Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Yidumduma: A True Aboriginal Astronomer

by Duane Hamacher

This week I want to introduce our readers to Senior Wardaman Custodian and genuine "Aboriginal Astronomer" Bill Yidumduma Harney.  Yidumduma is a world renowned artist, storyteller, writer, songman, musician and the last fully initiated male custodian of the Wardaman people near Katherine, Northern Territory, Australia.

Yidumduma was born between 1932 and 1936 at Brandy Bottle Creek, on Wllleroo Station, Northern Territory and is the son of an Aboriginal mother (Ludi Yibuluyma) and an Irish-Australian father (the famous writer and bushman Bill Harney, although he had little contact with him growing up).  Yidumduma was taught the Aboriginal ways of the Wardaman under the guidance of his Aboriginal step-father, Joe Jormorji, and his mother.  

During an era when Australian governmental policies involved removing mixed-race Aboriginal children from their families and placing them with white families in order to "breed out the colour", known as the Stolen Generations, his sister was sadly taken away.  To prevent young Bill from being taken, his mother covered him in charcoal to hide the whiteness of his skin.  While growing up, Yidumduma spent half the year working on cattle stations and the other half on Walkabout learning the traditional ways.  He underwent the full array of Wardaman ceremonial traditions, education, and initiation.  Today, Yidumduma is in his 70s, speaks seven languages, and is highly active in preserving sites, lecturing around the world, and engaging in education, heritage, and Aboriginal rights.

As a Wardaman custodian, he is responsible for the preservation and knowledge of hundreds of internationally recognized rock art sites, such as the famous Lightning Brothers (see below).  He teaches new generations of Wardaman children the Dreamings and traditions that have been handed down over hundreds of generations through art and oral tradition.

He has actively worked to regain traditional lands and shares Wardaman culture with hundreds of visitors and tourists.  His wealth of knowledge is unparalleled and he has been formally recognised as one of “Australia’s living national treasures”.  The book "Born Under the Paperbark Tree" (written with Jan Wositsky) is an autobiography of his life, and "Dark Sparklers" (with Hugh Cairns) is a full treatise on Wardaman astronomy - being the most complete and detailed work on the astronomy of any Indigenous group in Australia (see below).

In August 2009 he was featured in a two-man 'First Astronomers' show with astrophysicist Ray Norris at the Darwin Festival (below), and in November 2009 he was prominent in the ABC Message Stick program on the Aboriginal Astronomy entitled "Before Galileo".  He also gave the opening for the AIATSIS Symposium on Australian Indigenous Astronomy in Canberra in late November, 2009 (second image below).

We would like to thank Yidumduma for sharing his knowledge and passion with the world.  His knowledge of astronomy is staggering and we have been very fortunate to have worked with such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic man.  To learn more about Wardaman astronomy, order a copy of Dark Sparklers, privately published by Hugh Cairns.

Thanks to Paul Taylor for some of the biographical details.

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