Thursday, May 30, 2024

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HomeIssue 1The eternal chase: songlines of the Seven Sisters

The eternal chase: songlines of the Seven Sisters

Above: Tracks of the Seven Sisters at Walinynga (Cave Hill). Photo: June Ross, UNE. 

In this moment when, in the Western world at least, the tide is turning on what is permissible in men’s sexual approaches to women, it is fascinating to be taken into ancient scenarios in exactly these gender borderlands.
I am talking about the National Museum of Australia’s major exhibition, Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters, which brings together work from numerous Martu, Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara artists and story-tellers from the desert lands.
The pursuit of the sisters by a powerful man is at the heart of the several versions of the  story that are presented, with varying emphases not only in incident but in the character of the interactions. These change, sometimes subtly, sometimes distinctly, not only with language group but with the story-teller.
Consistently though the man is in chase, and the sisters are in flight, finding strength and safety in staying together, looking after one another, attempting to retaliate.
p2501 Seven Sisters Dome 450Male sexual desire is forefronted, so much so that the erect phallus is often treated as a separate entity from the man. It is troublesome, not only to the women, but to the man himself, Wati Nyiru in the APY Lands. In Stanley Douglas’ account, Wati Nyiru is aware that the unruliness of his arousal is getting in the way of a proper approach to the sisters, Kungkarangkalpa. His “longfella malpa” takes off without him, Douglas recounts.
Left: Walinynga (Cave Hill) experienced inside the exhibition’s dome. Photo: Sarah Kenderdine, UNSW.
Douglas is a senior custodian for Walinynga (Cave Hill, a rock art site in the APY lands) and in a short video tells the story with humour and relish for its lusty details. Video, used in a variety of ways, is a real strength in this exhibition, bringing people and country into the space, enlivening and deepening our understanding of the stories and the ways they are manifest in paintings, ceramics, punu (wood carving), tjanpi (woven grass sculpture).
In another video, we hear from Martu women at the Minyipura Parnngurr Rock Hole (Minyipura being the Martu name for the group of sisters). There is a greater sense of threat felt by the women in this account – the story-tellers are not laughing. They also describe how the sisters fought back, teasing, taunting and generally giving him, Yurla in their language, “a rough time”, including by urinating on his face, until he couldn’t see anything.
Then again, we hear in a video from Nyurpaya Kaika Burton, familiar to Alice art audiences as a frequent exhibitor at Desert Mob (for Tjala Arts and Tjanpi Desert Weavers) and an inimitable contributor to its symposium. Her story is tempered by her delight in being at her birthplace for the telling, the Seven Sisters site of Atila (Mount Connor). We hear about experiences of country, story, song in her long life, going back to babyhood.
It is perhaps clearest from Nyurpaya the way the story is used as a cautionary tale, instructing women and girls to stay on clear ground to protect themselves from the wily Wati Nyiru. In her telling the sisters, Kungkarangkalpa, like Wati Nyiru but not his friend, the long erect male member who walks alongside him. Again, male sexual desire is seen as troublesome, menacing in male-female relations. It manifests as a snake which threatens to penetrate the women and girls, coming up from the earth as they are sitting; they will be able to protect themselves, seeing it best on clear ground, they are taught.

As all these videos are filmed on location at the sites of the stories, they help viewers understand, in a way that the more abstracted representations in paintings cannot, how the stories span vast stretches of country and come to be articulated in particular sites.
Right: Minyipuru at Pangkal, 2016, by Mulyatingki Marney, Nancy Nyanjilpayi Chapman and May Maywokka Chapman, © the artists, Martumili Artists. Photo: National Museum of Australia.
The most enthralling are the videos screened inside a six-metre wide dome. There are two: one animates a number of the artworks in the exhibition, their major story-telling elements drawn out as Shellie Morris narrates; the other takes the viewer inside Walinynga (Cave Hill), the most extensive Seven Sisters rock art site in existence, with its oldest layer of paintings dating back some 3,400 years.
A circular upholstered platform with head cushions allows viewers to lie down beneath the dome. Being in this prone position, unusual in a public space, invites surrender as you are transported deep into the desert and through time, as the sisters eternally seek shelter in the cave from Wati Nyiru, as they get tired and as others are born.
Wati Nyiru’s unfulfilled desire here turns deadly. He struggles to understand why his approaches to the sisters are so unsuccessful. The realisation that he is a sorcerer apparently disgusts him. Nonetheless, he works black magic on the oldest sister, who has been the most alert to his ruses. She dies as a result of his violent rape.
And so the story goes, the sisters and their pursuer forever captive of apparently irreconcilable positions, as reflected in the stars of the night sky where they came to rest, known in the West as the Pleiades and Orion.
The resonance between the Australian stories of these star clusters and the European ones is not explored in the exhibition, but it is acknowledged: “… even other people overseas know the Seven Sisters story in their own way,” Ngalangka Nola Taylor and Kampala Girgiba are quoted as saying.

