Sunday 2 June 2024


Indjuwandjuwa also made an outside story for my people. I can tell you that, but inside story, I won’t tell you that.

Bill Neidjie Gamu the Dreamtime Stories, Life & Feelings of Big Bill Neidjie, Cyclops Press, 2022, p.31

An introduction to a new book on a local architect has just been read, and has been found to be nearly incomprehensible; such is academic jargon. This preliminary text finished with a politically ‘correct’ statement that reads like a bland, additional section acknowledging ‘country’ etc. - the Turrbal and Jagera people . . .# It is a piece that looks almost like an afterthought; some apparently essential presentation of words that just had to be included, causing this portion of the beginning of the book to appear to be completely out of context with both the previous word jumble, and the remainder of the publication, by expressing platitudes that appear hollow; disconnected. This dislocation has caused one to ponder the possibilities of giving some meaning to the discord that stimulates one’s discontent with this lack of clarity in expression and intent with the continued spruiking of a First Nations recognition that does nothing but tick the proverbial box. The words are usually presented as a standard format and remain as just words that appear to merely frame the ‘required, correct’ approach to matters aboriginal, disregarding everything else.

One wonders: might it be possible to write clearly and simply about ‘country’ so that, instead of chanting hollow, formulaic words as crude banalities, we all might be able to better understand what has become cliché patter added just because it is expected; using, abusing, what one can perceive to be something meaningful; something spiritual. Might this clarification be possible? It seems to be a worthy challenge for a critic of both academic hoo-ha and the ad hoc expression of unintelligible, ‘proper’ blurb that seems to be included purely for social standing. One has to remember that, in spite of repeated First Nations’ recognition in nearly all aspects of life, and the fashionable use of First Nation names for places - (and now the Art Gallery of New South Wales – see: - Australia voted against giving its First Nations people a Voice, a right just to be listened to – 65% of the population said “NO.” It seems that the least one could do is to try to understand the experience of the First Nations people instead of brushing them and what they stand for, aside in vacant words, just for our comfortable, ‘feel-good,’ convenient satisfaction.

Perhaps one can understand, maybe excuse, the inherent problem with this First Nations’ situation, where words of pretended care and concern are chanted willy-nilly, almost as a badge of honour, as a poor attempt to grapple rationally with what are emotive, experiential matters; as an inept pretence to be ‘interested, sensitive and understanding.’ For example, we are told about meaningful, real songlines in ‘country,’ and accept this as a statement without knowing what this means either as fact or experience, but still talk about this phenomenon ‘knowingly.’ We are assured that the notion holds a vital sense for lived relevance, somehow, but we have no idea whether this is about learning the lines of a song about anything to do with landscape or something else, or otherwise; or referencing some mysteriously spiritual vaporous, sonorous, cross-country streaking; maybe phantom pathways that traverse the landscape; or whether songlines might be all or none of these notions. Bruce Chatwin popularised the understanding of songlines as some romantic, whimsical experience in his book The Songlines, but left the reader as uncertain as ever, just with a ‘good read,’ an interesting story, written by an Englishman with a spirit for quirky adventure, complete with the colonial khaki uniform of intrepid travellers, cheerful good looks, a notebook and camera, and a publisher. The Songlines arrived in the expectant aura created by the reputation and respect Chatwin had gained from his first book, In Patagonia. In this haze of positive emotion, songlines are left buzzing askew as something we really know nothing about; well, nothing of true substance as we seek reasoned outcomes as explanations in our ‘learned’ analysis of them using explanatory, descriptive words as our only tools, all drawn from the same set of words that we chant to acknowledge ‘recognition.’

Bruce Chatwin.

Big Bill Neidjie has done more than most First Nations people to try to familiarise and clarify Aboriginal experience for others, both First Nations and western people. He was aware of how the younger generation of his mob is being distracted by western influences: but here, with his words, we are left with ‘clipped and cropped’ speech, with what seems to be an immature, shorthand expression of the English language, somewhat pidgin in style - Aboriginal English - telling First Nations stories that the rational western mind reads as something like quaint, ‘meaningful,’ childish yarns rather than as understandings vitally essential to being. The Colonial ear might be respectful, but it seems to be happily tolerant with a hesitant, stuttering expression about living with land, sky, trees, and animals as a primitive poetics, with an inherent, agreeable 'apology' for being so naïve, received with a quiet ‘making allowances for this backward thinking’ involving something like a 'genteel' acceptance. The stories have no real impact on us, in spite of Big Bill’s insistence on having some of them recorded, even in spite of their sacred nature: such was his desperation with his perceived changes in the world.^

