Language and cultural content was sourced by Esem Projects, who sought permission to share from Aboriginal communities.
For over 60,000 years First Nations peoples of Australia have lived alongside Australia’s birds. Birds feature in the songlines of First Nations peoples, play important roles socially, ceremonially and ecologically.
This deep cultural knowledge proved essential to the work of European scientists and naturalists in the nineteenth century, as they began to explore the continent for the first time. When John and Elizabeth Gould embarked on their survey of Australia’s birds during 1838-1840 they relied on First Nations guides for their survival and navigation, but also for their knowledge of bird habitat and behaviours.1 Gould frequently credits his guides Natty and Jemmy in assisting his expeditions across NSW.
Australia's native birds feature prominently in First Nations stories. These stories are vital to the sharing of First Nations knowledge, language and culture. They reflect a powerful worldview towards Country, which values and respects the relationships between all living things.
Many birds are also revered and respected as totems.
A totem is something that we look after. It's given to us in many different ways but totem is like kin, like family. And as you look after family, you would look after your totem. And that means looking after its habitat, making sure that food's available for them. And in our cultural practices, we dance up totem.
For the Awabakal people, birabaan (Wedge-tailed Eagle) is a celestial being and higher order totem for all Awabakal people. The 19th century leader Biraban took his name from this bird. For the Kulin Nation of south-central Victoria, bunjil (Wedge-tailed Eagle) is the creator and is a key protector of the natural world. For Gamilaraay people, bilaar waygal (Red-tailed Black Cockatoo) has the power to bring rain.
As carriers of story, birds teach how to live in connection with other living beings. This may be a very different view of Australian birds to that of Western cultural views, known as the science of ornithology, but it offers important lessons for all Australians in how to better care for and respect the value of Australia’s native birds.
About the interviews
This series of First Nations interviews has been commissioned as part of The Birds of Australia STORYBOX. As the STORYBOX tours regional NSW during 2023-2025, more interviews and stories will be shared as the program visits the Country of Awabakal, Gamilaraay, Birpai, Wiradjuri, Dharawal, Dharug and Yuin peoples, among others. Many of these stories teach important lessons about how to live together with mutual care and respect.
Aunty Rhonda Radley
Listen to Aunty Rhonda, Birpai Elder and Knowledge Keeper, share some of the stories in her family and how they shape their relationships to each other and how they care for land and for Country.
See with me this land is beautiful from the mountains to the sea. This is Birpai land, Port Macquarie. My name is Rhonda Radley. Also known as Aunty Rhonda. I'm a Birpai Elder of this community.
Birds have their own story and their story connects with my story and my family's story. Birds are very significant in Aboriginal ways. Birds as totems, birds as kin in our way. They come to us in many, many different ways and guide us and give us messages. As I was growing up, my family have big story, but over time in my family, with my crew, grandchildren, we have story too. And I'd just like to share with you some of those stories.
One story is about my grandson. He is a little fella around about four. And walking with a cousin and he said, "Auntie Rhonda, tell us about totems." And I said, "What do you want to know?" And he said, "Oh, what's Harlem's totem?" My little grandson. And I said, "His totem is Gaaku, which is the Kookaburra. And he goes, "How did he get that totem?" And I said, "Sometimes totems, creatures find us and they become our totems." And he sort of pondered on that and you could see that he wasn't quite understanding it.
So on that walk we went up to a neighbour's place and they weren't home so we just sat down and rested next to their pond. And my little grandson, Harlem, sat down and next minute, Gaku [kookaburra] the Kookaburra came down, a little baby one and sat with him. And they were just having a moment together and I looked up and I could see the adult Kookaburras watching down, just keeping an eye on their young one. And it was just such a beautiful moment. And my cousin, little cousin there, he turned over and he said, "I understand now."
Because sometimes it's really hard to express but once you see it, you really understand that connection that we have with our totems. And the bird life, they share so much with us. We just have to be still to be able to listen and observe and to get those messages. They could be quite profound and quite beautiful.
One other story I like to share, it's about my auntie, Auntie Ann. We would always go visit her and she always seemed to be at the clothes line. And Gitjarrgitjarr which is the Willie Wagtail, would come down and he would do a little dance and a little song on the clothes line. And she'd look at me and she'd say, "Oh, I'm getting another visitor." And go, "Okay." Next minute she would get another visitor. And another time when I went to see my Aunt Gitjarrgitjarr [Willie Wagtail] was there with one of his songs and his dance and she looked at me and very sad and she said, "Someone's just passed away." And then we got news. A family had passed.
That's just a couple examples, but there's so many examples of Aboriginal mob having deep connection with our bird life. For this area we have Gumal which is the Wedge-tailed Eagle, which is a creator in our dreaming stories. And we have sort of a lot of honouring of that big, beautiful bird.
Being connected to the bird life we have an opportunity to learn so much about our natural world. The bird song is nothing so beautiful than just being still and listening to the birds. But just in the way they behave, and if you are still and you observe and you can learn so much. Burrung [Magpie], they look after their young. They're very fierce at looking after their young. They teach us to care and be attentive. Burrung also holds the essence of our elders.
