Indigenous Astronomy: Things Belonging to the Sky

Uncle Bill Harney opening the Synposium

The symposium and art exhibition “Things Belonging to the Sky” Ilgarijiri was held on Friday 27 November. This was the first bringing together of the knowledge holders of the indigenous night sky with astronomers, and Nick, Geoff and I travelled to Canberra keen to find out more about the intersection of Aboriginal cosmology and science.

We were treated to a rich visual and aural experience through art, song, storytelling and science, in the inspiring building of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) on the edge of the Lake. Professor Ray Norris, from Macquarie University, was the instigator of the symposium. He is investigating whether Aboriginal Australians were the world’s first astronomers using evidence based science. Connections rock formations, landforms and astronomy have with artworks and dreamtime stories form the basis of his investigation.

The warm welcome from Ngunnawal elder Agnes Shea made us realise we were among people from all over Australia and the Torres Strait Islands, people who had knowledge they were willing to share. Bill “Yidumduma” Harney, a Wardaman Senior elder from the Northern territory, told us about songlines, and stories he grew up with to help find waterholes and understand the land and living things through the sky. Bill was featured on the ABC’s ‘Message Stick’ program and is the inspiration and co-author of anthropologist, Hugh Cairns, ‘Dark Sparklers’ book. Hugh’s talk was about how all cultures have an intellectual life, and it through recognising this that white people can understand black cultures.

Duane Hamacher, a phd candidate and night astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory, described in detail how he has used an Aboriginal story to find a meteorite crate, and described other landforms caused by astronomical events with associated stories.

Charmaine Green, artist and exhibition organiser, described the artists spending dark nights with scientists on the site where the Square Kilometre Array will be constructed to share the stories, science and provide interpretation through the paintings on display. She described the scientists as being dull during the day “but when the sun went down, they all got excited”.

Torres Strait Islander, John Whop, told us of the Zugubal , stars and constellations, with stories unique to these islands and Papua New Guinea. The stars are seen as wind makers, as causing environmental events and each area has an adaptation of the theme of two brothers. Other speakers included anthropologist Dianne Johnson, Munya Andrews, Dr. Ragbir Bhathal from the University of Western Sydney and Western Australian photographer John Goldsmith. Joe Gumbula joined us on-line from University of Sydney to tell the Yolngu story of the Moon. You too can hear this and other stories in the Cadi Eora Birrung exhibit at Sydney Observatory.

You can purchase ‘Emu in the Sky’ by Ray Norris and ‘Dark Sparklers’ by Bill Harney and Hugh Cairns in the Sydney Observatory astronomy shop.
You can watch ‘Message Stick” on-line: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/messagestick/stories/s2730570.htm

Nick, Geoff and Toner

Toner in the nearby Museum of Australia

Geoff and Nick outside AIATSIS

The beautiful structure and path to the sky outside the AIATSIS building.

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