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Far away, in an ancient land of mystery, live the Gagudju people. They have lived in these lands, called
Kakadu, for more than 40,000 years. The people are heir to the longest unbroken culture the world has ever
known. Throughout the history, the Gagudju have lived in harmony with their environment. To them, man,
animals, plants, and the earth itself are as one. They are all manifestations of a single life force. To maintain
their mystical union with nature, the people say, they must look after the country. They do this through their
art and many others subtle ways.

Only the wise and fully initiated elders know how to look after the country. They are the custodians of the
land and the traditions. But there are only a them now. The young people have been swept up by another,
more aggressive, culture.

This is the story of Kakadu, as seen through the eyes of its last traditional inhabitants, a story that opens a
window on a very different perception of life. According to a group of Australian aborigines called the
Gagudju, the world always existed, but long ago, before the Dreamtime, it had no shape. Then, at the
beginning of the Dreamtime, the time of genesis, creator beings came out of the sea to form the lands and to
create life.

Two hundred years ago, all of Australia was occupied by Aborigines. But now, only a few groups remain on
their traditional lands. The Gagudju is one of these. The land on which they live is called Kakadu. It belongs
to the Aborigines and is managed on their behalf as a national park. Kakadu is dominated by a sandstone
escarpment, which towers over extensive wetlands and eucalypt woodlands.

In the Dreamtime, when men could change into animals, and animals into men, the creator beings gave
shape to the land. When Ginga was a man, he was burned accidentally. To save himself, he rushed into the
water and turned himself into a crocodile. To this day, his back is covered with blister-like lumps. Ginga
then turned himself to stone, and all his nodules and lumps became part of the landscape. Snakes, using their
powerful coils, made stone archways and great sweeps of hills. Garndagitj the ancestral kangaroo, traveled
through Kakadu, making mounds of stones and hollowing out depressions. The land so created was
bountiful and provided the people with all their spiritual and material needs.

In the old days, life for the aborigines was free and good. "No worries then," they say. Their society was
vigorous and meaningful, the cohesion of its laws and traditions having been forged over a 40,000-year
history. This was before the Balanda, the white people, came and disrupted their existence. Natural foods,
such as turtle eggs and water lily roots, were plentiful. Now, the traditional lands are almost empty. Diseases
from foreign places and other pressures have taken their toll. Few people still live in the wilds of Kakadu.
But in the rock shelters, where the Gagudju once lived, places that rang with their laughter and reverberated
with the drone of didgeridoos, their culture lives on in luminous paintings of hunters, animals, and
dangerous spirits.

The first artistic stirrings in Kakadu, among the earliest for mankind, began perhaps 30,000 years ago. These
paintings are impressions of grasses, hands, or other objects. Many thousands of years later, finely crafted
paintings of animals first appeared. Kangaroos and crocodiles were painted larger than life. Delicate images
depicting vigorous action followed. A man stalks an emu from behind the cover of a bundle of grass. He
spears the giant bird, which cries out as it is mortally wounded.

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Present-day Aborigines do not relate to the early paintings. They say that these were made by the friendly
Mimi spirits, and that over the millennia, the Mimis taught the people to paint, but in a different style, one
that shows the animals' bones and internal organs. It is known as the X- ray style. Many important images
were painted by neither man nor spirit. They came into being when Dreamtime heroes placed themselves on
the rocks. These apparitions contain the spirit and the power of the Dreamtime. By painting at these sacred
places, the people could draw on the power of the Dreamtime, and so ensure that life would continue in all
its bounty of diversity. Extensive galleries were fashioned, where generations of artists painted layer upon
layer of figures. Deep in the bush, they created some of the world's greatest art treasures.

About 150 years ago, a change occurred in the life and art of the Gagudju. Sailing ships brought people
from other continents. These people penetrated the Gagudju's land on horseback. They dominated the
Aborigines with strange new weapons. And soon, say the Gagudju, these strangers, standing with hands in
pockets, told us what to do.

The last major rock art in Kakadu was painted in 1964 by a man called Najombolmi. It was a heroic, almost
desperate, effort to maintain the links with the power of the Dreamtime. A year after completing his
masterwork, Najombolmi died. The power of the Dreamtime began to wane.


The custody of the land and the culture rests on the shoulders of a small group of elderly men. They alone
know the laws and traditions. None of this knowledge is written down, and it survives only in the minds of
these few. They are the library of the Gagudju.

Big Bill Neidjie is the philosopher. He is concerned with matters of the spirit and the totality of aboriginal


Nipper Kapirigi is the principal keeper of the stories of the Dreamtime about creator beings and ancestral


Felix Iyanuk is the custodian of the most sacred ceremonies. Only he still knows the burial rites.

Bluey Ilkirr is the artist, one of the last men left in Kakadu who carries on the traditions of Najombolmi. but
he paints only on tree bark, not on rock.

A new generation of Gagudju has come of age, but most grew up away from their culture. Neidjie's son,
Jonathan Yarramarrna, is one of the few who has returned to learn about aboriginal law and to assume
custodianship. In the modern world, he is doing it in two ways: as a Gagudju following tribal law, and as a
park ranger. It is an uneasy burden with which he is still learning to cope.

The Gagudju have access to the artifacts of the technological age, but many, like Ilkirr and his wife,
Aladjingu, prefer to live in the bush in a small family groups.


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Ilkirr gathers all the materials for his paintings from the bush around him. In the age old way, he cuts the
bark off a tree to be used as his canvas. The only difference is in the axe he uses. Its head is made of steel,
while once, it would have been made of stone.

When he has straightened and cured the bark, Ilkirr is ready to begin his painting. First, he covers the entire
surface with red ochre, which represents blood. This, in turn, is the symbol for life itself. The red
background will give the subjects vitality. As he prepares the bark, Ilkirr thinks about what he will paint and
about the techniques he learned from his father. The very act of painting connects the artist with the powers
of the Dreamtime. He draws on these powers to ensure that the animals he paints will always be there in
abundance. Dominating the composition is Ginga, the crocodile.

The saltwater crocodile is the largest animal in Kakadu, and the only really dangerous one. He is a man-
eater. Despite his name, this crocodile is as much at home in fresh water as in salt water. He is the scourge of
the billabongs, and Ginga's reputation as a man-eater did not deter the Gagudju from hunting the giant
reptile. They used to spear him from flimsy log rafts. Crocodile meat is a delicacy.

Large and dangerous as Ginga is, he does not rule the wetlands. As the Aborigines say, it is Marawuti, the
white-breasted sea eagle, who is the boss around here. When someone dies, the person's spirit is snatched
away in Marawuti's huge claws. Marawuti's kingdom is one of the richest habitats, vibrant with life and
drama. Watched by the scavenging goanna, jacana, the black-necked stork, hunts for eels on the grassy edge
of the billabong. But for sheer hunting prowess, none could match Marawuti. Generations of sea eagles have
raised their young in this nest. Each year, new sticks are added, and the nest grows larger and larger.

Out in the billabong, among the floating leaves of the water lilies, lives the lotus bird. The male lotus bird
incubates the eggs and raises the chicks on his own. The female, who is slightly larger, leaves the mail to
search for another partner. When the lotus bird glimpses boloko, the water python, he is ready to defend his
nest. Soon boloko retreats into the water plants to set his ambush elsewhere. Four weeks after the last egg
was laid, the chicks hatch. Their father transports and protects the young until they are about three weeks

Marawuti's kingdom is not restricted to the billabongs and flood plains. He also hunts the water holes along
the escarpment. In search of fish below, he flies along the sacred rock face. Custodian of this sacred place is
Nipper Kapirigi.


As a fully initiated Gagudju man, it is his duty to look after it. With him is Minnie Gapindi. To maintain
contact with the spirits of the special place, Kapirigi must visit it periodically. It is yet another way to keep
the ties with the powers of the Dreamtime. Minnie Gapindi has set off in search of food. She has noticed the
tracks of freshwater crocodiles on a sand bank. Minnie probes the sand to find any eggs that may have been
laid during the night. The Aborigines' knowledge of the country is so detailed, and the edible plants and
animals are so plentiful, that only a few hours each day need be spent to find enough to eat.

Kapirigi has reached the canyon where the spirits reside. Although he has never seen them, he can feel them
watching from caves and crevices. He announces his presence and asks permission to enter the canyon.


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Kapirigi's spirit has touched those of the Dreamtime. He reaffirms a 40,000-year continuity.

Djuwe, the great bowerbird, is somewhat sinister to the Gagudju. They call him a cheeky fellow who steals
your bones. The bones and snail shells, which the male bird gathers from miles around, are decorations for
his arena. He has built to lure a female. When a female comes to his bower, the male uses many ploys to
impress her, even enhancing his presence by displaying his ornaments.

Djuwe's arena resembles the shelter the Gagudju build for initiation ceremonies. The bird also chants and
dances as if at a ritual. He is the keeper of their secret ceremonies. That's his job, the people say. Garrkanj,
the brown falcon, has come to the grasslands. This is the signal for Big Bill Neidjie to begin one of the most
important aspects of the maintenance of his tribal lands. Only he and the other elders are traditionally
entrusted with the task of burning the grasslands. They must clean the country, they say, but strictly
according to aboriginal law.


Bill's son, Jonathan Yarramarrna, has come to learn just how and when the fires may be lit. The time is right
in the season of migrating birds. Animals of the grasslands have grown to maturity and can escape the fire.
Also, it is a comparatively cool time of year, and beneath the dry stalks, there is still dampness. Fires will
not rage out of control. The country will be cleansed, but not devastated. If the rules about burning are
broken, and fires are set later, in the season of heat and dryness, there would be great loss of life.

The impenetrable grasses have gone. Soon, new shoots will come up through the ashes, attracting
kangaroos. It will be easy to hunt and to travel. Djuwe has been unlucky. His laboriously built bower was
destroyed in the fire. But most of his precious ornaments have been unaffected. The day after the fire, he
begins to rebuild. First, he moves the bones and shells to the new site. After putting down a mat of small
sticks, he places the first uprights in position. Working for four or five hours every day, he has a serviceable
bower again in about two weeks.

Gundamen, the frilled lizard, is an example to all who would disobey aboriginal law. When he was a man,
he was smooth and sleek. But at a secret ceremony, Gundamen did not listen, and performed the wrong
rituals. The eldest punished him by changing him into a lizard, and said he would be thin, with a funny
looking loose skin for all time. they said, you spoiled the ceremony, and people will see you like that forever
and ever.


The singing of song cycles is another important way in which the Gagudju maintain the integrity between
themselves and the life force. Felix Iyanuk sings the cycle about one of the principal creator beings,
Injuwandjuwa. Iyanuk is the only one still knows these songs. He said this would probably be the last time
that he would ever sing them.

Long ago, at the beginning of the Dreamtime. Injuwandjuwa lived in a cave, where he painted his own
image on the wall. He came across the river, over the plains and billabongs. In his travels, he gave shape to
the land, brought important ceremonies, and showed the people what animals to hunt. Iyanuk explains that
Injuwandjuwa eventually turned himself into stone.


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He says, Injuwandjuwa walks down here and turns himself into stone. That stone there. that's Injuwandjuwa
This rock is the embodiment of the creator being and is the focus of the life force. Close to Injuwandjuwa
and imbued with his spirit are the caves where, for centuries, the Gagudju have placed the bones of their


Iyanuk is the only person who still knows the Gagudju's complete burial rites. He explains how the people
painted themselves and then carried the bones of the dead to the caves. The two elders are filled with an
ineffable sadness as they see their culture slip away. No newly initiated men are following behind them. And
only the initiated can be told the secret rites.

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] Go up there. Take them bone. Just put 'em in. And they say
goodbye. I go home.

Iyanuk says, sometimes I sit down and think about myself, and I cry before I go to sleep because I am very
sorry nobody is coming after us. And when we die, Bill and me, they got to bring our bones right back here,
to this cave, so our spirit can join Injuwandjuwa and our Dreamtime.

Bluey Ilkirr continues his painting, his communion with the powers of the Dreamtime. Kangaroos and
wallabies are particularly important to the Aborigines. The giant ancestral kangaroo, similar to the one Ilkirr
is painting, made prominent land forms and gave the people important ceremonies. Of the several species
that live in Kakadu, garndagitj, the antilopine kangaroo, is the largest. He is hunted for food, but only the
older people can eat him. They say that if younger people eat kangaroo meat, they will have bad dreams.
These kangaroos live in small social groups, and are usually gentle and affectionate. Their smaller neighbor,
Gonobolo, the agile wallaby, is more aggressive.

Flying foxes are the largest of all the bats. During the day they rest in colonies that may number more than a
100,000 individuals. Most colonies are in trees standing in water. It is cooler there. Territorial squabbles are
all sounds and fury and seldom result in injury. The young black flying foxes cannot fly at birth. They are
carried by their mothers, even in flight, until they are a month old. During the heat of the day, the resting
animals fan themselves. Sometimes, fanning is not enough. Then the bats lick their wings, and the
evaporation of their saliva helps to cool them further. When they are ready to take off, they climb to the
highest points in the roof's trees. To the Aborigines, goloban, the black flying fox, is associated with the
forces of darkness. Medicine men, who are held in high regard, are also sorcerers. They are often called
flying fox men.

Darkness is the time when evil spirits come out from caves and hollow trees. The people do not venture far
from the safety of their campfires. Kakadu's night belongs to the animals. Lambalk, the sugar glider, has left
her nest in a tree hollow. [? Bilcun ?], a tiny insect-eating marsupial, is ever ready to tackle insects even
larger than himself. After being dormant for several weeks, [? Bek ?], the highly venomous death adder,
finally sloughs its skin. The snake is now hungry, and stalks even [? Yalk, ?] the brown bandicoot, who is
much too large for it to overpower. [? Yalk ?], however, takes no chances and barricades himself in his nest
of dry grass. Because it has no eyelids, the knob-tailed gecko has to clean its eye with its tongue. The night
has been cool, and the kangaroos seek a sunny place to warm themselves. But [? Lambalk ?] shuns the
sunlight and hurries back to her tree hollow. She will sleep here until darkness falls again.