So, Burrung, I love listening to their song. It can be quite powerful. And just within that stillness listening, you can hear messages come through from our ancestors. So we have so much guidance from our bird life. And I think in lots of ways if you listen to their song, it has the potential to lift you up, to make you happy and joyful.
I just want to share one story with you in regards to naming family members. And one of my daughters asked me to name her daughter yet to be born. And for me it sort of had to sit with that in stillness and let that come through. And what was coming through was black cockatoo, Wayila, every time I sat in that stillness, that bird would come through. So I made the decision to name her Wayila. And when Wayila was born, she let out this cry like a black cockatoo and she holds that essence of the black cockatoo and that's her name totem.
But in our cultural practices, we honour these birds, in my opinion. We dance, we do a creation dance. And Gumal, Wedge-tailed Eagle is always part of that. We've many others and we have Brolga dance, we have Emu dance. It's our way of honouring and acknowledging that they're part of our story. We're not separate from the birds, we're not separate from any creature. We have that really strong connection and we just need to be still and just listen and let them in. Open your heart to let them in.
A totem is something that we look after. It's given them to us in many different ways but totem is like kin, like family. And as you look after family, you would look after your totem. And that means looking after its habitat, making sure that food's available for them. And in our cultural practices, we dance up totem. So that's why we would do an expression of Gumal, the Wedge-tailed Eagle, the Brolga, or the Emu.
Gumal is Wedge-tailed Eagle.
Wayila is Black Cockatoo.
Burrung is Magpie.
Gaaku is Kookaburra.
Gitjarrgitjarr - Willie Wagtail.
I'd just like to put it out there that we're all custodians of this land. And custodians mean looking after the land. And in our way, Mother Earth, Ngaya-Barray ,and all she holds. And she not only holds us as humans, but it also holds everything else. And part of that is all the creatures. So if we can all take on a custodian role, I'm sure all our birds will be protected and honoured.
I believe we need to protect our natural environment, conserve what we've got, and really give Country its own agency. It has its own voice. We're destroying so much of our bushland, our coastal ways in land forms and part of the sea life, the river banks and stuff, which the birds also need. We just have to give them some consideration when we are looking at any form of development. I know we have to create a balance, but I really believe if we really want to protect our bird life, we got to think more seriously about how we do that and be more creative and be serious.
I think we have to get serious 'cause these birds are on the decline and it will make me very, very sad because we'll lose part of our cultural expression, our cultural practices.
We just have to listen, and remember. Listening to birds can bring us so much joy, and reminds us that we all have a role to play in protecting them.
Dr John Heath
Birpai Traditional Owner, Dr John Heath, talks about the important Birpai story of the Kingfisher, who shared knowledge with others that wasn’t meant to be shared, so he couldn’t be trusted. He explains this is how the Kingfisher came to have a blackened chest, caused by a fight with an Eagle.
My name's John Heath and I'm a Birpai Traditional Owner, and we are here today on Birpai country. It's part of our northern Birpai. So my connection to this Country is through my maternal great-grandmother, which is Northern Birpai, but her husband was from the Southern Birpai around Gloucester area. So I'm back home on Country now. I'm happy to share some of my knowledge in relation to birds.
This project gives me an opportunity to share something of what I know of our relationship as First Nations Peoples to birds. Birds are of course a part of our environment as we are. So while we're on Birpai country, I'm here as a person, but I'm no different in a lot of respects to everything else that is part of this Country, both on land, but also in the sky. And birds are a part of that connection. And some of the significant beliefs that I have been brought up with do relate to birds. And some of those beliefs are often referred to as Dreaming stories or Dream Time stories.
My understandings of a lot of our Dreaming stories are that they're told to provide us with a better understanding of how we should be as people, or as an element in this incredible thing that we call the world, if you like. So we are as individuals connected as much to the sky as we are to the land and to the birds and so on and so forth. In our Country here, birds were always a part of our everyday existence and still are. Their being was noted and recorded in a lot of different ways.
So birds, some species of birds were used for food. Some species of birds were used as message senders or as the means of conveying a message. And while we don't have a lot of sandstone in this country, in Birpai country, we have had deposits of sandstone, and these have had engravings in them, many of which have now been destroyed through development. The engravings were often of footprints. One of the more common footprint engravings on our eastern coast, but I believe extends perhaps right across the country, was engravings of the Emu print as a direction marker.
So that example shows the use of birds in art, but also the use of birds in conveying meaning. Birds themselves would visit would and still do visit us sometimes as messengers. It's well documented that in a lot of our Goori societies, our First Nation societies, that the Willy Wagtail is a messenger bird. And it can bring different messages to us, sometimes they're not good. I believe that in other cultures, similar species have the same meaning. That not only applies to the Willy Wagtail , but applies to other birds of significance as well.
One that is of significance to me is the Kingfisher. The Kookaburra is one of the Kingfishers. It's one of my totems, my emblems. My totem story of the Kingfisher that was handed down to me relates to a fight between the eagle, which is our all-powerful bird and the king fisher. It relates to an important site around here, known as Mt Cairncross (Goolapatamba in Birpai language).
