Songlines, written by Bruce Chatwin, an Englishman, tells the story of Bruce’s journey through Australia, in pursuit of understanding how the Songlines work. He learns from the various Aboriginal people he meets, of different tribes and totemic ancestors, and Arkady, former teacher in Walbiri country and basically Bruce’s tour guide. Songlines is the European term. According to Chatwin, Aboriginal people call it “Footprints of the Ancestors” or the “Way of the Law.” Bruce quickly realizes that some of the Aboriginal knowledge is secret, and he must gain some of their trust, which is difficult, considering the tension between white Australia and Aboriginal people. We learn that all the land of Australia was/is sacred land, and how the white man, to this day, lacks respect or understanding of the land and what it means to the Aboriginal people. They and the land are one, and even in the present, although there is a land rights act, there was never a treaty signed for their land. Back in 1788, their land was declared Terra Nullius, and even though there is a National Sorry Day, there has yet to be enough action to demonstrate this apology in the form of government and social justice for the Aboriginal people. There is still a divide and tension between Aboriginal people and the white man, rooted in, not only history, but the lack of white Australia’s empathy, equality, respect, and effort to understand. Through examples from the text and my own experiences living in Sydney, I will show, not only some of the meanings and importance of the land and the “Footprints of the Ancestors,” but also how racism and tension still persist in a multicultural Australia.
To begin, I will define Songlines or the “Footprints of the Ancestors” to the best of my ability, noting that I am getting this information from Chatwin and his interpretation of its meaning from his documented experience. From what Arkady, his Russian Australian guide who has lived and taught in the Aboriginal Walbiri country for years, told him, Chatwin writes:
each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and how these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes. ‘A song’, he said, ‘was both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country (13).
The Aboriginal people’s ancestors, varying in totem/dreaming, “[sang] the world into existence” (13). However, each country, broadly meaning where one’s tribe resides, and each totem clan, belief that each person was descended by the father of a certain species, like the “Wallaby Father”, have different songs. For example, two people could be a part of the same family, but one could have an Emu Dreaming and another a Honey-ant Dreaming, both examples from the book. The belief is that the land did not exist “until they could see and sing it” (14). As one grows up in an Aboriginal country, they learn the invisible pathways of their country, but these pathways or “Footprints of the Ancestors” run all across the continent of Australia. They, however, are secret, and are only known to the Aboriginal people that have been taught the songs.
There are two different forms of tension between white people and Aboriginal people shown in Songlines that stood out to me. Soon after Bruce arrives in Walbiri country and Arkady begins to explain to Bruce how, to Aboriginal people, all of Australia is sacred land, an Aboriginal secretary walks in, happy to see Arkady, but then stops smiling at the sight of Bruce, a stranger. Earlier Arkady told Bruce that they “hate to hear white men discussing their business” (4). In addition, while at a pub, Bruce briefly speaks to an urban activist from Sydney with an Aboriginal flag earring. The exchange is below, beginning with the activist.
“’Are you English?’
‘Why don’t you go back home?’
He spoke slowly, in clipped syllables.
‘I just arrived,’ I said.
‘I mean all of you.’
‘All of who?’
‘White men,’ he said.
The whites had stolen his country, he said. Their presence in Australia was illegal. His people had never ceded one square inch of territory. They had never signed a treaty. All Europeans should go back where they came from” (31). Both examples exhibit different types of frustration and tension, but both are powerful.
Learning of the Songlines and a glimpse of how much the land beneath my feet means to the Aboriginal people makes me think “Does the rest of Australia understand?” Before presentations and speeches, people give gratitude for being on Aboriginal land, but I want to know if they truly understand its importance, how it is not only a part of who Aboriginal people are but how it was “[sung] into existence” thousands of years ago, before white colonists decided to invade. My Australian experience class visited an Aboriginal land site and was given a tour by an Aboriginal man. On numerous occasions, as he walked us through the land and then by the houses around back where he grew up, he touched on the tension between white Australian men and Aboriginal people. For example, he spoke of a racist who lives across the street who puts up an Australian flag in contrast to their Aboriginal flag. Also, he said once he knew something was was wrong with his roof and was sent a plumber, as if he wasn’t educated with what he needed. And one of the last statements I remember him saying was that on January 26, while many Australians celebrate Australia Day, Aboriginals remember Invasion Day. Celebrating a day that was one of the worst days in Aboriginal history does not help with Australia’s case of trying to push past their racist past, such as the White Australia Policy and the Stolen Generation that did not end until the 1970s, towards a more Multicultural, accepting country. The first people on this country and their land still do not receive the amount of respect they deserve.
Lastly, I want to leave a quote that stuck with me:
Aboriginals had fights and vendettas and blood-feuds —but always to redress some imbalance or sacrilege. The idea of invading their neighbour’s land would never have entered their heads (59).
“The idea of invading their neighbour’s land would never have entered their heads,” and yet, white Australia, over centuries, has made it a habit of doing so to Aboriginal land.