Maps to Guide Aboriginal Ways of Knowing

How do we repair the parts of our culture that pollute our rivers and keep us anxious?

In the last few years I've followed that question all the way to Arnhem Land. My hypothesis is that if we connect more deeply with place we will feel more at ease and learn what it means to take care of the rivers. That’s assuming there is such a thing as a deeper connection place and that anxiety has something do with displacement. So among other things, I’m Arnhem Land to do some research. I’m particularly interested in ways of connecting to place that involve mapping.

I’m conducting research in three ways. First, by living and learning in the remote home of the oldest surviving land based culture on the planet. Second, by reading as much of the related literature as I can. Third, by mapping the places I visit through an arts based practice that involves sound recording and illustration. As far as the second is concerned, I’m learning with members of the Yolngu community in Gapuwiyak about Aboriginal ways of knowing and communicating. I’m also working with the kids at Gapuwiyak School, facilitating arts based projects that align with and express their interests.

In this post I go a little deeper into mapping as a concept and learning tool. And I share an example of how I'm using mapping in the field.

Its nothing new to say that visual representations describe complex problems in a way that’s easy to read. Even the earliest scientific textbooks, dating back 2,300 years, contain diagrams (see here). Back then, like today, it would be quite a challenge for a science without pictures to appeal to a popular audience.

The same is true for mythology and fiction. In both cases the use of poetic language conjures scenes in the imagination of the reader. A book that fails to create an engaging world - or reader without a suitable catalogue of imagery for the language used - is likely to be put down after a few pages. The reader might then say something like, “I just couldn’t get into it…”

Stories and diagrams with wider appeal than specific cultural or linguistic contexts, tend to tap into a catalogue of imagery that overlaps those boundaries. Where that occurs we begin to find the use of words like archetype. But this is not a post about archetypes. Its about maps.

Maps are spacial images that use a set of symbols, arranged by relative position, to represent a landscape and its features. In nature education topographical maps are often used to teach kids how to orient and navigate, as well as how to identify things in the world based on symbolic representation. Maps are also used to great effect in art therapy, to symbolise and set out aspects of a person’s inner experience. They can be very helpful in alleviating anxieties relating to overwhelm and/or feeling stuck. In both cases the symbols on the map are abstract representations of things actually in the world. In the same way that words are abstract representations of meaning. Only a sentence is harder to understand than a map because its visual dimension is limited to things like the order of words, choice of font and character spacing. That’s why a picture can tell a thousand words.

For a really interesting discussion of the way our minds use symbols to interpret reality I recommend listening to this talk on the Neuropsychology of Symbolic Representation by Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, Dr Jordan Peterson.

In education, visual representations of information are common. Students will often be asked to draw and interpret diagrams. And they will often be encouraged to create posters or mind maps that help them explain and understand concepts. But there is seldom an emphasis on those visual representations having anything to do with geography or topography. Indeed topographical maps are usually stowed away for the few weeks of the year when teachers see fit to tick the much maligned geography boxes in their handbook of curricular outcomes. Either that or they hang on the wall like laminated afterthoughts, shyly suggesting that things might be different someplace else.

But there is a missed opportunity in that approach. Because the thing about maps is that they have an almost infinite capacity for the storage of information on multiple levels of analysis. On an outline of Australia its possible to lay out everything from variations in temperature to the structure of liberal democracy. Not only that but geographical maps can also represent time and travel. Its possible to mark out journeys from one point to another. And its possible to represent symbolically what happened or might happen along the way. Which opens things up into the realm of literacy and storytelling. And there’s more. By virtue of their speciality, maps attract some of the most breathtaking applications of geometry imaginable. All in a language we’re hardwired to understand. 

Add to that the fact that using maps in this way creates a list of affordable learning excursions into the world that kids actually inhabit, and you are beginning to tap into the potential for map making as a tool for connecting to place.

Okay, time for some examples.

Gapuwiyak is a town that I described in another post as being the size of a postage stamp. Its positioned adjacent to a lake with a diameter of around 1km during the dry season. Surrounding the town and lake on all sides is a forest of eucalyptus, grass trees, shrubs and the occasional cyprus pine.

The first thing I do with every class is bring up an image of the area on Google Maps. Whether I’m planning to go down the path of literacy or artistry and no matter the age group, I start with that image. I look at it with the kids, move it around a little and point out some land marks. Basically I spend some time adjusting to the idea that this will be our frame of reference. Then I go into what I have planned. Here is an example from primary school class I'm taking for 90 minutes each week. The example documents the first two of those weeks to date.

