Many birds feature in our art and songlines. But I’m #TeamWedgeTail
Twitter, territory of the little blue bird, has been inundated with other birds over the past week. A partnership between the Guardian and Bird Life Australia, the Australian bird of the year 2017 poll has everyone twittering.
For many First Peoples, stories and cultural knowledge of birds is still vibrant so, for us, birds have made an appearance in twitter conversations way before this current wave of bird talk.
At least once a day Richie Allan, tweeting as Koori Brotha, posts positive messages referencing his bird totem, the wedge-tailed eagle. On some days, these messages can spark supportive conversations.
Birds have been on this continent for eons, and for over 60,000 years they have lived beside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These relationships feature in story, art, dance, ceremony, and songlines. With approximately 600 nations in pre-colonisation Australia, each with distinct languages, it’s impossible to provide all the original names for Australian birds.
However, this recent talk of birds has become an opportunity to raise awareness of First Peoples’ languages and stories, with people sharing their knowledge on Twitter.
Birds are part of our everyday life, even in urban settings. With increasingly busy lives, it can be hard to take time to observe birds. It can be difficult to hear birdsong among the sounds of noisy cities. So those rare moments that birds do catch our attention are an opportunity for reflection, or strengthening connections.
This week, I asked a few people what birds meant to them and which bird they had voted for. Richie Allan is a Ngunnawal Kamilaroi man who lives on his mother’s country. He says, “The wedge-tailed eagle is my Ngunnawal totem and it helps me send healing to not only our people but everyone who needs healing. The spirit of the eagle speaks to me through my spirit, and I use it to let people know it does too. Which is
why I add it to my tweets a lot.”
A director for Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation in Canberra, Allan also shares his culture through Ngunnawal cultural tours and educational programs.
Raelee Lancaster, a Koori poet and research assistant, voted for the magpie. She told me, “I would say my connection to the magpie is somewhat of a cultural one. I grew up learning some Awabakal stories, as that is the land on which I was raised, and I learnt a bit about magpie Dreaming as a kid, but I don’t know if the things I learnt were my mob’s stories.”
Rebecca Hunt told me she has always had an admiration for birds. She even has five bird tattoos, so we shared our tattoo stories. I’ve a raven on my ankle, along with a snake. This bird symbolises my non-Indigenous heritage, and the snake represents my Aboriginal heritage (Martu).
When Hunt, a Yorta Yorta woman, made her selection for the Australian bird of the year, she chose the wedge-tailed eagle. Hunt said: “The wedge-tailed eagle is significant to me because of Bunjil and his significance to creation, spirit and Victorian Aboriginal peoples. And on a personal note, they are majestic creatures who possess a beautiful balance of strength and grace and, specifically, they are monogamous birds who mate for life. That’s the kind of loyalty that I respect and that I see often reflected in our mob.”
My choice in the poll is also the wedge-tailed eagle. It is called a walluwurru in my grandmother’s tongue, a language I was not fortunate to learn due to the legacy of government policies that created the stolen generation. If you are also interested in eagles, you can follow a group on them at wedge-tailed eagle satellite tracking, as part of Simon Cherriman’s PhD project on eagles’ ecology in Western Australia.
Last week I found myself thinking of the wedge-tailed eagle, and then I remembered an event that was happening in New South Wales. The next day I saw Paul Dutton’s tweet:
Dutton, a Barkindji man, was not present when people gathered on country for the momentous repatriation of Mungo Man. He told me later that it “seemed like the old spirits were celebrating the return, even 700km away. Couldn’t help but notice.” Those wedge-tailed eagles (bilura) were a reminder that another elder had finally come back to country, after many years of Mutthi Mutthi, Paakantji/Barkindji and Ngiyampaa peoples calling for the return of his remains.
I have seen birds present at many funerals and gatherings of cultural significance. At a service for a respected Ngarrindjeri elder a few years ago, a formation of noori (pelican) flew over as the funeral possession came out of the church. Hundreds of people watched the noori in a moment of silence, and then we burst into applause. Like us, the noori were honouring a beloved elder.
Relationships between birds and people are still embedded in First Peoples’ culture throughout Australia. Sadly, with only 50 birds on the poll, not every bird made the cut.
If you have not already done so, vote for your favourite Australian bird. And then learn the bird’s name in the First People’s language where you live. You might even hear or read an ancient story that will leave you with a new appreciation for birds. And if you can’t pick a bird, you are most welcome to join #TeamWedgetail.
Karen Wyld is freelance writer and consultant
‘My choice in the poll is also the wedge-tailed eagle. It is called a walluwurru in my grandmother’s tongue.’ Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images