It is also noted that some of the contributing artists do not speak of seven sisters but rather of groups of sisters. For instance, Muuki Taylor represents a group of five in his 2004 painting, Jurta-rarra Pula Yaninypa, the Sisters Are Going to Another Place. The interpretive panel for this work suggests that the reference to seven sisters may result from the fusion of Jukurrpa stories with European ones for the Pleiades star cluster.
Left: Kungkarrangkalnga-ya Parrpakanu – Seven sisters are flying, 2015, Tjanpi Desert Weavers and Papulankutja Artists (individual artists noted at bottom),  Photo: Vicki Bosisto 
You could spend a month of Sundays in this exhibition and still not exhaust its offerings. These include exploration of the ways Jukurrpa stories guide not only mores between people but travels and hunting and gathering practices across the lands. Perhaps the most glorious example of this is the three metre by five metre collaborative painting Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground), by eight women from Martumili Artists (see below).  Here the appearance of the sisters, Minyipura, and their pursuer Yurla is shown as a seasonal signal for burning practices, with the plant responses and hunting opportunities mapped for stretches of country in every direction around the community of Parnngurr, at the western end of one of two Seven Sisters songlines in Martu country.
Another strand of the exhibition reveals the story of the research and creative collaborations behind it, over long years of work by teams from the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University with the Aboriginal people involved, who were led by a curatorium of senior Aboriginal women and men.
It sets the bar high for what could be achieved in the national Indigenous art gallery aspired to in Alice Springs, and demonstrates the depth of commitment and extent of resources involved.

Below: Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground), 2013, by Kumpaya Girgirba, Yikartu Bumba, Kanu Nancy Taylor, Ngamaru Bidu, Janice Yuwali Nixon, Reena Rogers, Thelma Judson and Nola Ngalangka Taylor. © the artists, Martumili Artists. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

Note: Artists credit for Kungkarrangkalnga-ya Parrpakanu – Seven sisters are flying: Anawari Inpiti Mitchell; Angyiliya Tjapitji Mitchell; Belle Karrika Davidson; Claudia Yayimpi Lewis; Elaine Warnatjura Lane; Freda Yimunya Lane; Janet Nyumitji Forbes; Janet Nuyunkanya Lane; Jennifer Mintiyi Connelly; Jennifer Nginyaka Mitchell; Mildred Nginana Lyons; Miriam Iwana Lane; Nora Nyutjanka Davidson; Paula Parkway Lyons.
The exhibition is showing at the National Museum in Canberra until 25 February.


  1. This is a fantastic exhibition showcasing the rich desert culture and stories. A must see if in Canberra!

  2. Great article, an eloquent precursor to what will be something incredibly powerful in the flesh.
    Great to see such an exhibition showing on the inhabited edge. It seems many a viewer will experience the power of the narrative and Australian landscape, both demanding surrender much like upholstered platform you describe.

  3. Wonder-filled report, Kieran! A sure enticement for anyone able to access the exhibition, but a satisfying and educational read for those, like me, who have only your words serving as an introduction.

  4. “His ‘longfella malpa’ takes off without him, Douglas recounts” has a troublesome message in Aboriginal art that crosses over into the art of all cultures.
    The phallic symbol and its impact on social behavior has long been the subject of art discussion and consternation in western civilization, from the ancient statue of David down to the modern day.
    Longfella malpa rampant has a lot to answer for in an increasingly violent world of clashing cultures.
    Ancient Central Australian culture sums it up neatly in a single brilliant phrase.

