Do you know what Country means or what it means to take care of it? Have you ever heard of Songlines?
Margo Ngawa Neale, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art and History at the National Museum of Australia, is here to help. She has written and edited First Knowledges books, explaining Indigenous concepts.
Country is more than a view of the landscape, it is a belief system and a worldview.
For First Nations people, your identity is totally tied to the country, your own country where your particular clan comes from.
We write it with a capital C because it’s not a country like Israel or America – it’s not a superficial thing, it’s not cartographic.
We see the country as a character, as a living being. It holds wisdom and knowledge and all its characteristics are the result of the ancestral beings who roamed the land and created it.
All the stories you need to know to survive in Country come from Country, that’s why we say: “Country is knowledge, therefore it is smart country.”
If you stay connected, you will stay informed.
What does it mean to take care of the country?
Taking care of the country is not just about cleaning water points.
It’s actually about taking care of it as you would your mother, your loved one or any other person.
You must take care of it ancestrally, spiritually and in every other way. When you perform a ceremony, its power penetrates into the ground.
The songs you sing about Country and the stories you tell about Country enliven and invigorate it, keeping it alive.
You pay homage to the ancestors of this place.
Paintings also affirm your relationship and stories, of course, do the same.
Caring for Country is much more than physical.
What are song lines?
Songlines can be visualized as corridors or pathways of knowledge that crisscross the entire continent, sky and water.
Song lines, sometimes called dream tracks, connect sites and contain stories, known as story places, that are interpreted within the natural features of the land.
These important sites, formed by ancestral beings, are like libraries, storing knowledge essential to survival.
Stories from important sites contain knowledge that teaches about social behavior, gender relations, or where water or food can be found.
For example, in the story of the Seven Sisters, there is a cave that tells the story of how the seven sisters entered it to hide from their relentless pursuer, who was waiting outside.
There is a monolith that represents him waiting and another monolith that refers to his sexuality. This will happen everywhere to explain various things about gender relations and where you should or shouldn’t go.
For example, the seven sisters flew over a particular region of the country ahead of their pursuer. This story – about the place where they flew and couldn’t walk – tells you not to walk there because there’s no water.
Some songs span an entire continent and are actually told around the world, like the story of the Seven Sisters, which was featured in an exhibition I curated for the National Museum.
The magic of mnemonics
Our stories on land and water are reflected in the sky. The Pleiades star constellation is linked to the creation song of the Seven Sisters told from country to country across Australia and overseas.
In the story of The Seven Sisters, the sisters who make up the Pleiades star cluster are pursued by a relentless pursuer who is believed to be the constellation Orion.
There are also smaller regional or local songs, and they’re really about how you catch the wallaby or where the bush tomatoes are harvested.
Natural formations such as mountains, caves, and waterholes serve as memory aids to the story of their creation and the lessons they contain, also called mnemonics.
In a non-textual indigenous society, mnemonics stimulate your memory so you can learn things from thousands of years earlier.
Consider this: Our people have been here for 65,000 years, and some of those stories from that time are still alive today because the brain can remember things that are visual, performative, or musical.