guides us.
In this wondrous book, the women take the reader into the heart of their songspirals through five parts: Wuymirri, Wukun, Guwak, Wititj and Gon-Gurtha, each part comprising between 4 and 5 chapters. It is impossible to give a true impression of the power of this book.
Get your own copy and treasure it.