  5. Having spent time recently at this luminary exhibition, I can affirm that Kieran’s article succeeds in a wonderfully evocative way to convey both the narrrative grandeur and troubled sexual entanglements of the Kungkarangkalpa exhibition.
    An ancient cautionary tale that indeed resonates just as strongly across cultures today.

  6. The Seven Sisters (Pleiades) in old Greek versions of the myth are chased by the handsome hunter, Orion, who falls for Merope, the youngest of the Pleiades. Some say she is granddaughter of Dionysos and Ariadne. Versions change across European tribal countries.
    In one version, Merope’s father, Oenopion (the “wine drinker”) agrees that Orion can marry his daughter if he clears the island of wild animals.
    This Orion does, but her father goes back on the deal, wanting his daughter for himself. In a drunken rage Orion seizes Merope. Merope’s father blinds Orion while he is asleep in a stupor.
    Later Orion joins up with Artemis the huntress, with whom the Pleiades travel. Maybe they have a hunter’s affair, though some say he is still after Merope.
    It ends badly for Orion. Artemis’ jealous brother sends a giant scorpion to kill him, or tricks Artemis into shooting him. Artemis, in sorrow, places Orion in the sky as the constellation. He is seen even now being chased by the Scorpion while he follows Merope and the sisters.
    Finnane rightly brings out some details of the humour and conflict between men and women in the Songlines tjukurrpa; sexual intrigue, deception, lust for sex and power.
    The ungovernable “longfella malpa” is a problem, especially when drunk, yet its not a simple story.
    Orion and Merope were a promised marriage. The father’s betrayal set in train tragic events. The myths of our cultures can instruct us all. Some say Merope finally married Sisyphus, the man who pushed a rock up hill.

  7. @ Craig San Roque. Thank you for an interesting and entertaining snapshot of Greek mythology. Makes a good comparison with the story in Aboriginal Songlines.
    They are great stories that have stood the test of time simply because they are great stories that stand alone.
    It is only when they are captured by today’s Left and the Human Rights Brigade, the champions of victimhood and causes, and start putting today’s alternative spin on them, that the lustre and sheer brilliance begins to fade.

