Pondering about Aboriginal Oral History VS Written History by Marvyn McKenzie


Marvyn McKenzie Pondering about Aboriginal Oral History VS Written History

Unlike other countries and cultures of the world Aboriginal people did not have any writing system or inventions like the printing press to produce endless volumes of books to store their wealth of knowledge, beliefs and experiences.

Some myths have come about because of this lack of technological advancement and you often see some stated here on Facebook and the real world e.g. Aboriginals are so dumb they never even invented the wheel or bow and arrow etc. etc.

One thing some people tend to forget about most western and eastern technological advancement is that most were deliberately or accidentally invented for the sole purpose of waging war and for having the means of being one up on your neighbour as you invaded them or as they invaded you.

Albert Einstein once said:

Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.

Within Australia our Ancestors lived in peaceful harmony with each other as well as the environment.

Were there ever battles or conflicts – Yes – but not at the scale of the battles and conflicts waged by the western and eastern nations and civilisation.

So are we Aboriginal people descended from a dumb backward stone age unintelligent Ancestors?

I say no and always state we are descended from a race of people who were very intelligent because they knew the land below and the stars above so intimately.

Our culture is based on the sharing and passing down of oral stories and histories from one generation to the next.

This is the way we were taught from childhood to adulthood.

However, due to the coming of the English many of our People and oral histories have vanished upon the face of the Earth and many of our oral stories are no longer heard upon our Four Sacred Winds.

We also know that Aboriginal peoples are the most studied group of peoples in Australia and after 222 years of constant studying and prodding the English or White Australians still barely know much about our peoples.

One of the reasons why this lack of misunderstanding and knowledge is occurring is that majority of people who study us remain nearly all white fellas, and straight away, these white fellas are at a disadvantage because of this simple first fact, yet many fail to see such lacking things.

Most people who study us also come with preconceived ideas and are often confined to a set of established rules and guidelines that have been created for their selected professions.

Today, I just want to look at one of them:

The white fellas beliefs about Western Written History versus Aboriginal Oral History

For example, it is often believed and written because oral history depends upon living people as sources, we have limits; we can only go back one lifetime.

This western notion and statement about the generational confinements of oral history immediately confines our Aboriginal oral history and traditions to ‘one lifetime’, whereas we Aboriginal Peoples know that our oral histories can actually go back to many upon many generations.

Such white fella people who research our oral history also often come with this preconceived notion:

At the very least, we must be aware of the limitations of oral history in order not to mislead ourselves into believing that oral history automatically yields accurate renditions of past events.

Trained to depend on written records, traditional historians have been known to shudder in horror at the potential problems and inherent weaknesses of oral history.

What of the failings of human memory?

What of the human tendency to impose a narrative structure on events that may not be closely connected?

What of the self-serving motives of the story teller?

What of the power relationships between interviewer and interviewee that affect what and how events are reported? What of the differences between the spoken and written word?

What of the inaccuracies that creep into meaning when trying to put a conversation onto paper?

Well, many of the same problems arise in using written records.

Written sources can carry personal or social biases. Written sources occur within a social context.

Source for above:


Here is another good link to read about Oral History:


One problem that limit white fellas is the people they talk to and the people they miss talking to.

A researcher who enters a particular Aboriginal community may talk to all who are present and then go away and write up a research paper thinking they have accurately recorded everything and everybody worth noting.

However, what they may fail to know and realise is that within such an Aboriginal community there may be some very important people who are either away for whatever reasons or have moved away to live elsewhere.

By failing to speak to these other absent important Aboriginal Peoples their research is actually incomplete and lacking in information.

Another problem about white fellas studying black fellas is they often study a particular Aboriginal group, language, culture, oral history etc in complete separate isolation from other neighbouring or even distant Aboriginal groups.

They fail to see the extended cultural connections or even disconnections.

Sometimes, today, even we Aboriginals also fall into this cultural trap of only looking at our immediate Aboriginal culture in isolation from the rest of Aboriginal culture, especially more so, if we can only claim descendant and ancestry from only one particular Aboriginal Language Group.

Here is such examples of what you can miss when studying and researching Aboriginal Peoples and Culture in complete separate isolation from other near or distance Aboriginal Language Groups:

For many Aboriginal groups across much of Australia there is often one common word for ‘to talk or to speak’ and that word is ‘Wangka’.

Now in studied or cultural isolation a researcher, or even we Aboriginal People ourselves, can truthfully say that this word ‘Wangka’ meaning ‘to talk or to speak’ is solely an ancient Adnyamathanha Yura Ngawarla word from the Flinders Ranges, South Australia,

Adnyamathanha Yura Ngawarla Dictionary made, used and taught – research and task completed and no further investigation or research required…full stop.

Ah Ah! By doing such things in separate isolation we then fail to see the bigger picture.

We fail to see that the ancient word ‘Wangka’ is not just confined to the Adnyamathanha Yura Ngawarla Language.

In the Pilabara region of Western Australia, far from the Yarta (lands) of we Adnyamathanha Yura peoples what ancient word do they use to mean ‘to talk or to speak?’