Whenever he has a spare moment, Jonathan Yarramarrna goes out to his ancestral lands to learn as much as

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he can from his father. Today, the two visit Hawk Dreaming, a sacred site where the spirit of Garrkanj, the
brown falcon, resides. Bill has difficulty climbing the rock face. This may well be the last time he visits the
spirit of Garrkanj. Bill explains the significance of Hawk Dreaming and shows Jonathan the hand stencil he
made when he was about eight years old and came here with his father. A hand stencil is a kind of signature,
laying claim to the site, but more in a spiritual than a physical sense. A few days later, Bill and Jonathan go
to a rock outcrop close to Hawk Dreaming. As a commitment to his aboriginal heritage, Jonathan will put
his hand stencil, his signature, on the rocks near Hawk Dreaming.

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] Jonathan makes his mark the way Gagudju people have done for
thousands of years.

The spinifex grass on the rock plateau is dying off, heralding the season of hot winds. Waterfalls are no
more than trickles. In the woodlands, grasses that escaped the fires have died back into dense mat. The flood
plains are reduced to a series of turbid pools. The water turns hot under the burning sun. Barramundi and
other fish lie dying in the shallows. The hunters of billabongs have an easy time, and the scavengers grow
fat. A goanna cannot make any impression on the scaly body of a huge barramundi. The 4-foot-long lizard
must find another way.

Marawuti the sea eagle is now able to snare much larger prey than usual. Whistling kites, with their smaller
peaks and talons, cannot penetrate the scales of such a large fish. They wait for marawuti to do that. Then,
with their greater agility and audacity, they snatch the foot right out of the eagle's beak. Every dry season,
thousands of barramundi perish. In the past, aboriginal artists, by painting barramundi, tapped the life
essence of that species, and so they ensured that the fish's numbers would always be replenished.


Bluey continues this timeless tradition. His work of art is now complete. He has drawn on the powers of the
Dreamtime, and so, the animals he painted will continue to flourish.

Bluey's wife, Susan, and her friends tell stories to the children and illustrate them with string games. Susan
makes a figure appropriate to the season. It represents lightening, and by the end of October, thunderstorms
forerunners of the wet season, are an almost daily occurrence. This forest, devastated by a late fire set by
lightning, appears to have died, but the rains will soon revive it. The lightning and thunder are brought by a
fearful being called Namarrkon. He carries the lightning like an ark over his body and makes the thunder by
striking stone axes against the clouds. [? Aljur ?], the grasshopper, is painted in electric colors. He appears
in November, the time of the most tumultuous storms. The insects are Namarrkun's children on Earth. The
fierce downpours soon replenish the land. In this time of regeneration, nesting birds bring food to their
young. Plants respond quickly. Forests that were charred and blackened are soon green again. Flowers and
insects proliferate.


To continue Jonathan's education into the traditional life of the Gagudju, Kapirigi, Ilkirr, and Jonathan's
father, Neidjie, take him to a remote, but important place in Kakadu.


The elders show Jonathan how stone knives and spear points are made, how they are struck off a core rock.

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The stone knives are very sharp and, in the past, were used in initiation ceremonies to pierce the nose and
cut distinctive design on shoulders and chests.

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] A group of men paint themselves in preparation for a ceremonial
dance, a corroboree. Among the Gagudju, there are no longer enough people with the knowledge and skills
to perform the ceremonies. This group from neighboring tribes came to help the Gagudju to perform their
ceremonial obligations. The dancers reenact great deeds and mimic the Dreamtime animals. Through
ceremony and compliance with their laws, the Gagudju ensure that their unity with all living things
continues. With Marawuti, who rules the flood plains, and with Ginga, who formed the rock country. As
long as they look after their country, the life force will endure in all its vigor and bounty. During their long
history, the Gagudju have built no great monuments, but they have lived for more than 40,000 years in total
harmony with their environment. They have not destroyed any land, nor diminished its spirit. That is their
Monument. And in the long term, that may be the most important of all. The last of the traditional Gagudju
men know everything that remains of their ancient culture. Only they have this knowledge, and they are old
now. To the traditional people, the loss of their culture means oblivion. Without their culture, their story,
they may survive in the modern world, but there will be no more true Gagudju people. During the season of
the east winds, Nipper Kapirigi died. His spirit has gone back to his country.

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