This means a place where the eagle is or place where the eagle landed. And it's here where there's a sacred waterhole, which that eagle protects access to. That waterhole is only available to those who go through certain lore. In our Dreaming story, the eagle became aware that the Kingfisher had shared knowledge elsewhere of a waterhole. The Kingfisher had shared that knowledge for a good purpose, and that was where that waterhole was. The animals, the birds, the insects in that Dreaming world were under threat from a sustained drought. And so to alleviate that suffering, the Kingfisher shared that knowledge with them. However, the eagle here has the main job of protecting this sacred place, and was fearful that if he shared the knowledge of that place with the Kingfisher, that it couldn't be trusted to maintain the secrecy around that knowledge. So they argued and argued … a fight broke out between the two. And during the fight, the eagle threw a fire stick, which then set the Kingfisher alight.
Now, this was at a time in our creation period of the Dreaming when the ocean had no waves. So it was just a vast extent of placid water. The Kingfisher ran towards the water to put the fire out, but realised that it couldn't make it there in time. So used its special powers to call in the water, and it then created the first waves onto our land form here. And in doing that, he was able to extinguish the fire and the smoke from that went up into the sky and is seen of a nighttime now as the smokey appearance of part of the Milky Way in the night sky.
So when one looks at that with that knowledge, you link in the sky with the earth and the beings, the creatures, all of us that are on the earth. The Kingfisher survived because we see him today in his bird-like form. And when we look at the Kingfisher we look at the markings on him, and part of his markings are brown. Now most of the Kingfishers are white and blue, but this brown on him is because he was singed or the burning.
So when I look at that Kingfisher again, it reinforces my understanding of what happened there. And it didn't happen because the Kingfisher was good and had helped others in need. It happened because the kingfisher may not have been able to be trusted. So that's part of that Dreaming story. There's consequences that one must face if one doesn't follow the law.
So our knowledge of birds and relationship with birds extends beyond those stories and those beliefs. Another tangible relationship we have with birds is using their feathers. Feathers were used for ceremonies as part of decorations, and also part of conveying status which existed in terms of levels of lore. The markings of birds apart from the feathers were also part of traditional ceremonial markings with ochre. So you've got those tangible aspects of bird life, but the visual ones also extend beyond just looking at the bird.
To some degree I think John Gould captured these connections, but perhaps did not have the awareness that some of us have. So Gould's artists tried to capture the images of the birds, and those images are conveyed to us continuously through reproductions of the original illustrations. But those images don't fully capture the significance of birds to First Nations people. So an image that would be drawn by Gould illustrating Kingfisher would have the brown colourings present on the bird, but they did not have the connection or the understanding of the cultural significance that marking has to us as First Nations Peoples.
Gould's artists tried to capture the images of the birds, and those images are conveyed to us continuously through reproductions of the original illustrations. But those images don't fully capture the significance of birds to First Nations peoples. So an image that would be drawn by Gould illustrating Kingfisher would have the brown colourings present on the bird, but they did not have the connection or the understanding of the cultural significance that marking has to us as First Nations peoples.
Listen to Dr John Heath share a Dreaming story of a pair of Emus and his great-grandfather Billy Bugg in Wauchope. Birds play an important part of the Dreaming and illustrate the inter-relationships of all the creatures.
What we're looking at is improving the broader knowledge and making people aware of the different layers and complexity of meanings that are related to all things within our life. And so the images from the Gould collection have got value beyond that, even perceived by the artist, the illustrator or whatever. And each of us can add layers of meaning to those images because as with any form of art, any form of art, whether it be dance or painting or whatever, image can convey different meanings to different peoples.
And so within our traditional Koori knowledge systems we've got certain layers of knowledge that we can share. The Dreaming stories continue to be told, which keeps us with that connection. But Dreaming stories also continue to emerge because our dreaming is infinite, it's endless. We're a part of the dreaming. One day people will talk stories about us, hopefully they won't be too bad.
My understanding of kind of Western cultural thinking is that it becomes somewhat compartmentalised. To coin a phrase, it's perhaps pigeon-holed too often. I'll use that term because we are talking about birds.
I'll share a more recent Dreaming story with you. It concerns my great-grandfather Billy Bugg over here in Wauchope. This occurred around about 1905 when one of the big social events for the white towns folk of Wauchope was what they called the Gaslight races.
Gas lighting was fairly new in the little township of Wauchope at the time. Every now and then they would pit the best foot runners against each other to run in gas light. My great-grandfather Billy Bugg was the champion runner. And so the great white hope from one of the Soutus family was pitted up against Billy Bugg and the whole township gathered for this event and bets were being laid on money and tobacco and everything else to see who was the champion of the two. And just at the moment that they were to start the race where the gun were about to go off, two Emus ran onto the track and the whole thing went into pandemonium because they had to get their buddy Emus off the track, which they did.
Now they were said to be pet Emus. Now Emus are part of our traditional culture here, and are part of our being. So whether they were from here or not, I'm not sure, but they were said to be pet Emus at the time. It took them a while to go and get dogs to chase the Emus away into the dark, so that they could resume the race. And sure enough, the same thing happened at the resumption of the race. The the race never occurred. I still don’t why they didn't just run against the Emus.