Project Title “Rali (Here)”

This project aims to establish a bilingual frame of reference and provide some explanation for its relevance, provide a narrative, arts based scaffold for curricular education, ground that education in place and experience and cultivate a sense of shared responsibility and belonging.

To be continued...

I'll post other examples of this sort of thing from various angles and with various age groups in the coming weeks. If you'd like to subscribe to receive my letters and updates by email please use the form in the side or at the bottom of the page or click here.

Letters Home #3 "Remote Voices"

Notes
Thanks to everyone for your continuing support in reading these letters. I've posted a collection of photos relating to this one at the end of the post.

Letter #3 "Remote Voices"

The other night I dreamed I was in a park, waiting to see a man about a horse. It was a white horse and I planned to have my photo taken with it. But when the man arrived I saw that the horse was emaciated. Through its white skin I could see every one of its ribs. I gathered some hay and went to offer food to the horse. But the man stopped me. He said the horse was on a strict diet. I implored the man to let me feed the horse but he was adamant. I said he was abusing the horse, that I had no choice but to call the Police. An officer arrived but he was unable to help. So I went with him to petition the superintendent. He too was unable to help. So I met with the lawyer, who tried to make a case but eventually had to give up. Thus I found myself standing in the hall of the President. I was nervous but pretended not to be when I barged into his office and sat down. The President was a fat man with an oversized monobrow pasted to his forehead. He sat behind a large wooden desk. I wasn’t sure whether to trust the President but I told him that something ought to be done. He responded calmly and somewhat assured. He said the problem was more complex than I knew, that I hadn’t every side of the story. I was unsatisfied, but I’d reached the end of a road and I woke up.

On my second day in Gapuwiyak I met Judy Davey. Judy was one of a handful of pioneering missionaries to arrive here in 1969 with enough saw milling equipment to start a town. She was sent by an organisation called Methodist Overseas Mission (MOM), one of two organisations that many people hold responsible for some of the darkest social policies in Australia’s history. In the first half of the twentieth century, efforts to ‘protect’ and ‘assimilate’ Aboriginal people achieved stolen children and terrestrial alienation. Yet for all the tragedy that lies at the feet of MOM - and there is no shortage of it - by the time Gapuwiyak was established the missionaries were in principle committed to non-interference with Yolngu tradition, self-determination and claims for land rights, and they preached a contextualised brand of Christianity that allowed Yolngu to appropriate tenets of the faith from their own frames of reference. I don’t intend to go any further than those principles down the rabbit hole of validity. Suffice to say that Judy told me Gapuwiyak was established in response to fears that BHP, who were mining further north, would make their way into the area. That representatives of 7 or so clans, with homelands stretching 30km in every direction, shared with missionaries a vision for a self sustaining centre for commerce and spirit that would send a message to the mining juggernauts to keep their distance. Several town elders corroborate Judy's story. And so it was that 30 people from a disparate set of distinct groups came together to mill timber, build roads and maintain supplies of water and power. In exchange they received food, tobacco, medical care, protection and education. 

According to Judy, in the early days of Gapuwiyak all decisions were left to a group of community elders. That included the allocation of jobs, the resolution of disputes and the transmission of lore and custom. The missionaries refrained from interfering in traditional ceremonies, of which funerals in particular were a significant part of people’s lives and still are today. In fact, on the day I arrived in Gapuwiyak a funeral ceremony that had been going for two weeks was coming to an end. The sound of clap sticks echoed day and night from the ceremonial grounds in the centre of town. It was too soon after my arrival to presume an invitation but I look forward to satisfying the curiosity summoned by the sound of those clap sticks. Like Judy I came to Gapuwiyak in response to a call to serve this community. In my first four days here I’d already come up with at least that many revolutionary ideas. And on the night before my first day at Gapuwiyak School as a volunteer arts educator, enlisted to run various art projects for community development, I went to bed positively enchanted. That same night I dreamt of the white horse.

The next day only 30 of the 220 children enrolled were in attendance at Gapuwiyak School. The day started with a school-wide march in the streets. Two Yolngu teachers corralled the students and played call and response with slogans beckoning more to attend. Through a loudspeaker they pleaded with a silent town, imploring parents to send their children. It was a demonstration that I’m told takes place twice per term. And during each school day a team of Yolngu Attendance Officers are on alert to dissuade children from leaving during recess and lunch. Inevitably though days end with fewer than they begin, leaving fingers to point in many directions, each a story to tell.

