4—Aboriginal stories and connection to country
Dreaming stories are specific to particular places and people. A sense of the Aboriginal concept of ‘country’ as ‘place of belonging’ and the relationship of stories to ‘country’ can be gained from Aboriginal people telling and explaining traditional stories.
Watch Talking Country — Kija Story, a creation story told in Kija language and filmed on location at China Wall, near Halls Creek, WA.
‘Old people’ is Aboriginal English for ‘ancestors’ but also means elderly members of the community; this double meaning captures the widespread Aboriginal concept that the ancestors are still influencing and guiding the living community. Do students think China Wall looks like (kangaroo) blood and fat mixed together? Having heard the creation story for China Wall, which the elder was told when she was a child, might they feel more connected to it if they visited it?
The Kija elder describes it as ‘my story’ — what might she mean by ‘my story’? Have students go online, using information from the Australian Museum to answer these questions in their own words:
- What does custodianship of Dreaming stories mean?
- Who can listen to secret or sacred stories?
Watch the news story ‘Dreamtime story reaches younger generations’ about elders in a community in Arnhem Land who collaborated to make an animated film as a way for young people to connect with traditional stories and language. The filmmakers make no apology for graphic imagery in the film. Discuss what purpose graphic imagery might serve in telling a traditional story.
Have students listen to the story Toonkoo and Ngaardi told by storyteller David Heathfield.
Divide the class into gendered groups; get them to sit in a ‘yarning circle’. Have males discuss what Yuin-Monaro children would traditionally learn about country and proper behaviour from the story ‘Toonkoo and Ngaardi’, and females discuss Ngiyaampaa children. Groups then share their ideas with the class.
Thinking around the concept of ‘country’
As the basis for an individual writing activity, have students choose the ‘parental’ country to which they feel most connected. Some may only know it through stories, or may not have been there for a long time. Have students write a maximum of one page about the ways they feel connected to this country and responsible for it. What sorts of things would make them feel sorry for their country? For example, if a river they loved was dammed, a beloved old building was destroyed, a favourite bird became extinct, or a war broke out.
Acknowledgment of Country
Introduce the Acknowledgment of Country as a way that all people can show respect for Aboriginal culture and heritage and the ongoing relationship the traditional custodians have with the land.
At the beginning of a meeting or function, a chair or speaker begins by acknowledging that the meeting is taking place in the country of the traditional custodians. Where the name of the traditional custodians is known, it is specifically used. Where it is not known, a general acknowledgment is given.
Have students identify the purpose or role of these spoken texts at meetings. What do the phrases ‘show my respect’ or ‘pay my respect’ mean? What does it mean for people to ‘acknowledge the traditional custodians’ or ‘acknowledge the Yuin people who are the traditional custodians of this land’? What is the significance of the language of ‘elders past and present’?
Reading My Girragundji and The Binna Binna Man and the idea of deep listening
In shared reading, read the section (pages 22–23) in My Girragundji about when the frog (‘A beautiful little Girragundji’) arrives, sent by the boy’s ancestors to protect him. Explain that in The Binna Binna Man, the frog has died, but his reassuring voice can still be heard if the boy listens hard.
Is there a natural place where students feel they belong or a living creature (such as the boy’s girragundji) or plant or element that they connect to? Have them write one or two paragraphs to describe the place, creature or element and their feelings towards it. Students might afterward discuss how they have advanced their concept of ‘country’.
Activity: viewing and listening
Watch the first 3 minutes and 15 seconds of Who Do You Think You Are? 'Catherine Freeman'. In ‘the zone’, the Olympic athlete connects to an inner energy powered partly by a sense of her ancestors. Do students ever have the feeling of an inner, guiding strength? This kind of inner voice is explored in My Girragundji and The Binna Binna Man.
In shared reading, read the section in My Girragundji in which thinking about the gundji (green frog) helps the boy use his anger positively (page 36), and sections in The Binna Binna Man in which the boy also needs to hang on to the girragundji’s voice because he is grieving and needs inner strength, not just because he is scared of the quinkin (page 13), and where the inner voice tries to guide the boy and keeps him on track (page 56).
