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Teachings from Ancient <i>Gwion</i> Art

We call it now Pathway Project
because where all the tracks …
everything that walked …
[they] put their track
and that is the project now,
we following the history

Ngarinyin people describe cultural knowledge as a pathway of learning along which individuals progressively acquire education throughout life. The Pathway Project was started in 1992 by the late David Mowaljarlai Banggal, Paddy Wamma Ungudman, the late Laurie Gawanali Ngarjngo, and Paddy Neowarra Nyawarra, current chairman of the NAC.

These four Ngarinyin men are munnumburra, or experts in traditional law, hereafter referred to as “lawyers” or “teachers.” They belong to the central language group of the Kimberley plateau region of northwest Australia, and refer to themselves as “the Wandjina water people.” They are linked to pre-history and to the land through their knowledge of ancestral Gwion art and Wunan law.

All that education belong here to this area.
People can respect all different area
when he got his own story.
I can’t go stealing another man’s story! No way!
This story only belong here … one place.

Inventors, Visionaries, and Messengers

Ngarinyin, Worora, Willa Willa, and Wunambul speakers, and some other neighboring language groups, collectively use the term “Gwion Gwion” to designate the mysterious “cave bird” that used its beak to wipe blood across the surface of stone and thus began the ancient tradition of painting. Gwion Gwion are offspring of the Great Mother Jillinya; they first spread out across a land without boundaries. They are considered the inventors of hunting technology and the first skilled painters of the human form.

“Gwion Gwion” is also the preferred Ngarinyin term for both the original humans born from the Great mother Jillinya and the corpus of painted images created by their imaginative and inventive ancestors. To preserve the cultural significance of this art, the Ngarinyin wish to have the images formally identified in future as Gwion, and not by the improper and meaningless title “Bradshaw figures,” a relic of colonial Australia and past publications.

The art’s lack of warfare scenes leads the teachers to believe that the ancestral Gwion discovered in themselves a vision of democratic egalitarian principles realized through durable laws that respected individual voice but punished selfish greed.

Gwion Start Wunan Law

Within Ngarinyin social history, Gwion artists invented the complex and specific associations of the Wunan system of law and exchange. The Wunan originated with the seminal actions of two Gwion heroes named Wodoi and Jungun, who became involved in a quest for wisdom and knowledge. During this search they acquired a sacred object of great power: manjilarri (of complex interpretation but summarized as the inescapable power of justice). After liberating this powerful object from one man’s possession, the nomadic clans held a great council at a stone table to agree on the sharing law of Wunan.

and here we are … that symbol we look at it too
we don’t talk about it without looking at the symbol
because he controlling us … that symbol
Wunan symbol … you know that table?

The Wunan stone table (see page 30) is surrounded by an array of signal stones marking the position of each group with a line of clan leaders approaching the table. Another long line of stones marks the sequence of actions by an emu clan member from Balgo who selfishly stole sacred plums from the table. Stamping his foot in defiance of the sharing rule of the council, he fled eastward to escape the wrath of the Gwion clans, but was later executed and became enshrined in the constellation of the Southern Cross. Using capital punishment to consolidate the law of sharing installed the authority of Wunan.

someone break the law in that area …
he only got short life to live
it’s a hard hard law

The Gwion heroes, named after their clan symbols Wodoi (Spotted nightjar) and Jungun (Owlet nightjar), then began the moiety system by sharing their children in marriage.

Jungun take ‘em Wodoi
and Wodoi take ‘em Jungun wives
from that time all this mob now
that bird mob what been start ‘em off
what we been calling them from that time

The moiety system for exogamous marriage was extended to the distribution of territories with systematic land tenure based on permanent clan boundaries. Not only did the moiety system operate to regulate marriage across the two groups, but by effectively dividing species of flora and fauna into each “skin” grouping, a diversity of local associations resulted in a network of meanings. Most significantly, the Ngarinyin preserve a rich repertoire of ancient law songs, species specific to local birds--all clan members of the Wunan federation. Archaic ceremonial verses, composed and first performed by Wijingarri (Spotted Quoll man) at Wudmangu near the junction of the Roe and Moran Rivers, still form the core of Walungarri rituals—a series of ring dances performed in orbits around a songman seated on a stone cairn.

and then they said ‘Alright, let’s stop here
and start this Wunan.’
because they knew what to do now …
and that’s the beginning of the whole issue of the land
and relationship with the Aborigine people
and all their symbols was designed from there. …

Now people come from everywhere
to do this Wunan initiation ceremony … Walungarri
then it became a new law
from that time … and we still do it today

Ancient Icon of the Pathway

Living culture is still connected to such ancient art. High on the wall at Alyaguma pool, among numerous other revered paintings, is one vital image of a native plum tree with a footprint beside its roots (see page 30).