But the importance of that, the significance or a point of importance to me is that those birds are still part of our Dreaming. And it illustrates that our dreaming is continuous and it's ongoing, and we are all characters in one way or another in that Dreaming.
I guess my involvement in this project, along with the other First Nations peoples that have become part of this project is to share our knowledge, but to maintain our Dreaming and to ensure that non-Indigenous people realise their role in this, our country.
A country that has got its roots backing the creation era of the era of the Dreaming, and a vast array of stories that relate to inter-relationships of all the creatures, all the being of the sky, the relationship that we have. And of course some of the well-documented Dreaming stories, particularly in relation to the Emu, are contained in the night sky and the relationship of the night sky to the events on the earth and the relationship of that to the seasons.
And even if we break it down to the day, my relationship with Wirakada, the kookaburra (also Kukindi). It’s significant in that he is the first bird, the first being that announces the beginning of the new day. And his song is followed by the songs of the magpie.
And at the end of the day, Wirakada signals that the sun has gone down, that we should be getting ready to go to sleep, and then he is followed by the magpies. Their calls of the evening are different to their calls of the morning, and almost in a sense that they're providing a lullaby for us to go to sleep by. Now, I'm aware of that, but in a sense, I'm very, very jealous of my old people that had the benefit of living in the open and interconnecting. They were so aware of much, much more than I will ever be aware of, and much more knowledgeable. But we can only do our best to share knowledge we have got with others.
Kookaburra, in my presentation, I’ve referred to as Wirakada. This word is actually from the old Birpai language, which is the one that I had learned most – more than any other language, not that I’m a linguist, I've got a very limited knowledge in that area. But one of our local Birpai words for the kookaburra is Kukindi. The other bird that I spoke there about that, that I have a Goori name for is Gonkorong, for the Emu.
The Mopoke was a totem of a dear friend of mine who I lost some 30 years ago. And he comes to me and visits other people that I'm connected with as a messenger.
Dr John Heath shares a significant story about his messenger bird the Mopoke, the Owl.
The bird can come to you either mentally or physically as a messenger. And that's been very much the case in my life. And another one of my messenger birds is Mopoke, the Owl. And he's a totem in the same way that the Wirakada [Kookaburra in Awabakal] is one of my bird totems. The Mopoke was a totem of a dear friend of mine who I lost some 30 years ago. And he comes to me and visits other people that I'm connected with as a messenger.
One incredible story that I've got relates to the Kookaburra and the Mopoke. It occurred not too long after Uncle Zac, who was from Cherbourg, had passed up at at Kuranda, near Cairns.
I was living in Newcastle at the time. And early that morning I was living on a fairly main road. And early that morning, I get a knock on the door. I go to the door and the fella says: "Oh, can you help me?" He says: "I've been driving down the road here, and I've hit an Owl and I've knocked it to the ground". He says it's not dead. He said: "I wonder if you can help me bring it inside and ring a vet to come and look at it". You'd never believe what happened then. He said: "When I bent down to pick him up, I was attacked by a Kookaburra."
Now, most people would be aware that Magpies, which we can hear at the moment, will swoop you particularly in the nesting season. But I don't know of too many people that have been swooped by a Kookaburra. And he wasn't swooped. He said he was attacked by that bird. And when he said that, I knew immediately it was the connection between me and the old fella. And my spirit was coming to protect him in his time of need.
And so I went there, I picked up my mate, and eventually got there, got onto the vet and had it recovered. Now, those things happen in your life because of those connections.
Some of the basic tenets of First Nations people, of Goori people, is caring and sharing. Birds can play an important part in getting those messages across.
Listen to Dr John Heath tell a Dreaming story called the 'The Little Greedy Boy’ and how he turned into a Seagull.
Another bird Dreaming story that I love to share, particularly with kids, is one that was given to me by a Wanjuk Marika, from Yirrkala (Northern Territory) from the late 1970s. I've called it ‘The Little Greedy Boy’.
That story relates to a boy only three or four years old with his family on the beach, and he’s into rock pools. He's fishing with this small fishing spear. And he was nailing fish, a number of fish, more than he could eat himself normally, while his grandfather and the other men were fixing their fishing net. Grandfather kept looking at him, just to make sure that he was not in any harm. He also noted that after that little boy had caught all the fish, that he took the fish to the campfire to one of the campfires and started cooking them. Now, all of the other kids, his brothers and sisters, cousins and so forth, aunties and uncles, they were all there in the camp doing their business playing and so on. And little greedy boy, he cooked up the fish. And then instead of sharing them around, he decided he'd go and sit under a tree and eat them all himself. And the old fellas noticed that.
Anyway, after that little boy, ate and ate and ate and ate, in the nice warm hot sun, he did what a lot of us like to do, and that's, with our bellies full, lie down and have asleep, which he did. And while he was asleep, his grandfather and the other men took the fishing net and they caught enough fish to feed the rest of the families. They bought them back and cooked them up in the coals of the fire. And just as they were being cooked, the aroma of the fish cooking waffled through camp and entered the nostrils of the young little boy, the little greedy boy. And he woke up in time to see them old fellas sharing the fish around. He’s waiting for his share, but no one brought him any. So he went up to his mother and he said: ‘Mommy, can I have some fish?’ And she ignored him. ‘Grandma, can I have some fish?’ She ignored him. ‘Cousin, can I have some?’ And so on and so forth: mummy, brothers and sisters, everyone ignored him. And that little boy started running while getting wild because everyone was ignoring him and he thought he was hungry.
