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The Rainbow

Cultural heritage brings us together.  Songlines, environment, earth, water and rivers – they merge.

And, there is traditional Indigenous music and song – chants, murmurings, clapsticks, beating, boomerangs. Contemporary Aboriginal musicians enhance culture for all Australian composers, conductors, performers, actors, choreographers. Indigenous and non-Indigenous merge together, spin off each other. Indigenous cultural heritage is the deep ‘inner’, the spirit, the grounded-ness in earth, that creates unique Australian performance and sound.

Badger Bates took Ngatyi (the rainbow snake) to the Sydney Biennale this year. Steel contortions, calisthenic sideways, upways, an arched rainbow sprouted from the two eyed flat pan head.  It glowed at the entry to the Cutaway gallery.

Badger Bates, Save our Ngatji(Rainbow Serpents), creators of spiritual rivers connecting water, sky and land,2022.

I tell the story of the travelling Ngatyi or rainbow serpents who map out our living landscape and give it lifeforce.  They travel about looking after country and leaving water for all living things. … They also travel underground through the aquifers and appear at springs and rockholes. 

… Ngatyi looks after us …  Fossils along the river show that the Ngatyi and living things have been there for a million years or more.  I look at the fish scales, mussel shells, yabbies, shrimps, bird feathers, and flowers and can see the rainbow colours in them, they all belong to the Ngatyi like us.[i]

. . .

Arabunna Elder, Reg Dodd, talks as he leads us along the creek tail of another mound spring on Arabunna Country. It is lovely as ever.  We come to the ancient rounded dry stone houses. Inside one, we sit beside its sandy floor.

How old would these be?
Oh, probably 3,000-4,000 years old.
And, they were always here?
Yes. The women went over to the creek there, picked reeds and wove a roof.

Shelter locations were deliberate, not random.  They may have reflected the stars in the sky[ii].

We can’t talk about that’, the Elder instantly responds.

We climb up the rise, to the cars. The Elder goes to his HiLux and takes out a dusty dark olive cloth. It’s wrapping something that he lifts carefully.  Gently, with great respect, he opens the cloth to reveal a set of sacred objects. ‘The old People gave these to me‘, he says. ‘I never go anywhere without them, always have them in the back of my car.‘ Timeless.

Entranced by the markings, the shelters, the rings, the objects, we drive in tandem back through twisted spinifex and heavily grassed land. At the Oodnadatta Track, we turn toward Marree, entranced by stories of ancient culture.

There’s a light rain. On one horizon, a vertical rainbow fragment forms. Then, on the other horizon, comes another rainbow shaft. As we drive, the rainbow arches together. It joins a circle. A desert rainbow, a rare treasure. Amazing. Exciting.

Reg stops his car. We run up to him.

A rainbow – in the desert – it’s incredible’.

We stand together under the rainbow. Softly, he murmurs:

That’s that old lady.   Over there’.
The old lady? Do you mean your old lady?  Do you mean Gladys?  Your wife, Gladys?
Yes’, says the Elder.
Yes, over there – that’s where she is?

The Rainbow. Photograph: Leonie Kelleher, 18 April 2022

He is nodding to the end of the rainbow – where it touches the earth.

Is that where Gladys is?

All sense of direction is lost.

Is that the cemetery where Gladys is?’.
Yes. That old lady, she’s welcoming you.  She’s glad to see you.

Rainbow arch
earth to sky and back,
gently, softly, vaguely
moving wafting,
Half ring circle,
color mingled
a rainbow arch completed in the heart.
What is to do?
What is to do?

Australia itself might be seen to stand today under a rainbow – meeting within the beauty of the land, facing its brutal colonial history and contemporary injustice, interacting internationally but with a new identity, forged within the longest living culture in the world, whose gracious spirit curves across our nation. 

Our new government needs to ‘get up‘, ‘stand up‘ and ‘show up‘ to get serious about protecting Australia’s Indigenous cultural heritage. A deadline must be set for effective new legislation. The Native Title Act is nearly 30 years old – so 30 years has passed in which Indigenous cultural heritage has divided from native title.

Why does new law, new legislation matter? Law ensures that everyone understands what is expected of them as a member of society (their obligations) and what they can expect of others, including government (their rights)[v]. Legislation, as laws enacted by Parliament, represent our democracy and all Australian citizens. Shabby protections for Indigenous cultural heritage make us all lesser as a nation[vi]. Kellehers Australia calls for our new government to urgently focus on the necessary reform that will, proudly and adequately, protect our nation’s unique Indigenous cultural heritage.

The rainbow. The circles. The arch. The snake. The spirit. The story. The might of it all.


Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!

[i] Roca, Jose and Juan Francisco Salazar (eds.), 2022, rivus a glossary of water, Biennale of Sydney Ltd 2022, pages 52-53.

[ii] Memmott op cit, notes ‘another set of architectural semantic associations in Aboriginal cosmological belief pertains to the interpretation of certain star constellations as containing the houses and camps of Ancestral Beings’ and includes (Figure 10.1, 235) at pages 234 and 235 referencing  a fascinating drawing adapted from an illustration by Phillip Clarke, South Australian Museum, that ‘depicts the Milky Way considered by the Ramindjeri people of the extended Lower Murray area to be ‘rows of huts, among which were heaps of ashes and ascending smoke’.

[iii] This paragraph draws on sources set out in Mundine, Djon, 2022, Rule of Three, The Saturday Paper, No 405, July 25-July 1, 23.

[iv] Glissant, Edouard, 1997, Poetics of Relation, University of Michigan Press, Michigan, cited in Mundine, Djon, 2022, Rule of Three, The Saturday Paper, No 405, July 25-July 1, 23.

[v] https://legalanswers.sl.nsw.gov.au/hot-topics-australian-legal-system/overview (accessed 8.7.2022).

[vi] https://www.premiers.qld.gov.au/publications/categories/policies-and-codes/handbooks/legislation-handbook/context/why-its-needed.aspx (accessed 8.7.2022).