Starting where you are: First Nations non-linear storytelling
If burra (Eels) are born in the Pacific, why does our Burra story start on the Gadigal coast part way through their lifecycle? Learn more from Sara Kianga Judge, Walbanja-Yuin woman.
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First Nations people don’t always think about things in timelines with set starting and finishing spots. Instead, we think in patterns and cycles using the place and time where we are now as a starting point. This is called non-linear thinking.
Imagine drawing two dots and a straight line connecting them together. One dot is the start of a story, the other is the ending of the story. Your line is telling the story and goes smoothly from one to the other. This is linear time, start to finish.
Now imagine your two dots again. Instead of starting your line at the dot that begins the story, this time you choose somewhere in between the two dots. Your line reaches the ending dot, but then must loop around to complete the whole story. Your line goes around to the dot at the beginning of the story and then continues on to connect with the place in the middle where your line started. Instead of a straight line, you now have something more like a circle. This is the most simple kind of non-linear time - the start and end are no longer deciding the way the story is told.
More complicated non-linear thinking doesn’t have a set starting or ending place at all! The story can be told in any direction and from any time. Instead of lines and circles, non-linear thinking can create beautiful webs of all different kinds of connected patterns that reflect the connected patterns found in our lives and ecosystems.
For First Nations people, stories and lifecycles don’t need to have a beginning and an ending because they happen continuously in circles and patterns.
No matter where you start, eventually you will hear the whole story; and where the story starts depends on the perspective and context of the storyteller.
Burra starts with the Gadi grass trees of Gadigal Country, because this is where the Australian Museum stands and where visitors to the Museum start their learning journey with Burra.
It may not be the ‘start’ of the eel lifecycle in the Pacific where they are born, but that’s okay – we know we will get to that part of the story soon. First, we must know where we are so that we can make sure we learn and follow the rules of this place, pay attention to what is happening here so that we can take care of ourselves and others who are in this space, and determine which way we will go from here.
Some people enjoy non-linear thinking, while others find it challenging and prefer linear thinking. Both ways are okay!
If you want to follow the straight line linear story, just turn right as you enter Burra and you’ll find yourself in the Pacific Islands where eels are born. From there, you can move towards the Gadi grass trees and mangroves, travelling clockwise around the space.
If you want to try a non-linear story, you can journey through Burra in circles, zigzags, or any pattern you like! Once you have visited every part of the space, see if you can put the pieces of the story together and tell it to another person!