Dunggula, a story from Bangerang Nation was produced with the help of the SharingStories Foundation, an organisation that works with more than a dozen Aboriginal communities across Australia to help children and elders record ancient creation stories in a variety of new digital formats for community use and, when deemed acceptable by custodians, shared as education resources. The foundation helps communities produce animated and bilingual digital touch books, interactive cultural maps, short films, augmented reality-guided tours of country and language apps.
In November last year, the foundation in partnership with the Nyikina community won best education app or e-book at the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) awards, for Woonyoomboo the Night Heron, an 85-page animation of a creation story co-produced over 10 years with the Nyikina people in the Kimberley. In September the same work was a finalist for best non-fiction e-book in the 2019 World Digital Media awards.
Bangerang community member and Koori engagement support worker Anne Atkinson oversaw the SharingStories programs at St Georges Road Primary School in Shepparton. She said one benefit of the process was “getting kids to turn up to school excited”.
In 2016, 12 Indigenous year 5 and 6 children chose 12 non-Indigenous kids to partner with on the project. The 24 children were taken to key sites around the Murray River and discussed the story with elders.
SharingStories then organised a team of sound, film and visual artists and producers to work with the children under the guidance of elders. The kids were taught the digital skills to make the content and a year later SharingStories artist facilitators returned to help them edit and finish production.
Atkinson said what moved her most was “seeing the kids being proud of what they were doing and their culture and not being shy or ashamed but proud to talk together with our community elders”.
“The elders were very happy that the story was continuing in our area for our people and with the Bangerang language that was being lost. Now with this story it has come alive again,” she said.
Daen Sansbury-Smith, Victorian program manager for SharingStories, said Aboriginal communities have always adapted their cultural expressions to the times. “Back in the ’70s, elders were saying we need to paint on canvas to save and protect our songlines and our stories. Back then painting with acrylic on a square canvas was modern. Now the elders are saying this is the way forward.”
The process also benefits the schools. SharingStories founder and CEO Dr Liz Thompson said: “We help teachers understand how to get custodians into the classroom and how to get children out on country. The community sees the school valuing culture. It’s a place that respects their culture. That builds trust between schools and the communities that they serve.”
The foundation works with communities as far-flung as Warburton in Western Australia, the Kimberley and Arnhem Land as well as eight communities in Victoria, with two more – the Yuin and Bidwell communities in south-east NSW – to commence programs this year.
Since it was founded in 2011, the foundation has co-produced 15 bilingual touch books, including the Wurundjeri creation story of Birrarung (the Yarra River), and seven new digital touch books will be launched in 2020, including the Dunggula story.
The evolution of story
Aboriginal culture is rooted in story and stories have always been enacted in many art forms – song, dance, pattern and ceremony. The multimedia touch books combine old and new arts and media – song, dance, claymation, shadow screen performance, Photoshop and Garage Band, for example – to add layers to stories that have always been multidimensional.
Sometimes elders and adults help children illustrate the stories. The story of the Giant Green Sea Turtle, from the Liya Dhalinymirr people in East Arnhem Land, was illustrated by a senior man using traditional cross-hatching paintings. Now they are being animated.
Digital content often integrates drone footage, photographs, traditional imagery and songs relating to important sites. Apps use augmented reality to show users elements of traditional story and key sites as they walk through country.
One remarkable animation, Wati Kutjarra and Tjintjintji at Nyirrnyirrpungu (Two Men and the Bat People at Nyirrnyirrpungu), superimposes silhouetted dancers moving across a traditional dot painting.
“All culture is fluid,” said Tim Goodwin, co-chair of SharingStories, barrister and member of the Yuin community in south-east NSW. “There’s no sense that Aboriginality or our cultural expression is a concept that is frozen in time.
“And [our digital formats] still incorporate all those ancient traditions of painting and art, dance and language that are the bases of storytelling.”
“To think that one Aboriginal person holds everything is wrong,” said Sansbury-Smith. “Because there are storytellers, there are song people and visual artists … everyone has their role. When we go to communities we always ask who can guide the students best in relation to the multiple art forms that are explored.”
Every program is driven by the community and choices of content, story and images are guided by elders.
“Stories have grown, from 12 to 85-page digital touch books, because each time there’s a journey on country and groups of elders together, they recall fragments of stories that are pieced together,” said Thompson, who has helped Indigenous people publish their stories for over 30 years. “That term used now about ‘awakening sleeping languages’ is accurate about stories, because they are also laying there.
“That’s why it’s so important to facilitate those experiences and journeys because … if [the story] is not catalysed and recalled and recorded, if the sites aren’t located while custodians are able to, then a lot of that knowledge could be lost.”
Gunyuk yama wuta yenbena yakapna malnha damanmy, gona yurratha ganya Baiami ngarrnhang.
Gunyuk asked for all the tribes to sing and dance to the sky, hoping Baiami would hear.
Every SharingStories digital touch book is recorded in traditional language and English and the foundation works with a linguist and/or community language worker to ensure translation is accurate. Many of the languages the foundation works with are on the UNESCO endangered languages list.
The Bangerang language has not been spoken widely since missions banned people from speaking it 100 years ago. But Kobe Atkinson, now 21, narrated the Dunggula story in Bangerang for the digital touch book and the project inspired him to work with his cousin Roland Atkinson and the Bangerang Nation Language Circle to finish a 700-word dictionary of Bangerang language, to be published later this year.
The SharingStories program “provided motivation to bring the language back”, Kobe Atkinson said. “We have grown up with a few words, but not speaking the language. So to know my kids and their grandkids and the whole Bangerang nation will grow up with language is everything.”
He gave a welcome to country at a community event recently and said aunties cried when they heard it spoken in traditional language.
Bangerang means “people of the tall trees”. The dictionary and the touch book are fitting tributes to Dunggula story custodian, the late John “Uncle Sandy” Atkinson, who sadly died before the book was finished. Atkinson founded the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages 25 years ago to help revive Aboriginal languages. SharingStories will return to help produce more language resources with his community later this year.
Every community program produces 10 to 20 hours of teacher resources as well as the digital content. The foundation is building an online education portal to be launched later this year, so resources approved by communities can be shared with schools and teachers around Australia.
Funding comes from federal government Indigenous Languages and Arts, the Australia Council and various philanthropic organisations and is mostly tied to programs. SharingStories would like funding for First Nations managers and to expand the education and culture portal, Thompson said.
Goodwin said the first stage for SharingStories is to impart skills to help communities keep recording their stories and the next stage is to share education resources approved by communities with all Australians.
“The stories inhabit this place we call home. That’s why it’s important for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to know them,” he said.
Feeling satisfied that the country was no longer thirsty, Gunyuk lay down on the banks of Lake Alexandrina. Her baka (dog) played along the beach and kicked sand up … forming enormous hills, now known as the Adelaide Hills.