  8. I Nicole Laughton of Alice Springs wish to make this public statement in the name of
    my fullblood Arrernte Mbuparinya ancestor Ankararinja of Ankarretherrketherrke:
    1) Native Title was won over Alice Springs with a women’s ceremony.
    2) Women cannot talk for men, likewise men cannot talk for women.
    3) The caterpillars are not the ceremony holders of the Yeperenye Dreaming.
    4) The Yeperenye Dreaming is the ceremony that won title for the Arrernte people over Alice Springs.
    The caterpillars came from four different directions for ceremonies at Mbupa (Mbupa is the true name of the central Arrernte boundary. The Mbuparinya are the true bosses of Alice Springs).
    The caterpillars were intruding, and had their heads chopped off by the Green Beetles aka Ilperenye before the Emus were called in to feast on the caterpillars, the Emus being the Seven Sisters gathered on the south side of the ranges for women’s ceremonies.
    5) Mbantua is not a real clan group. Mbantua is only a tree down the Todd River near St Philip’s School.
    Mbantua is the visitors name for this place. The real name of Mbantua (the tree down the creek) is Tjoritja.
    6) The ceremony holders are the direct descent bloodlines of Ankararinja of Ankerretherrketherrke whose father was the last Apmereke Artwe of the Central Arrernte boundary. His name was Palingaruku and was also known as Inkurrknabuna (Coolibah Swamp Dweller). He was an Emu Man – the white people knew him as Legrope. He worked on Undoolya Station in the late 1800s.
    7) The voices of the direct descent bloodlines of Ankararinja of Ankerretherrketherrke are being suppressed by certain individuals who are financially benefiting through the native title body Lhere Artepe as well as the Central Land Council. They are illegally trading with the Government.
    8) The Central Land Council and later Lhere Artepe have time and time again failed in their duty of care to Ankararinja’s descendants by way of not acknowledging their existance. This is why people believe that the caterpillars are the bosses of Alice Springs. Only the first part of the story has been publicly told, the rest of the story is not commonly known to many people but has been documented.
    A major aspect of the Yeperenye Festival was to welcome home the Stolen Generations. Lhere Artepe has been overrun by displaced mixed bloods who do not know who they are yet obviously feel they are just in their acknowledged traditional owner statuses.
    This is the main reason that the other tribes do not respect the Arrernte when they visit this town.
    9) The Central Land Council is not an Aboriginal organisation. They do not ethically and fairly represent the Aboriginal People.
    The Central Land Council exist for the sole purpose of legitimising trade on behalf of the Government for world trade purpopses.
    10) The Land Council, Lhere Artepe and the Government have failed in their duty of care to be ethical and fair to the descendants of Ankararinja. That is why there is so much unrest in Central Australia.
    11) Today Ankararinja’s descendants are all of mixed race blood. Many of Ankararinja’s descendants have been documented largely as children who were placed in all three of the historical half caste kids’ homes all known in the past as the Bungalow.
    12) It is well known that these children were sent away with the soldiers’ wives in the evacuation of the NT when Darwin was bombed in WWII.
    Some of these descendants never came home but many of them did. The ones who did are the ones who have this ceremony, it is ours through our own existance.
    13) Lhere Artepe is out of control and the whole structure of their existence needs to be re-looked at and we request an inquiry into our claims.
    14) We believe that the troubles we now face as a community overall, all stem from the injustices we have faced in our existance.
    The main contributors being lateral violence as other families less fortunate in knowledge / identity are stuck in the survival mode that is a result of colonisation.
    15) We have had an apology from the government for displacing our elders. This is a sorry that means nothing to us, as we as the true bloodlines of this country take a back seat to the convenient manipulations who in the name of oppression benefit at our expense.
    It is not the responsibility of the Arrernte People to clean up the mess that past societies under government policies have created.
    16) We, as the direct descent bloodlines, request this is addressed in a fair and equitable manner under the watchful public eye.
    Yours sincerely,
    Nicole Laughton on behalf of the voiceless descendants of Ankararinja of Ankarretherrketherrke Mbupa.
    [ED – The Alice Springs News Online has offered Lhere Artepe and the Central Land Council the right of reply.]

  9. A wonderful review, Kieran. I’m lucky to be able to have a month of Sundays to take in all the aspects of this amazing exhibition.
    Craig’s explanation of the Greek myth adds yet another layer. It reinforces that for all our diversity we are one human race. I’ll be going again next week.
    Can I hope for your words on the Pippilotti Rist at the MCA, Kieran?

  10. Dear Nicole,
    A good post, but some corrections.
    • “The caterpillars are not the ceremony holders of the Yeperenye Dreaming”.
    You’re right. The local estate group for Tjoritja were the Utnerrengatye people.
    All are of the Peltharre / Kngwarraye subsection. This (and the boundaries of the Tjoritjarenye people – who numbered about 40 at the start of the 20th century) is well documented in historical records from Spencer and Gillen and then supported by TGH Strehlow some 30 to 40 years later.
    The Mparntwe estate is the Tjoritja estate. The researchers were given this information by the original TOs for Alice Springs at the earliest contact times.
    • “The Yeperenye Dreaming is the ceremony that won title for the Arrernte people over Alice Springs”.
    Alice Springs is Utnerrengatye. As is the main caterpillar dreaming for Anthwerrke (Emily Gap), and into Alice Springs via the caterpillar / dogs story.
    Emily Gap nature park has recently been incorrectly renamed “Yeperenye”. Originally Alice Springs was Penangke / Peltharre (four sections of the kin groups) until the early 20th century when the local Arrernte adopted the current eight skin system. Again, this is heavily documented.
    • “Mbantua is not a real clan group”.
    Mparntwe is a clan group, and is a site name – however it is not near St Philip’s school. Originally however, you are correct in saying this land was Tjoritjarenye and belonged to those people. It is correct that there are three clan groups; Irplme; Ampetyane / Ngale, Tjoritja (Mparntwe); Peltharre Kngwarraye, and Ntulye; Penangke / Pengkarte.
    The Ingkarte for Tjoritja was King Charley, aka Irrapmwe Peltharre, at the turn of the 19th century. His Aknganentye site was Ntyarlkele Tyaneme (old judge’s house) which is where he derived his other name, Ntyarlke. He had brothers and sisters are from whom the Tjoritja / Mparntwe people descend from today. His son now has a town camp named after him, Mpwetyerre, (Abbotts camp), which is also a site name near there.
    You make some very good points in the rest of your argument regarding how disenfranchised Arrernte people are (TOs of this area, and neighboring).