And as we can sometimes do, particularly when we're little, jumping up and down and frustration and getting angrier and angry and wilder and wilder, this little boy turned into a Seagull. So when I see a Seagull today, I think of that little boy. But I think of why he was turned into a Seagull. I think, of why Tiddalik the frog was turned into a rock. And it was because of greed.
Some of the basic tenets of our being as First Nations people, of Goori people, is caring and sharing. Birds can play an important part in getting those messages across. I'm sure everyone that I've shared that story with can no longer look at a Seagull without remembering that story.
Professor Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews
Professor Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews shares the Yandel’ora Story on Country. This is a very important Dreaming story shared with permission by the D’harawal Traditional Descendants and Knowledge Holders Circle.
D’harawal ngoon yewing’o’wa.
As per D’harawal protocols.
Alyo warrawarra ngamuru burda.
To see tomorrow, we must first know yesterday.
Nandiri’o’mi minyin Galumban D’harawal bidigal’o’nattaimatagal djurali’dya’wa.
I ask that you understand that I was born and raised as D’harwal, and my homelands are of Bitter-Water and Sweet-Water Country.
Naraguying’o’wa Bidiga meyrani barkalo – Wiritjiribin Waratah.
My blood is connected to the first to Grandmothers – Wiritjiribin and Waratah.
Ngyinyee bulima nandiritah.
May you always see the beauty of this Earth.
Ngyinyee nara bodaya gorrong janarba.
May you always hear the laughter of the children.
Nhyinyee Mangamai Butjeri.
May your dreams always be happy ones.
My name is Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews. I'm a D’harawal man with sweet water and bitter water links. That means I'm an inland D’harawal man, not a coastal D’harawal man. I'm also the director for Indigenous Research at Western Sydney University, and what I've just offered you was an introduction to myself and the sacred Country we are on.
To put it simply or roughly translated, the words were in the D’harawal language or one of the D’harawal dialects, in respect for D’harawal protocols. To see tomorrow, one must first know yesterday. And as a result, I ask that you all recognise that I was born a D’harawal man on D’harawal Country with bitter-water and fresh-water connections, and I've never known otherwise. My blood is connected to the first two grandmothers, Wiritjiribin and Waratah, and I offer you these three wishes. Firstly, may you see the beauty of this earth. Secondly, may you always hear the last of the children. And then finally, may your dreams be the sweetest ones.
I'm about to tell you the story of the Yandel’ora. This is a very sacred story connected to these very lands we are on. While they are now known as the Mount Anna Royal Botanic Gardens, it was once known as the Yandel’ora, the land of peace between peoples, and it was a great meeting place where lawmakers, Knowledge-holders, and peoples and animals, everyone would come together for great meetings. This story is directly connected to these lands. Just over to the left, we have the three law hills, the women's hill, the men's hill, and the law hill, which separates the two or connects the two, maybe a better way to put it.
This story is a very, very old story. It's one of our first stories, not the first, but one of our earlier stories, and it speaks of a time when all peoples and all animals spoke the same language. It in part tells us why we speak different languages today and why we have so many different languages today. So please listen carefully. Maybe you'll pick up this meaning within the story, but I certainly hope that you pick up some other significant lessons within the story of the Yandel’ora itself.
This is the D’harawal story of the Yandel’ora, the land of peace between peoples. Many, many generations ago, these sacred lands were a place where great meetings took place, and these great meetings happened when the three sisters in the sky were aligned in a straight line. And when the three sisters were aligned, people from across all the Countries would come here to the lands of the Yandel’ora. The peoples, the animals, the birds, the insects, all the entities of Country would come here for a great law meeting, a meeting to maintain the peace between all of our peoples, all of our animals, between ourselves and Country itself.
For this particular story, though, or this particular meeting of the story, Wiritjiribin the Lyrebird was given the task of overseeing and welcoming those who arrived on D’harawal lands, those who arrived on the Yandel’ora. So Wiritjiribin would greet all the peoples, all the animals, all the entities that were coming onto these lands and Wiritjiribin would explain to them that they must lay down their weapons for these are the lands of peace. They are the lands where no harm can take place, no harm can be given to others. And Wiritjiribin did his job wonderfully. He greeted everyone as they arrived, made them feel comfortable and at home, taught them of the laws of this land, and showed them where their Ancestors had previously camped. It was a wonderful meeting; it was a wonderful ceremony. And indeed, loved ones who had not seen family members for many generations, or at least two generations, had seen each other again, and there were tears of joy, there was laughter, and there was happiness. There was also the exchanging of stories, the learning from each other; there were the old ones who sat upon the law hills, who shared their lessons of Country over the last two generations.
