Sometimes referred to as a ‘dreaming track’, a songline describes a non-linear path across the land or sky marking a route followed closely by ancestors or creator-beings in the Dreaming. Songlines trace astronomical and geographical elements in ancient stories as a means of charting Country. As such, a person can navigate the land by repeating a song, which describes the location of landmarks, waterholes, and other natural phenomena. Australia’s landscape contains an extensive system of songlines, sometimes traversing hundreds of kilometers. Although the name implies that songlines are purely musical in form, they are also recorded in stories, dance, ceremonies and art.

Shared from elder to younger generations, songlines have been vitally important to Indigenous Aboriginal communities for thousands of years. Songlines are considered a cultural web that carries deep spiritual, ecological and cultural knowledge. They connect people to Country, explain the laws by which ancestors have lived by and are a means of teaching younger generations about the origins of their country. Songline are powerful in their ability to overcome language barriers, as the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes, rather than the words themselves.

The Barnumbirr Songline in the Northern Territory

In the Northern Territory, the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land tell the story of Barnumbirr through songlines. Barnumbirr was a creator-being from the Dreaming who was associated with the plant Venus and was said to have come from the island of Baralku in the east. This creator-being guided the first humans to Australia and flew across the land from east to west, naming and creating the animals, plants and land features we see today. The route that Barnumbirr flew became an important songline for the Yolngu people and their neighbors wishing the travel across the land.

Links to the Foundation

Songlines, such as that of the Yolngu people, are a strong reminder of the value the deep-rooted and rich culture of our First Nations peoples. The Watarrka Foundation is passionate about delivering educational opportunities that help Aboriginal communities stay connected with their cultural histories and traditions. Without urgent action and education, surviving mores, such as the tradition of Songlines, are at risk of disappearing within a generation or two. The Watarrka Foundation is here to work with the community to avoid such loss of culture and in turn, give the Aboriginal youth of today a brighter future.

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