  11. @ Researcher: The caterpillars came from different directions for ceremonies at Mbupa.
    Just like people country has skin names which are identified through the songlines.
    It was kngwarraye women who married into the Mbupa Boundary.
    The Apmereke Artwe line is extinct because the last Apmereke Artwe (The Emu Man) only had daughters.
    There is only one law if people want to talk for country and that is corroborree.
    If you got no corroborree then you should not be talking as a professional in regards to country. If you have got corroborree then bring it.
    The Utnerrengatye Caterpillar came from Warre Therre and finished up at Mbupa.
    My family are also the ones who speak for the Utnerrengatye just through a different ancestor.
    By the way, the anthropolgists didn’t always get it right and the old people didn’t tell them all of our secrets.

  12. Very interesting Nicole – obviously you think you are right and have the whole story.
    What is absolutely correct is that informants to the researchers, (i.e. the bosses for the corroboree and country you are speaking about) gave those researchers the stories, site names, associated skin names and genealogies for those places.
    Are you saying that you know more now in 2018, than the informants of the 1890s – 1920s and 1930s – 1960s did?
    While it’s true they didn’t reveal entire stories in some instances, they entrusted the researchers because at the time and due to the pressures of European arrival, culture was under threat.
    Those old people showed complete agency in revealing their culture for its survival, and future study and research by those Aboriginal people interested in learning.
    I encourage you to keep reading before drawing absolute conclusions.

  13. @ Researcher: You seem to think you know everything. Just curious, have you actually grown up being taught culture? Or do you think you know everything from sources you have researched?

  14. Ilperenye (the green beetles) prepared to fight the caterpillars as they approached Warretherre from the north.
    The caterpillars escaped by going into the ground and travelled to another place called Antherrke (same name as Emily Gap) meaning caterpillar’s guts. They travelled past the Arltunga road at a place called Aleyekemele then eventually to Emily’s Gap.
    They stopped at several places along the way; Ilpirulcha, Achilpa-Interninja, Laliknaka, Chalipma and I-yatherka.
    In the meantime the green beetles travelled at a much faster pace. Ilperenye sat down and waited at Ankarratherrketherrke.
    Looking back they saw the caterpillars coming. Then there was a violent fight between the beetles and the caterpillars, many of the caterpillars had their heads bitten off.
    Ilperenye also fought here with the caterpillars that came from the south west (from Ewrlpe) and did the same to them.
    According to Rauwiraka and Utnadata III: The ancestral emu men left Ankararinja at Ankarretherrketherrke when they travelled to Mount Undoolya for men’s business from Ooroomina.
    The Emu woman was there at Ankarretherrketherrke all this time, she never went anywhere since her father left her there, and she had a big feed of caterpillars after the battle.
    Not much has been recorded by the white people in regards to women’s law but women’s law is still strong. Having been handed down through the generations orally since time began.
    I know who I am and I know who my ancestors were.
    Why are you hiding behind your alias of Researcher? I predict that you are one of the convenient manipulations who is a beneficiary of the Yeperenye Nominees, trying to protect your [improperly obtained] assets.
    The songlines are about kinship and who is related to who, they tell us everything. There is only one law and that is corroborree. It is the caterpillars who are in the wrong here as they were only visitors to this place. Like I said the first time convenient manipulations benefitting in the name of oppression.
    I will not bother with debating this further with you because you obviously think that you have and know everything. If you are so confident in your knowledge why are you hiding your identity? Don’t bother answering that because I really don’t care – all I know is that my family have our corroborree.


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