Bill Neidjie

So it is that we hear the word ‘country’ used in many different contexts as others, too, seek to explain the First Nations experience. First Nations people tell us repeatedly that ‘country’ is critically meaningful to them; that it is sacred; that it is an integral part of their being. We are told this in general discussions, in protests on land rights, in mining matters, and the like: ‘country’ is everything. The western ear sometimes interprets this repetition as a catch-all whinge. The word is used alone, without any ‘the’ or ‘that,’ giving the impression that it is really not any particular visual qualities of a landscape, or any preferred physical characteristics that are being referred to, even though it might be - (see First Nations naming of landscape in; neither does it appear to refer to any particular parcel or other ownership of property, again, even though it might be said to be MY land. There is something emotionally vague but certain here that eludes the western understanding that is accepting of this abstraction as a way of seeing, while still being critical of this stance because of its lack of clarity; for not having any specific, rational interpretation, a situation that encourages the perception of one ‘being bluffed’ – of being fed BS.

With more reflection, one gains the impression that something metaphysical is being referred to; something universal and subtle; something vitally meaningful to the human spirit and psyche. What is this? One gets agitated with an ad hoc ‘recognition’ of things First Nation that remains a monotonous statement that changes nothing, when it potentially might shroud something relevant and worthy of our attention. The words of apparent 'recognition' are blindly habitual, like an uninspired ‘Thank you’ in the exercise of manners alone, without any understanding of what is being ‘recognised’ - then one moves on to do what one wanted to do, ignoring what has just been claimed to be a core concern, a solemn thought.

To better comprehend these things, we need to realise that symbolism is involved here; not symbolism in the sense that something might be agreed to ‘stand for’ something else as a matter of an intellectually defined, rational signification that needs to be learned, although this is how some may choose to see it. One needs to understand symbolism differently: its quality of touching 'being' abstractly, directly, not through a known analogy, but with the richness and vitality of the experience itself; the whole as a part of the whole.

Both Ananda Coomaraswamy and Martin Lings have written about symbolism, pointing out that it is the circumstance where something can be seen to be an aspect of something else; to hold the real feeling experience of the reference, but in part only. Coomaraswamy noted by way of example how the lion is a symbol of the sun, that the lion is the sun, in one of its aspects. This is not because the lion’s face can be seen to be a sunny hue, encompassed in a radial mane of golden ‘flames’ one might see in a simple graphic presentation - well, perhaps not only because of this; it is that the lion’s presence and being is sensed as that quality of power and radiance that can be experienced in the sun: so it is that the lion is its living reality, in part.

By way of an explanatory example, of how a part may relate significantly to the whole, as a whole itself, one might liken this experience to the taste of wine, when one tries to explain this sensing as being, e.g. ‘like chocolate, with citrus overtones, finishing with a touch of almond and blackberry,’ or something in this manner of expression that is sometimes mocked for its apparent stuffy, pretentious arrogance. In order to communicate the experienced subtle complexity of taste, we seek out words to try to, well, not to explain or describe, but to identify an experience, even if just a part of it; and we do this almost impossible task as best we can, often in a collation of suggestive bits and pieces, such is the subtle variety and richness of the experience; the whole; the taste - that interaction between wine and the body as a totality that involves an intertwined sensing, feeling as an emotional occasion. We have to remember that the word ‘chocolate’ has nothing to do with things other than being a name for a particular sensing being referred to, a real, lived experience of taste - a part of the larger event.

The symbol works in the same way as the word referencing this tasting; it is one part, an aspect of the whole, a segment of its reality: truly the thing itself, in part. Seeing ‘country,’ and aboriginal experience in general, in this way, may help us understand First Nation matters a little better, with more sensitivity than mere bland, cliché words of recognition, or a rational ear pompously tolerating things cutely ‘naive and primitive,’ as if this tolerance might give some elite credit to one's personal standing, enhancing the appearance of an individual’s identity.

In this way, characteristics of ‘country’ may be seen in a manner that can be said to be something else: that the particular place is such that it is . . . ; that the pattern of the bark likewise is . . .; and it is so: the thing itself is experienced as this something else in the reality of being, as with taste: there is an immediacy and a certainty; it just is - see note below on Gamu, ‘mum,’ relating both to a person and the earth. It is not a matter of ‘seeing as,’ although the description fits. There is nothing intellectual here; the situation is lived as a raw ‘tasting.’ It is in this way that the experience is referenced and comprehended without thoughtful analysis or rational interpretation, remaining inexplicable. It is this sensing beyond any simple description that we need to try to understand. The difficulty is that words are the beginning of the dislocation of concepts, but it is all we have to try to communicate what could be called a ‘spiritual’ experience - where the spirit is the ‘nothing something,’ not some God-promoting preaching process of a rationalised theology. Tradition tells that if this situation could be described, then it would have been.

