Growing Up the Future: Children's Stories and Aboriginal Ecology




Aboriginal, Story, Ecology,

How to Cite

Kwaymullina, B., Collins-Gearing, B., Kwaymullina, A., & Pushman, T. (2012). Growing Up the Future: Children’s Stories and Aboriginal Ecology. M/C Journal, 15(3).
Vol. 15 No. 3 (2012): ecology
Published 2012-05-03

We are looking for a tongue that speaks with reverence for life, searching for an ecology of mind. Without it, we have no home, have no place of our own within the creation. It is not only the vocabulary of science that we desire. We also want a language of that different yield. A yield rich as the harvests of the earth, a yield that returns us to our own sacredness, to a self-love and respect that will carry out to others (Hogan 122).

Through storytelling the world is created and recreated: in the values and worldviews stories offer, in the patterns of thinking and knowing that listening and reading place in our spirits and minds, in the stories we tell and live. We walk in the ripples our old people left behind and we follow them up, just as our children and the generations after us will walk in shapes and patterns we make with our lives. Our delicate world is poised on a precipice with increasing species extinction and loss of habitat, deforestation, displacement of animal and human communities, changing weather patterns, and polluted waterways. How do we manage the environmental and cultural issues of our complex global world? How do we come together to look after each other and the world around us? Often there is a sense that science will save us, that if we keep “progressing” at a fast enough rate we can escape the consequences of our actions. However, science alone, no matter how sophisticated, cannot alter the fundamental truths of action and reaction in Country: that if you take too much, something, somewhere, will go without. As Guungu Yimithirr man Roy McIvor writes:

Dad often spoke about being aware of the consequences of our actions. He used different stories as teaching tools, but the idea was the same. Like a boomerang, your bad actions will come back to hurt you (89).

In the end, it will not be technological innovation alone that will alter the course we have set out for ourselves. Rather, it will be human beings embracing a different way of relating to the environment than the current dominant paradigm that sees people take too much, too often. With this is mind, we would like to consider the integral role children’s literature plays in sustaining knowledge patterns of Country and ecology for the future.

In the context of children’s literature and ecology the idea of sustaining environmental and cultural awareness is shared via the written word—how it is used, presented, and read, particularly with ideas of the child reader in mind.  Our children will be the ones who struggle with the ripples we leave in our wake and they will be the ones who count the cost of our decisions as they in turn make decisions for the generations that will follow them. If we teach the right values then the behaviour of our children will reflect those ideas. In the Aboriginal way it’s about getting the story right, so that they can learn the right ways to be in Country, to be a human being, and to look after the world they inherit. As Deborah Bird Rose states, Country is a “nourishing terrain; a place that gives and receives life” (Rose Country 7).

This paper will examine two Aboriginal children’s stories that teach about a living, holistic, interrelated world and the responsibilities of human beings to look after it. Specifically, the authors will examine Joshua and the Two Crabs by Joshua Button and Dingo’s Tree by Gladys and Jill Milroy. Both stories are published by Aboriginal publisher Magabala Books and represent a genre of Aboriginal writing about Country and how to take care of it. They form part of the “language of that different yield” (Hogan 122) that Indigenous writer Linda Hogan advocates, a language that emerges from an ecology of the mind that locates human beings as an interconnected part of the patterns of the earth.  The first text discussion focuses on the sharing of implicit meaning via textual form—that is, the lay out of the story, its peritext, and illustrations. The second textual discussion centres explicitly on content and meaning. Both textual analyses aim to open up a dialogue between Aboriginal ecology and children’s literature to provide inter-subjective approaches for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal readers/listeners.

Aboriginal Story Ecology

In Aboriginal philosophy the universe is the creative expression of Dreaming Ancestors who created the world—the land, plants, animals, stars and elements—and then settled into the creation they had made:

…white people also call this the Dreaming. The Tjukurpa tells how the landscape, animals, plants, and people were made and what they mean for one another. The Tjukurpa is in everything. It is in the rocks, in the trees, even in the mice, mingkiri (Baker xii).

Through their actions they formed the pattern of reality that finds its expression in human beings and in everything around us—the stars, earth, rivers, trees, rocks, and forms of life that make up the world.

