Songlines project sparks Indigenous culture war

The following report is what happens when First Nations people don't have the power to fund their own programs, and find themselves in chaos after having their culture and tribal boundaries forcibly disrupted by a patronising government which is largely made up of righteous and brutal illegal British invaders descendants.

Mix this in with white mans lies, their ongoing genocide, regular erratic changes of forced regulations and disclosing sacred songlines of the last remaining remnants of the world's oldest culture, the results of belated and spasmodic curiosity and the exploitation for the governments beloved tourist dollars.

Nicolas Rothwell The Australian 22 March 2014

Amata Law men. Aboriginal sitters. L to R: Mick Wikilyiri, Hector Burton, Willy Kaika Burton and Ray Ken.
Picture: Rhett Hammerton The Australian

It seemed like a dream arts project for the remote western desert's Aboriginal communities - a research and exhibition series sponsored by great educational and cultural institutions in the nation's capital, ethically well-funded, managed by a team of academic and curatorial experts. It would be the first enterprise to map the songlines of Indigenous Australia with the tools of modern science, and do so with Aboriginal participation, in a cross-cultural spirit, co-operatively, preserving knowledge, advancing understanding. It would show the world the depth of desert life-ways and history. Even the title chosen for the project expressed the sharp excitement its proponents felt: Alive with the Dreaming!

This excitement was shared by the Australian Research Council, which gave the venture funding of more than $800,000 in its 2011 round of grants. Fittingly enough, the project's first focus was the most famous of all the songlines, the Seven Sisters story, which winds its way across the dunes and mesas of the desert rangelands. It is a tale of pursuit and subterfuge: a wily man gives endless chase, the sisters flee. For years it has been portrayed by outsiders as a women's story. One past attempt by anthropologists to research its sites was a women-only affair. The saga has already inspired many majestic artworks by painters in the best-known desert communities, so it was a natural theme for a high-profile exhibition. But there was scope in the new project to explore the meaning of the songlines even further. Were they not, after all, a kind of continent-wide geographic imprinting? Those mazy tracks could be portrayed at last in their true light - as emblems of identity, "rich in spiritual, ecological and economic knowledge", paths of "iconic significance in the national cultural heritage of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia".

Fine words for a beginning, but three years on the songlines dream has turned into a nightmare for the Aboriginal desert people caught up in its coils: the museums advancing the project grasp little of the depths of the inland's religious system; the consultations with song-cycle custodians to date have been bizarre and ill-managed; there are elaborate paper protocols and safeguards but, in practice, no is a word Aboriginal art researchers just don't understand.

The upshot is that on the eve of the first Songlines exhibition, opening this weekend at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, the Pitjantjatjara desert people of the state's north are in extreme tension, divided, full of anguish. The exhibition has its coterie of Aboriginal backers and its fierce opponents. It is faction against faction, family against family. No collision in recent decades between the grand designs of the mainstream world and an Aboriginal resistance campaign quite rivals this one for its long-term impact: its controversies dominate the community night-time fires. Senior men and women in the heartland talk of little else.

Yami Lester, in wheelchair, and Mike Williams, who are opposed to the Songlines project. Picture: Kelly Barnes - Source: News Corp Australia

What began as a dewy research scheme to exalt desert art and knowledge is increasingly being seen in the bush as a mortal threat to traditional law and culture.

This crisis on the frontier built step by step; it is now a perfect storm. Its origins lie in the changing nature of the Indigenous art scene. After the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the booming, oversupplied desert art market crashed. The painters in remote art centres needed sales. State museums and galleries stepped in, bought heavily and began devising grand projects: none more elaborate than the Canning Stock Route field trip that produced 100 desert paintings and a glitzy exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Research funds and co-operation between art galleries and academe were the way of the future and the key figurehead for joint projects was the doyen of Aboriginal art scholars, Howard Morphy of the Australian National University. Morphy was the big name on the Songlines grant. With him from the CSR project came a desert veteran, Diana James, who had worked for 30 years in Pitjantjatjara country, running an art centre and a bush tourism camp. James knew and lodged with Margo Neale, the flamboyant Indigenous expert at the National Museum. She also had close ties with the social activists of the NPY Women's Council - the name abbreviates the far desert region's language groups, Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. And so a grand coalition took shape: the museum, the university, the social services provider.