The meeting was going absolutely wonderfully, and Wiritjiribin had greeted everyone who arrived on the Country, on the lands of the Yandel’ora, and it was at this point that Wiritjiribin thought it was time to step back, to retreat to what we now call the Razorback Ranges, to climb up this mountain that looks over the Yandel’ora and to watch, to make sure the meetings continued peacefully and joyfully. It was at this time, though, a young man from far, far up north arrived. He was an exceptionally charismatic young man, a powerful man. He had never been to these meetings before, but he was exceptionally proud that his Elders had chosen him to represent his peoples. His name was Gilinga, and he was very, very happy to be here. Indeed, when he arrived on the lands of the Yandel’ora, his charisma, his strength, his grace attracted many people's attention. They complimented him on how proud he looked, how strong he looked, how he walked, how he had an aura about him that commanded respect, and this made Gilinga very, very proud because he knew he was doing his people proud as well.
But he had one more secret that he decided to share with all the peoples, and that was his voice. He had this amazing voice with an amazing range and pitch, and he could mimic almost any animal or person. Yet when he sang, that was something different altogether, for when he sung, he sung the songs of his people. It would mesmerize people, they would come and listen, they would be hypnotized, they would just love his voice. And so he sung on these lands of the Yandel’ora and captured many people's praise and attention, and he was very proud. But he kept on singing. Over and over again, he kept on singing the same songs; he kept on demanding more praise, more recognition. And soon, the people became bored of his singing, became upset for being interrupted so frequently. The people started to turn their backs on him, they started to ignore him. The old ones, the lawmakers, the Elders, returned to the law hill and tried to discuss their secret business, their important business, but Gilinga followed them and sung even louder. And it was at this point they became angry at him, and they told him to be quiet, they told him to shut up. Now Gilinga had never been treated like this before by his people, and he was shocked. He was only doing what he could to make everyone proud of him and proud of his people. How dare he be told to be quiet? How dare he be told to shut up? And so he sulked away in anger and became increasingly bitter at this treatment, and he went down to a waterhole where he looked at his own reflection and admired how beautiful he was and thought. And it was at this point he came to a realisation. He could get his revenge, he could get payback upon the peoples who had disrespected him. And so he went into the waters and snuck and hid amongst the reeds and waited very, very patiently.
With Gilinga hiding in the reeds, it wasn't long before two warriors came down to the waterhole. These warriors were Binnit the Tawny Frogmouth and Didjiriwa the Willie Wagtail, two very brave peoples who had done much to not only save their families but others as well. And as they drank from the waterhole, they discussed how great this meeting was, this celebration, and they were talking about what a great job Wiritjiribin had done. But it was at this point a voice that shot out from the reeds, a very gruff voice, a very rough and strong voice, the voice that could only be known as coming from Wumbat, the warrior himself.
And the voice of Wumbat said, "I cannot believe that the Didjiriwa and Binnit were even invited to this celebration, to this great meeting. How dare they be here, for it's well known that they are simply cowards, who always run away from danger and don't care about anyone else." And the Djidjiriwa and Binnit were shocked. They had never heard these accusations before, and that struck deep into both of their hearts. Didjiriwa, the more fiery of the two, became very angry and wanted to jump into the reeds and find Wumbat and confront him. But Binnit, the quieter, maybe the wiser of the two, calmed him down and said, "No, let's wait. We're on the lands of the Yandel’ora, and these are not lands for conflict. We do not want to break the laws of these lands. So let's go back to the celebration and, from this point on, how about we just ignore Wumbat? We'll pretend he doesn't even exist anymore." Didjiriwa heard the wisdom in Binnit's voice and decided to do this, to not speak to Wumbat ever again, and so they returned to their campsite and continued on with the celebration, at least for the time being.
And whilst Binnit and Didjiriwa kept the peace, it wasn't long before two more warriors came down to the waterhole to refresh themselves. This time, there was Guma’maari and Bundelook, the Lorikeet and the Eastern Rosella. Now, these two were well known, they were great friends and they hadn't seen each other for a while, and they were closely related as well, and they loved each other. And they were drinking at the waterhole, also talking about how great the celebration was and how great it was to see each other again. And suddenly, the voice of Duluma the Saltwater Crocodile shot out from the reeds again, a very distinctive voice one that could not be mistaken for anyone else, at least allegedly. And the voice of Duluma the crocodile said, "I cannot believe that Bundelook, and Guma’maari have been invited to this celebration. They are so vain, they're so selfish. They are thieves; they stole the colours of the rainbow and kept it for themselves. How dare they? How dare they be at this celebration? How dare they be part of the lawmaking? They have no right to be here?" And Guma’maari and Bundelook, were shocked, they were outraged and they were angry. For they were both known for their kindness and their willingness to share, for their morality and how they would never ever steal. And they were exceptionally angry, and both of them wanted to jump into the reeds and to confront Duluma the crocodile. But this didn't happen; they remembered the law of the land; they remembered that they were on the Yandel’ora, and as a result, they looked at each other and they understood what they had to do, and they returned to their campsite, and they both knew that they would never speak to Duluma the crocodile again.
