« Desert: forcing Aborigines off their land | Blog home | Home-made video stabiliser »


In Central Australia, you often see Aboriginal people sitting on the ground, talking, and simultaneously drawing on the sand, smoothing it over when they've finished a point, and starting again. They might be recounting places along a journey, listing family members, drawing maps, or describing the movement of characters in a story. I'll call this 'sand talk'.

Here's a child, Aileen, doing this in 1957 at the Bungalow school in Alice Springs. (Photograph by Joyce Gilbert, Picture Australia collection). And here's a Central Australian man, Komita, drawing in the sand in 1940. (Photograph by Charles Mountford, Treloars Mountford Exhibition)

As characters move and scenes change, the narrator rubs out the picture in the sand and starts afresh. Jenny Green observes that there is a clear relationship between the iconicity of the sand drawings and the visual elements that are now used in marketable art from the Central Australian region. Scenes can be captured on canvas, and have led to the acclaimed Western Desert school of acrylic painting. The dynamic process of drawing, the motion, is harder to capture, although an attempt at this is seen in Warlpiri school readers - where the narrative unfolds page by page, each illustrated by a sequence of representations of sand drawings.

Sand pictures have attracted many ethnographers, from Nancy Munn's classic discussion of the symbols used in such story-telling by the Warlpiri in the early 1950s [1], to the relations of sand stories to children's literature and country (Jill McRae [2]), to art and country (Christine Watson [3]), to children's perceptions of themselves (Ute Eickelkamp).

Linguists have become interested in sand talk - looking at how speakers use speech, gesture, sign, and drawing on sand in speech events ranging from mapping (David Nash [4]), to the unfolding of narratives (David Wilkins [5]). Now Jenny Green has embarked on a linguistics PhD project through Melbourne University to document sand talk among Arrernte, Alyawarr, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye people. She's looking at, among other things, the timing and content of the different 'modes' of this multimodal art. Her early findings are that sand talk varies from something half-unconsciously done to a consciously composed art, and that there are a variety of distinct traditional forms as well as a lively contemporary practice.

Documenting sand talk requires filming (as Eickelkamp, McRae, Nash and Wilkins have done - and Joyce Hudson made a film of a Walmajarri woman telling a story using leaves on the ground [6]). But one camera alone can't capture the complexity of sand talk. You need at least one camera to show the gestures and eye-gaze of the story-teller (more if it is a conversation), and you need one camera to show what's happening on the sand. And of course good sound recording!

Jenny has come up with a terrific low-tech way of doing this.
fieldsetup-both.jpg
One camera is on a tripod and takes a 'front-on' view of the narrator. The other camera is mounted on a beam across a step-ladder. This provides the birds-eye view for capturing the drawing.
fieldsetup-vertical.jpg
She can just load the step-ladder and beam on the back of her utility truck when going out recording.

The birds' eye view has the added advantage that you only see people's hands, not their faces, and so provides optional anonymity if required.
observers-paradox-small.jpg
And so some participants may be happy about having their hands or feet shown publicly whereas they would be less keen on having their faces shown. Ingenious, eh?

POSTSCRIPT: PIZZA-BOX SAND TALK
And, yes, some English story-tellers have taken up sand talk... you can find Richard Thompson's description here of how to use cornmeal in a pizza-box with a glass bottom on an overhead projector to project sand stories....

REFERENCES
[1] Munn, Nancy. 1973. Walbiri iconography: graphic representation and cultural symbolism in a central Australian society. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[2] McRae, Jill. 1991. Story as sovereignty: a study of the relationship between the sand stories of the Warlpiri Aborigines and their country.: Kuring-gai studies in children's literature no. 3. Sydney [Lindfield, N.S.W.]: University of Technology Sydney, Kuring-gai Campus, School of Teacher Education. [She created a video of the work in 1988].

[3] Watson, Christine. 2003. Piercing the ground: Balgo Women's image making and relationship to country. Perth: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

[4] Nash, David. 1998 'Ethnocartography: understanding central Australian geographic literacy'. Draft 2/10/1998, 30pp. Presented to Australian Anthropological Society annual conference, 2 October 1998, Canberra. 

[5] Wilkins, David P. 1997. 'Alternative representations of space: Arrernte narratives in sand and sign', pp.133-162 in Proceedings of the CLS Opening Academic Year '97-'98, ed. by M. Biemans & J.v.d. Weijer. Nijmegen [etc.]: Nijmegen/Tilburg Center for Language Studies

[6] The film was made with Joyce Hudson. I think it is Learning Chuguna's Way [stories in Walmajarri & English]1988, with Mona Chuguna, 1988, Broome & Great Sandy Desert WA. (There's a copy at AIATSIS).

Comments

Brilliant, how cool is that?

The Authors

About the Blog

The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.
More

FAQ

Papua New Guinea FAQs from Eva Lindstrom Papua New Guinea (New Ireland): Eva Lindstrom's tips for fieldworkers

Australian Languages Answers to some frequently asked questions about Australian languages

Papua Web Information network on Papua, Indonesia (formerly Irian Jaya)

Hibernating blogs

Indigenous Language SPEAK

Langguj gel Australian linguistics and fieldwork blog

Interesting Blogs

Omniglot Writing systems and languages of the world

LingFormant Linguistics news

Language hat Linguistics news and commentary

Jabal al-Lughat Linguistics news and commentary on a range of languages

Living languages Blog with news items and discussion of endangered languages

OzPapersOnline Notices of recent work on the Indigenous languages of Australia

That Munanga linguist Community linguist blog

Anggarrgoon Claire Bowern's linguistics and fieldwork blog

Savage Minds A group blog on Anthropology

Fully (sic)

Language on the Move Intercultural communication and multilingualism

Talking Alaska: Reflections on the native languages of Alaska

Culture matters: applying anthropology Australian anthropology blog: postgraduates and staff

Long Road ethnography and anthropology blog - including about Australia

matjjin-nehen Blog on Australian linguistics, fieldwork, politics and the environment.

Language Log Group blog on language and linguistics

Links

E-MELD The E-MELD School of Best Practices in Digital Language Documentation

Tema Modersmål Website in Swedish with links to sites on and in many languages

Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project: Language Documentation: What is it? Information on equipment, formats, and archiving, and examples of documentation

Indigenous Peoples Issues & Resources a worldwide network of organizations, academics, activists, indigenous groups, and others representing indigenous and tribal peoples

Technorati Profile

Technology-enhanced language revitalization Include ILAT (Indigenous Languages and Technology) discussion list.

Endangered languages of Indigenous Peoples of Siberia

Koryak Net Information on the people of Kamchatka

Linguistic fieldwork preparation: a guide for field linguists syllabi, funding, technology, ethics, readings, bibliography

On-line resources for endangered languages

Papua New Guinea Language Resources Phonologies, grammars, dictionaries, literacy, language maps for many PNG languages

Resource network for linguistic diversity Networking practitioners working to record,retrieve & reintroduce endangered languages

Projects

ACLA child language acquisition in three Australian Aboriginal communities

DELAMAN The Digital Endangered Languages and Musics Archives Network

PARADISEC The Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures

Murriny-Patha Song Project Documenting the language and music of public songs and dances composed and performed by Murriny Patha-speaking people

PFED The Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries

DOBES Endangered language documentation and archiving, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and sponsored by the Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen.

DELP Documenting endangered languages at the University of Sydney

Ethno EResearch Exploring methods and technology for streaming media and interlinear text