With the holiday season coming up and possibly inspired by our Holiday Hotspots blog post, you may be in the middle of planning your next getaway. Nowadays, we have access to GPS systems and topography apps - all available with the touch of a button. In an era long before advanced technology, First Nations Peoples relied on their visual memory and the tracks that their peoples and animals left behind, through the use of “Songlines.” Essentially, songlines are the traditional trade routes and dreaming tracks, created by First Nations’ ancestors. The term derived from the act of Indigenous Australians singing of the land and people along their journeys.
Traditional Custodians would learn the songs from the Elders of their community in order to learn how to travel from one particular place to another. The songs were accompanied by rhythm and sound - from clapsticks and the stamping of feet in the dirt - which were married with the footsteps of the Elders who walked before them. All of these musical elements came together to aid in memorising the sacred landscapes and routes.
Image sourced from Ilya Genkin Photography
As the tribes travelled across the country, the songlines acted as a ‘cultural passport.’ This is because songs from one path would often cross over and interlace with another connecting path. When tribes were travelling, they would recite the song attached to the specific region as it detailed vital information and guidelines for the land. Oftentimes, if tribes travelling through a region did not know the song in the local language, they would ‘sing in country.’ This is the practice of singing praises of the land and people, signifying that they were passing through respectfully. Here, we can see that songlines transcend language through music, song and dance.
Similarly to a map, songlines identified key features and marker points across hundreds of kilometres. Songlines even keyed sacred sites such as burial and birthing grounds. Although songlines are a verbal map, they are an essential part of life; a second nature to Indigenous Australian peoples.
Image sourced from australianphotography.com
Songlines are said to have been carved out by the creation spirits who first walked the dreaming tracks. These tracks are closely tied to the Dreamtime and cultural ceremonies. One such dreaming track is the Bundian Way where tourists are invited to discover the Whale Dreaming through a guided 1.8km trek through Eden, NSW. The Seven Sisters’ (Kungkarangkalpa) dreaming track can be virtually explored through the National Museum of Australia’s interactive online exhibit. Other notable dreaming stories of creation spirits walking the dreaming tracks include: the Morning Star (Banumbirr), Eagle Hawk (Bunjil),The Moon and The Gecko (Patjuka Wura Punu) and Rainbow Serpent (Wardbukkara). Bilbie Virtual Labs, a Brisbane based company, have also developed a virtual songlines experience for public access. Through the use of game design and virtual reality, the company have created an authentic First Nations interactive virtual histories and heritage experience. To try it out for yourself click here. So, as we can see these ancestral stories the First Nations’ people have passed down through millennia of generations are still here today, and are ingrained into the land and seen in the stars.
Image sourced from Japingka Aboriginal Art
Here at Yarn, many of our partner artists use visual art to display their songlines and tell the stories of creation, the land and their people. One of our artists, Charlie Chambers (Jnr) - belonging to the Jairtribe from the Toowoomba, Dalby and Bunya mountain region - informs us of the significance of incorporating songlines into his artworks:
“When I was young, I would sit with my elders and listen to these Dreamtime stories, but the stories would go in one ear and out the other. It was when I got older that I started to think about these stories and start painting them.” - Charlie Chambers (Jnr)
“The main reason I love painting is to keep the stories that the elders told me about the community alive.” - Charlie Chambers (Jnr)
Landscapes by Charlie Chamber Jnr
The depiction of songlines through traditional and contemporary art is a form of celebration and respect for culture and country. It is also a way of archiving Indigenous history, detailing stories of the creation of land and sea, of the dreamtime, customs and traditions of the land.
The paths etched in the land through songlines were initially dismissed by European Settlers as simply being animal tracks. Despite their ignorance, the European Settlers actually heavily relied on these routes for navigation and access to the land. Essentially, songlines became the foundation for many of our main roads, which are still utilised Australia-wide. Maps of songlines, indicating known local roads, highways and particular regions, are currently in development by some Traditional Custodians as part of a Cultural Mapping Project.
What songlines are in your area? As you travel from place to place we encourage you to take note of the songlines and pay recognition to the Traditional Custodians. After all, we are walking on the footsteps of ancestors who found their way guided by the stars and the collective wisdom of the elders before them, passed down from generation to generation.
We at Yarn, acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land and sea. We pay our respect to all Elders, past, present and emerging.