Interview with Pauline McLeod, Aboriginal Storyteller — by Helen McKay. Taped in Sydney and published in Feb-March’98 issue of Telling Tales. (Pauline McLeod is also a storyteller on ABC Television’s PLAYSCHOOL).
Helen: Every culture has a storyteller – how is the Aboriginal storyteller chosen?
Pauline: Traditionally, the storyteller was born into the role. There was also the opportunity for the storytellers to earn their position – learning and telling the stories – this was the traditional way stories were passed on.
Everyone had stories, so it was part of the land, their totem, belief system, culture and the community they’d grown up with.
Helen: Did you start telling as a child?
Pauline: Yes, as a child I was really a good little storyteller, sometimes getting myself into a lot of trouble and also, getting myself out of a lot of trouble with my stories. But, even as a child, I loved entertaining people – my aunties, cousins and family – especially on long journeys. On a four-hour car ride I would tell stories to keep the others entertained.
Helen: Who passes on the traditional Aboriginal stories?
Pauline: In NSW, where I grew up, the traditional stories were passed on to the children by the females in the community.
Within our culture there’s a number of categories of stories: public stories, sacred stories, sacred secret stories, men’s and women’s stories. A woman cannot tell a man’s story to a group of men and men cannot tell women’s stories – I don’t know the men’s stories – I only know the female, the public, the women’s and sacred stories – stories just for women. Most of the creation stories of the dreamtime are in the general or public storytelling category and are traditionally told, sitting round a campfire. Each region in Australia has their own dreamtime stories of creation – how the animals came into being. I’d say in Australia there would be more than 700 stories about How the Kangaroo Got its Pouch.
Helen: That’s amazing! You have just explained something I’ve been confused about. In my own library I have a number of books of Aboriginal dreamtime stories and in each book the stories differ from each other. I’d wondered if the stories had been changed by those collecting them, but now I’m beginning to see they haven’t. They’ve been collected from different regions.
Pauline: A lot of this happened in simple ways. We have seasonal festivals. The seasons brought about special events – such as: the Bogong Moth festival or the Brewarrina Fish festivals – the traditional festivals from way back when – thousands and thousands of years ago. During these periods, various groups of people – neighbouring groups – would travel and gather for the fishing festival.
Everyone on the east coast would gather for a festival at Brewarrina to share their culture and stories, which would be told in a language common to the region – say just the East Coast – not necessarily all of Australia. Within that region there would be sub-languages in regional dialects; finally sub-sub languages in tribal dialects.
Helen: It’s a much more complex system than I had imagined. I see now why the Aboriginal language is not taught in Australian schools, as is the Maori language in New Zealand. There is not one common language, but more than 700.
Pauline: Yes, when you look at the complexity of the culture you realise that language, dance, music and art, all depend on the area of land you lived in. What you would present as an area artform would be the spiritform animals from around your region. Therefore, if you lived in the Snowy mountains – they’d be mountain stories; the desert – desert stories; coast – coastal or ocean stories; islands – island and ocean stories.
The traditional stories of the Torres Strait Islands are based on an island existence, whereas the stories of mainland Australia are based on the Dreamtime and those spiritual belief systems. It’s a very complex overlay of the origins of stories and that’s what the traditional storytellers would know all about. Even with that complexity they have an understanding of the meaning behind the stories to be told.
Imagine a story of five minutes length that has twenty lessons in it. Now that is a story!
Helen: What you are telling me convinces me that much research has to go in to Aboriginal stories before they should ever be told by tellers who don’t have a background of the Aboriginal culture.
Pauline: Yes. As I said previously – during the festivals, people shared their stories and those hearing them, would pick up a story they liked and take it home, adjusting it according to their region. And so, if the region was a swamp region, the creatures would become swamp creatures instead of creatures of the river region.
Helen: I get it. That’s how many of the stories have a similarity.
Pauline: Then you have stories which are shared, like the stories of the Darling River region, which covers the whole area from Queensland to Victoria. The Darling River has river stories, so, up and down the river there’d be twenty or more Aboriginal groups along that region and although they all spoke in different languages, they would have shared some of their stories because of the land links.
You would have a story of Brolga and how she became a dancing bird. The very essence of the story is the same but certain things in the story have changed, depending on the area and group that tells the story.
In one story, Brolga has two whirlwinds which carried Brolga and her mother away. The version I tell has one whirlwind and one evil man, but a further group has two whirlwinds, her mother, an evil man, and a tribal group of men lusting after the woman. It’s all based on the girl, who is turned into Brolga, because of her rejection of a man’s desire for her.
That whirlwind concept brings to the story the spiritual belief of the power of the whirlwind. So, how strong the belief in the power of the whirlwind is, depends on where the region is that the story is told from.
After you get involved with Dreamtime stories you realise that, despite these regional differences, the essence of the stories is based on the girl being turned into Brolga by an evil man. Not exactly stranger-danger – more like fatal attraction – and you when can discover the classification, you can decide which version of the story you’re telling.
Helen: Now I see. It depends what lessons you want to have embedded in the story. Would you tell all versions of the story?
Pauline: Years ago, Aboriginal storytellers would only tell stories of their region. Because of the changes in the last 200 years in our country, especially in my culture, exceptions have been allowed, so a storyteller of one area – such as NSW – now tells stories of the swamp, the river, the desert, etc. That’s how we have changed.
I’ve always been interested in and loved stories. In effect I’ve been trained as a storyteller all my life. If a story just fitted it became quite popular in families. But the thought of becoming a storyteller never really came to me until I reached the age of 30 when the idea of taking on the role of a storyteller as a professional career choice called to me.
At this point, in 1992, I decided to become a storyteller full-on. Up until then I was learning my culture – learning how to entertain people, how to stand up in front of audiences, to shape my voices.
Helen: It was almost like an apprenticeship. What made the breakthrough for you?
Pauline: I was a removed person and when, in 1986, I met my natural family, I wanted to tell others, through drama, what had happened to me and that it wasn’t nice. But Australia wasn’t ready for it at that time. Poetry, talks and things like that were acceptable, but I was an impatient person – I wanted to make changes!
Helen: You must have felt angry and impatient.
Pauline: One day my mother told me a Dreamtime story and, as soon as I heard it, I thought, ‘that is the way I want to go – as a storyteller I can reach people and change attitudes – with Dreamtime stories.’ But you have to find the right ones though. I began with `How the Kangaroo Got its Pouch’ and it was successful for me.
Following this I decided that I needed nine to twelve stories I could tell, which would become popular culture in Australia, especially in NSW. I felt the nine NSW stories I chose could help people change attitudes towards animals. First, to see the beauty of our animals – to stop the all-out culling of Kangaroos – and learn to regard them as very special animals, as we do.
Helen: So you feel your stories have messages relevant to today’s society?
Pauline: I think the only way the Aboriginal saw the kangaroo as a special animal, was through the stories we heard as we grew up. I thought it would be nice if, through the Dreamtime stories we tell, other Australians could learn to love them in the same way.
Seven years ago we started with that concept, that is nine-twelve stories – and they have mainly been presented in the oral form, but also in other media, such as audiotapes, videos, books, etc.
We had to get permission from the elders to be able to target these stories we had chosen. So we did that – the elders gave us permission to turn them into popular culture in all formats possible. To make the stories and our culture popular, we had to make sure it wasn’t a fad – but a long-term change within the culture of Australia as a whole – so we began some intensive research.
We researched the stories out for seven years to see which really were the beautiful ones – the ones a person will hear and never forget. Once we had that information, we started teaching the lessons behind the stories as well, so we have been teaching our cultural beliefs through the stories.
We have to bring back the power, the honour and the role of the storyteller in society again. We have to teach ourselves what a storyteller is.
Helen: What sort of audiences did you start with?
Pauline: We told them on `Playschool’ – a TV programme for children, in schools, on stage at the Opera House, in festivals – especially the recent Australian National Storytelling Festival which was a great opportunity for us to tell those stories children will come to recognise.
We called the whole scene Mallawilli – sit down – a Sydney NSW word, and got the opportunity to introduce the language. At first we decided to just go with the stories – the nine-twelve Dreamtime stories. I had never heard a Dreamtime story in my days at school and I wanted to change that. I want Australian children to grow up knowing the culture of our land.
That has now allowed us to present our stories for all age groups, from babies to grandparents, giving them, in the gentlest way, an understanding of our culture. We will continue to tell the stories in all formats possible, be it at schools, stereotype tellings – we don’t busk – as some artists do at Circular Quay. If it’s a pre-school, we tell the baby version, while at conferences and to adult audiences, we tell the adult version of the stories.
