Songlines: The Power and Promise – a review

Songlines: The Power and  Promise

Songlines: The Power and Promise by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly provides a compelling and in-depth discussion about part of the culture of Indigenous Australians.

The authors point to a way forward in which all Australians can benefit from an increased understanding of Indigenous culture. See below for more about the Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly.

Songlines are the means of storing and earning knowledges, ancient and modern. They are stories embodied in the land, sea and skies to be remembered and passed on through song, dance, art, ceremony and, most importantly, through attachment to Country.

From the back cover, Songlines: The Power and Promise

Songlines: The Power and Promise is shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2021. It is also the first in a forthcoming series of six books edited my Margo Neale about Indigenous culture for general readers.

The importance of Country

For Aboriginal people, Country holds all the information they need to function in their world. Country embodies knowledge, stories, history and secrets. The knowledge includes medicine, ecology and astronomy. It also covers social behaviour and social organisation such as the kinship and moiety systems.

Indigenous knowledge does not remain static. Instead, it grows both organically and dynamically. As people travel, sing songs of Country and teach others the stories they tell incorporate new knowledge and experiences. Neale and Kelly say,

The Songlines, or Dreamings, are like a big sponge that keeps on absorbing new stuff and releasing it with a little pressure.

When white settlers claimed land (Country) and banished its owners, songs and Songlines became lost or broken. However, when the owners returned and sang songs, the Country revived and sang back.

Songlines and other names

Bruce Chatwin coined the relatively new term ‘The Songlines’ in his book (1987) of the same name. Now widely accepted by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, more words for the same concept are Tjukurpa, Altyerre, Kujika, and others. Yet others include the Dreaming or ‘the law’.

Aboriginal people memorise information, songs and ceremonies. At appropriate times and places, they bring this knowledge to life in song, dance, ceremony and ‘yarning’.

Neale and Kelly say,

Songlines … or Dreaming tracks, connect sites of knowledge embodied in the features of the land. It is along these tracks that people travelled to learn from Country.

Many if not most Indigenous cultures worldwide have their own forms of songlines, which they call tracks, trails, stories, songlines etc.

Archived knowledge

The concept of archives throws new light on Western and Indigenous knowledges. As with all archives, existing knowledge is guarded. But the archivist also adds and engages creatively with it. An archive can open new and exciting directions for the future.

Archive 1

Aboriginal people order their world in an oral archive which includes extensive knowledge transmitted through song, dance and art. Traditional practices govern the transmission of knowledge. Gender, status and family need to be considered when sharing. ‘Songlines are archives held in Country,’ (Neale and Kelly).

This can be called the first archive. It predates the settlement of Australia by perhaps 65 000 years.

Archive 2

The second archive occurs when Westerners store their knowledge in books, libraries, museums, and increasingly in digital space.

Two decades ago an exciting new movement began. Indigenous staff in museums in Australia consulted with Aboriginal owners. Some museums in Australia now house collections of material which belongs to communities and families.

Archive 3

Recently, a new form or archive of Indigenous knowledge emerged. Aboriginal painters began to inscribe their knowledge of Country on canvas. Painting uses both Aboriginal and Western knowledge systems. Galleries hang paintings. Thus a third Archive, incorporating Western and Indigenous knowledge, developed.

Some painting, especially that which includes several people, can be seen as ceremony.

The Seven Sisters Songlines

Songlines can be large or small. Some are confined to a small space. Some are localised instructions about, say, hunting for wallabies or digging for yams at a particular site.

Seven Sisters Songlines painting
Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground), 2013, by Kumpaya Girgirba, Yikartu Bumba, Kanu Nancy Taylor, Ngamaru Bidu, Yuwali Janice Nixon, Reena Rogers, Thelma Judson and Ngalangka Nola Taylor, Martumili Artists, acrylic on linen, 300 x 500 cm. National Museum of Australia. © the artists, Martumili Artists

Others, like the Seven Sisters Songlines tell epic stories. They encompass incredible long journeys and involve several major language groups. Each group adds their knowledge to the whole. The story tells of seven sisters who are chased across almost the whole continent by a shape-changing sorcerer.

The authors use the Seven Sisters Songlines to illustrate and demonstrate many of their points. You do not need to know the saga of the seven sisters, however, to enjoy and learn from this book.

Memory, stories, creativity

Both authors decry the fact that they did not learn about Aboriginal culture when they were young. Like most of us, they learned a somewhat demeaning history of the people whose land Westerns invaded.

But they also suggest that we can learn from, not just about, Indigenous culture. If we did, we would be richly rewarded.

The chapter ‘The Promise of Songlines’ makes interesting reading about brain plasticity and creativity. The development and maintenance of Songlines demand both. Both enthrall me.

Nuts and bolts

Songlines: The Power and Promise provides a wealth of knowledge. Both informative and entertaining, it contains useful footnotes and explanations. Several illustrations make salient points. There is an index and a list of further reading for those who wish to pursue particular ideas.

The authors

photo Margo Neale

Margo Neale heads the Indigenous Knowledges Curatorial Centre at the National Museum of Australia. She is also an Adjunct professor of the ANU’s Centre for Indigenous History. Published widely, she has curated major exhibitions. These include the multi-award winning Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters currently at the WA Museum Boola Bardip. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t miss it! It closes on 26 April 2021.

Lynne Kelly

Lynne Kelly is a science writer working as an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. Her field of research is the memory methods used by oral cultures for everything they know. She has published widely.


This book would make a wonderful contribution to libraries everywhere, and especially for school libraries.

It would be welcome reading for everyone who wishes to learn about Australian Aboriginal culture or increase their knowledge. My review might have been more ‘scholarly’ had I known more of this years ago!

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

Book review challenge

This is the second book I’ve reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2021. You can find out more about my commitment in ‘Book review challenge that preferences women writers‘.

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