The Songlines team had their subject, their funding, their key partners. All they needed was Aboriginal backers and James had taken care of that. In 1995, when working at Cave Hill outstation, she had been asked by the families there to record their songs and stories. James was one of a small group of white friends who went out into the bush in the 1970s and early 80s, high ideals in mind, and made the desert their home. They were a radical generation, workers for health, campaigners for land rights: selfless people but for the pride they felt in their Aboriginal ties.

James now had the chance to fulfil her long-held wish to present and strengthen desert culture. She made field trips to the desert country she knew. Other Songlines teams fanned out across the inland, led by well-paid local Aboriginal guides: the vision of a continent-spanning dreaming track was solidifying. The researchers went to the Martu region near Newman, up as far as Roebourne, out into the West Australian lands, seeking Seven Sisters stories and support for their scheme as they went: seeking, in fact, members for a guiding curatorium who would rubber-stamp their venture.

This was where the tensions began. A sharp clash of ideas about desert religion was looming. The members of the Songlines team had a commitment to knowledge-sharing between black and white. They also claimed to have a mandate: "If we do not share our culture," James's friend and female co-worker Inawinytji Williamson had explained to her, "it will die." But for most western desert men of prominence, the exact opposite is true. Many now feel sharing deep culture kills it, showing sites devalues them, what is hidden is most valuable.

Of course the academics and curators understood secrecy was at the heart of desert law, but few grasped quite how obsessive this focus has become in recent years, as infractions have multiplied. Desert leaders are more hardline today than a generation ago because more of their mysteries have been revealed. Sometimes it's white anthropologists pushing to see behind the veil; sometimes the grave disclosures that occur are inadvertent. Take the case of the Warburton collection, a set of secret paintings kept in a closed collection in Australia's remotest large desert community.

Three years ago the senior men there opted to send a group of works on tour to China, with the guarantee they would not be shown in Australia - ever. There were sacred works included, "paintings that can kill a man". Within weeks of the Shanghai opening there was a review in an international paper; images of the artworks went up on the internet. That set a precedent. Months later a book appeared with an image of one of the sacred pieces; it was published under the imprint of the University of Western Australia Press.

Dancers perform the Seven Sisters Songline. - Picture: Wayne Quilliam - The Australian

Hence the fervour with which desert men now seek to guard their law. Hence the suspicion and the camp-fire talk. At root, the clash is not just between Western and Indigenous values. It is over attitudes to religion, to the Tjukurpa, the desert cosmology we translate as the Dreaming, the realm of high belief and law.

For outside researchers, this is a realm of subtlety, worth tracing and recording in detail; for insiders of the law, it is an intimate and precious thing - it is their core. This divide leads to divergent approaches. What is the right way to see a songline? For outsiders, it seems obvious there is an objective story track, the path down which the Seven Sisters moved, for instance, a line, in fact, waiting to recorded, its GPS co-ordinates fixed, its bearings and features studied.

There are reasons, though, for doubting this notion of a continuous line. When examined closely, the Seven Sisters track dissolves: it is not one long pathway so much as myriad linked local episodes. The true sites of meaning are often not the ones the anthropologists know but unmarked and private places in the desert: more like tiny wayside altars than great cathedrals for all to see.

In the minds of desert people, then, the songlines are not open superhighways of ceremony down which one may travel freely from coast to coast. They vanish and they bifurcate, they go into the air and underground, they belong not to whole peoples but to individuals and local groups, who tend them with songs and dance, and feel a love and connection to them that this possession underpins.

There was another difficulty emerging with the official Songlines venture, too: a delicate one. The flavour of the project was feminine, it was tracking a "women's dreaming", its key proponents and Indigenous promoters were women as well. But the Seven Sisters songline is not exclusively feminine: men have a stake in it, and this goes to the complex issue of gender roles and balance in the desert world. To be plain, women are socially equal and ritually subsidiary. It is men who are seen to hold the law, they are masters in religion. External legislation, social pressures, deepened field studies and campaigns for women's rights have so far failed to change the pattern. Thus the atmospherics of the Seven Sisters research push were calculated to raise the hackles of senior men.

Early in the piece the owner of one key site, Pastor Howard Smith of Docker River, was outraged to learn spotting teams had travelled through his country. He enjoined his community before he died to stop the project at all costs. Other senior men in the far desert had heard something was afoot: research fees and goodwill store purchase orders were being handed out to particular families; they felt left in the dark.

This was the background to the Songlines story's pivotal event: the annual meeting of the NPY Women's Council at Cave Hill outstation in April 2012, a gathering, also, of the project's "elders and partners research management committee". It was the time when the scale of the venture first became clear.