That the life this foot … is life of the story … where it all begins

In a unique series of graphic metaphors, this guloi tree (native plum) icon symbolizes the pathway of knowledge from generation to generation. The scene is painted from several perspectives to illustrate sequences of education on the pathway of law.

This is the tree of life where everybody feed in the story … inside here without this … we wouldn’t know anything

The single footprint with ten toes marks the track of the individual ready to journey along the pathway of knowledge during a full lifetime. The foot is attached to several roots of the tree, which symbolize the family blood each individual identity begins with and forever belongs to.

That is the Pathway …
got the roots go right down into our foot

The wider social identity gained from the Wunan law is depicted by four converging lines forming one strong stem near the base of the tree. Because this painting is on a wall running east to west, the orientation of the root stem matches the actual direction from which the four main groups of people came to the law table to originate Wunan law.

This fork here … that is the Wunan sharing system
where trading root … everything go straight

Education comes from climbing the trunk of the tree during stages of initiation beginning in youth; these are marked by a series of small rings connected to the lower trunk. Higher up the tree, three long paths lead to larger rings of adult and senior knowledge.

it’s a life form … it’s a tree … we like a tree standing up
and we walk to education place
and this camping places these rings here
that every place is Wungud places where is mamaa …
untouchable places where they started song
and where people shift camp to camp for initiation

Above these large rings are two straight branches with human feet on their ends representing the celebrated Gwion heroes, Wodoi and Jungun, who shared their blood in marriage and began the Wunan law system. The pair of feet also signifies the binary viewpoint of the teachers of each moiety. From their position facing down the tree, they can look through the complex relationships between living things connected in the two moieties.

See these two foot looking down?
There’s one for Jungun tribe and another one for Wodoi tribe
And they formed that law of this right marriage

With a mature understanding of Wunan law, the outlook and role of the fully initiated teachers changes direction. Now the tree becomes more specific and focused on realistic details of the native plum called guloi. A growing branch with two veined leaves ends with a forked stem holding two round guloi fruit. Painted lines of vertical rain descend from above the branch, suggesting the arrival of monsoon rains when lightning triggers the ripe fruit to swell and burst, cracking open to release new seed.

means we cracked open into this world
Guloi … that’s the guloi tree now … when they crack open
So that young life is already cracked open
from the mother’s womb
It is brand new life … very new and precious

The guloi fruit is a seasonal symbol for the birth of the next generation, signifying that the responsibility of education rests with parents and elders.

and this fruit hanging on the tree
that the Guloi what we eat
and that tree represent the life of young
it is a sign reminding us every time it flowers
telling us … you must carry on
teaching that young fella … or her
because she going to have children
just the same as you…. So life go on
and that is the Pathway,
from human being … and plant.

Motives For an Exhibition

The central Kimberley is under increasing pressure from tourism, pastoralism, mining, and research. Most tourist operators tell their customers that no cultural connection exists between Ngarinyin people and Gwion paintings. As long as traditional knowledge and cultural expertise is replaced by ill-informed theories, our own knowledge remains fossilized in the colonial philosophy of terra nullius, "the vacant earth." The few Ngarinyin lawyer-teachers, whose detailed knowledge of law and ancient art is being callously ignored and opportunistically misrepresented, face the wealth and influence of the latest influx of cultural invaders.

As a team of four cultural experts, and as neighbors closely related by inherited land, language, and tradition, the teachers have defiantly acted as men of law, seeking to preserve valuable ideas connected to the ancient rock art and all the country. They intend to present enough information to attract genuine research into Gwion art as a highly valued cultural gift. This was their consistent approach when supervising recordings I made on their behalf at various locations. While directing the filming, I have been engaged to produce public documents and exhibitions on their behalf. A six-screen assembly of digital films titled "Ngarinyin pathways dulwan" will be exhibited for a year at the new Australian Center for the Moving Image in Melbourne.

Only heritage policies incorporating the many layers of Ngarinyin knowledge will maintain the Gwion legacy of law and art. Ngarinyin people must prevail as the leading authorities on their own culture. The value of future research will be determined by the ability of scholars to engage local teachers in full and respectful participation.

By recording just this brief introduction to their cultural association with Gwion culture, the Ngarinyin have emphasized the broader political significance of their evidence. They consider Gwion art as graphic legal documentation of their native title to the land it occupies.

"When They Say Native Title"

whose native titles they talking about ?
We are the natives … this law been given to us
it stays that way … we can’t change to another way of thinking.
Everything was written in this thing here
that’s how it was written … and it stays that way
… we can’t change it

Co-authored by Jeff Doring working with dialogue transcription and translation texts derived from location recordings on film, betacam, digital and Hi-8 video, DAT digital sound, plus photographs and research produced between 1992 and 1997. This article arises from media material produced by the Pathway Project in agreement with the Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporation (NAC), COPYRIGHT PATHWAY PROJECT PTY LTD 1993-2002.

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