Dreaming the Keepara

Dreaming the Keepara: New South Wales indigenous cultural perspectives, 1808-2007

Kelly, Raymond

Institution:University of Newcastle. Academic Division, The Wollotuka Institute

This interdisciplinary study investigates the Aboriginal intellectual heritage of the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, through a combination of family history, oral tradition, and audio-recorded songs, stories, interviews, discussions, and linguistic material. This research has uncovered an unsuspected wealth of cultural knowledge, cultural memory, and language heritage that has been kept alive and passed down within Aboriginal families and communities, despite the disruptions and dislocations endured over the past seven generations. This study’s findings are presented in three interrelated forms: a dance performance that incorporates traditional and contemporary songs, stories, and lived experiences of an Aboriginal extended family; an oral presentation within the framework of Aboriginal oral transmission of knowledge and this written exegesis, which is itself an experiment in finding pathways for the expression and progression of Aboriginal knowledge within the context of academic discourse. The theoretical framework of this work is grounded in my personal experience of Aboriginal traditions of knowledge production and transmission, maintained through everyday cultural activities, family memories of traditional education, and our traditional and present-day language forms and communicative practices. The performance, oral and written components connect this intellectual and cultural heritage with historical and photographic documentation, linguistic analyses, and audio recordings from my grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ generations. The written component establishes the background to the study, and reviews relevant literature with a prioritisation of Aboriginal voices and sources of knowledge, both oral and written. It explores aspects of my family history from the early 1800s to the present, including my childhood and early educational experiences and leads on to a detailed look at the work of my late father, Raymond Shoonkley Kelly in documenting and maintaining out intellectual and cultural heritage through the NSW Survey of Aboriginal Sites. The final part of this study focuses on language, which is central to all of the preceding investigation. This work demonstrates how operating from an Aboriginal knowledge base allows us to see beyond surface differences in spelling and pronunciation, to reach a deeper understanding of the cultural meanings and ways of speaking that have allowed us to preserve and maintain out cultural integrity. This knowledge base also enables the linguistic unpacking of previously unanalysable song material from the audio recordings. Indigenous people in New South Wales are continuing to engage in a cultural and political struggle to maintain and protect our identity in the face of an ever-present threat of assimilation by the mainstream Australian society. The success of our struggle will depend significantly on our ability to keep our language and our intellectual heritage alive.

Keywords dreamingKeeparaAboriginal Reservesindigenous cultural perspectivesAboriginalAborigineDreamtimerace relationsAborigines protection boardAboriginal Welfare BoardAboriginal Missions


Edible insect larvae in Kaytetye


Journal of Ethnobiology 37(1):120-140. 2017

Edible Insect Larvae in Kaytetye: Their Nomenclature and Significance
No Access

Insects have traditionally constituted an important source of food in many cultures, but changes in dietary practices and other lifestyle traits are threatening the transmission of insect-related knowledge and vocabulary to younger generations of Indigenous Australians. This paper describes the rich cultural and culinary traditions surrounding an important insect group, namely a class of edible insect larvae consumed by a desert community in central Australia. Twenty-nine different edible insect larvae are named in the Kaytetye language, with the names encoding the identity of the host plant on which the larvae are found. We describe the complexities involved in the naming system, paying special attention to cultural and linguistic factors. The difficulties in the scientific identification of these ethnotaxa are discussed, as are the significance of our data to (1) questions of universal patterns in ethnoclassification and nomenclature and (2) the purported lack of binomially-labeled folk species in the languages of hunter-gatherer societies.

Phylogenesis of the Dreamtime

by David Rose. [unpaywalled version here]


The aim of this paper is to sketch some possible correlations between phases in the development of languages in Australia, and phases in the archaeological record of people in the continent. The technique is to compare Australian language groupings, at the scales of phylum, family, group, language and dialect, with events in the climatic and archaeological history of the continent. The emerging historical account is also correlated with other evidence from linguistics, anthropology and mythology, to identify four broad historical phases associated with expansions and contractions of resources and human populations. Universalist maxims about rates of language and cultural change are challenged by these data, suggesting that rates of change in Australia may have been considerably slower than rates in Europe, where such maxims originate. It is argued that this gradual change is more consistent with Aboriginal communities’ own accounts of their histories.

