In Australia, Song Has Power

An outsider attempts to understand an ancient, intricate Indigenous culture

In Australia, Song Has Power
Yidumduma Bill Harney, Elder of the Wardaman tribe, at Gandawokja rock, Northern Territory, Australia. (Lydia Wilson)

Deep in Australia’s Northern Territory, there is scant light pollution and the skies are full of stars. I asked my companion, David, to teach me the unfamiliar constellations, so different from those I see in my home in the Northern Hemisphere. An Indigenous Australian from the Central Desert Region of the continent, he was quick to comply.

“Up there,” he pointed, “is the head of the emu, see?”

I didn’t.

He traced a swirl with his finger, “See, that’s the tail.”

I still didn’t see. I pointed to the sky, “So those stars —” I started, before David interrupted.

“Ah, no, we don’t look at the stars, we look at the spaces in between. Look at the dark spaces.”

The whole sky suddenly popped in a beautiful Gestalt switch: The emu became clear, and the landscape of stars subtly shifted to a very different type of picture from what I was used to.

This was only the first of many upheavals to my mental universe during my brief trip to Australia. The following day we drove six hours further into the bush, and I spent three halcyon days talking to Yidumduma Bill Harney, an elder of the Wardaman tribe who has lived in the same area for most of his 80-odd years. (He doesn’t know precisely how old he is but is sure he was born before World War II broke out.) Later, I heard on the recordings of our conversations how at odds our metaphysical systems are: his culture, tens of thousands of years old, and my upstart Western constructs. Thanks to his patience and interest, I gradually came to understand more about this ancient society’s cosmology, though many things remained stubbornly beyond my grasp.

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