Story Time, Dream Time – A Journey Into the Outback of Aboriginal Australia

Some of the oldest storytellers on the planet are Aboriginal Australians, whose stories go back thousands and thousands of years. The people themselves trace their ancestry to the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, who came down to Earth long before humans appeared in what is called the Dreamtime.

Landforms and animals of the Outback that we see simply as rocks, waterholes, Perente lizards, kangaroos, even majestic Uluru are, for Aboriginal Australians, not what they appear and more than they appear. They are stories written throughout the natural terrain that enable the people to travel with absolute surety the vast, unmarked distances of the land.

The earliest Aboriginal Australian story I’ve personally seen “written down” is one that was told me by an elder of the Pitjatnjatjara tribe. It’s in a painting that covers every surface of a small rock grotto.

The story painting is at least 13,000 years old; every family that lives in the area is responsible for repainting the portion of the story that belongs to them whenever it becomes too faded or worn. This responsibility has been passed down from one generation to the next for at least 650 generations.

The story the elder tells me is not just in the painting, though; it’s written into the land itself. This is the Pitjatnjatjara version of the Pleiadean creation story that is told in numerous variations throughout the Outback.

Walking behind the elder whose tribe is the caretaker of the grotto, I learn about the hunter, Nirunja, who chased after the Kungkarangkalpa–the seven sisters who came down to Earth. The sisters eventually escaped back to the sky, where they became the constellation we call the Pleiades. Nirunja followed and became the constellation Orion, who chases them still.

The story my guide tells me as we walk happens simultaneously in the past and the present. Nirunja is always in hot pursuit and the sisters are always fleeing. He is the crouched figure my Western mind can only perceive as a rock. He is even now sliding through the crack in the grotto, the sisters even now hearing him just in time to run from the cave where they’ve been resting. The elder shows me their footprints. Time is both eternal and constantly repeating.

The elder and I climb a small hill. The sisters are just ahead of us. They are always just ahead of us because they are always running from Nirunja. The elder can see them fleeing; I can only see stunted bushes.

We reach the top of the hill just above the grotto. The sisters are hiding from Nirunja, so he runs right past them and slides back into the cave where the sisters are still resting. Like a Mobius strip the story continually loops back on itself.

What I think are just small rocks on the hill are the sisters preparing to leap back into their sky home. The elder can easily point out the constellation of the Pleiades at night because he sees the sisters racing home every day.

I sit at the feet of the elder like a little child. The rock carapace glistens to life. I look carefully to see if I can spot Nirunja waiting to pounce. I begin to know what it’s like to experience story through all the senses. And slowly I begin to hear the pulse of the Dreamtime itself.

Copyright 2009–Stories from the Heart

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