Long-Distance Diffusion of Affinal Kinship Terms as Evidence of Late Holocene Change in Marriage Systems in Aboriginal Australia

Read Patrick McConvell’s chapter in Strings of Connectedness: Essays in Honour of Ian Keen (2015), edited by Peter Toner. The following is a selection from the chapter’s introduction:

Ian Keen has made significant contributions to the comparison of Australian Aboriginal societies, and specifically to the relationship between types of marriage, kinship systems and other aspects of society and economy. He  has maintained a commitment to the rigorous study of kinship systems and to comparative anthropology, or ethnology, when these orientations became unpopular in sociocultural anthropology. One of his major works (2004) systematically compared representative groups throughout Australia, emphasising how aspects of social organisation linked to economies. On a smaller scale was his brilliant study of how the scale of polygyny differed in two neighbouring areas of Arnhem Land, seeking the explanation in matrilateral cousin marriage and networks, age structures and economy (1982).

In recent times he has also joined forces with linguistics in investigating the prehistoric development of these relationships of kinship, marriage and other aspects of social organisation, in the AustKin project (Dousset et al. 2010). One study looked at how asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage developed, with 13 Strings of Connectedness 288 crucial evidence supplied by the change in meaning of kinship terms. Notably the change in marriage type played a strong role in changing meanings of terms. The kinship terms in this case are inherited words within the Pama-Nyungan language family and its subgroups (McConvell and Keen 2011; Keen 2013b).

However, another striking phenomenon is the preponderance of affinal (in-law and spouse) terms among loanwords in kinship vocabulary. Consanguineal terms tend not to be borrowed widely unless they also function as affinal. Apart from affinal terms, kinship terms are rather rarely borrowed. Affinal terms, however, include some of the most long-distance travelling loanwords (Wanderwörter). Why is this so? One might readily guess that words related to marriage are among those that tend to be shared in wide areas since exogamous marriage between language groups is a most salient and frequently discussed topic. Further than this, though, it may be that these new words for spouses and in-laws were first introduced because they were key elements in new marriage practices that were diffusing. This opens a window on changes in the nature of societal and intersocietal alliance in the last few thousand years in the late Holocene in Australia.

Human Consequences of Climate Change, Climate Refugees: An Exploratory Essay

by Frederick A. Snyder-Manetti

Read the paper here. Below is the abstract:

While planning my course schedule for the 2009 Spring Semester, I found myself desperately short of elective credits toward my Bachelor of Arts degree in Geography in order to graduate by the end of the 2010 Autumn Semester. From the limited course choices offered for the spring semester, only two worked with the other required courses I needed as well: Cultural & Global Competence and Global Hot Spots. Little did I know at the time, but the latter would prove to be the most stimulating course of my entire undergraduate geography program. Not only did this course forge within me a true interest in the current affairs of an ever-growing globalized society, it also provided me with a thesis topic to pursue during my anticipated master’s program.

At the heart of the Global Hot Spots’ curriculum were three over-arching themes: the global food crisis, the global health crisis, and the global environment crisis. These themes laid the groundwork for all topics that fueled our daily projects and peer discussions. The topics included, but were not limited to, economic globalization; rising levels of obesity in Western countries; the insurgence of global “super bugs;” issues related to projected world population growth rates; the emergence of a global north versus a global south; and projected sea-level rise owing to rising temperatures.

As a class, the first item we would broach each meeting were two questions meant to open our daily in-class discussions. But on March 12, 2009 we, as a class, failed to answer the questions for the first and only time. The two questions were: “What is a Climate Refugee; define and give examples?” and “What are ways potential Climate Refugees can alter their traditional/current homes to prevent climate/environmental displacement? Give examples if known?” Our entire group was thoroughly puzzled by the idea of a refugee being a displaced member of a society because of climate change, let alone methods by which humans could adapt fast enough to preserve their ways of life against something so powerful as the climate change. Ever since that day, the mounting realities of climate refugees, how they have come to exist from human prehistory to the present, and the growing global issues related to their ever-increasing numbers has provided not only my thesis topic but commanded (and haunted to a certain extent) my research interests for the last four years.

However, about half way through my graduate program, my studies took a turn away from my original proposed topic of simply researching climate refugees. Through many lively discussions with my peers, co-workers, and anyone curious about my chosen topic of climate refugees, I began to realize over time that the vast majority of the people I interacted with had no idea what a climate refugee was, is, or will be. This ostensibly universal ignorance made the navigation of a discussion that revolved around climate refugees quite perilous at times. Eventually, I came to notice that there was a glaring common element among the vast majority of these people who could not come to grips with the idea of a climate refugee. Most of the individuals that I interacted with lacked the most basic understanding of how Earth functions, from a physical geographic standpoint, and the extent of codependent interaction among Earth’s systems. Once I provided that information as a foundation to understand the topic of climate refugees, then these people could engage in higher discussions that revolved around displaced individuals due to either minor or extreme environmental shifts. With that in mind, I was compelled to include in my research larger sections devoted to the elements of Earth’s systems, human consequences related to the interactions with those same systems and their processes, alongside my original topic of climate refugees.

Wangga songmen


For the Sake of a Song: Wangga Songmen and Their Repertories

By Allan Marett, Allan Marett, Linda Barwick and Lysbeth Ford, Linda Barwick, Lysbeth Julie Ford

Wangga, originating in the Daly region of Australia’s Top End, is one of the most prominent Indigenous genres of public dance-songs. This book focuses on the songmen who created and performed the songs for their own communities and for the general public over the past 50 years. The book is organised around six repertories: four from the Belyuen-based songmen Barrtjap, Muluk, Mandji and Lambudju, and two from the Wadeye-based Walakandha and Ma-yawa wangga groups, the repertories being named after the ancestral song-giving ghosts of the Marri Tjavin and Marri Ammu people respectively. Framing chapters include discussion of the genre’s social history, musical conventions and the five highly endangered languages in which the songs are composed. The core of the book is a compendium of recordings, transcriptions, translations and explanations of over 150 song items. Thanks to permissions from the composers’ families and a variety of archives and recordists, this corpus includes almost every wangga song ever recorded in the Daly region. Representing the fruit of more than 20 years’ work by Marett, Barwick and Ford with the families of the songmen, and drawing on a rich archival record of photographs and recordings from the communities of Belyuen and Wadeye, this book is the first phase of a multimedia publication project that will also include a website and a series of CD packages. It is the second book in the series ‘The Indigenous Music of Australia’ published by Sydney University Press. All the recordings are available to stream.


Trees and Cultural Phylogenies


Michael J. O’Briena*Mark CollardbBriggs Buchananab &Matthew T. Boulangera 

Anthropology has always had as one of its goals the explanation of human cultural diversity across space and through time. Over the past several decades, there has been a growing appreciation among anthropologists and other social scientists that the phylogenetic approaches that biologists have developed to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of species are useful tools for building and explaining patterns of human diversity. Phylogenetic methods offer a means of creating testable propositions of heritable continuity – how one thing is related to another in terms of descent. Such methods have now been applied to a wide range of cultural phenomena, including languages, projectile points, textiles, marital customs, and political organization. Here we discuss several cultural phylogenies and demonstrate how they were used to address long-standing anthropological issues. Even keeping in mind that phylogenetic trees are nothing more than hypotheses about evolutionary relationships, some researchers have argued that when it comes to cultural behaviors and their products, tree building is theoretically unwarranted. We examine the issues that critics raise and find that they in no way sound the death knell for cultural phylogenetic work.

[not directly related to Australian languages but relevant to recent work on cultural phylogenetics.]