Nations of Song

by Aaron Corn


‘Eye-witness testimony is the lowest form of evidence.’

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

‘Poets are almost always wrong about facts. That’s because they are not really interested in facts: only in truth.’

– William C Faulkner


Imagine this reflected in a sound

There is a song in my mind that takes me to a place of great beauty and antiquity. As its melody undulates through my synapses, I can sense this place anew. I can feel the fine, white sands squelching between my toes. The sands whistle with the wind as it ripples across the bay, over the sandbars and towards the adjacent island. The air tastes of salt and close to shore, a rip current emits a constant, gentle roar.

In the brilliance of the sun, silhouetted against an expansive white cloud, a gull cries out to her chicks nested on the island beyond. With each beat of this song echoing somewhere between my ears, my footsteps take me from the water’s edge to climb a steep sandy embankment into a leafy grove. I sit down here under the wide, low branches of a tamarind tree, where I can survey the soft sands, the rip current, the sandbars and the island before me.

Boiling turtle eggs

Though far removed from the nearest city or town, other people surround me in this place – generation upon generation of them – and they watch me as I sit. I can see them paddling a canoe back to shore after a long day of hunting. My hunger piques as the aromas of roasting fish and boiling turtle eggs waft over from their campfires. Children do back-flips on the beach and build designs in the sand. They each move in rhythm with the song, which somehow seems to carry their combined voices as well–one voice made of many intertwining threads.

Slowly, they come together and file onto the beach carrying a flag of deep blue. They dance with vigour, and embed it deep into the sand. As it ripples in the wind, they call me by name. I now dance with them amid these abundant environs and, with the song in my mind, my own voice blends into theirs. Though this is not quite right. Because it is not really my voice at all, but rather an amorphous yet familiar voice of the one made of many.

Though I did once experience some of these things at a place I can recall having visited, this tableau is much more than a simple recollection. The remainder of what I describe here comes not from my own memories at all, but rather from the song itself – from the way its lyrics, its melody, rhythms, form and matching choreography reveal intimate details of place accrued through generation upon generation of dutifully curated knowledge. The song takes me to that beach as though I were standing there right now, with the soft sands between my toes and all the other details I described.

Yet now we face a dilemma. At this moment of realisation, I can offer no evidence whatsoever that any such thing is going on in my head – no proof of a song, nor the place I say it describes. Even more spurious is the premise that, because of the song in my mind, I feel some kind of personal connection to this place and those who dwell there. I offer no evidence at all.

This is why I’m fascinated by music, but particularly song. That combination of organised sounds, particular to our species, that in English we call music and words. William S. Burroughs once described the word as a virus, yet song is perhaps the most viral of our cultural forms. By their very design, songs are both memorable and portable. They can slip into our psyches unawares and haunt us without warning. In infancy they sing us to sleep. In childhood they taunt us in the playground and in adolescence and young adulthood they express our desires and give release to our anxieties.

Whether we evoke them willingly or whether they manifest in our minds unannounced, songs travel with us constantly and, just as they are easily internalised, they are also easily personalised. At the crossroads of memory and fancy, in the twilight between experience and imagination, songs frequently hold for us fluid, negotiated meanings that would mystify their composers. On the teenaged mix tape of the past and the digital playlist of the present, we freely assemble them at will as authentications of ourselves at particular times and places, or into particular times and places, as fluid permutations of our sonic selves.

At play here, there is also a constitutive social mechanism that takes us out of ourselves and lends us that fleeting sense of belonging to some intangible, greater whole. Our negotiated associations with these playlists to our lives enable us to identify and maintain bonds with others: with our kith and kin, with our communities and countrymen, with those who speak our language and with our generational peers.

The changing times of Bob Dylan and Bob Geldof’s bid to feed the world are now long behind us. Yet it is worth remembering that more than once in human history, whether in the streets or via live simulcast, complete strangers have come together in the name of a good song. Public opinions and political persuasions can turn on these tides with startling alacrity and usher in major social change.

