Dreaming rights

Suzanne Rath

Miliwanga Wurrben working on her central Arnhem land art. Photo: Suzanne Rath
Miliwanga Wurrben working on her central Arnhem land art. Photo: Suzanne Rath

Tom E Lewis is generous with his time and his tales. On a sunny day in the dry-season he sits cross-legged on the grass outside the Katherine visitor centre with me for more than an hour, pausing only to greet fellow country-men as they pass.

Their regard for him is palpable, yet it’s hard fought. Mr Lewis grew up as Murrungen, the son of an Aboriginal mother and Welsh father. Growing up in the bush led him to have a particular connection to country and the stories that belong to it. 

‘I’m part of it. I belong to this country. So when you come to the country, the story’s already in you,’ he says. 

One such dreaming story is that of Namorrodor, which was featured in the ABC’s Dust Echoes series in 2007.

Several years ago, Lewis was approached by the creators of Cleverman, to whom he retold the story.

The show premiered on ABC and Sundance TV earlier this year, but according to Lewis he was only aware of it when he saw the trailer. 

‘They didn’t even invite us to the opening. They secured themselves. Actually, here’s a laugh-I auditioned for a part in it as well,’ he says. 

Mr Lewis says he was unaware of the way in which the Namorrodor story would be used and felt a responsibility to his elders within the community, who had green-lit its re-telling in Dust Echoes.

The idea of other Aboriginal tribes stealing cultural capital frustrates Mr Lewis. 

We’ve had a lot of land, everything, stolen from us, and now our own people are doing it, and it’s shameless. Why would we worry about whitefellas anymore-our mob are more dangerous than anyone else,’ he says.

Tom E Lewis is committed to upholding cultural values. Photo: Suzanne Rath
Tom E Lewis is committed to upholding cultural values. Photo: Suzanne Rath

The concept of stories belonging to a particular country or clan is a strange one for a Western audience, which often views dreaming characters as folklore.

But within Indigenous culture, stories are living, evolving entities which can be the most important possession of a tribe.

They record song-lines – pathways across a living land, following the routes of local creator-beings.

There are protocols for their use and punishments for the misuse or stealing of culture from other tribes.

Miliwanga Wurrben, a cultural consultant based in Katherine, explains.

‘Stories belong to a group of tribal people, specifically that clan group. We cannot take stories from another clan group,’ she says. 

Ms Wurrben shares stories with women of various backgrounds, including members of the stolen generation in the Katherine region.

This is in keeping with protocol, which differentiates between men’s business and women’s business.

‘We would never share with men- they have their own story and protocol that they have to abide by. With children we teach them basic discipline and our everyday lifestyle, but it is only the young women going through puberty that we start to teach about women’s stuff,’ she says.

I have been lucky enough to sit with Ms Wurrben on several occasions before.

She’s spoken to me of the importance of dogs within Aboriginal communities while patting my Staffy-Lab cross outside a friend’s house.

I’ve heard her describe the spiritual experience of feeling the ancestors of a different country appear when she visited Western Australia.

When I interview her for this piece, we sit on a mat outside her daughter’s house and she alternates between carving a coolamon (a wooden carrying vessel) and weaving in her traditional Rembarrnga style.

I am self-conscious, knowing that in traditional Indigenous culture, I am actually being rude by asking direct questions.

This point is later confirmed by a laughing Professor Clare Bradford. 

Professor Bradford, who works in the field of literary studies at Deakin University, has written a large volume of work on reading Indigenous stories.

She takes a hardline approach to their ownership and believes they should be shared by those to whom they belong.

She explains that there are also legal implications to the ownership of stories by certain tribes, including in seminal Land Rights cases. 

“Stories have always been connected with Land Rights claims. Often they’re used in court to demonstrate long standing attachment to the land,” she says. 

Professor Bradford says Aboriginal culture is extremely adaptable and stories are now interlaced with elements of white culture.

But despite urbanisation and changes in Aboriginal society, traditional story ownership is as important as ever. 

“The history of Aboriginal people is that they feel great trepidation and anxiety about losing knowledge. In the early days white settlers, anthropologists, etcetera, came and struck up friendships with people to take their stories,” she says.

They’d tell these stories far and wide and this was profoundly destabilising for communities.” 

The consensus among many culturally aware people who work in remote communities is that they are always learning.

Stories and information are shared with the right people, in the right time and place.

Mr Lewis says, if he wants to know about a place, he will visit that place.

He urges others to pay the same courtesy to his elders and respect where their stories have come from. 

If people want to know our stories they can come sit with us, be with us, be part of it.’