Delving into Aboriginal Dreamings
On the first day of Contemporary Aboriginal Art Class at Melbourne University in Melbourne, Australia, our Professor, a non-Aboriginal former photographer turned Art Historian, calmly but earnestly explained to us in her soft, East Coast twang that we really needed only one tool with which to encounter Aboriginal Art and Culture: Respect.
Respect? I thought to myself. I’m so good at respect! I’m going to respect the crap out of this art.
As an American with little to no previous Indigenous knowledge outside the sporadic Crocodile Dundee viewings on Comedy Central, I was determined to not just perform well, but to conquer Aboriginal Art; to learn all that I possibly could. I wanted to fly back to America with the confidence that I had learned something truly unique at the edge of the world, and that I had mastered it.
Eager to share my enthusiasm, I met with my Professor after the lecture. I proudly proclaimed that I was just on my way to the library right now, as a matter of fact, to find some books about Aboriginal Mythology. I explained to her that I would make it my mission to learn everything I could about Aboriginal Culture. I would go above and beyond to comprehend the various stories and symbols that illuminated themselves through Aboriginal Art.
“Dreamings,” she said.
“Not mythology—they’re called Dreamings.” She smiled, but it was clear that she was bracing herself. “I’m sorry to tell you, but unless you’re a ritually inaugurated senior man, it’s going to be very difficult for you to learn.”
“Oh,” I said, alarmed. She clearly did not understand the depth of my dedication. “But I really, really want to.”
She smiled again. “Well, good luck with that.”
I have found there to be, by and large, two main reasons for this, the first being most obvious, but, sadly, one that is often overlooked. All told, there are a lot of Dreamings. Heaps of Dreamings! It has been noted that certain parts of Australia harbor more cultural diversity than all of Europe combined. Specific languages have certain Dreamings associated with them, as do most places, as do kin groups. There are layers upon layers of varied, complex Dreaming stories passed down to through the community based on gender, kinship and age—multiply that by the hundreds (seven hundred by last count) of language groups and you get a rough estimate of just how vast the Dreaming field really is.
The second reason for the lack of holistic documentation is the necessarily secretive nature of Aboriginal culture, which is so sacred among the Indigenous peoples of Australia that it is difficult to find a Western Equivalent. Stories are important. Not everyone is ready to hear them all. Children’s stories are, as in Western cultures, the most basic. Children are taught the fundamental tales of the major characters. Most written recordings of Aboriginal Dreamings by White Australians are children’s Dreamings. Then come Women’s Dreamings, or “Women’s Business” which often, but not always, relate to “bush tucker”—plants and vegetables. Men’s Dreamings, or “Men’s Business” are the most secret and sacred, though both men and women of senior status maintain stories of crucial importance to the community.
The Dreamings themselves exist in continuum. The era known as the Dreamtime is the rough equivalent of Biblical genesis, when the totemic beings—the Lightning Men, the Wagilag Sisters and the famous Rainbow Serpents—made their way across the land, shaping it and giving it life and substance.
In its most basic form, the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming explains the formation of the Australian landscape. It details how the Rainbow Serpent slithered out of her burrow to awaken the sleeping earth. As she crawled across the land, she left indentations with her body until finally, she grew tired and slept. There are regional variations of this Dreamtime based on environmental differences. In one, the Rainbow Serpent tickles the stomachs of frogs, which are filled with water, causing them to regurgitate the water into streams across the land.
At her core, the Rainbow Serpent is a protector spirit who watches over people, and she is also a judge who punishes those who do not uphold her laws. She gives mankind its totemic beings, which tie them to the land. She gives Australia to the Australians.
It is easy to fall in love with such stories, to demand more. But the Dreamings belong to their people. This is something which Western culture has had trouble coming to grips with. For Americans, “to respect” often means “to learn about.” The prominence of Black, Hispanic and Jewish History Months exemplifies the obsession with tolerance through understanding—and more often through a deluge of information.
It is not part of the Aboriginal mindset to horde. Everything is shared. Albert Namatjira, Australia’s first nationally famous Aboriginal watercolour painter, singlehandedly provided for 600 people at the peak of his success.
In similar fashion, Aborigines have indeed begun to share their knowledge and their stories with White Australia, but slowly, specifically as a parent would to a child, spoon-feeding. We are not ready for the great, complex Dreamings of ritually inaugurated men and women, nor are we entitled to them. To respect it is to learn, but it is not up to us what we are invited to learn.