Aboriginal knowledge systems understand the patterns of life and our relationships to them through the structure of story. Dreaming stories—stories about the creation of the world and how the fundamental Laws were handed down to the people—have special significance. However, the stories we make with our lives and experiences are also important—stories about funny things that happened and our relationships with our families and loved ones. These stories are also a part of Country because there is nothing that does not emerge and return to the land, nothing that is not part of the pattern that the Dreaming Ancestors made:

The Story is the Land, and the Land is the Story. The Story holds the people, and the people live inside the Story. The Story lives inside the people also. It goes all ways to hold the land (Turner 45).

The imprint of creation, the structure of the relationships that make up the world, is held in story. Thus, in Aboriginal logic the patterns of nature, the patterns of stories, and the patterns of language, society, and culture are reflections and expressions of the pattern of creation woven by the Dreaming Ancestors. As Yunipingu writes:

…For us society and nature are not separate. We have Yirritja and Dhuwa, and these categories contain elements which are both natural and social. Also, of course, they have elements which Europeans call supernatural or metaphysical (9).

Through stories we come to know not just the world but who we are and the proper ways of relating to the ecology’s around us. As we learn stories the pattern of learning grows inside of us, in our ways of thinking, doing, and being. They provide the framework for our spirit and mind to develop so we come to know and be in the world in a proper or straight way—to enhance the pattern of life, not to destroy it.

This is an Aboriginal “Story Ecology” where stories serve as maps that teach us who we are and our role in the world. Yuin Elder Max Harrison (2009) observes the three truths on passing on traditional knowledge:

See the land…the beauty
Hear the land….the story
Feel the land…the spirit (no pg).

To sustain Country is to sustain the self. To tell, share, and know story is to know the environment and to sustain the environment. As Kathy Deveraux writes ‘it’s like the spider: a lot of things tie in together, so when you ask one thing, you get a whole big history’ (qtd in Rose, Country 7).

Aboriginal story promotes ecological practice by enlivening the reader’s empathy toward the environment and nurturing a sense of union between what is within us and what is outside of us. The imagery and text of Aboriginal story often achieves this umbilical in two defining ways. The first is through the positioning of the age, setting, or backdrop. The second is born from the relationships animated between these vitally active surrounds and the characters contained therein. Makere Stewart-Harrawira states that:

All human experiences and all forms of knowledge contributed to the overall understandings and interpretations. The important task was to find the proper pattern of interpretation. Hence it can be said that indigenous peoples have traditionally regarded knowledge as something that must be stood in its entire context. The traditional principles of traditional knowledge [...] remain fixed and provide the framework within which new experiences and situations are understood and given meaning. As such, these principles are the means by which cultural knowledge becomes remade and given meaning in our time. Another principle is that every individual element of the natural world, each individual rock and stone, each individual animal and plant, every body of land and of water, has its own unique life force (155).

Examples of these features of Aboriginal story ecology can be seen in our analysis of the following two stories Joshua and the Two Crabs and Dingo’s Tree.

Joshua and the Two Crabs

In Joshua and the Two Crabs by Joshua Button, published by Magabala Books in 2008, the narrative, illustrations, and peritext all combine to enable alternative eco-cultural understandings and values. Joshua Button is a young Indigenous author from saltwater country, as is the protagonist in the text. Joshua, the character, observes the movements of country and its inhabitants and Joshua, the author and illustrator, expresses these meanings via words, colours, and illustrations. In particular, the text represents relationships with, and within, Crab Creek. The peritext offers information about Crab Creek—a tidal creek in the mangroves of Roebuck Bay in north-west Western Australia. “The area abounds with wildlife, including migratory birds, fruit bats, crabs and shellfish. It is a place for local people to spend the day fishing off the beach for a ‘pan-sized’ feed of salmon, queenfish, silver bream or trevally. Catching and cooking mud crabs is one of Joshua’s favourite things to do” (no pg). Story, place, and child are now formally positioned as the centre of the narrative and their relationship strengthened by the colours used to represent country and movement.

The narrative focuses on Joshua’s family trip to Crab Creek and his interactions with the land, the water, and the animals. His story reveals a meeting of land and sea, a reading of land and sea, and a listening to land and sea. Country and its inhabitants are revealed as having multiple relationships. From the moment his mob arrives, the narrative emphasizes listening to and reading country: Joshua’s Mum moves faster when she reads the movement of the tides and when Joshua ventures into the mangroves he listens to the “Plop! Plop! Plop! Of the air rising up through the mud” (Button, no pg.). With his bucket and spear Joshua’s movements through country are observed and considered by the creatures around him; wader birds carefully watch him and Joshua engages in a dialogue with two big mud crabs that remind the boy that he has also been perceived by Country, which is itself sentient.  Animals and country speak and observe—the tide moves, the sand is hot, mudskippers skip, and crabs escape and hide.

