Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2017

Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters (2017), edited by Margo Neale

My thoughts about this beautiful book are going to be inadequate because it’s due back at the library before I have time to read it properly, but I still think it’s worthwhile drawing attention to Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters, edited by Adjunct Professor Margo Neale from the Australian National University and written in collaboration with Aboriginal knowledge holders from Martu country and Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra lands.  Neale is well-placed for this complex role because she is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Historical Research, and Senior Curator and Principal Advisor to the Director (Indigenous) of the National Museum of Australia.  She is also an Indigenous woman of Indigenous and Irish descent, from the Kulin nation with Gumbayngirr clan connections.

Like other books from remote Indigenous communities that I have come across, Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters is produced in a collaborative  way but is distinguished by having been conceived not from a museum or university within a Western paradigm but derives from a concern of Indigenous people themselves, that knowledge is being lost as old people pass away and young ones are distracted by modern technologies.  As Neale says in the Introduction, ‘Alive with the Dreaming’,  elders knew that they must use Western ways of holding the knowledge, waiting for some time in the future, after the elders had passed on and [the young people] were ready to learn.  

My first understandings about the term ‘songlines’ was from the English author Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines because I wanted to include the concept in what I was teaching about Australian exploration.  I had searched without success for an Indigenous explanation among my resources at school (The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture and Australian Dreaming, 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History).  These were books that Margo Neale herself had recommended to participants in the Summer School for History that I had attended in 2008, but useful as they were for many things as we introduced Aboriginal Perspectives into the study of space, nutrition and safety round the home, I retired from teaching still keen to find an Indigenous explanation of the concept of songlines or Tjukurpa.  So I was delighted when I stumbled across Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters and I asked my library to get a copy for me.

Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters was published to accompany an exhibition currently on at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, but it is not the usual exhibition where the exhibits are sourced from art galleries and other museums.  It is the product of journeys made by traditional custodians into country to reconnect, consult with and activate the master archive in country, the result forming a unique ‘third archive’ because of its integration of understandings about our shared culture and environment.   What you see in this big, beautiful book on expensive glossy paper is beautiful artworks and handcrafted artefacts that represent a public resource with varying levels of access.  Some Indigenous knowledge about songlines is restricted to those with authority to know it, so the repository of knowledge is layered, enabling sharing with non-Indigenous people as well as protection of secret knowledge for traditional custodians of the future.

What all visitors to the exhibition can share is the narrative of the seven sisters’ journey as they flee from a hostile shape-shifter across Martu country in the west to the lands of the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara in Central Australia.  The characters in this Odyssey of the desert country are known by different names as the sisters journey from west to east, and as Kim Mahood (author of Position Doubtful) explains in the chapter ‘The seething landscape’, this sorcerer changes shape as he pursues them relentlessly, spying on them, lying in wait for them, sometimes capturing one or several of them.

The violence of his obsession thwarts his attempts to approach the women ‘proper way’ [i.e. according to kinship rules about marriage], and manifests as a landscape that seethes and ripples with sexual desire, rendered unstable by a force that is both a primal sex organ and a relative of the Ancestral snake that lives in waterholes and creeks – dangerous, unpredictable, everywhere. (p.32)

Yurla embodies the desire for the forbidden, for which he suffers humiliation and disappointment, although he also inflicts fear and harm.  One could put various interpretations on this story – that sexual obsession makes fools of men, that pursuing your desires above all else is a futile enterprise, that female solidarity prevails.  While all these elements are present, to interpret the story only as a morality tale is to undermine its psychological power. It cleaves to the emotional truth of human experience in all its arbitrariness, a reflection of desert life and survival. (p.33)

But the significance of this story is that it’s not just a story: it’s a songline:

The trajectory of the sisters across the country is a means of naming and remembering sites, their resources and their significance. As the Minyipuru dance, run and fly across the Martu landscape, zigzagging from waterhole to rock hole, fleeing Yurla, sometimes outwitting him, sometimes falling victim to him, they map the waterholes and mark the country, creating landmarks and enacting ceremonies, weaving a picaresque tale that is menacing and hilarious, cheeky, violent, transcendent – and above all, memorable.  Soaring together across the night sky, chased relentlessly by the priapic old man, the Minyipuru leave their traces everywhere.  (p.33)

As you turn the pages of the book, you can see artworks which represent this journey and what I hope you can see in this photo I’ve taken, is the way that a labelled transparency has been overlaid on a painting called Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground) to show all the different sites, from a community oval to recently burnt country showing a mosaic of patterns of burning and regrowth.  Click here to see the painting itself on the NMA site.

