Australian Aboriginal man.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Australian Aboriginal art is one of the oldest continuing art traditions in the world. Much of the most important knowledge of aboriginal society was conveyed through different kinds of storytelling—including narratives that were spoken, performed as dances or songs, and those that were painted. In this lesson students will learn about the Aboriginal storytelling tradition through the spoken word and through visual culture. They will have the opportunity to hear stories of the Dreamtime told by the Aboriginal people, as well as to investigate Aboriginal storytelling in contemporary dot paintings.
Telling stories out loud is only one way that Aboriginal people convey narratives. In addition to spoken stories there are also songs and dances that tell similar narratives. Another well-known method—particularly in recent years—is in the form of painting. In this activity students will learn about contemporary, Aboriginal dot painting as a storytelling medium.
Show the class Rover Thomas's painting, Cyclone Tracy, at the National Gallery of Australia, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Center for the Liberal Arts. Begin by asking students to describe what they see in his painting. They should describe the elements of art that appear in this painting, including elements such as lines, shapes, and colors. For instance, does the artist paint in long brushstrokes? Are the lines curved, straight, thick, or thin? Does the artist use a variety of shapes? What types of shapes do you see? What are the colors that the artist uses? Ask students to describe what objects they see in Thomas's painting. What do they think the black cone is? What do they think the red and yellow shapes around the cone are?
When students view the large image of this painting this will likely notice that many of the lines aren't lines at all, but are strings of dots. Explain to students that this type of painting is very common in Aboriginal art. Then, share with students the information that accompanies this painting on the museum website. Thomas's painting contains within the image the story of Cyclone Tracy, which destroyed the city of Darwin in 1974. Ask students to think about one of the stories they heard in the previous activity. Are there similarities in the story behind this painting and the ones they heard before?
In many of those stories there was a character—often an animal—whose actions or behavior taught a lesson to the people hearing the story. Thomas's painting also contains within it an animal whose actions teach a lesson. In this case it is the mythical rainbow serpent that is believed to have taken the form of the cyclone as a warning to the Aboriginal people that they must keep their culture strong. Have students work together to create a list of similarities between one of the stories they heard in the previous activity and the story behind Thomas's painting.
You can find a rich collection of Aboriginal dot paintings in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Center for the Liberal Arts. Click on the top left image to enter the Aboriginal Art collection. Next click on the Browse icon (the eye) next to Painting, and then click "image list" beneath the heading "Central and Western Desert." Scroll down the list until you come to Eubena Nampitjin's 1991 painting "Pinyu."
Ask students to describe what they see in the painting, discussing elements such as line, color, and shapes, as they did for the previous painting. Then ask them to describe what forms or objects they see in Nampitjin's painting. What does it look like? Are there any people or animals? Are there any trees or hills?
Students should again note that the painting is composed primarily of dots. In the accompanying material on Nampitjin and her work on the museum website this painting is described as mapping Nampitjin's homeland. The image contains sacred rock formations and the dingoes that live in the countryside. How do students think that she has pictured the land? Is it seen from her house? From the sky? Does it resemble a map?
Ask students to recall the stories they heard in the last activity that taught listeners something about the geography of the storyteller's home, such as Gulaga Told by Warren Foster. Do students see similarities in the kinds of stories that are being told by both Foster and Nampitjin? Have them work in small groups to create a list of the points that they think are similar. Have each group share and compare their lists with the rest of the class.
Next, ask students to think about the ways in which the two media—oral storytelling and visual storytelling—are different. Are there things that a storyteller can get across in telling the story that he or she can't get across in painting? Are there things that can only be told in visual media? Working with the same small groups, have students create a list of differences and answers to these questions, which they should then share with the rest of the class.
Ask students to think about something that they might have learned from their parents or their teachers through a song or a story. Did they learn their ABCs from a song? Or did they learn to count from a rhyme (such as one, two, buckle my shoe, etc.)? Was it easier to learn their ABCs by learning a song to go with it?
Have students think about the path from their room at home to the kitchen (or from their home to school). How would they explain it to somebody else how to get from one room to the next? What landmarks would they tell the other person to look out for? Students might say things like "pass my brother's room then turn right." But how will someone who doesn't know their house already know when they have passed their brother's room? How will they explain it to someone who is unfamiliar in a way that they can recognize and remember that landmark? Might they tell a story about the landmark that might help them to remember? What story would they tell someone to help them remember the landmarks? For example, students might offer stories about the posters on their brother's door, such as explaining that he got them at a concert.
Many Aboriginal stories have just this kind of information embedded within them. In addition to conveying information about the landscape, many Aboriginal stories explain natural phenomena, such as the characteristics of the animals and plants of Australia. Finally, many Aboriginal stories are designed to teach lessons about morality, ethics, and right behavior. Ask students if they have ever heard a story that had a moral? They might identify a fable, such as one of Aesop's fables, or a fairy tale.
Perhaps the best place to start learning about Aboriginal storytelling is with the concept of Dreamtime. Aborigines believe in a time called Dreamtime, during which the land, the sky above, and all they contained were formed by the actions of unknown, supernatural beings. Dreamtime is the beginning of all things, and there are numerous Aboriginal stories that connect the creation of Australia's geography to the actions of animals, spirits, and people in the Dreamtime. You may wish to begin by sharing the information on the Dreamtime that is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Native Web. Work together with the class to create a definition for the idea of Dreamtime. A working definition might be: The period when, according to the Aboriginal people, the world was formed and all things came into being.
