Organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection


When I was a child, my father would put me on his lap and sing to me our traditional songlines—songlines about Law and songlines of the Djan’kawu, songlines about Yirrkala and Nhulunbuy and songlines about a place called Wopurruwuy. These songlines take you to another world, different from the physical world. The stories and the songlines take you back to the time of our ancestors.

My father told me, “Other Yolŋu will see that you have many stories and strong Law. They will recognize it and say, ‘Yes, it is the same, like our Dreaming, the same Law.’” This is because the Djan’kawu moved from one Country to another, connecting all of the Dhuwa clans by their spiritual ties to the two sisters. And that is the knowledge my father gave to me.

Painting is one form of information, and songlines are another. Together they are our foundations. For instance, when we sing of the waterholes Milŋurr, we sing of the Djan’kawu putting her digging stick into the ground and spring water coming out. The water comes out from our knowledge. The knowledge of our fathers and grandfathers comes to the fore, and we put it on the bark, just like water flowing from the waterhole. The water Milŋurr, water of knowledge, water of wisdom. We sing the songline of Milŋurr, coming up from the sacred world when the Djan’kawu punctured the ground with their digging sticks. You puncture into my knowledge and water comes out, and then it spreads across the body. That is how we sing in ceremony, of the water coming out. We sing of the water coming out as the Djan’kawu punch their wapitja’ djota (digging sticks) into the ground. Water comes out; knowledge comes out; knowledge from our ancestors, passed on from generation to generation.

First, I must tell you about ŋaṉmarra. Ŋaṉmarra is the sacred dillybag or conical mat of the Djan’kawu, but it also refers to the womb of the Djan’kawu, from which they are about to give birth to a nation: the Rirratjiŋu nation. That is what it means. It holds a knowledge and wisdom and carries the sacred objects belonging to the Djan’kawu at Yalaŋbara. Ŋaṉmarra is a powerful and significant word according to the ritual and ceremony of Djan’kawu at Yalaŋbara. And from the ŋaṉmarra, a people are born: the special nation linked to the Rirratjiŋu Law of the Djan’kawu, the nation called Yandalyandal Matjarra Malayarayŋu, Malabuŋunbuŋun Malawirrmalawirr.

From the womb of the sisters, the Rirratjiŋu clan was born, and this is the reality of ŋaṉmarra according to ceremony and Law. And when we speak of the rays of the sun, or milŋurr, the freshwater that comes from the ground, we are speaking of knowledge and wisdom, all linked together by Djan’kawu. The djanda (goannas) and the djota (Casuarina) tree—they all represent the sisters and their brother.

Djan’kawu—two sisters and a brother—arrived here from the spirit world Burralku (also called Gulwayulwa, Gulirrwulirr, Ninimbiyarra, and Djanbamagarr). On the horizon, they saw the thunder cloud Wulma Birrwirryuwanawan, which gave them the idea to journey across the sea by dugout canoe. They talked among themselves, making preparations, and put their sacred objects in the dugout canoe and began paddling. The paddle they used was the Mawalan.

They began their travels in the afternoon, and on the way, night fell. As they paddled, they punched the water with the Mawalan, and spring water came up. The water was freshwater, but the Djan’kawu knew that somewhere, something was making the water salty. And as they journeyed, they saw all the sea creatures, and they sang them. They were singing and adding all the fish, whales, octopuses, and all the sea birds. They were all sung and added just as they are, Malabuŋunbuŋun Yandalyandal Matjarra, all out of that ŋaṉmarra. Anything that moves, Malabuŋunbuŋun Yandalyandal Matjarra, was taken out from the conical mat and sung by the Djan’kawu.

And they saw the morning star: the first morning star, and then the second and the third. The stars were getting close to Yalaŋbara, giving the Djan’kawu a pathway and showing them the land before the rays of the sun lit up Yalaŋbara’s sandhills. And they followed those stars, up to where the third star was, high and starting to fade away, as the daybreak came. And then the sunrise: the ray of the sun came up first and shone upon Bäḻma Yunumu at Yalaŋbara.

From there, on the other side, they went over to the island of Wapilina and put their clapsticks and djota and palm trees—gulwirri—those sacred objects were placed in there. At the same time, they met Makassan trepang traders. Djan’kawu told them off, telling them, “This is Rirratjiŋu land. This is a Dhuwa area, not a Yirritja area, so you should move now. Pack yourself and move away.” Djan’kawu saw them off, but the Makassans left behind their pots and their rocks for the cooking, and a paddle they were using for cooking the trepang. Djan’kawu was coming in fully decorated and dressed up with their Rirratjiŋu belongings: headbands, armbands, sacred dilly bags, digging sticks, all decorated with ritual emblems for ceremony.

Lany’tjuŋ (the Yirritja creation being) arrived at that place, Wapilina, and traded with Djan’kawu for lorikeet feathers. After trading for feathers with Ḻany’tjuŋ, Djan’kawu went across to the mainland to Bilirriwuy. But before they landed, they put their ŋaṉmarra onto the water, and it became a rock called Ŋaṉmarrawuy, and there is freshwater underneath, bubbling up, freshwater bubbles. Bilirriwuy is a big rocky hill, and they tried to plunge for spring water, but the djota broke as it hit the hard rock underneath. The end of the Mawalan was broken.

So, from there, they went over to a place called Bukinya. You can see Bukinya River from Guluruŋa, on the other side of the bay from the west side, and nearby you see a small beach called Gurundawuy. Right there is the mouth of Wonga Creek, where Mäṉa the shark stopped. The shark came in from Nambatjiŋu Gurrayala and traveled inland, up the river, and stopped there at Gurundawuy because he saw Djan’kawu. Djan’kawu saw him, so the shark turned around and headed back toward Girriwala.

On the other side of that creek, you see a lot of rocks; that rocky area is called Guyiyiŋawuy. Guyiyiŋa is another name for the whistling duck—not the light-brown one (Dendrocygna eytoni), which is Yirritja, but the dark-brown one (Dendrocygna arcuata), which is Dhuwa. That is all Rirratjiŋu area. And inland from that place called Guyiyiŋa is a place called Wamaku. That area is down from Gulkula, where the floodplains are, but above that is called Wamaku. And the Djan’kawu traveled inland from there to a place called Ganyuŋiyalawuy, where he created a milŋurr at Ganyuŋiyala. And that is the second to last place where he planted his djota in the ground and freshwater came out. The actual escarpment—the djurruwu—is where the bauxite mine now sits. That is where the yarrpany (honey) was cooked by the Sugarbag Man. That story sits on top, but underground is milŋurr, spring water, created by Djan’kawu. That is the foundation that holds that area.

From Ganyuŋiyala, his last movement was onto another whistling duck area—a place called Guminyunbuy. Guminyun is another name for that whistling duck, and that is where the Rirratjiŋu language changed into the Ŋaymil language. The Ŋaymil language started there, going toward Nupurra Gawi Dhularrpa Yilinwakurrwakur in Ŋaymil Country. And that is where the Rirratjiŋu language stopped and Rirratjiŋu Country ends.