This is a remarkable phenomenon when you consider that our synaptic processes -the ones that enable us to sing silently in our minds – are so infinitesimal that they are all but imperceptible. Trivial though this may seem, take a moment to think about the multi-billion dollar advertising industry that deploys all kinds of music via all kinds of media for the sole strategic purpose of swaying our feelings to influence our decisions.

Of course, I am expounding quite generally to build a case for music as a palpable vehicle for meaning and thus knowledge. So to progress this argument further, I must now take us back in time to another beach entirely.

Another beach entirely

map of Arhnem Land
EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO I found myself on the coast of northeast Arnhem Land. I was young, naive and proud to be Australian. That was before the dilution of the Native Title Act, the dissolution of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the exemption of the Northern Territory Emergency Response from the Racial Discrimination Act. Yet in the mid-1990s, I still revelled in the afterglow of a progressive Australia that finally, after two centuries, had come to recognise the continuing native title of its Indigenous peoples.

Songs by Midnight Oil, Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly stirred my sense of social justice and support for Indigenous rights. But on radio and television, and in music stores nationwide was a pervasive band of musicians with a very simple message. They wanted constitutional recognition, for the human rights and continuing sovereignty of all Indigenous Australians. The name of their band was Yothu Yindi. They wanted a treaty and they wanted it now.

Yothu Yindi’s hit song, called ‘Treaty’, galvanised public opinion in the early 1990s and shaped a political climate in Australia that supported Indigenous native title. The song’s one stated goal, however, never eventuated. And as yet Australia possesses no treaty or constitutional recognition for the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, despite repeated parliamentary petitions to this effect in 1988, 1998 and 2008.

The late Dr M Yunupingu was Yothu Yindi’s lead singer and songwriter. He was a great Australian intellectual and creative talent, and his influence upon me was enormous. I first met Yunupingu in September 1996 at his home on the beach at Gunyangara, which lies on northeast Arnhem Land’s Gove Peninsula. We later worked together to tell the story behind his music for Yothu Yindi and to establish the National Recording Project for Indigenous Music in Australia.

It was on this latter project that Yunupingu and I travelled together through the vast living expanses of his people’s homelands in northern Arnhem Land. There, his people, the Yolngu, define their ownership of these homelands, and indeed their very humanity, through their ability to sing and dance the law of their ancestors.

1971 High Court case which recognised Aboriginal law

In the 1960s, Yunupingu’s parents were central to the fight against bauxite mining on these sacred homelands. Their seminal parliamentary petition of 1963 led them to the Supreme Court, where they presented evidence of traditional place names, songs, dances and designs that, under their own law, clearly proved their sovereignty. The presiding Justice, Richard Blackburn, could indeed recognise that the Yolngu possessed a system of law. Yet on 27 April 1971, he instead ruled that Yolngu law had formed no part of Australian law at any time in history.

Two waters

AS A CHILD of those times, Yunupingu could well have grown to face the world with cynicism or indifference. But instead he chose to promote the ideal that Indigenous peoples and Anglophones should be able to co-exist in Australia in equity and mutual respect. He first achieved this through his work with schools in Arnhem Land in the early 1980s where, as an Assistant Principal at Shepherdson College in Galiwin’ku, he championed a bi-cultural curriculum that made it legitimate for Yolngu children to be taught their own languages as well as English.

This bold challenge to the Anglophonic hegemony of education in Australia has been threatened even since. This was recently evidenced by the now repealed government ban on languages other than English in Northern Territory classrooms during the first four hours of each school day, which directly contravened Article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

With Yothu Yindi’s formation in 1986, Yunupingu began to compose songs that theorised his ideas about bi-culturalism in terms of the formal relationships that traditionally maintain balance and order among different Yolngu groups. In the song ‘Mainstream’, he first refers to ganma – places where freshwater and saltwater currents owned by different Yolngu groups of equal social standing mingle. Their productive interaction generates a yellow foam on the water’s surface that represents balance and mutual respected between different peoples in the spirit of cooperation over assimilation. 
Yunupingu’s songs similarly refer to the foundational social balance between child and mother, which the Yolngu call yothu–yindi, and for which the band took its name.

