Maps are Territories

Whenever we wish to refer generally to the original inhabitants of Australia, we have used the term 'Aborigine/s'; whenever possible, we use the specific term used by the people themselves, for example 'Yolngu'.

by Helen Watson
with the Yolngu community
at Yirrkala

Paintings by Aboriginal Australians are not immediately recognisable as maps. Nonetheless Aborigines sometimes see them as maps and so now do some Western anthropologists (Williams, Peterson and Morphy – see Further Reading list). In Exhibit 5, we shall examine whether, and in what sense, the graphic representations we conventionally call 'Aboriginal bark paintings' are maps. In particular, three barks that were presented to Deakin University by the Yolngu1 community of the Laynhapuy region of NE Arnhemland will be studied. (Refer to Singing the land, signing the land for more information about this community. ITEM 5.1 shows the location of Yolngu homeland centres in the Laynhapuy Region of NE Arnhemland.) To avoid prejudging the issue of whether and in what way they are maps, we shall call the barks by the name that Yolngu give them, dhulaŋ. (We write Yolngu words using the orthography that Yolngu use. For a full description, see Singing the land, signing the land. The pronunciation of Yolngu words that appear in this exhibit are given in the accompanying box.) First, we must consider the conceptual framework that surrounds their production and use by Yolngu.

Preparing dhulaŋ is a common pastime for many Yolngu, for dhulaŋ serve a number of important purposes in the life of the community. Dhulaŋ are representations of concepts which are part of what Yolngu explain as 'djalkiri’. Djalkiri is a generic term, often translated as 'footprints of the Ancestors'. For Yolngu to say that the notion of djalkiri is structurally important in Yolngu life would be akin to an English speaker saying that the notion that material things have qualities is a basic concept in her way of life. Djalkiri is one of the network of concepts through which time, space, personhood and community are constructed in Yolngu life.

A person's or a clan's djalkiri could be called their 'songline'; it refers to what English speakers have come to call 'the Dreamtime' or 'the Dreaming', the 'other time' when the people of the two great ancestor clans socialised the landscape by living in it, thus variously creating the Dhuwa and the Yirritja, the dual sub-worlds of the Yolngu world. In the course of their everyday doings the Ancestral People left their 'footprints' and 'tracks', and this is the now known landscape. In talking of their djalkiri, a speaker refers to a specific series of stories, songs, dances and graphic representations about that creative epoch, as well as to the country defined by those stories, songs, dances and graphic representations. This is the country 'owned' by that person or group. The 'whole country' is constituted by a network of tracks which intersect and define a framework for the political and economic processes of Yolngu society.

That 'other time' transcends the present; the landscape, in being a series of narratives related in specific ways, is also transcendent. The Ancestors, frequently in the form of animals (water goannas, salt water crocodiles, dugong and the like), travelled from place to place, hunted, performed ceremonies, fought and finally turned to stone or 'went into the ground', where they still remain. The actions of these powerful beings created the world as it is known today. They gave the world its forms, and its identities – its names.

Map showing yolngu homeland centres


Small-scale map showing the location of Yolngu homeland centres in the Laynhapuy Region of NE Arnhemland.

The bush is criss-crossed with their lines of travel and just as a person's or an animal's tracks are a record of what happened, the features of the landscape- hills, creeks, lakes and trees-are the record, or the story, of what happened in the Dreaming. While particular actions give name and identity to each location, the fact that together, in a certain sequence, the named places constitute journeys by particular Beings, who themselves are related in particular ways, links all identified places into a whole. It is not only the landscape that assumed its identity at this time; all things gained their identities, their places in the scheme of things.

Yolngu knowledge is coincident with the creative activity of the Ancestral Beings. They traversed the land and in the process created the topography. What they did then provides the names of places along the path; the identity of each place is established by its connections to other places. Their actions also link groups of people. In turn, these links are given a social form and determine the social and political processes of Yolngu life. Thus the landscape, knowledge, story, song, graphic representation and social relations all mutually interact, forming one cohesive knowledge network. In this sense, given that knowledge and landscape structure and constitute each other, the map metaphor is entirely apposite. The landscape and knowledge are one as maps, all are constituted through spatial connectivity.

For Yolngu, what provides the connections between places – bits of socialised topography that are known through being named – are the tracks of the Ancestral Beings, and the tracks are the landscape. For Westerners, the connections between places are seen in terms of abstract qualities such as length or width. In a profound sense the Yolngu 'theory of land' has the landscape as a map of itself. In considering this paradox return to Exhibit 1. Yolngu resolve this paradox one way; Westerners resolve the paradox in the contrary way.

The fact that Ancestral Beings socialised the landscape and thus created its identity in that 'other time' does not mean, however, that the world is unchanging. The interrelated cosmos must be maintained by constant intervention – negotiation and renegotiation – by those responsible. There are no dualistic oppositions here, between good and bad, right and wrong, background and foreground. All elements of the world are constitutive of all other elements in the cosmos, through being related to them, and are in some sense responsible for them.

Yolngu knowledge is a commodity, or a product. You can earn it, trade it, give it and, more importantly, restrict access to it and hence use it as a means of control. It provide the basis for ceremonial power in the profoundly egalitarian Yolngu world. Moreover, the knowledge network is not transparent or passive, it is the real stuff of interaction between groups, and depends for its existence on constant activity, singing, dancing and painting. Through constant negotiation everyone knows who is responsible for what part of the knowledge network, who is charged with the care and maintenance of what song, and what land.

It seems that in raising the question of the way in which dhulaŋ are maps we may have gained a general insight into the construction of meaning. If the process of acquiring topographical knowledge occurs at least partly through the process of naming, then the connectivity that provides for knowledge in general is that of the network of meaning. According to this account of meaning, words acquire their meaning not simply by reference to objects but by their relationship to one another in a three-dimensional network. Thus, while the notion of a network is essential to all cultural formations, the way it manifests varies from one culture to another. In Yolngu life the knowledge network is taken as there for all to see, so long as they know what to look for; but then it takes a long time to learn that. This knowledge network is tangible and must be actively maintained.

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