And not long after that, another two warriors came down to the waterhole to refresh themselves. This time, there were two brothers, the older brother, Wugan the Raven, and the younger brother, Wugangah the Crow, from further up north, and they were close friends, and Wugangah held nothing but the deepest respect for Wugan the Raven because Wugangah’s Ancestor had saved his people at a time in the past when they were being chased across the lands, and the Raven had given the Crow his black feathers so they could hide and not be recognised. Yet, as they drank from the waterhole, the voice of Gugugara the Kookaburra sung out from the reeds, and his laughing voice was easily recognised as well. And while it could almost be infectious whenever you heard it, you wanted to laugh as well, in this instance, the voice held another tone, a more sinister meaning to it. For Gugugara's voice was telling someone, also hidden in the reeds, how Wugan and Wugangah had no right to be at this great meeting, for they were both cowards who always ran away from violence. They cared for no one else; they just hid and flew away and didn't care for anyone else. Now Wugangah was furious. How dare someone throw this accusation at Wugan the Raven, the very entity his Ancestor had saved his people in the past. He was courageous; he was brave; he was kind. And Wugangah wanted to jump in the reeds as well, but Wugan, in his wisdom, stopped him and, like the others, remembered that this was the lands of the Yandel’ora, and no harm could come to any people; otherwise, the law of this land would be betrayed. And they agreed not to speak to Gugugara the Kookaburra, who had heard this celebration. And they returned to the campsite.
This activity, these lies spread by Gilinga using his voice to mimic others, happened over and over and over again. And every time the peoples, the animals, the birds, all the entities of the Country refreshed themselves in the waterhole, they heard these lies, and they were fooled. Everyone, to their credit, obeyed the law of the lands of the Yandel’ora. They obeyed the law of peace and sought not to harm those who grieved them or who they thought had insulted them. Yet everyone had returned to their campsite angry, simmering, wanting revenge but not being able to do anything. And as a result, the celebration, the meetings, the fires, all began to die down. People were no longer talking to each other with joy and hope and happiness. But rather, everyone was sitting at their campsites, staring across at those who had slighted them with thinly veiled contempt. And silence started to descend on the lands of the Yandel’ora.
It was at this point Wiritjiribin, sitting upon Razorback Mountain, watching over the celebrations, had thought that the great meetings had come to an end and the lawmakers didn't need to discuss anymore. Wiritjiribin was slightly confused because it was too early for the meeting to come to an end, but still, he understood that this is how things happened. He jumped up from his perch and watched down over the peoples, and he also noticed that the fires were dying low, but he also noticed that no one was preparing to leave. Everyone was staying within their camps. There was hardly any movement. And at this point, he realised that something had gone wrong, something had interrupted the celebration, something had affected all the peoples. No longer could they speak to each other and Wiritjiribin became very worried. So from his perch, he jumped down and ran as fast as he could back to the law hills and the lands of the Yandel’ora to find out what had happened.
And when he arrived here, the silence was still in place and he looked around at all the peoples, confused. But at this point, an accusation was thrown. Someone had accused someone of saying something nasty and this accusation was then met with the counter-accusation, and counter-accusations went backward and forwards, and suddenly these accusations turned into insults, and these insults spread like wildfire amongst all the different peoples, and then these insults became something more. They became even more angry; they became vicious and they turned into threats, and then the threats turned into violence. Wiritjiribin was stunned; he did not know what to do. But he stood up; he stood tall and he broke up those who were fighting. He told everyone to return to their campsites and to remain silent. He told them that he would speak to everyone to find out what had gone wrong, and that he would heal whatever this evil wound was. And so he did, he spoke to each and every individual. He learned their story and he learned other people's stories, and he came to realise three very important things. Firstly, those who were accused of making the original insult, all denied it. Every single person, every single bird and entity, denied making the original insults. Secondly, and suspiciously, he came to realise that no one ever saw the insult actually take place; they only heard the insults. And then finally, all the original insults happened in one place and one place alone, and that was down by the waterhole. The Wiritjiribin suspected that an evil spirit had decided to cause some mischief, to cause some harm, which they fed upon.
And so he gathered everyone together and told them to follow him down to the waterhole and to wait patiently while he had a drink. And so while he moved forward and had a drink from the waterhole, all the others waited in amongst the trees, patiently. They heard a voice come from the reeds, a powerful voice, possibly the strongest of all the voices, the voice of Mananga, the Eagle-warrior. And this powerful voice said, "I cannot believe that Wiritjiribin was given the responsibility to look over this celebration, this great meeting. He lacks charisma, he lacks strength and now it is all ruined. Look at him; he's just these colours of greys, browns, and blacks. He's boring; he's weak; he's not a leader." Now, Wiritjiribin was shocked because he was the colours he was today because of the sacrifice of his Ancestor, of one of his great-grandmothers who had saved the D’harawal peoples. And this was an insult that not only attacked him personally but attacked his Ancestors. Wiritjiribin was stunned, and he stepped back in shock. But he was not the only one who stood there hiding in the trees were all the others, including Mananga, the Eagle-warrior, and whilst everyone heard Mananga's voice, they knew it was not his voice because he was standing right next to him. Mananga, though, was a warrior, and he acted immediately. He spread his great wings; he flew into the sky, and he circled around above the waterhole, and there he saw Gilinga hiding in the reeds. And he dived down and, using his great talons, he was able to grab Gilinga by the shoulders, lift him out of the waterhole, and dump him in front of everyone, including Wiritjiribin, but all the others who had been insulted. And at this point, everyone knew, the cause, the harm, they knew it was Gilinga, it was Gilinga's fault, and they became even more angry, for they had been fooled, they had been made out to be idiots, and they wanted justice, or revenge, maybe. And they started to yell at Gilinga; they started to throw insults at Gilinga, and they started to throw sticks and stones at him, they started to try and hurt him, and at this point, Wiritjiribin came out of his shock and, again, pleaded with everyone, again stood tall, and told everyone to stop because they are betraying the law of this land, the law of peace, where no harm can be done. But not only that, but everyone was lowering themselves to Gilinga's standards, and they were truly falling for his lies.