The Burunga Statement

Exemplified here by the Barunga Statement of 1988, Yunupingu conceived of garma as a new kind of intellectual space, where the world was invited to share perspectives with Yolngu in the hope of generating new kinds of intercultural understandings. It was in this spirit that the band’s philanthropic arm, the Yothu Yindi Foundation, launched the annual Garma Festival of Traditional Culture in July 1999. Our annual Symposium on Indigenous Music and Dance was inaugurated at this festival in August 2002, as was the National Recording Project for Indigenous Music in Australia in August 2004. Dr Payi Linda Ford and I became co-directors of this project in 2010.

Dr Neparrnga Gumbula
Another key figure in the shaping of the National Recording Project for Indigenous Music in Australia and my own intellectual development has been Dr Neparrnga Gumbula. This generous Yolngu elder and bi-cultural thinker took on the responsibility of being a de facto supervisor for my PhD and, through our collaborations, became the first Yolngu investigator in history to lead an Australian Research Council project of any kind.

From our first meetings at Galiwin’ku in August 1997, he made it clear that my debt to him would be repaid with knowledge. As my understanding of the myriad musical resonances of Yolngu society and law increased, Gumbula’s own research networks grew and enabled him to locate the earliest known collections of Yolngu heritage, which include priceless records of his own family history held in museums and archives worldwide.

From Gumbula’s perspective, the privilege of his tutelage has always been a function of my adoption as his child. Outsiders constantly misinterpret this common provision under Yolngu law as a quaint customary nicety. Yet its intent is far more serious. It is there to ensure that when engaging with Yolngu society, no one is above Yolngu law.

Though I was certainly Gumbula’s student, he was definitely never my informant, as he would have been cast by earlier ethnographers. There was no ethnic neutrality in which we could find shelter either. There were only two people from disparate socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds trying to make sense of each other’s perspectives in an attempt to generate a more balanced mutual understanding of our shared identity as Australians. At the time, we wrote: Accepting that Yolngu leaders have been and still are equal, if not leading, partners in research that draws on their hereditary knowledge, rather than casting them as mere sources of data without the capacity to think and engage with others theoretically, is a necessary part of decolonising and humanising the academic project so ownership of research processes and outcomes can be shared by all contributors. 

A Yolngu acoustemology


UNDER GUMBULA’S TUTELAGE, most of my education in Yolngu law and knowledge has been through song. This education started with originals by bands like Yothu Yindi that draw heavily on traditional themes and materials. But then, increasingly, I was also schooled in Manikay – the tradition of openly knowable songs and dances that the Yolngu inherit from the original ancestors who named, shaped and populated their sacred homelands.

One of our major projects was to make comprehensive archival records of Gumbula and his siblings performing their own Manikay repertoire. Yet I was not only to record these songs. I was also required to dance, to accompany Gumbula on yidaki (didgeridoo) when singing, to understand their inner poetics through transcription and translation of their lyrics.

It was only through these processes that I could begin to know Manikay in the way that even a Yolngu child can take for granted through an embodied synthesis of gnosis and praxis. Gumbula and I worked most intensively on the Manikay for the homeland of Baripuy, which we have performed together frequently, and through this teaching, I have learnt much about the inner logic of Yolngu law and knowledge that would have been all but impossible for me to realise in any other way.

Through the knowledge held in these songs, I can understand how string made from possum fur symbolises the souls of the recently deceased – never-ending and ever-travelling in the lake at Gapuwiyak. It is protected by the poison spines of attendant eel-tailed catfish that school along its spiral path. Emus stomp the earth with a loud whomp and soak their feathers as they drink from the freshwater stream, where the air is alive with babbling water and small croaking frogs. The stream’s current reveals a floor of white clay, which is gathered by elders to comb into the hair of youths being readied for initiation. Tortoises comb through white weeds that line the Gapuwiyak lake floor like hair, and they exhale air bubbles that break the water’s surface with an audible blub. Sulphur-crested cockatoos perch in lofty paperbark trees to sob for the dead, while flocks of red-winged parrots whistle overhead as they make their way to feast upon ripe, wild plums.