For two years the kids loved them but, after three years, they began to say ‘Why should we listen to that again?’ And then the change came to them.
I asked them ‘Do you know Red Riding Hood?’
They’d say ‘Yes.’
‘You’re a 3rd or 5th generation Australian?’
‘Can you tell a Dreamtime story when you go overseas?’
And they’d answer ‘No.’
Then I’d say ‘Here’s one then – learn it.’
No-one’s ever said ‘Don’t talk about Dreamtime stories.’
Now our nine cultural Dreamtime stories, are given with cultural respect by the elders to be turned into popular culture – those nine – will help to influence the nation into loving something that has been part of this country since the beginning of time and taking that love of the stories on to become part of their culture.
So the person who loves the story of the flying fox, might go on to learn about flying foxes and all about the birds, which could lead them into environmental issues.
I believe storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of change within the modern world today. If a storyteller knows what they are doing, if they hold true to the tradition of the storyteller – whether it be Aboriginal, Anglo-Celtic, European or Black Forest storyteller, Hasidic, Asian or American storyteller – and understands the power of stories and how they can help people, they then have a credibility in the community.
Storytelling seems to have only become diminished because of the arrival of books and printing methods. The true role of the storyteller is to teach. The storyteller does recite – yes – but the true storyteller teaches the cultural values, passes on knowledge and the beliefs within the stories to the next generation.
I only tell NSW stories – I rarely tell any of the other stories between cultures – neither do I tell stories from say, the Northern Territory, as I don’t have the background to pass on the true meaning of those stories. If I call myself a storyteller, how can I tell a story and be able to pass on the specific lessons in it if I don’t know and understand its background?
You can be a yarnteller – telling about something that may or may not have happened down the street or in the community – but it lacks the lessons.
The true role of the storyteller is to pass on the lessons from the beginning of time.
So, if you, as a storyteller, tell stories from another culture, you have to know a fair bit about that culture and spirituality. For instance; to tell Japanese stories you would need to understand Buddhism and related belief systems.
Our storytellers today need to be careful about what role they are playing.
Are they playing the entertainer or, are they playing the cultural educator? For me to be a reciter of stories — no — I don’t want to be a reciter. I see myself as a traditional storyteller and therefore, the stories I tell are the ones in which I understand the laws, rules, culture and spirituality behind them – the Dreamtime stories.
I love those stories.
Helen: There’s a world-wide phenomenon of story collecting and publishing going on today. Do you believe that people can come in from outside Australia, collect a few stories, take them away and retell them credibly?
Pauline: I see these people just as `intro’ people. They introduce a culture to people – just the stories. They don’t know about the culture and, frequently, don’t know what they are talking about. I think that’s the danger.
The role of the storyteller within modern society had begun to die out and, because people were able to travel all around the world, they felt they had the right to collect and retell stories willy-nilly. It came about because of the development of the printing press which created a demand for stories in books. The more recent development of the recording machine allowed them to go into remote areas, listen to stories and record them. They then went and retold those stories in whatever forms they used, without understanding the cultural background.
That led to the diminishing role of the storyteller and suddenly turned the storyteller into an entertainer for children, who just recited words – not an important person, with a professional status in their society.
Our storytellers today need to be careful about what role they are playing. Are they playing the entertainer or, are they playing the cultural educator? If you’re a cultural educator – even a fashionable one, where you travel the world telling cultural stories from every country in the world – then you’re an international educator.
The important question is: Does that person know the cultural background to every story they tell? If they can truthfully say that they do have that knowledge and understanding of all the stories, then they certainly are a Master Storyteller and have a right to pass on those stories. If they say no – I liked the story, but cannot remember the meanings behind it – all they are is a reciter of stories, an entertainer or performer – not a true storyteller.
Finally, we have to bring back the power, the honour and the role of the storyteller in society again. We have to teach ourselves what a storyteller is.
To the international entertainers, I say – recognise yourselves as just that – entertainers – but don’t say you’re a cultural storyteller. In your telling of the Dreamtime stories, make sure you understand the background and philosophy behind them – so that when you tell these stories, you can explain all of the – say – twenty lessons for all age groups encapsulated within them. If you’re unwilling to do that research, it would be better to leave them to those who know and understand what they are doing.
Helen: Thank-you, Pauline McLeod.