While we may not recognise the significances in the Indigenous artworks we see, all of them represent this kind of detail as they tell a story that is intimately connected to place. That’s why the protagonists of the story have different names in Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra lands: the places are different and different languages are spoken.  In Martu country the sisters are called the Minyipuru and their pursuer is called Yurlu; from Kunnamurra onwards in the western desert he becomes Wati Nyiru and the women are the Kungkarrangkalpa – the stories become darker and his obsession focusses more on Kampukurta, the eldest sister. Art works in the Tjanpi Desert include weaving and a form of contemporary art installation involving woven sculptures of the sisters. (Click here to see them).

There are variations in what can be made public and what can be accessed only by those judged ready to be told.  In the chapter ‘On revealing and concealing’ we are told that new forms of technology are being used to encourage the younger Aṉangu to take an interest in their own culture.  Similarly, dances used to tell these stories have been captured and broadcast digitally, and on the NMA website you can also see and hear the story told via an interactive dome. It’s quite exciting to read about how the newest technologies are being exploited by the oldest living culture on earth to protect and share their culture!

It’s interesting to see that Bruce Chatwin is acknowledged as having popularised the term ‘songlines’, which Aboriginal people have now made their own.  In his chapter titled ‘The last songs of Tjapartji Bates’, Darren Jorgensen quotes Chatwin as saying that the Dreaming is like a ‘labyrinth of countless corridors and passages’ rather than a grand scheme by which desert life might be understood.’   He understood that songlines could never be completely explained, that like good poetry they must remain always a little incomprehensible, a little out of reach.  

That’s true, but it’s really nice to have a beautiful book like this which enhances our understanding a little!

The exhibition finishes on 25th February 2018.  See here for more information.

Click here to hear a beaut interview with Margo Neal on ABC Radio National.

Margo Neal is of Indigenous and Irish descent, from Queensland .

Editor: Margo Neale
Title: Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2017
ISBN: 9781921953293
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters



  1. These are the lands I travelled when preparing the strategic plans for the NPY Women’s Council, and as you know, I run a yearly event for them to continue their culture. I have been very very lucky to see some of the sites that are in the exhibition, have heard the stories, heard some songs & own a lot of artwork from their lands.


    • Yes, you do a fabulous job raising money for them, Tony!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this review, Lisa! I’ve been thinking that I want to learn more about Indigenous art but didn’t quite know where to begin. This book sounds like an absolute treasure, particularly because, as you say, it’s been produced in a collaborative fashion. I look forward to reading it.


    • Hello Magdalena, it certainly is a lovely book and a good introduction to the meanings behind Aboriginal art. But I would also recommend McCulloch’s Contemporary Aboriginal Art: The Complete Guide by Susan McCulloch and Emily McCulloch Childs, it’s excellent.


  3. Thankyou for enhancing my understanding a little! I have one painting from the APY lands and ex-wife and geology daughter have some Martu paintings from when they were working in Newman. Perth of course is in Noongar country so what little understanding I have of Western Desert culture – which extends, I think, diagonally from north of Newman in WA to around Ceduna in SA – comes mostly from Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’ Pictures from my Memory.


    • I think you would enjoy reading Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful, it’s certainly enhanced my understanding of a different way of mapping.


  4. […] Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters (2017) edited by Margo Neale […]


  5. […] Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters, (editor) see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


  6. […] Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters, edited by Margo Neale […]


  7. […] Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters, (editor) see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


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