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November 2021

Songspirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country through Songlines

By Gay’wu (Dilly Bag) Group of Women (Laklak Burarrwanŋa, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Banbapuy Ganambarr, Djawundil Maymuru, and adopted ŋäpaki Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson, and Sarah Wright (Allen & Unwin) | Review by Monique Grbec

The world sings all the time… the world is a sound…  

In the predawn chill of Yolŋu Country (northern Arnhem Land, NT) women from all over the world trek through the bush to sit at the top of a cliff for milkarri. Milkarri is the Yolŋu women’s aspect of the manikay, the ceremonial songs called songspirals. 

Country is the songspirals, it is milkarri. Country is the way humans and non-humans co-become, the way we emerge together…

In 2007, during Garma Festival Women’s Cultural Camp, we sat on the ground with our eyes closed. An Elder welcomed us into a journey of song where we met Country and kin. As English language dissolved into Yolŋu matha and the deep tremulous chanting of many Yolŋu women, time disappeared to swim within me. Suspended in the universe I cried and cried and cried.

Sorrow, love, happiness, joy, and heartache… tears represent a being or a belonging, a beginning or an end, a journey…

As birds sang in the dawn, we were prompted to open our eyes to greet them. My shame for public crying was shifted – every single woman in the light of the new day wore their tears with pride. Our tears united us.

We have a life force… inside. We hate the word dreaming. We are not asleep. We are here and have all this knowledge, this life force, collective thought, a soul that is created by water…

Nearly fifteen years after my Garma experience, when I recall it, once again, tears wash through my body to pierce my eyes. This co-existing between times, where memories are vividly relived – both physically and emotionally, this is the essence of Yolŋu songspirals.

Songspirals… spiral out and in, they go up and down, round and round forever… connecting and remaking… they are a map we follow through Country as they connect to people and other clans… Each time we sing our song spirals we learn more, go deeper, spiral in and spiral out…

Songspirals, the third book by the Gay’wu Group of Women invites us to become part of their milkarri, their songspirals. As well as offering deep insight into the protocols and knowledge that have sustained the Yolŋu for millennia, they encourage us to recite their Yolŋu matha to bring their world into ours. 

We can balance both cultures, we can share. We will treat you like family

The unity of bringing together our two cultures, as an expression of kinship and responsibility, is portrayed in the songspiral The Wukun. Translated as the ‘gathering of the clouds’ it represents the evolution of The Gay’wu Group of Women: how they met, their relationship growing, and how they regularly travel across the country to come together to write the book – like clouds. 

We meet each other, our collective; we come together and we separate. We rain. New shoots grow. And, when the time is right, we come together again. This is the cycle, like the cycles of evaporation and falling rain that holds us all… 

As my struggles to decolonise evolve, and my shame of public crying resolves safely in the sacred place gifted to me by the Yolŋu women at Garma, the Wukan songspiral gifts me with a path out of isolation to a life of shared experience and the collective.

We are the rain falling, the waters meeting, mixing, clashing, the moisture going up to the clouds. We are our tears and our tears are this book, this book that we have written together and that now we share.

My son kisses my eyelids, and my mother is here, kissing my eyelids. The love spirals – he is my mother, my mother is my child. Milkarri brings my mother to us for our own songspiral. I cry for my mum, and I cry for all of the Stolen Generations. Through the spiral turning I feel great pride that Mum blessed me with this legacy of love and connection. Forever together.

Order your copy of Song Spirals from Readings.