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Songlines: the living narrative of our nation

July 05, 2016

I wonder how many have much idea of what this 2016 NAIDOC theme means.

Certainly, even I could tell several years ago, upon reading Bruce Chatwin’s book thus famously titled, that he had no idea about the concept himself—and this despite his fame and the rave reviews. In this regard, it was satisfying to read in Nicholas Shakespeare’s recent biography that the author of ‘Songlines’ spent so little time in the Alice Springs region that indeed, he did make up his own meaning behind the title.  

In obvious contrast, Regina McKenzie, Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner and cultural leader, has explained countless times in defence of the country at risk of being the site of Australia’s national intermediate and low level radioactive waste dump, that the land of Adnyamathanya people of the Flinders Ranges is filled with songlines and sacred sites.

As a Traditional Owner, Regina has sent to the Federal Government many strong messages stating that her people do not want a dump built locally. “The amount of archaeology and the amount of heritage that's in this area is way, way too high.”

"It's actually the site of our first storyline that runs 70 kilometres from Hawker right down to Lake Torrens, so it's a very significant place for us. Adnyamathanha people roamed these lands before colonisation. With an ugly big nuclear waste dump in the way, how can you tell a storyline?" (ABC February 2016)

Songlines/ storylines? Many of us well-meaning Australians may insist that we have the right to know EXACTLY what everything means. But on our terms! In a recent Compass programme, Geraldine Doogue interviewed the people involved in the creation of the current ABC program ‘Cleverman.’  The puzzlement and continued questioning was along the lines of ‘we have a right to know’ about all cultural matters.

Perhaps that’s the trouble with a section of our mainstream Australians. We think we have to know everything, that we DO know everything, or that, if we don’t know it or don’t grasp it, it’s irrelevant. We think we have to possess everything, or explain everything, or that everything is up for grabs for those who have the wherewithal to grab it, or that the land is a commodity. That is one huge sense of entitlement!

What a paradox then, that even when we are told of the existence of such mystical realities as songlines, either indifference or a kind of irritable impatience takes over. And so the thought pattern develops: we have to listen to such irrelevancies. How annoying that once again the Original Owners are getting in our way of commodifying the country. Surely anyone can see that, for example, the intermediate level radioactive waste that we persist in creating has to go somewhere...

Let us remember as well, the site for that OTHER proposed radioactive waste dump—the SA government’s frighteningly crazy scheme of importing one third of the world’s high level waste and dumping it in Australia—hasn’t yet been chosen. There is every reason in the world to oppose this totally dangerous scheme.  Is this not at the highest end of total irresponsibility towards the country, lands and waters, our own health and that of future generations, forever? The traditional owners on whose country it’s sure to be sited will be burdened with their extra responsibility of protecting country, protecting the songlines. Some of us will remember the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta and the Seven Sisters and their exultant cry: ‘We’ve got the story for the country!’ and the responsibility of that.

Alex Miller’s character, Annabelle, in Journey to the Stone Country comes to the realisation that, although ‘she had once believed in something called objective enquiry, the right to know everything, it was not necessary to understand. Understanding was the least of it.’

And what about the munificence of the God who creates humans with their various cultures and their different gifts.  Luckily for us in Australia, as one of the SA Josephites said to me at the height of the Pitjantjatjara /Yankunyjatjara Landrights campaign of the 1980s, or was it during the Nookanbah struggle,  ‘What would Australia look like without the Aboriginal defenders of country? ‘

It’s a hard and constant struggle for such a brave minority. Given such a magnificent theme for the 2016 NAIDOC: Songlines, the living narrative of our nation, let us ponder our own responsibilities towards creation, ourselves, our future generations.

Become a member of the Alliance This is a practical step we can take.

Surely a modern day work of Mercy.

Sr Michele Madigan rsj


Photo by Hilary Tyler: Hookina Creek on Barndioota Station, a place offered by ex-Senator Chapman for the national radioactive waste dump, and adjacent to the Adnyamathanha Yappala Station Indigenous Protected Area.