In the beginning of The Binna Binna Man, we learnt what ‘binna’ means. Ears. What do you do with ears? — Listen. ‘Deep listening’, silence and thinking time is of cultural importance in traditional Aboriginal communication. Rather than responding immediately, silence provides a chance for contemplation and should not be interrupted.
The Binna Binna man does literally have big ears. Do students think he may be wise? The boy blocks his ears to his inner voice. He stops thinking when he starts drinking; he had made up his mind as a child that he would not touch alcohol (page 60).
Is the Binna Binna man necessarily bad? Have students in individual reading return to the beginning of the novel and re-read pages 9–10. Find the quotation about his good side. ‘They reckon the Binna Binna man can be good and heal you and stuff.’
Have students think about the link between deep listening, thinking and behaviour in the novel — not to respond to this, but to sit in silence to ponder. In individual reading, have students read the climactic chapter of The Binna Binna Man (pages 58–73), carefully considering all the references to voices, listening and blocking out listening and writing down the page numbers for the following references:
Reference to voice
Whose voice does the boy realise the girragundji’s is? ‘That’s her voice, my girragundji, that’s me.’
Where does the boy first start to realise this? ‘Even Gundji’s voice’s gone quiet. Sometimes I wonder if it’s me or her. Like me talking to me. Maybe I made her up. I don’t know nothing, but. How could I be telling myself what to do?’
Writing inner voices
The quinkin makes the boy listen to his inner voice: ‘Be who you are.’ What is the message here? Is the quinkin an ancestor guiding the boy?
For this activity, students must listen hard to their inner voice. What inner reserves have students drawn on when they needed to try really hard? Was there an inner voice or sense of a presence or inspiration from something or someone that pushed them on? Is there any message from family or handed down from ancestors through culture or family that could give inner strength? Students should ponder in silence for five minutes before trying to write down their thoughts.
The search for identity — ‘old ways’ versus new
On page 65 of The Binna Binna Man, Shantell says, ‘We got to find our own way now. Things are different for us. Them old way’s gone.’ Is this true?
Popeye, the boy’s grandfather, objects to Garth’s long hair but agrees it is fine when he is told that the ‘young ones’ are ‘growing their hair to look like the ancestors, the old people’. Read the section on pages 15–16. The Binna Binna Man ends with the young cousins becoming involved in the old ways. They listen to Popeye Bobby telling Dreaming stories. Discuss the idea that in the end the boy is a young one who will look out for the old ways. (References for this are from the second paragraph on page 85 to the end of the section on page 89 and the last paragraph pages 90–91.)
Texts to follow, including the previously viewed item ‘Dreamtime story reaches younger generations,’ will help focus further discussion of how traditional Aboriginal concepts and stories can be presented in contemporary ways.
Display a quote on the whiteboard from the BBC radio documentary Australian Rap.
‘A lot of the stuff that was actually being done was from really young kids who were using hip-hop as a vehicle to rap about their own life stories and about their daily lives. Gradually this started to become accepted by Aboriginal elders who were initially very sceptical about hip-hop because they saw it very much as an American form. Once they saw some of the kids performing, they said, ‘Hey this is not too far away from Aboriginal storytelling, maybe this is OK.’
Listen to part of the documentary that the quote comes from (at around the 12 minute mark).
Reflection task: individual responding, reading and writing
By now students have learnt a lot about the boy in The Binna Binna Man. Have students intensively study the novel to provide answers about the boy in The Binna Binna Man in response to the following ‘Ways of being’ questionnaire.
Assessment task — Individual writing
Have students consider their own cultural identity and sense of belonging by completing their own ‘Ways of being’ section of the questionnaire.
Global citizenship in action
Consider consulting with and involving your local Aboriginal community, perhaps to invite a storyteller into the classroom. Approach your school's Aboriginal Education Officer or the nearest Aboriginal Cultural and Resource Centre for community contacts. Useful publications include Working With Aboriginal Communities: A guide to community consultation and protocols (.pdf 1.7 MB). The Black Book Directory has contact details for Indigenous people and cultural organisations working in the arts and media.
World Vision Australia has good ideas on how schools can join in on NAIDOC Week. Reconciliation Australia’s Share Our Pride website is also a useful resource, with ideas for participation. The resource Sites2See: Reconciliation features a compilation of resources to get involved.