A LandCruiser flotilla went roaming through the Pitjantjatjara region. On board were 20 white researchers, all wearing "Alive with the Dreaming" T-shirts and making in-jokes about Dreamtime figures. They were on a mission to consult. It felt to the locals like the arrival of an invasion force. James conducted the Cave Hill talks and interpreted the meeting as well. The National Museum's publicity described it in glowing terms; in truth it was a fiasco. A witness describes what happened: "The women there were shocked by what they heard; they were furious with irony and bitterness and indignation. Sixty women, boiling with rage. 'You're stealing our Tjukurpa,' they said. 'We want to listen to your Tjukurpa,' said James. The women walked away."

A second project was being put forward, and with vigour, now: a separate exhibition destined for the South Australian Museum and devoted to the Ngintaka or giant perentie lizard songline. This line was distinctly masculine in tonality: it traced the journey of a thieving ancestral figure across the desert, passing through a range of sites from its starting point at Walatina in the southeast. James felt she had clearance to publish the inma , or dance for the Ngintaka story. And she had fresh allies to mount the exhibition: her old friend John Tregenza, a long-time worker in the region, and Tregenza's energetic wife, Liz, who ran the Ku Arts organisation representing art centres in the SA desert lands.

Inawinytji Williamson and Robert Stevens with an artwork from the Ngintaka exhibition at the South Australian Museum.
Source: News Corp Australia

Tregenza, a short man, thus nicknamed Tungku, was the vital link. He had gone through the desert law: this gave him a set of unconditional alliances to call on with several Pitjantjatjara men. He and James had an interlocking network: clients, supporters, relations in a sense. The leaders of this small group were the key members of the Ngintaka Songline Indigenous curatorium. The program of site visits intensified. But then, as word from the Cave Hill meeting spread, thunder sounded.

On Walatina station, the custodian at the cycle's point of origin, Yami Lester, was speaking out. Lester is that rarest of things, a man of high degree in two realms: a master of desert religion, a leader in the Western world.

Thirty years ago he was the most famous traditional Aboriginal man in Australia: he presided at the hand-back of Ayers Rock; he wrote his autobiography, in which he described the nuclear test at Maralinga that left him blinded as a child. Lester's message was extremely blunt. The Songlines project was a Trojan horse, the NPY women's council didn't know their place in men's business, the ANU should keep out. "White do-gooders amongst us need their boundaries to be defined."

He targeted James in particular: "While she may have achieved a smokescreen of Western-style agreements, her project outline using sacred men's law has angered cultural men across the lands. Ngintaka is a deeply religious and significant account of creation. This law is only spoken of in the correct context and in particular ceremonies."

A generation ago, Lester's word would have been enough to stop the Songlines project - any project - dead in its tracks. But things have moved on. Traditional Aboriginal people may have a greater semblance of power but they have less moral authority. What is the status of a senior man of desert law today, when there are hundreds of vocal state-run Aboriginal cultural organisations the length and breadth of the country? Indigenous representation now runs more down political and institutional channels.

At least Lester's broadside hit the front page of The Weekend Australian: the following day the National Museum's Neale, who describes herself as of "Aboriginal and Irish" descent, took it on herself to rebut his claims. The ANU and the museum simply shrugged, and waited, then moved ahead. But Lester's central claim was true: senior men of law all through the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands were up in arms.

Mike Williams from Mimili backed his stand. Keith Stevens from Nyapari was against the Ngintaka exhibition. Most strikingly, the old men at Amata, home to the region's top art centre, were leading the charge. These men, Hector Burton, Mick Wikilyiri and Willy Kaika, were chiefs of law and ceremony, much feared in the traditional world. Few would stand against them. Division cast its shadow over the desert lands. The Songlines team began to sense their project slipping: community after community was rising up, asking questions, refusing to take part. Stalemate.

The proponents had their arguments: they sent out communiques saying it was a project to educate future generations, and only Amata was strongly opposed, but that was a bit like saying it was only the Vatican. They pointed out the Ngintaka story had long been public; it had been recorded by an amateur anthropologist in 1948. And they had their own strong local yes-team, led by Robert Stevens, a close associate of the Tregenzas and a man much given to vaunting his Ngintaka primacy.