This could easily begin a description of a Yolngu acoustemology, for all the elements are there – sounds of the environments in which humans live overlapping with and echoed in the musical forms that we create. Yet also active here is a deeper level of signification embedded within Manikay’s heterophonic texture.

Just as no two individuals of a species in nature are ever exactly the same, neither are any two iterations of the same Manikay. Even when performed together by more then one singer, each follows the same melodic and lyrical templates for a performance, yet is free to realise these in a multitude of different ways over rhythmic anchors provided by bilma (paired sticks) and yidaki. Together, their voices give the illusion of one comprising many – delicately intertwined voices that gracefully permutate around the idea of a unified melody, but are full of ever-shifting and ever-resolving dissonances.

Songs like these exist for each Yolngu homeland and when I made this recording, with Gumbula and his family at their sacred homeland, Djiliwirri, in 2005, they described how the ancestors, who remain eternally present and sentient there, were watching us from the waters of the stream running behind. The hairs on their necks tingled in response. For when people sing Manikay, their voices are not theirs alone, but rather mingle with those of the ancestors themselves.

Endless adaptation

forrest and water

SUCH ARE THE nations of song, where humanity is defined, ancestral lineages are reckoned and ownership rights over country are evidenced through the human ability to sing and dance in the tradition of ancestors. This system of codifying generations of knowledge about the natural forms and ecologies found on country enabled humans to survive and thrive in Australia for scores of millennia, and gave rise to formal musical structures that echo the aesthetic roughness of simultaneous individuation found in all natural forms.

Consider all the nuanced resonances and complexities that a universal map of the Manikay tradition might reveal – all the cross-cutting relationships among its thousands of discrete song subjects, which are each linked to multiple sites across hundreds of homelands owned by dozens of different Yolngu groups that are related to each other through a universalising network of sprawling family ties. Consider how these songs assert the humanity and ancestry of the thousands of people within those groups who presently own the Yolngu homelands, and the thousands upon thousands more from whom they trace descent. Consider how all the species inhabiting and interacting within the varied ecologies of these homelands are each recorded in the multitudinous songs of the Manikay tradition, and how the subjects of these song repertoires span all the classical Yolngu media in a way that allows for a song to be danced, a dance to be painted, and a design to be sung with seamless intelligibility.

Finally, imagine how all those who sing Manikay take stock words and phrases, and take stock melodies and rhythms to assemble each new iteration of a song in their own individuated ways, and all within an aesthetic tradition that nurtures endless adaptation. Even the lyrics of Manikay, which comprise cryptic strings of names and archaic words, are explicitly designed to offer no straightforward narrative linearity, and can be sequenced quite differently by each singer within each new performance.

These cultivated structural ambiguities can also be found in Crossing Roper Bar, a work by the Australian Art Orchestra directed by Paul Grabowsky and Benjamin Wilfred that, through deep listening and experimentation, marries the aleatory of Manikay with the indeterminacy of jazz. Needless to say, it changes significantly with each new performance, refusing to submit to easy analysis and objectification.

For those of us who were trained reading music from the page, it can be difficult to accept that the idea of a single work can be so amorphous and embrace such broad variances. Yet in reality, this happens on some scale in all music, whether circumstantial or intentional, and Grabowsky himself argues, that even when we listen to the same recording again and again, it still changes over time because we ourselves do.

Within the Manikay tradition, however, the variances found within natural forms are so deeply embedded aesthetically that its structures deliberately echo the cycle of organic growth and decay. 

