A Wardaman Creation Story by Bill Harney

By Drew, Julie; Harney, Bill | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

A Wardaman Creation Story by Bill Harney


Drew, Julie, Harney, Bill, Australian Aboriginal Studies


This paper is a collaboration between the writer and the storyteller. Since Bill Harney gave his perceptions on tape and video recordings, the language usage largely follows his telling of the story. Bill is the senior Aboriginal elder of the Wardaman people from west of Katherine in the Victoria River District of Australia's Northern Territory. He gives his creation story to provide his people with an understanding of the images that were put on the rock by the ancestors. The images of Wardaman rock-art are generally recognised as 'lightning figures' after the wide distribution of a video, The land of the lightning brothers (Roberts 1987), and through Walsh (1988) as well as Bill Harney's tours to some Wardaman sites with images of two striped figures.

This account provides further insight into Wardaman culture and its formation by the ancestors. The Dreaming Ancestors created a large part of the rock-art we see today and Wardaman call these paintings buwarija. Dreaming Ancestors put all the laws, ceremonies and stories in place to be handed down from generation to generation. Bill tells about Wardaman understanding of the natural laws of the earth, seasonal changes, floods, fires, drought, cyclones and their connection with the creation period. He explains through his creation story how the depictions relate to all these things that the ancestors created:

   The shadow of all the lightning people went into the
   rock and that's where they all are today. They changed
   from that shadow and some became different birds,
   others became the lizards and the humans and all this
   you see here in the rock-paintings. The creation of this
   country is what they have been telling in the story and
   the song.

We in the Western world know that if there is no written language, metaphors are used in orally transmitted stories to reflect the ideas and concepts of the people; as well, people make great use of visual imagery.

The story of creation is told on this occasion at Nardaya, a site consisting of a complex of large boulders surrounded by a low-lying ridge of broken sandstone. In five discrete shelters there are paintings and carvings. Bill has told the writer the same story at many different rock-art sites, which he has also visited with tourists as well as with family. The creation story is not specific to a particular Wardaman site but rather parts of it are represented at various landscape places where animals and plants received their shapes and markings. Encoded within the shapes and markings of ancestral animals and plants is the sanctioning of the laws and customs.

The creation story has many parts to it and it is linked to the Dreaming tracks and songlines of that country. A Dreaming track can be identified through physical places in the landscape or it may be a conceptual track that the ancestors made for those coming after to follow. Bill explains in a strange language of metaphor and great detail this story that I have heard many times over a period of eight years. My observations are in brackets or separated from Bill's text, which I have transcribed from tapes and videos. I have made no attempt to alter Bill's sequence so that explanation of natural phenomena is interwoven with events of social relations or social structure:

   Before, the little boy came to split the dog's ear, then the
   lightning people walked around in the wet mud and
   left their footprints, but now they are in the rock. See
   those large emu or bird tracks and kangaroo tracks?
   They were put on the vertical wall when the mud
   hardened. When the dog sang out, that's the time when
   everything changed and the shadow of all the lightning
   people went in to the rock, and that's where they
   remain today. Later the shadows changed to become
   different birds, animals, lizards and humans. All these
   you see here in the rock-paintings, and they were the
   creator of this country as told in the stories and the
   songs. … 

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