The people heard the wisdom in Wiritjiribin's voice, but their anger was too great, and they could not stop. They wanted their justice; they wanted their revenge, and they continued to hurt Gilinga, and Gilinga cried out in pain, a deathly scream. And at this point, a great spirit of these lands, awoken, a great traveller, our Creator-spirit, who was resting on the lands of the Yandel’ora, and was awoken by this scream. And she was shocked and angry; these are the lands of peace, the law that she had bestowed upon these lands had been broken. As was this Creator-spirit's way, she looked down upon the peoples and knew what had happened. So she picked up Gilinga, and she said, "You have used your abilities to betray all of our peoples, but also to betray yourself. And as a result, you do not deserve these abilities at all." And so, she made him the ugliest creature upon these lands. She turned him into a warty frog. Not only that, she took away his voice, she took away the beauty, the power, the strength of his voice so that he could only croak, and it was at this point, all the peoples cheered because justice had been served. Wiritjiribin though, shook his head because he had known or heard of Gilinga's abilities; he had seen Gilinga's charisma. And now that this had been lost to all of our peoples, not only Gilinga's people. The Creator-spirit saw this and then addressed everyone and said, "You have all broken the laws of this land because you have simply forgotten to listen. You only cared about yourself. The only one who truly knew how to listen was the Wiritjiribin and as a result, I'm going to take away each and everyone's ability to speak to each other. I'm going to take away your languages, or your language, so you now must learn not only your own languages but each other's language over time. Wiritjiribin, though, because you obeyed the laws of this land, I now give you the ability to speak all languages."
It is important to remember that the story of the Yandel’ora has a very great lesson to it. And this lesson is not just about why we, as Aboriginal peoples, have so many different languages. This lesson is not just about how these lands are the lands of peace and that peace must be kept on the lands of the Yandel’ora. It also teaches us how to keep this peace and that is where the law of this story resides. Middan Yewing, Bakalo Yewing, Darugai Yewing. The first Three Truths. So what do these Three Truths mean, is that you many have a particular opinion, as strong as it may be on a particular issue. It may be your truth or what I see, but it’s not until you listen to other people’s stories, you learn other people’s perspectives, other people’s truths, what they see, that you will have a greater understanding of the whole truth. The what is.
A simple practical example of this is that you may be able to teach your children, is you can hold up your hand between one child and another child and say that your thumb has the secret to all Knowledge. And you will only give this Knowledge to the person who knows which side of the hand the thumb is on. And so one child would look at the thumb and say it's on the left hand side, but another child would look at the thumb and say it's on the right hand side. Who is correct? Who is wrong? What is the truth? We just have to take the time to learn each other's truths. To learn each other's stories.
The Yandal’ora story has been documented by Frances Bodkin and Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews and can be found here.
By sharing the stories of our Ancestors with you, it is hoped that not only will you recognise and learn the lessons and laws of the Peoples of This Land, but you will also come to understand and respect the culture of The People and our feelings and relationship with the land. The stories do not in themselves act as an instruction manual - rather they point the way and encourage The People to think, to learn and to live. It is hoped that by sharing our stories, you too may be able to think, to learn and to live in This Land.
Black Swans have inspired many myths and stories through time. For thousands of years Europeans believed the Black Swan was an impossibility – a ‘rare event’. But as we now know, Black Swans proliferate across the continent.
In her poem Black Swan, Wiradjuri poet Jeanine Leane imagines the way this bird confused and amazed Europeans when they first arrived in Australia.
For aeons, you sailed beyond their dreams black swan – rara avis – mythical bird skirting shores unimagined – sailing south of impossible under aurora Australis on terra incognita.
Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo
Here is Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson in Cooee Mittigar:
Ngaya Mulgo Boorooberongal Daruga dalang.” I am the Black Swan from the Grey Kangaroo people of the Sydney area. “Now it is my time and the songlines will begin again. I, Mulgo, will rest and make my nest ready for my new mudjin (family).
- Videography by Brendan Blacklock, Blacklock Media
- Words & Interviews by Dr. Sarah Barns, Esem Projects
- Produced by Esem Projects for Birds of Australia STORYBOX
- Olsen, P., & Russell, L. (2019). Australia's First Naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' Contribution to Early Zoology. Canberra: National Library of Australia.