Crossing Roper Bar
is based on a series of Manikay songs from the Yolngu homeland of Ngilipidji for which Wilfred is a hereditary owner. It begins with the ancestral ghost, Djuwalparra, searching for wild honey amidst the forest canopy at Ngilipidji. Later, his voice becomes the wind and finally, the cry of the masked lapwing mourning for the dead. His songs and all their semantic resonances stand as an intergenerational record of the natural biological cycle through which all life ends in death and decay to create and sustain the living.

This is but a small sample of the richness that Manikay holds and the creativity it inspires. Before the British occupation of 1788, such nations of song formed vast bodies of polity that spanned the Australian continent and even amidst Australia’s capital cities, their legacies still live on today—refusing to submit to over-simplified notions of what it is to be Indigenous and to colonising constructs that locate Indigenous Australians as a people with no future of their own.

These nations of song endure wherever ceremony is performed and they continue to express polities that were supposedly extinguished in the bloody haze of Australia’s colonial past. Indigenous elders classically display and enact their leadership qualities through their mastery over ceremonial songs, dances and designs. Often I have wondered what Australia would be like today if our own elected leaders were similarly illuminated. Perhaps our Prime Minister’s impending visit to Arnhem Land in September 2014 will tell.

The singing mind

IN THE EARLY 1960s, as the Yolngu struggle against mining was just taking form, William S Burroughs contemplated the viral nature of words, and Bob Dylan began to vanish into a folk tradition of his own invention. The writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty also challenged us at that time to think of human cultural expressions as products of our bodily entwinings with the world, and the source of our silent inner perceptions that render the meanings we ascribe to the world, inseparable from our existence in it. Our externalised cultural expressions are but artifacts of these perceptions and depending on the epistemological constructs of the many diverse cultures in which we live, some we reify and canonise as evidential records of our history, some we do not.

But in Yolngu epistemology, Manikay is indeed a medium that can project the human mind into the various Yolngu homelands described by its repertory. This is because the Yolngu accept Manikay to be an evidential record of their homelands as observed by the original ancestors who dwelt there and handed down to them over countless generations. The Manikay tradition is built on this understanding that the human mind can carry country and ancestors from one generation to the next, and can realise their agency anew every time their songs are performed. It is in this way that the corporate ancestral record stands once the memories of individuals have faded.


Here, I am drawn back to the place of great beauty and antiquity that my mind silently created as this essay came into being – that place of whistling soft sands and sea breezes, rip currents, sandbars, tamarind trees and turtle hunts. This nation of the blue flag is the homeland of Lunggutja on Arnhem Bay, where I travelled with a party directed by Djangirrawuy Garawirrtja to record its Manikay in June 2005. As a senior hereditary owner of Lunggutja, Garawirrtja knew all its Manikay for Lunggutja. But having been raised in Galiwin’ku, had never before been there. Through his songs, however, he nonetheless demonstrated an intimate knowledge of this country. He would frequently comment that every time he sung them, ‘I go there in my mind’.

The Manikay that we recorded there with his family was conducted on a site along the beach that Garawirrtja had precisely chosen for its significance in Lunggutja’s songs. We sat on the beach facing the sea, from which the white sands gave way to the sacred waters of Mungurru, where a rip current gently roared before us. Further out, lay two sandbars that shelter souls of the deceased and the unborn in a shallow strait between the mainland and the island beyond. Behind us, atop a steep sandy embankment, was a tamarind tree with wide low branches, where the maiden ghost, Wurrathithi, sits in the shade and eternally mourns the dead. Before we began recording, Djangirrawuy made a traditional offering of tobacco to the ancestors who reside there and at the day’s end, he was delighted that they had recognised him as their own by offering up to us so rich a feast of turtle eggs.

I’ve found it to be a common misconception that a people can only remain Indigenous when they still live permanently on their traditional lands. Yet does not our species cultivate and internalise songs precisely because they are so are intrinsically portable, and thus enable us to perpetuate endearing links to places from which we have moved, or been involuntarily removed? Such perspectives are neither fanciful nor trivial. They reveal our inherited and enculturated biases towards the various kinds of media to which knowledge can be ascribed. Which would we consider capable of supporting fact: a book, a photograph, or perhaps a spreadsheet? Which do we entrust with that most elusive commodity truth? Could it possible be a song?

