The Old people told us : verbal art in Western Arnhem land

Carroll, Peter John. (1996). The Old people told us : verbal art in Western Arnhem land PhD Thesis, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland.

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Author Carroll, Peter John.
Thesis Title The Old people told us : verbal art in Western Arnhem land
School, Centre or Institute School of Social Science
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1996
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Professor Bruce Rigsby
Dr Patrick McConvell
Total pages 601
Language eng
Subjects 420000 Language and Culture
Formatted abstract
This thesis is based on a collection of stories (most of which relate to bark paintings), that were told to me by speakers of the Kunwinjku language of the Northern Territory of Australia. My objective is to show that these particular stories have an important role in the transmission of Kunwinjku culture. I do this by seeking to understand the stories and how they are used by Kunwinjku people. I first consider the stories in the original Kunwinjku language; secondly I relate the stories to the western Arnhem Land artistic traditions; and thirdly I examine their social context. The important role of such stories in cultural transmission is reflected in the phrases daborrabolk kandimameyolyolmeng "the old people told us stories" and kandimameyolyolmi "they used to tell us stories" which occur in many stories. I have included one of these phrases as part of my thesis title.

The texts are approached from a number of different perspectives. First a linguistic based discourse analysis looks at the organisation of information within the form and structure of the texts. I have been influenced by the work of Dell Hymes and Dennis Tedlock, who in relation to the Indian languages of North America treat what was thought to be prose as more akin to poetry. My analysis of linguistic form is based on pause, intonation, discourse particles and other features. Pauses of several seconds and longer are a feature of all the stories and I define a 'pause unit' as a stretch of speech between pauses exceeding 0.2 seconds. The story tellers use pause to mark structural boundaries and for rhetorical purposes as part of Kunwinjku verbal art. The rhetorical structure model of Anthony Woodbury provides a useful framework to better understand the text of the stories.

Secondly, the content of the stories is considered in terms of a 'frames' analysis, which is based in part on the work of Erving Goffman. I define a performance frame, in which the narrator gives his own comments on the story, and a narrative frame which is comprised of a series of episodes, each containing several sentences. In the dramatic frame, narrators change to direct speech, imitating one of the characters of the story and use this frame to highlight important aspects of the story. Thirdly, I place the stories in their social context which includes the role of graphic art in making parallel representations of stories in conjunction with the verbal art. Detailed representations in the images of several paintings provide a time sequence consistent with the representation of story in words. An overview of Arnhem Land Art relates the context of these stories to the important studies of Aboriginal art by Howard Morphy and Luke Taylor. The Kunwinjku artistic tradition has a major focus on Mimi who are the source of important cultural knowledge concerning kangaroo hunting and other features of Kunwinjku life.

I define several genres among the stories: Dreamtime stories; Old Time stories; and Present Time stories. There is no received or authorised version of a particular story and I consider story variation by comparing several versions of two well known stories. As the stories were recorded in the Kunwinjku language the question of translation is implicit in the thesis. Translation is more than a linguistic task as the translator cannot ignore the cultural domain of the two languages in question. The challenge for the translator is to translate what is culturally implicit in the stories in a way that enables the reader to understand such cultural features.

In the chapter 1.3,1 provide an historical perspective through an overview of some of the changes that Kunwinjku society has faced in the past one hundred years. Two major issues since I went to Oenpelli in 1967, have been the development of outstations on Aboriginal Land associated with the provision of Land Rights, and the increased availability of alcohol. Both issues are relevant to how these stories are used by Kunwinjku people. A diachronic study of particular stories utilising material published by Ronald and Catherine Berndt provides another aspect to this historical perspective.

This study of a select collection of Kunwinjku stories has shown the importance of such stories to the issue of cultural transmission. Art has long been a feature of Aboriginal society in western Arnhem Land and is part of a threefold link between Land, Art and Story. Recent years have provided significant changes for the Kunwinjku people who have adapted to some and resisted others. The utilisation of art has been part of this adaptation. Important aspects of this have been the greater interest in art by the outside world, which has in turn provided economic benefits and been a continuing stimulus to Aboriginal artists, whose work has been crucial to the maintenance and transmission of Kunwinjku culture. The stories told to explain the art are an essential part of Kunwinjku cultural traditions. A focus on the form of the art without reference to the associated story misunderstands the art.

Keyword Aboriginal Australians -- Northern Territory -- Oenpelli
Aboriginal Australians -- Northern Territory -- Oenpelli -- Folklore
Aboriginal Australians -- Northern Territory -- Oenpelli -- Languages
Rock paintings -- Northern Territory -- Oenpelli
Additional Notes

Variant title: Verbal art in Western Arnhem land.

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - UQ staff and students only
Citation counts: Google Scholar Search Google Scholar
Created: Wed, 28 Sep 2011, 19:14:39 EST by Ms Christine Heslehurst on behalf of Scholarly Communication and Digitisation Service