While this ‘shaman-esque’ quality, for want of a better alternative analogy, is clear and certain, and can be sensed, experienced, things are changed by descriptive words. When this sacred quality of seeing is told to others who may respect the storytellers and act appropriately, these people pass on their understanding yet again as words and actions to others, both to First Nations people and to westerners who maintain the story about the experience, without any of it being realised as a lived circumstance, and without any awareness of an understanding of its mode of operation. Here the words take over and are manipulated to mould and shape perceptions as misconceptions that get promoted in the mouthing of our hollow, ‘learned,’ respect for country, etc. It is a situation that generates a discontent, with the explanation of matters being ‘special’ and ‘secret’ because they have been said to be by past elders, and are now managed in this way ‘by rote.’ The dislocation of feeling and emotion further shatters and scatters as the event becomes mere fact.*

If we see this described First Nations experience as symbolism, we can get closer to sensing the power of place, of 'country,' as being a characteristic of being there, a sensing that is meaningfully experienced as a true, vital mystery – a lived ‘existence’ might be a better description, as we have changed the word ‘mystery’ to refer to a puzzling yarn rather than a spiritual experience, a sensing of the spirit. This feeling of/for place, that also involves animals and birds, trees, stars, and more, can vary in intensity depending on the power of the part, its encompassing transmission of the portion of what it is sensed as being. So it is that some places and things are said to be totally secret because of the special characteristic/s they communicate - that they are - with perhaps multiple symbolic references, or a powerfully clear significance of true aspects of otherness.*

One can further talk about this way of seeing in painting. It is not John Berger's ' way of seeing.' A certain pattern or diagram can be said to represent something, a meeting or a track, for instance, but the ‘reading’ of the painting is more than an understanding of the dictionary of illustrations, or the explanation of mystery based on this interpretation: e.g. sacred rainbow that means . . . and the related story. The painting itself is the experience of the aspect, the ‘chocolate,’ the true totality of a particular sensed part of a whole. It has nothing to do with matters aesthetic, pictorial, pretty, or analytical; neither has it anything to do with things ‘holy,’ even though the concept and phonetics of the ‘whole’ might match nicely: necessity is involved as a quiet, essential, lived vitality. This is how tradition sees art.

It is easy to find ourselves in a muddle of words that can be easily mocked, dismissed, and misunderstood; such is the nature of verbal description and the 'legal' human mind. One might use, by way of example, one particular word, say ‘chocolate,’ to explain a taste; but this is only one aspect of something much larger, as the painting is, with the potency of this description being depended on for understanding that part of the experience it is referencing: the more distinctive that part of the ‘tastes’ might be, the more potent the symbol will be. In this way the power and significance of symbols vary. As Abū Bakr Sirāj ad-Dīn (Martin Lings) noted, (see below): There is not the least thing in existence which is not such a shadow . . . Nor is there anything which is any more than a shadow.

In an effort to map the whole, one could visualise radial lines linking up to other aspects, with all other aspects doing likewise, and likewise again and again until we see a radial set of ‘trees’ developing into a graphic fuzzed totality of feeling which represents the sensing as a whole - its full spiritual mystery in the most pure understanding of these terms; a luminous and immediate, spontaneous experience of knowing. The initial, central word is, like all other parts, a symbol of the whole reality, in part, and holds its position only because it is there, noticed in our experience at that point in time rather than holding any other significance because of its current location.

This chosen word can be taken and analysed again in detail by itself and in its context - something that science is good at - and much can be said about this word and its particular substance, referencing, meaning, and origins, but it says nothing singularly useful about the wholeness of feeling, the experience for which the word is the symbol; it remains only a part of the whole. So it is that the rational mind only juggles the shell of the kernel of being.

Just as the rational mind can grasp at matters within its own framework of thinking, so too can understandings be explained and communicated to others, but only as bland, dislocated words. One can see the general recognition of ‘country’ in this way, referring to hollow perceptions and understandings that destroy and disfigure more than they hope to promote; hence the agitation. Nothing will come of these statements, no matter how ‘genuine’ they might be; and nothing does, other than what could be described as ‘the self-satisfaction of a self-approving charity worker.’

These two different aspects of ‘knowledge,’ another problematical term we play with mindlessly, are described as being exoteric and esoteric – outside and inside* - literally ‘outer knowledge’ and ‘inner knowledge.’ The 'exo' knowledge is the learning as if by rote, the 'eso' knowledge is the lived experience, the ‘knowing’ involved in these matters. Exoteric knowledge is the rational understanding of things esoteric which is the actual seeing and sensing of the aspect of the thing itself and this thing in part.