As someone who has formally studied music of one kind or another since the age of four, I find these questions intriguing. They challenge our notions of what knowledge is and where we accept that evidence can be manifest. They expose the prejudices that studies of music and other creative endeavours face when measured against disciplines that chiefly vest meaning in text.


In my current work at the Australian National University with the Warlpiri thinker, Wantarri Patrick, we routinely challenge our students in these ways through the practical incorporation of traditional songs, dances and designs from the Tamani Desert into our five-day intensive course, Indigenous Music and Media. By learning through doing in this short time, students typically become profoundly intrigued by an Indigenous epistemology that seems entirely alien to them initially. Some have sought to remain engaged with Indigenous knowledges through elective courses and side projects long after our classes have run their course.

ground painting

By employing such methods to break down our received biases towards the various kinds of media to which knowledge can be ascribed, we create the possibility of a future different from the past. We create the possibility of an Australia in which Justice Blackburn might have ruled in favour of Yunupingu’s parents, and spared them the anguish of seeing their sacred homelands desecrated by mining. We create the possibility of a world in which repeated calls for a treaty in recognition of the sovereignty and human rights of Australia’s Indigenous peoples might, by now, have led to meaningful reforms.

Reflected in a sound

IMAGINE YUNUPINGU’S FATHER saying that his people’s roots run deep into country and that the names called out by the original ancestors to demarcate these places are legally enshrined in Manikay. Imagine Justice Blackburn wanting to see evidence of fence lines and mapped boundaries, and deeds of title over property.

Imagine this reflected in a sound.

Imagine Yunupingu’s mother saying that her people prove their lineages and hereditary ownership in country through their ability to perform the law – the names, songs, dances and designs handed down from the original ancestors. Imagine Justice Blackburn wanting to see evidence of genealogies and registers – a paper trail reaching back before British occupation in 1788.

Imagine this reflected in a sound.

Imagine Yunupingu himself saying that his people don’t care – that they continue to pass on their law regardless of its rejection and trivialisation by the Supreme Court. Imagine Justice Blackburn ruling that Yolngu law has formed no part of Australian law at any time in history.

Imagine this reflected in a sound.

One person’s ephemeron is another’s foundation. One person’s art is another’s law. Paintings on bodies versus books bound in leather. Song versus scripture; our word against theirs.


Yet still I know that the song in my mind and truths that it carries are real. Because each time I sing it, it takes me here in my mind.

Its truths seem a world apart from the unsettling place that government policy has taken Australia since the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission as a representative statutory authority in 2005 – back into an Australia of yesteryear, where colonial power structures are again imposed as the pinnacle of social evolution, and assimilation the only acceptable road to deliverance.

Voices of the blue flag nation still ripple through my mind. But now they sing of djäpana, the coral sunset – the song of farewells. I am no longer on the beach at Lungutja, but rather sitting in my office at the Australian National University, where a blue flag stands to remind me of business unfinished and debts unpaid. I wonder if people will understand the interpretive risks taken here to interrogate this problem through the praxis and poesis of songs, and intimate and imperceptible ways that we carry them within us.

Either way, songs are indeed powerful. They have the power to soothe, the power to persuade, the power to provoke and the power to educate. They have the power to insinuate themselves into our inner selves. They have the power to convey meaning over vast stretches of time and space and to recall distant memories that were perhaps never ours. The burgeoning bodies of literature and practice in music therapy, psychology and education that are built on our cognitive responses to these stimuli are not a random phenomenon. Songs are integral to the way that we make sense of the world, and vest our lives and communities with embodied meanings in it. Our species is wired for songs and we habitually construct and project ourselves through their creation throughout our lives.

We reflect ourselves in them and, in turn, they reflect us, for reflected in their sounds, we are each a nation of song.


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