Joshua’s relationship with the mud crabs is dependent on the boy and the crabs seeing each other and communicating: “‘I can see you two!’ ‘Well, we can see you too,’ said the crabs” (Button, no pg). The narrative provides a beautifully simplistic example of different perspectives and positions for the intended child reader. Both Joshua and the crabs’ perspectives are given space to be acknowledged and understood: one character is searching, another character is escaping. When Joshua finally catches the crabs he carefully brings them back to camp and the entire family have a good feed of them and the golden trevally Joshua’s Mum caught.  “Afterwards they sat watching the tide empty out of the bay.  Long-legged wader birds picked their way across the silvery mudflats. It had been a good day” (Button, no pg). The story offers a colourful, fun, and cyclical way of seeing country from a perspective that centres the relationship between family, food, and land. It presents this relationship and the implicit meaning of observing and living in country via traditional textual elements such as the written word, colour illustrations, and movement from left to right, but in doing so, the text becomes a form of sustaining relationship with country as well, not just for Joshua but also for the intended child reader.

Dingo’s Tree

Dingo’s Tree by Jill and Gladys Milroy is a much longer story than Joshua and the Two Crabs and also deals with more serious themes. The story is about Dingo who drew his own rain tree on a rock because the other animals didn’t share their shade with him. The tree then becomes real and grows beyond the limit of the sky and keeps Dingo’s waterhole full through the drought season. The others come to rely on Dingo’s waterhole and feel bad for not sharing with him and teasing him about his tree. As the water dries up, one single special raindrop is found on a little tree and Dingo decides to spare the drop even when all the waterholes become dry.

Dingo feels that something is wrong when he sees that the raindrop is slowly growing larger. To survive, Dingo and his friend Wombat teach Little Tree to walk to water. He becomes known as Walking Tree and they are soon joined by all of the others in the land. On their way to the mountain to find water they see the river and half the mountain replaced by mining, and Walking Tree soon becomes overburdened with the weight of the others. The birds decide to carry him—his branches full of friends—and they succeed for a short time only to grow tired. Soon they are all falling toward their impending death until Dingo chooses to use the last raindrop, now much larger, and their fall is broken and a new waterhole is made. However, it is only enough for Walking Tree to live forever and because he is the last tree, the others (but one baby crow) go to the Heavens awaiting their return at the end of humankinds reign on the land.

In the story of the Dingo’s Tree the adventure begins in “unspoiled country” with its inventory of cast members who, in real life, naturally inhabit the area. All are shown to be adjusting recurrently within the known cycles of drought and abundance, suggested by the authors in the line “the drought came”, then a subtle reference to patterns of migration as the season is introduced and the cast move to more reliable waterholes. Establishing the story in this space encourages the young reader to identify the natural landscape as “normal”, and part of that normality are the cycles that create and degenerate growth.

It is the antagonist that is responsible for the creation of unnatural change. Mining becomes the assassin of country with men as poachers "carting away great loads of rock and earth in huge machines" (Milroy and Milroy 39). This scene is of great importance, although it is only allocated a single page, because it shows where the artery of country has been severed. Its effects have been cleverly woven into the storyline beforehand in several ways. The line “the drought stayed” illustrates a seasonal defiance. In turn, Dingo becomes aware of this imbalance: "for a while Dingo lived happily in his cave but lately he’d begun to worry about the country, something wasn’t right" (Milroy and Milroy 1). Dingo reads the signs of the country. His attention to the life cycles of the land are brought to the attention of the reader teaching children about the important role of observation in caring for country.

In addition to this, a warning is given to Crow by the Rain Tree through a vision of a future landscape devastated and dying: "It is what your country will become…The mining is cutting too deep for the scars to heal. Once destroyed the mountains can’t grow again and give birth to the rivers that they send to the sea…"(Milroy and Milroy 20). Contained in this passage is a direct environmental truth, but the beauty of the passage lies in the language chosen by the authors. The phrase “cutting too deep for the scars to heal” links a human experience to an environmental one, as does the phrase “give birth to the rivers”. A child is able to recognise the physical pain of a cut and a child is also able to recognise that birth belongs to the Mother. The use of this language forges a powerful connection in the mind of the reader between the self and the Earth - the child and the Mother. Country feels pain, the mountains and rivers activate their own membership in life’s cycles, and even the far off Moon participates in thought and conversation, all of which awaken a consciousness within the reader toward the animate spirit of the natural world, parenting a considerate relationship to land.

