Aboriginal elder Major Sumner. (Photo: Ali Sanderson)

Aboriginal river dance performed

  • BY Kathy Riley with AG Staff |
  • September 16, 2010

Traditional owners perform a ceremony along the Darling and Murray rivers for the first time in centuries.

IT IS A SIGHT that would have been familiar on the banks of the Darling River hundreds of years ago. There's a circular clearing dotted with small campfires and sparks leap like fireflies into the night sky as an audience gathers, waiting for the ceremony to begin.

Children sit cross-legged on the ground; babies nestle in mothers' laps. Older men and women stand behind. In the shadows are 20 or so dancers painted with the symbols of their people: Kooma from southern Queensland; Nyemba from north-western NSW; and Ngarrindjeri from the lakes, the lower River Murray and The Coorong in SA.

In Wilcannia, 300 km south-west of Bourke, NSW, the dancers are four days into a week-long journey along the Darling and Murray rivers - starting from Murra Murra on Nebine Creek south-east of Cunnamulla, Queensland, and continuing all the way down to Meningie, SA, near the mouth of the Murray.

Each night they set up camp, dress and paint themselves in the ancient traditions of their people and dance to bring the spirit back into their river. It's the Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin, or River Country Spirit Ceremony, and it's the first time the dances have taken place in modern Australia.

"We believe when you dance on the land, you're letting Mother Earth know you still care about her," says Major Sumner, Ngarrindjeri elder and the event's ceremonial coordinator. "This is about restoring the energy, dancing the spirit back into this country, dancing the spirit back into ourselves, into the Aboriginal people."

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Read the full article in issue 100 of Australian Geographic.