Now that students have learned something about the concept of Dreamtime, they are ready to learn about Aboriginal storytelling, and to listen to some stories about Dreamtime. Begin by listening to an introduction to Aboriginal storytelling by Aunty Beryl Carmichael, called Why the Stories are Told. This is available as both an audio and a text file from this web page, which is accessible through Native Web. When you and your class have finished listening to the explanation of why stories are told you can move on to hearing some stories told by Aboriginal storytellers. You can choose from the stories available as audio and text files listed here.
Note: If you are able to download the audio files, listening to Aboriginal storytellers telling the narratives with their own voices will allow your students the opportunity to experience something of Aboriginal culture close-up. However, the storytellers' accents will likely be unfamiliar to most of your students, making it difficult for them to immediately understand everything in the story. You may wish to read some of the stories to the class from the texts that are provided. It is also important to note to students that storytelling has changed over time as a practice, and that they should pay attention to the fact that these stories are now being told in English, rather than in an Aboriginal language. This might help students to understand that while the practice of storytelling is an old one, it is also one that has evolved with Aboriginal life, historically and in contemporary life.
You may need to create a program of stories to listen to that will fit your class' time constraints. A selection of different types of stories might give students a good range of storytelling styles and techniques. You might consider the following four stories for a range of styles:
After listening to each story ask students to identify the main characters within the narrative. Then use the following questions to lead a class discussion:
An important aspect of Aboriginal storytelling is that the stories are a kind of property, and only some people—the ones who "own" the story—are allowed to tell the story. The people or communities who own the story are charged with the custodianship of it: they are responsible for taking care of the story, and for conveying it to the next generation. Also, there are certain stories that one should not hear unless they belong to the community who owns it. This is an aspect of storytelling that is very different from what students are likely used to, and which is an important part of Aboriginal culture. You may want to raise this issue with students by pointing out that on many of the websites there is a disclaimer that explains that the custodians of the story have given permission for its appearance on the website, and warns viewers that the stories are contained inside so that Aboriginal people who are not allowed to hear or see them won't see them by accident.
Begin by asking students if they know anything about Australia. Some may know that it is the place where koala bears (so-called, even though they are not bears, but a type of marsupial) and kangaroos come from; ask if anyone knows where Australia is. Show them a map of the world and point out where Australia is located in relation to the United States in order to give them an idea of the distance between where they live and where the place they will be learning about is. Next, show students a map of Australia, such as this map, which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website National Geographic Xpeditions. Discuss some of geographical aspects of Australia, such as its location in the southern hemisphere; that their winter and summer happen at the opposite times of the year than they do in the U.S.; that it is completely surrounded by water; and that much of the country is very arid land punctuated by hills and low mountains.
Next, ask if anyone knows anything about the people who live in Australia. Like America, many of Australia's citizens either came from other parts of the world, or else their ancestors did. Also like America, many of the early immigrants came from England, Scotland, Wales, or Ireland. In the decades that followed immigrants from many other places, from Italy to Pakistan, and from Vietnam to Somalia, have made Australia their home. And, once again, like America, Australia was the home of many different groups of people before the arrival of these immigrants. Explain to students that the people who have called Australia home for thousands of years before the arrival of the first European immigrants are the Australian Aborigines.
Tell students that archaeological evidence indicates that humans first arrived in Australia between 65,000 and 60,000 years ago. The people who first arrived in Australia are the ancestors of the Aboriginal people, who still live in Australia today. One way that we can tell that Aboriginal people have been in Australian for many thousands of years is by viewing the rock art created by early aboriginal ancestors.
Tell students that the traditional Aborigines were nomadic people who lived in temporary settlements and moved often. They should understand that this does not mean that Aborigines do not and did not have a sense of territorial boundaries. In fact, Aborigines traditionally divided up the land using geographic markers and natural boundaries, such as rivers, lakes, and mountains. The names of these geographic markers, as well as the knowledge of which territory belonged to which person or group, was information that was passed down from parent to child, and from the group Elders to the younger generation. This important information was passed on through songs, painting, dancing, and storytelling.
Many of the characters that appear in Aboriginal stories take the form of animals that are particular to Australia. Create a list of Australian creatures with your students. Your list might include: Crocodiles, kangaroos, koalas, platypus, echidna, spiders, snakes, emu, and wallaby. Information and pictures of Australian animals are available through the EDSITEment-revewed website Internet Public Library. Students should then complete this online quiz, which is also available as a PDF.
Divide the class into groups of four or five students. Have each group read one of the Bunyips stories from the National Library of Australia's website, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Center for the Liberal Arts. When they have finished reading the story their group has been assigned have them work together to answer the following questions:
Next, assign one painting from the the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Center for the Liberal Arts to each group. Share with them the information available from the museum website about the paintings they will be viewing. Have students work together to answer the following questions about the painting they have been assigned:
Ask students to create their own stories explaining the route from their home to school or the behavior or characteristic of a family pet. Their story should reflect and implement the things that they have learned in this lesson about Aboriginal storytelling. Their story should attempt to:
If there is enough time, you may wish also to assign students to create an accompanying drawing or painting to go along with their story, in class or at home. As with the story, their drawing or painting should reflect what they have learned in class about Aboriginal storytelling and art.
Finally, students should be asked to explain how their story and/or artwork reflects this lesson and what they have learned about Australian Aboriginal culture.
2 class periods