It is this animate relationship with the land that it is at the heart of the story. It is the mountain that sends the rivers to the sea, rather than the abstract force of gravity. If the authors were to omit this living relationship between the mountains, the rivers, and the sea, the readers understanding would be contained to simple geophysical processes with their life force reduced to an impersonal science, if thought of at all. Instead, the mountain chooses to send the rivers to the sea because it is the right way, so natural processes become exposed as conscious participants in story rather than being portrayed as passive or inanimate objects and this not only deepens the impact of their destruction later in the plot, it also deepens the connection between the reader and the land.

Writing the Future

Joshua and the Two Crabs and Dingo’s Tree offer two different Aboriginal stories with underlying commonalities: they both position relationships, Country, and people into an integrated web and provide a moral framework for sustaining the relationships around us. Children’s picture books and narratives are foundational initiations for many Australian child readers in their ecological education—whether overtly or covertly. How a society, a character, a narrative, represents, treats, and perceives the land influences how the reader encounters the landscape. We argue that Indigenous Australian children’s literature, written, illustrated, produced, and disseminated largely by Indigenous knowledges, offers counter-point views and stories about the land and accompanying interrelated relationships that provide the reader with a space to re-consider, re-inhabit, or transform their own ecological positioning.


Baker, Lynn. Mingkirri: A Natural History of Ulu-ru by the Mu-titjulu Community. Canberra: IAD Press, 1996.

Button, Joshua. Joshua and the Two Crabs. Broome: Magabala Books, 2008.

Harrison, Max. My Peoples Dreaming. Sydney: Finch Publishing, 2009.

Hogan, Linda.  “A Different Yield.” Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision. Ed. Marie Battise. Toronto: UBC Press, 2000. 115 – 23.

McIvor, Roy. Cockatoo: My Life in Cape York. Broome: Magabala Books, 2010.

Milroy, Gladys and Jill Milroy. Dingo’s Tree. Broome: Magabala Books, 2012.

Rose, Deborah Bird. Country of the Heart: An Indigenous Australian Homeland. Canberra:  Aboriginal Studies Press, 2002.

——-. “Pattern, Connection, Desire: In Honour of Gregory Bateson”. Australian  Humanities Review, 35 (2005). 14th June 2012,  ‹!lssue-June 2005/rose.html›.

Stewart-Harawira, Makere. “Cultural Studies, Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogies of Hope.” Policy Futures in Education 3.2 (2005):153-63.

Turner, Margaret. Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What It Means to Be an Aboriginal Person. Alice Springs: IAD Press, 2010.

Yunupingu, Mandawuy. Voices from the Land. Canberra: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1994.


Author Biographies

Blaze Kwaymullina, UWA

Blaze Kwaymullina belongs to the Palyku and Nyamal peoples of the Pilbara in the North-West of Western Australia.  He is an Assistant Professor at the School of Indigenous Studies, University of Western Australia. His research interests are in underlying processes in Indigenous knowledge systems.  He also has research interests in the fields of history, criminology, law and literature.  He is passionate about storytelling and the creative arts and is a painter and children’s author.

Brooke Collins-Gearing, Newcastle University

Brooke Collins-Gearing is a Lecturer at the University of Newcastle. She received her PhD from Newcastle University in 2002. She has taught in both Aboriginal Studies and Literature. Her research interests are children's literature and Indigenous Studies.

Ambelin Kwaymullina, UWA

Ambelin Kwaymullina belongs to the Palyku and Nyamal peoples of the Pilbara in the North-West of Western Australia. She is an Assistant Professor at the Law School at University of Western Australia. Her research expertise and area of interest are Creative writing, Law and Indigenous Legal Systems.

Tracie Pushman, UWA

Tracie Pushman is a Lecturer working at the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Western Australia. She coordinates and teaches within the recently established Aboriginal Knowledge, History and Heritage major.  Her research interests are in Teaching and learning, Aboriginal history and Creative writing