The statement about respecting ‘country’ and its people is like saying one respects the road rules for driving. Attention is given to words, with nothing caring for the otherness that is not known. In this sense, the respect is hollow, shrouded by a clutter of words that seek only amazement as a personal acknowledgement in their own claimed recognition, rather than any clarification. This is the basis of this critic’s annoyance with these matters. True respect involves a still quietness, a humility, not the self-promotion of rowdy, ‘learned’ declarations. Ironically, it is the respect for these things that keeps matters secret, revered because of their potency and wonder that words alone destroy.

We are right in seeing this world as completely alien to modernity and the western mind. Abū Bakr Sirāj ad-Dīn (Martin Lings) explains in The Book of Certainty The Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, 2015:


. . . and since he (Satan) had in reality only the fruits of the Garden of the Soul to offer them, that is, the known and wonted objects of perception, being himself everlastingly barred from the Garden of the Heart, he could only tempt them with forgeries, giving the known and wonted objects of perception a semblance of strangeness by suggesting abnormal and irregular uses for them.

One could compare this situation with art today.


. . . when, in connection with the dhikr, the Qur’ān speaks of the mathal – ‘example’ or ‘symbol’ – it is referring to the essential or ‘vertical’ likeness between higher and lower domains, such as those already mentioned between the Heart and the soul. A symbol is something in a lower ‘known and wonted’ domain which the traveller considers not only for its own sake but also and above all in order to have an intuitive glimpse of the ‘universal and strange’ reality which corresponds to it in each of the hidden higher domains. Symbols are in fact none other than the illusory perfections of creation which have already been referred to as being guides and incentives to the traveller upon his journey, and they have the power to remind him of their counterparts in higher worlds not through merely incidental resemblance but because they are actually related to them in the way that a shadow is related to the object which it casts. There is not the least thing in existence which is not such a shadow . . . Nor is there anything which is any more than a shadow.

With this text in mind, one could say that the artist seeks to reveal the shadow rather than self-expression or some other rationalisation.


What is true of earthly objects applies also to acts: an earthly act is the last of a hierarchy of corresponding shadows which spans the whole Universe. Figuratively speaking, if each series of corresponding shadows or reflections throughout the different worlds be likened to the series of the rungs of a ladder, an earthly act is the lowest rung, or rather as the support upon which rests the foot of the ladder, and to stand at the foot in upward aspiration is precisely what constitutes an act of remembrance in the sense of the word dhikr. The traveller may thus sanctify all his acts in seeking to remember, through them, the Divine Qualities in which they are rooted.


The ladder as a symbol of the true rite and all that this rite implies recalls the tree which is mentioned in he opening quotation as a symbol of the good word;

We need to ponder these matters with humbleness, meekness, and a lack of pride and vanity; with a true modesty that is willing to, wanting to listen and to learn; then we might truly be able to say that we acknowledge our First Nations people and their country instead of repeating hollow platitudes:

As a minimum, appropriate wording for responding to a Welcome to Country would include: “I acknowledge the *___________________people, the Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander** Owners of the land where we gather today and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. I recognise their connection to Country and their role in caring for and maintaining Country over thousands of years. May their strength and wisdom be with us today.”

*If known add the Traditional Owners’ clan/language group name

**Use ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Torres Strait Islander’ as appropriate


Elizabeth Musgrave, John Dalton Subtropical Modernism and the Turn to Environment in Australian Architecture, Bloomsbury, Melbourne, 2023.


“I’m just talking on this tape, making my story.

Later on, in ten or twenty years time,

you might read this story.

If you pick up this book and read this story,

think about it.

It’s important all this work. It’s all got meaning.”

Rear cover blurb:

Bill Neidjie Gamu the Dreamtime Stories, Life & Feelings of Big Bill Neidjie, Cyclops Press, 2022.

NOTE: Gamu is Mum in Amurdak, and refers to a person or the earth.


So, the stories, I’m telling you some of them. Some of them we can’t, the ring, the secret places. We won’t tell you that. They told us, “Don’t tell anybody. You’re not allowed. Keep them separate.” The Dreamtime said all that, so we follow.


Bill Neidjie Gamu the Dreamtime Stories, Life & Feelings of Big Bill Neidjie, Cyclops Press, 2022.

Indjuwandjuwa also made an outside story for my people. I can tell you that, but inside story, I won’t tell you that.


Bill Neidjie Gamu the Dreamtime Stories, Life & Feelings of Big Bill Neidjie, Cyclops Press, 2022.

Other books by Bill Neidjie: