The Australian National Maritime Museum acknowledges all traditional custodians of the lands and waters throughout Australia and pay our respects to them and their cultures; and to elders both past and present.
When Captain James Cook first arrived on Australian shores on that historic day in 1770, he wrote in his journal that the Aboriginal people ‘may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans’.
It is this journal entry that has inspired the Indigenous artist Michael Cook many generations and centuries later to produce his inspired and progressive art.
His work poses many ‘what-if’ questions, specifically. ‘what if the British had realised Aborigines were indeed civilised?
One day, a crow and a hawk hunted together in the bush. After travelling together for some time, they decided to hunt in opposite directions, and, at the close of the day, to share whatever game they had caught.
The crow travelled against the sun, and at noonday arrived at a broad lagoon which was the haunt of the wild ducks.
First, he got some white clay, and, having softened it with water, placed two pieces in his nostrils.
He then took a long piece of hollow reed through which he could breathe under water, and finally tied a net bag around his waist in which to place the ducks.
The ducks, with their bronze plumage glistening in the sun, were swimming among the clumps of reeds, and only paused to dive for a tasty morsel hidden deep in the water weeds.
The crow placed the reed in his mouth, and, without making any sound, waded into the water.
He quickly submerged himself, and the only indication of his presence in the lagoon, was a piece of dry reed which projected above the surface of the water. When he reached the centre of the water hole he remained perfectly still.
He did not have to wait long for the ducks to swim above his head.
Then, without making any sound or movement, he seized one by the leg, quickly pulled it beneath the water, killed it, and placed it in the net bag. By doing this, he did not frighten the other ducks, and, in a short time he had trapped a number of them.
He then left the lagoon and continued on his way until he came to a river.
The crow was so pleased with his success at the waterhole, that he determined to spear some fish before he returned to his camp. He left the bag of ducks on the bank of the river, and, taking his fish spear, he waded into the river until the water reached his waist.
Then he stood very still, with the spear poised for throwing.
A short distance from the spot where he was standing, a slight ripple disturbed the calm surface of the water. With the keen eye of the hunter, he saw the presence of fish, and, with a swift movement of his arm, he hurled the spear, and his unerring aim was rewarded with a big fish.
The water was soon agitated by many fish, and the crow took advantage of this to spear many more. With this heavy load of game, he turned his face towards home.
The hawk was very unfortunate in his hunting. He stalked a kangaroo many miles, and then lost sight of it in the thickly wooded hills. He then decided to try the river for some fish, but the crow had made the water muddy and frightened the fish, so again he was unsuccessful.
At last the hawk decided to return to his gunyah with the hope that the crow would secure some food, which they had previously agreed to share.
When the hawk arrived, he found that the crow had been there before him and had prepared and eaten his evening meal. He at once noticed that the crow had failed to leave a share for him.
This annoyed the hawk, so he approached the crow and said: “I see you have had a good hunt to-day. I walked many miles but could not catch even a lizard. I am tired and would be glad to have my share of food, as we agreed this morning.”
“You are too lazy,” the crow replied. “You must have slept in the sun instead of hunting for food.
Anyhow, I’ve eaten mine and cannot give you any.” This made the hawk very angry, and he .attacked the crow.
For a long time they struggled around the dying embers of the camp fire, until the hawk seized the crow and rolled him in the black ashes.
When the crow recovered from the fight, he found that he could not wash the ashes off, and, since that time, crows have always been black.
The crow was also punished for hiding the food which he could not eat by being condemned to live on putrid flesh.
A traditional Native storyteller, Te Ata, also known as Mary Frances Thompson Fisher, was born in Emet, Chickasaw Nation, near Tishomingo, on December 3, 1895. Her parents were members of the Chickasaw Nation.
Her father, T. B. Thompson, the last treasurer of the Chickasaw Nation, operated stores in Tishomingo. Te Ata’s uncle, Douglas H. Johnston, was the last governor of the old Chickasaw Nation.
Mary Thompson attended Bloomfield Academy in the far southeast corner of Johnston County. Later she attended high school in Tishomingo, encountering “white” children for the first time.
In school at Tishomingo Te Ata found a role model in teacher Muriel Wright. Later attending Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma), in Chickasha, she acquired another mentor, Francis Densmore Davis, an active researcher and writer on Indian cultures.
Davis recognized the young woman’s talent for drama, and soon Mary began to use the name Te Ata, reflecting her Indian heritage.
Te Ata worked on a Chautauqua circuit managed out of St. Louis, and she began to develop her style of storytelling using various American Indian sources.
Her readings, storytelling, and dance were often accompanied by classical and other music played on piano. She eventually also used small drums, rattles, and other common, traditional instruments.
With Davis’s encouragement she attended Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, for one year. From Pittsburg she moved to New York City where she worked in theater and entertained the city’s social elite.
There Te Ata met Clyde Fisher, a naturalist and eventual curator of the Haden Planetarium, and they married in 1933.
In 1933 Te Ata performed for the first state dinner given by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt.
Many of her performances in the 1930s were at summer camps throughout New England and New York state.
In 1939 she performed again for the Roosevelts at their home in Hyde Park, New York, on the occasion of a state visit by the king and queen of Great Britain.
Later, Te Ata toured Europe, giving performances for royal families and heads of state. The Fishers traveled in South America and extensively in the United States, often observing Native ceremonies and learning different traditions.
Te Ata incorporated these experiences in performances later in her storytelling.
Indigenous children dress in traditional outfits in preparation for the Rey Curré festival. Courtesy The Culture Ministry
The moment tourists arrive at a Costa Rican airport, they see artifacts of the Boruca people: elaborately painted balsawood masks hang in the souvenir shops, sculpted like monsters, jaguars, and playful demons.
Travelers stop, lean into the masks, and wonder, Now where did these come from?
But to really understand Boruca heritage, amateur anthropologists should attend the 22nd Indigenous Cultural Festival in in the deeply rural community of Rey Curré.
The annual event is a comprehensive celebration of Boruca culture. (Also note that while they are commonly known as “the Boruca,” the more accurate nomenclature is the “Brunca”).
“These cultural spaces are very important, because they offer a place that the community needs,” said Uriel Rojas, a community representative, in a press release.
“The customs, traditions, traditional cuisine, games, crafts, artistic skills, oral tradition, archaeological heritage, [and] natural medicine are part of the different themes showcased at the community during these days of celebration.”
Among outsiders, the Boruca are particularly famous for their “Juego de los Diablitos,” or “Game of the Little Devils.”
The custom began during the conquistador invasion, when Boruca warriors discovered that the Catholic Spanish were afraid of demonic imagery and crafted fearsome-looking masks.
Today, Boruca descendants enact playful rituals wearing this devilish headgear, a unique mix of pre- and post-colonial ceremony.
Unless you experience their world it doesn’t really exist’: Jack Thompson at the 2014 Garma festival. Photograph: Monica Tan
by Monica Tan
Why a festival celebrating Yolngu culture features tai chi classes with the Australian acting legend Dr Jack Thompson AM is not immediately clear.
But Thompson – also known as Gulkula by the Yunupingu family who have adopted him – displays a distinctly Yolngu characteristic as he launches into a 30-minute long explanation that is more story than answer, rich in historical detail, with references to family and philosophical musings.
He speaks in a deep, sonorous timbre that is almost musical.
The 73-year-old actor’s first exposure to Indigenous culture came about when he was just seven, and a young Arunta actor from the central desert country was invited to speak at his school in Narrabeen, New South Wales.
“He sang songs in his language and what with his spear and woomera, us as six-, seven-year-old boys were very impressed,” says Thomspon. “We went around learning how to make spears.”
The encounter proved to be the beginning of a lifelong and passionate connection with some of Australia’s first peoples.
Thompson’s father, John, then a journalist for ABC radio, started covering north-east Arnhem Land in 1949.
Young Thompson was enthralled by the 8mm film interviews with Yolngu people and his meetings with Bill Harney, at the time one of the few “balandas” (a Yolngu word for non-Indigenous person) immersed in Yolngu culture.
“I just wanted to go out there and experience it for myself,” Thompson says. “And I thought what am I doing at school? I don’t have to go to Africa or Asia or Europe. There is this extraordinary thing right there, outside my door.”
With Harney’s help, Thompson found himself at 14 working as a jackaroo in the Northern Territory, on a cattle station 250 km north-east of Alice Springs.
“I was the only white person, the rest were Indigenous people speaking their own language: Alyawarre. In working with my own people – white Australians – never was I treated so well as I was as a 15-year-old with the Alyawarre people. They treated me like a son, like they treated everyone.”
Emu in the Sky by Kyle Pickett (Australia). “When the Yallabirri (emu) appears in the sky in preparation for the laying of the eggs.” Image Credit: Kyle Pickett/Shared Sky
by Karl Gruber
A project connected artists in Western Australia and South Africa, where the two parts of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will be built.
SINCE THE DAWN of our species, humans have been fascinated by the night sky, and celestial objects such as stars or planets feature in some of humankind’s most ancient artworks.
For some Aboriginal groups, the stars have historically provided pointers to seasonal events or have been tied up in Dreamtime narratives.
For the Yamaji people of the Murchison region of Western Australia, for example, the appearance of an emu-like shape along the Milky Way has signalled the start of emu-egg collecting season for thousands of years.
“Creation of the Sun” by the First People Artists of the Bethesda Arts Centre (South Africa). “In the early times, the Sun was asleep in his house, shining for himself alone. The Earth was cold and dark. The mothers couldn’t dry the ant-larvae to eat so they were hungry, and the people were cold. Then the old woman gathered the children together: ‘My children, creep up to that old man the sun while he is sleeping. Creep up to that old Sun Armpit, and fling him into the sky, so that the earth can be warm for us, so that all the world will be bright.’
Photo credit: First People Artists of the Bethesda Arts Centre/Shared Sky
Aboriginal art of the night sky
Yamaji and other Aboriginal groups live a different lifestyle to their ancestors, but the night sky remains central to their lives and has now served as inspiration for new artworks.
The red aurorae seen in southern Australian skies played an important role in Aboriginal culture (Image Credit: Alex Cherney Terrastro Gallery)
The aurora australis is seen by many Aboriginal groups as an omen of bushfires in the spirit world, according to a new study of traditional Indigenous oral culture.
The research, presented at the Australian Space Science Conference, found most traditional teachings associated the reddish hues of the aurora australis or southern lights, with blood, fire and death.
“That’s very different from the more festive stories associated with the aurora borealis or northern lights, in the traditional cultures of Canada, Siberia and Northern Europe”, says the paper’s author Dr Duane Hamacher of the University of New South Wales.
“Comets and eclipses were seen as omens, meteors as spirits, and aurora were seen as fires,” says Hamacher.
Building on the traditions of using natural fibres to create objects for medicinal, ceremonial and daily use, the Tjanpi – or ‘dry grass’ – Weavers are women who come together to visit sacred sites and traditional homelands, hunt and gather food for their families and teach their children about country while collecting grasses to sculpt and weave.
Students will work directly with the accomplished artists to learn new techniques and expand upon their own diverse disciplines in painting, drawing, music, sculpture and spatial practice as well as film and television.
Tiriki Onus, Lecturer in Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Practices at the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development, says the masterclasses are a precious experience for budding artists.
“Too often there is a false distinction drawn between craft and fine art.
The women from the Tjanpi Desert Weavers are contemporary fine artists, as well as seasoned teachers, performers and cultural ambassadors who not only maintain traditions within their own art form but also innovate upon them. We are incredibly lucky to be facilitating their presentation of masterclasses at the Wilin Centre.”
Today there are over 400 women across 28 communities making baskets and sculptures out of grass. Working with fibre in this way is firmly embedded in Western and Central Desert Indigenous culture.