You guessed it – Wangka

If the Aboriginal People of the Pilbara region uses the same word of Wangka to mean ‘to talk or to speak’ then there must be an ancient cultural and language connection between the Aboriginal Peoples of the Pilbara Region of Western Australia and Flinders Ranges Regions of South Australia.

Are there other ancient cultural connections?

Here is a good link for the Aboriginal People of the Pilbara region of Western Australia:


Now let us even look at the ancient Yura Ngawarla word Yura.

The word Yura comes from the even more ancient word of Yurra meaning ‘dirt, earth’ and I usually personally translate it as meaning ‘Of the Earth’ but actually I have come to realise I actually leave at an important word – People – so therefore in future translation I will write Yura as meaning ‘Peoples of the Earth’.

The reason why the word ‘People’ need to be inserted into the definition and meaning of Yura is because we often use it in such ways, for example:

We use Yura to mean all Aboriginal People – men, women and children – of our Aboriginal Language Group.

We also use the word Yura for other Aboriginal People who are not a part of our immediate Aboriginal Language group when we often say about strange Aboriginal People on our Yarta (lands) or elsewhere – Who is that Yura? – and when we say this we are actually saying ‘From what part of our Earth does that Aboriginal Person come from?

Now in South Australia if someone were to say ‘Which mob call themselves Yura?’ the answer will most often always be – ‘Oh that’s what Adnyamathanha People call themselves.’

We Adnyamathanha Peoples are very proud of our unique Yura identity. However, is our Yura identity really actually unique?

No it is not…because other neighbouring and far distance Aboriginal language Groups also use the word Yura to describe themselves as People, for example:

Our close neighbours, Nukunu and Barngala, also use the word Yura, although admittedly they would actually say Yura as Thura, but despite this difference in ‘spelling’ it is actually the same word being used.

What about far distance Aboriginal Language Groups?

In New South Wales, far from our Yura Yarta, in the far distance eastern lands and language of the Dharawhal Peoples do you know what word they use meaning People?

You guessed it – Yura

So again, are there also even more ancient cultural and language connections between the Yura Peoples of South Australia and the Yura Peoples of New South Wales?

Here is a good link for the Dharawhal People of New South Wales:



I am fortunate and lucky because I am actually descended from a few Aboriginal Language Groups so I often research all and my intent and foundation for such research and study of them are to look for similarities and differences.

Although, I must admit that I too can fail to see some things sometimes and also I am limited in that I am not a fully versed lawman so there are some knowledge I do not have insight, possession and understanding of.

Now one thing about Aboriginal Oral History that most researchers who study or record such things tend to fail and notice something of great importance to Aboriginal Oral History and why it is not limited to only one or a few generations.

I guess because this something of great importance is so big and large around them then this may explain why they tend to fail to see or acknowledge it.

What is this ‘big and large something of great importance’ that some white fellas fail to see or acknowledge?

Despite evidence to the contrary about Aboriginal Peoples having no written books or having failed to invent the printing press we do have a book that is much larger than any in the world for it is actually the world around us that is our book.

All of our stories are based on the natural environment and our Ancestors were so intelligent and had excellent memory retention that we needed no such written records for our written records and our book was the land we lived and walked upon.

Our written record of the land was also not just confined to our small locale but also traveled vast distances from our lands to other Peoples lands.

By the way, you see that Fruit I’m picking in the picuture?

It is one of our most highly prized and sought after favourite vegetable/fruit food to eat and boy are we very happy when their season arrives, especially that small window of time when they also have their small yellow flower buds on them, Yummy.

Now most of our Mob today may only tell you that our Yura People simply love eating these fruit and flowers because they taste so good as they go down, and are so filling.

What some of us have forgotten is that there is another special reason why our Wadumathanha (People of Long Ago, Ancestors) ate the whole of this plant – flower, fruit, leaves and root – and why it was highly prized and sought after.

I will tell you why…nahhh…on second thoughts I will keep this ancient oral knowledge and information to meself and our Yura Peoples…otherwise other People may want to start eating it too and we may end up with nothing again, as per usual.

If you want to know about this plant you mob can go and research it yourself, I am sure our ancient oral knowledge and information about it is written down some where out there 😉

So in order to understand Aboriginal Oral History you not only need to hear them or know the people themselves, you also need to know about the other People and Lands they may be connected to – both near and far – or you may fail to see the big cultural picture.

I will stop for now so you may digest what I have written and please do offer your thoughts and comments.

Published on Lateral Love Australia with permission from Marvyn McKenzie – https://www.facebook.com/WalhaUdiMarvynMc

4 thoughts on “Pondering about Aboriginal Oral History VS Written History by Marvyn McKenzie

  1. This is a great read. Thank you. I shared it with my friend Kirin. She is part of an organization in the USA who are preserving the mostly oral history of the Igorots who are a culture from the Philipines. I had the honor of interviewing her for my last book. I learned so much about the Igorots who I knew nothing about before.

    I also enjoyed it for myself, as I am part Cherokee, who are a native people of North America. A majority of what i know of my ancestors are stories passed down from generation to generation. It is amazing to know about this part of me that is not in history books. Cheers!

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