Book review by Ruth Haig – Songspirals

Songspirals : Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country through Songlines by Gay’wu Group of Women

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This amazing book was many years in the making as the Sisters and their Daughter worked to share with their own Yolgnu people, and a wider Australian audience, 5 song spirals and the way in which women’s wisdom is interwoven into these SONGSPIRALS.

  1. Wu mirri: The Whale.
  2. Wukun: The Gathering of the Clouds.
  3. Guwak (Keel): The Messenger Bird.
  4. Wititi: Settling of the Serpent.
  5. Goni-gurtha: The Keeper of the Fire.

Language is used throughout the book. “Without Yolgnu languages there are no songspirals. Languages are power. They tell the story through singing, speaking and milkarri.” Milkarri is the special women’s contribution to ceremony, the singing, crying and keening which complements the men’s singing, clap sticks and yidaki. Together the two create the spiral of interconnectedness. Time, place, kinship spiralling through the generations. Milkarri “adds harmony, balance, power, and deepens the emotions.”

Mother, Gaymala keened 1. Wuymirri and through her life and death so many aspects of songspirals are introduced to us in this first section of the book.

2. Wukun introduces the rain and the land and working together, overlapping with the land. In the middle is love, a sharing love, always emerging, spiralling, connecting to each other and to the land and the waters. The yothu-yindi, mother-child.

3. Guwak is the messenger that connects and we meet granddaughter, Maminydjama, model and ambassador. She went to bilingual Kirrkala School. She lives in two worlds, as do all Yolgnu. Her strength comes from her Yolgnu heritage and she gives back to the young ones to help them be strong in body as well as spirit. Yolgnu feel rich because like the land they are sacred, yet, so many napaki, continue blind to what is before their eyes, declaring terra nullius and having trashed the earth are bent on trashing space. The Messenger travels through Sky Country with the string which connects. Sky Country is not empty.

Laklak, leader of the collective is 4. Wititi. She loved stories and listened, learning from the old people. She has shared with her sisters and with academics from Macquarie Uni over the decades. After spending many weeks in Adelaide with speech and memory impaired by a brain tumour, listening to language, listening to milkarri, coming home to Country, helped. She was honoured by Yolgnu and napaki. The women organised a cleansing ceremony. In secret the men created a wapitja, a sacred digging stick, to present to her. Later a powerful ceremony, the Dance of the Dian’kawu Sisters linked the two ceremonies and culminated in Macquarie Uni presention of an honorary doctorate. All the clans that sing about the Sisters were there; songs interweaving with each other. Laklak with her family surrounding her, encouraged the young ones to follow her example.

5. Goni-Gurtha The Keeper of the Flame and of Knowledge. Marri’marri Burarrwanja, another mother shared the songspiral at the home place, Bawaka, where the muddy water meets the sea. Rrawun, son, shared of Wurrumila, the hunter, who is part of Gonj-Gutha, about Country, about the whole interconnectedness.

Mayutu, daughter to Merrkiyawuy and father napaki, is a part of the Fire on the Horizon. She loved to listen to Gaymala when she was little. As a student at Nhulunbuy High, she taught the staff about culture, before school. (They were good students and understood.) There is now a boarding house so that Yolngu students from East Arnhem Land can still be on country and learn. Yolngu sing the Land to renew it and you will find yourself singing the language sections on a second reading.

We thank the Gay’wu Group of Women for sharing their Wisdom with us.


Reviewed by Ruth Haig, Kyogle Library member.

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