By late January this year, the contention was at its height. The men of Amata were holding sombre night-time ceremonies in the hills; by day they would come in, shirts open to show their ritual scars, gather at their art centre and hold court in the men's painting room. They were adamant: Kaika spoke for them: "It's men's dreaming, secret, our sacred ceremonies and places, they have to leave it alone. We don't want outsiders to touch it. We want them to go away."

Explicit! The men felt deceived but insulted as well: in traditional law, they have the right to control and veto all affairs that affect their sites. Often among such men of high degree discussion and a straight majority voice decides all. Burton, one of the most keenly collected of all the western desert artists, was sharper still: "These women doing this exhibition aren't our sisters. They're white, not black. They have another skin. Go back to the other side of the sun. Don't interfere and take what's ours."

For Wikilyiri, the actual owner of the Amata Ngintaka site, it was a question of a wound being inflicted: "It's a place for us, it's for us, us poor people - it's who we are. Its power comes from underneath the ground; we're the custodians. I feel really emotional and hurt that people are trying to harm me this way."

Their stance of rejection had spread: to Mimili, to Ernabella. Many prominent women were also openly opposed to the Songlines project. Carlene Thompson, chairwoman of Ernabella Arts, widow of a famous land rights leader and director of the NPY Women's Council, was insistent, and spoke with a crowd of women cheering her words: "We don't support the exhibition. We've been saying no and no. How else can we say it?" Nyurpaya Kaika is also an NPYWC director: "We say no, but they go to other people behind our backs for a yes. What is it they want from us? This story is our skin. They want our skin!"

So things stood a month ago, and so still today. How was this disaster of disenfranchisement and dissension possible in a high-profile culture project in today's Australia?

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Detailed protocols governing exchanges between Aboriginal knowledge-holders and Western researchers exist. The standard procedure calls for independent consultation to be run and informed consent by all concerned be given before such projects go ahead: in the art game, though, the proponents of an exhibition effectively do their own consulting and pay those they engage, and build coalitions of the willing as they go.

Review put detailed questions concerning Songlines to the two cultural institutions in the spotlight, the National Museum and SA Museum, and both conscientiously provided answers - but there was a tragic, bureaucratic emptiness about their replies. They were phrased artfully, insisting on the diffuse nature of the Songlines partnership. They were framed in defence of museum processes and formal benchmarks, not to protect the interests of remote Aboriginal people.

Both museums have large Indigenous advisory boards, which have proved ineffectual in this case to date. Both museums, in truth, have travelled down ill-judged paths to this point in the Songlines tale.

The SA Museum, which employs two of Australia's best-known anthropologists and has the world's finest gallery of Aboriginal cultures, exercised no control over the content of its Ngintaka exhibition. Six weeks before the opening it had no real idea what would be in the catalogue or what was going on its walls. It simply provided the venue, and lent its name, and hoped for some spin-off benefit.

The case of the National Museum is stranger still. It was set up more than a decade ago and under the guidance of its first director, senior Aboriginal public servant Dawn Casey, it had strong Indigenous engagement: in more recent times that element has leached away. The newly appointed director, Mat Trinca, has his work on this front cut out. Three years into the Songlines grant, the museum has staged a single dance by desert women and pushed out its proposed Seven Sisters show until 2017. It claims the project team was approached by owners from "particular parts" of the songline, and it has a preliminary working list of participants in its exhibition's Indigenous curatorium, but has yet even to make contact with several key communities. In essence it is in the position of the Soviet army in Afghanistan, searching for the leaders of standing who invited it in.

Back in Adelaide, the Ngintaka exhibition has been installed: it opens its doors this weekend. It is a motley affair: mid-grade works with lizard themes. The entrance to the show is guarded by giant ceramic ngintakas modelled in a collaboration at the workshops of the ANU; there is a 360-degree video presentation and a catalogue that veils the uproar in the desert and the Walatina controversy, and masks the refusal of co-operation by the Amata art stars.

In Mutitjulu alongside Ayers Rock, a supply of scores of carved-wood perentie lizards have been packed up at the Maruku art centre and freighted down to Adelaide, ready for display at the "Ngintaka marketplace" outside the museum's entrance court.

And at his home at the songline's starting-point, Lester, his protests disregarded, maintains his vigil: "Some of our people just want to sell off Aboriginal culture for money," he says in sadness.

"Sell the Tjukurpa in Adelaide. That way they're going to get rid of the culture. I never thought it would end this way, but now I understand it will. It's all for sale. They'd sell their grandmother if they could."