Having left Gapuwiyak in 1975 Judy returned in the late 1990s. By then things were very different. Though they welcomed her with familial affection the people were largely unemployed and disaffected. The growing town had attracted new infrastructure but local people were never trained to sustain it. Changes to building regulations in the wake of Cyclone Tracey meant civil works were completed entirely by FIFO contractors. Only the General Store remained a source of stable employment. For others it was enough to collect 'sit down money' from Government leases. In Judy’s words, whereas before she was here to build a town and church, when she returned in the '90s her mission was of a different nature. This time she was a symbol of the past. Here “to rise up the old memories and spirits [and say] this is what your fathers were like, this is what your grandfathers… a reminder of what was done in the past. A reminder of where the community had come from. A reminder of what could be achieved.” 

Judy’s story is call to remember that what brought people together here was never easy access to food or state of the art facilities. It was never token pleasantries exchanged from behind thin veils of proclaimed respect. It was the shared responsibility of carrying out a shared vision. So what’s the vision now? The windscreen is foggy at best. But clues lie in the rear view mirror. In the stories that stretch from the present moment to the distant past, remote voices of grandmothers and grandfathers, their triumphs and mistakes, their hopes and dreams.

When the early missionaries arrived in Arnhem Land they carried a story. A story that remains deep in the fabric of our Judaeo-Christian culture to this day. The story goes that following the great flood the people of earth proceeded to build a city and tower that would reach to heaven. But their efforts were thwarted by God, who scattered them into nations with different languages, each unable to understand the others. The early missionaries interpreted the story to mean that no heavenly tower would ever be built until everyone was the same. Later missionaries like Judy began to see their tower for what it really was - a problem more complex than any one interpretation can resolve, a white horse. After all, from God’s perspective the story of Babel is a warning not to attempt the hubristic task of heavenly infrastructure.

In contrast there is one of the histories of Gapuwiyak as dreamed by the Yolngu. In that story two men were walking from Yirrkala when they saw a small pond with a little bit of water but not enough to drink. They walked to a nearby site of sacred men’s business and found a tree suitable for yidaki (didgeridoo). They chopped it down and painted it beautifully. Then the two men danced and one man was singing and one man was dancing. They sang about the Wurran bird. Then they saw the Wurran was flying to the small pond and was carrying a small fish but there was not enough water in the pond to put the fish in. So the fish started talking to the men and said “Can you get the yidaki and put it in the middle of the pond.” The two men slammed the yidaki down in the middle of the pond and gapu (water) began coming up through its middle. It kept coming until their was a huge lake of water. The men, the bird and the yidaki are still there today. From a version of the story published by Brendon Ganambarr

The two stories, together with that of Judy Davey, begin to paint a composite picture of Gapuwiyak. Its a complex history through which no simple story can chart a course. And yet, perhaps a simple story is the first step towards a shared vision. So I wrote one. And together with two Yolngu teachers, we translated it and told it to the kids at Gapuwiyak School. The story goes...

A long time ago
Near a big lake
There were some people,
Yolngu people
And Balanda people,
They needed to build a town.
The Balanda people were good at building
And the Yolngu people knew the history of the lake and how to find food,
So they decided to work together.
But there was a problem.
The Balanda people spoke English
And the Yolngu people spoke Yolngu Matha,
So even though they were standing together they couldn’t speak.
It was becoming dark so the people lit a fire. 
Suddenly a bird landed nearby.
It was a big black bird and it made a loud sound.
The Yolngu people saw the bird and called its name, “Wak!"
The Balanda people saw the bird too and called its name, “Crow!"
The people looked across and they understood -
To work together
They must first learn each other’s names.

With that I enlisted the help of a man called P--- to commence teaching me Yolngu Matha. I’ve no idea how far I’ll get. But as far as the question of how best to serve this community, it’s the way forward. And in the meantime I’ll continue to work diligently to provide the young people here with every opportunity to express themselves in the only universal language that no one understands. Art. 

And of course I’ll keep writing about it in English.

Subscribe

Background Reading

Davey, G & J (2014). 'A Brief History of Gapuwiyak 1969 - 1975' unpublished pdf, accessed from Gapuwiyak Art Centre Archive, July 2018.

Dewar, M. (1995). ‘The ‘Black War’ in Arnhem Land’, The Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, Canberra.

Kadiba, J. 1998. ‘The Methodist Mission and the emerging Aboriginal Church in Arnhem Land 1916 – 1977’, Thesis submitted for Doctor of Philosophy through the Faculty of Education, Northern Territory University.