At Ulumbarru, west of Alice Springs, the Luritja people tell the story of the one-eyed rain serpent – the giver of life and creator of the mountainous landscape’s natural springs. When the land was colonised and cultivated for cattle farming, the serpent is said to have been stolen, and the springs stopped flowing. Now, only the serpent’s baby lives in the hills, and in order for it to grow up to protect the land, we all need to look after and preserve the springs.
This is just one of five creation stories told by Indigenous elders and recorded in Central Australia earlier this year, which will be released online in short videos from June 17 for the inaugural First Nations Bedtime Stories Challenge. It brings this ancient form of storytelling into the homes of those who might not otherwise be able to access and learn from the stories of First Nations people.
The national campaign encourages adults, children, parents and schools to sign up for the challenge and watch one Dreamtime story, told by elders from Central Australia, every night for five nights. Signing up is free, and those who do so are encouraged to fundraise through the week.
It’s the second not-for-profit project by Rona Glynn-McDonald, a Kaytetye woman and founder of Common Ground, an organisation working to bridge the knowledge gap in Australia’s understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture through a collection of stories, articles and videos.
A 2018 Reconciliation Australia report concluded that 79 per cent of Australians believe an education on First Peoples histories is important, but only 38 per cent believe they have high knowledge on the subject.
Glynn-McDonald got the idea for an online hub when she moved from Alice Springs to Melbourne in 2016 to study economics and finance at the University of Melbourne.
“I was like this bush kid that rocked up in the city,” she says. She was asked misguided and ignorant questions like, “You’re so pale, how much of an Aboriginal person are you?” and “What percentage are you?” – but was also surprised by how many conversations she had with people who wanted to understand her Aboriginality and life in Central Australia.
“They wanted to learn about our culture and our histories, but they’d never had the chance [and] never learned it in school,” she says.
This is something the 22 year old wants to change.
Despite originally wanting to be a management consultant, filmmaking is in her blood. She’s the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Warwick Thornton, who wrote and directed the 2009 film Samson and Delilah, and the granddaughter of Freda Glynn, a pioneer of First Nations media and co-founder of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) and Imparja Television (which services remote eastern and central Australia).
“There’s always this running joke in my family that you’re either in film or you’re unemployed,” she says. “I think over the years I just became more attuned to the fact that … storytelling brings people together and can change the narrative of any issue.”
Glynn-McDonald filmed the Bedtime Stories films, her mother produced them, and her dad and brother were “backseat filmmakers”. They worked with three Aboriginal elders who told the five stories in English, with moments of Indigenous language.
Glynn-McDonald’s hope for First Nations Bedtime Stories is not just for people to engage with the histories of their country’s Indigenous peoples, but also to build connections between First Nations peoples and their cultures – especially young people who are in out-of-home care or who may not learn much about their heritage during childhood.
“It’s so important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people stay strong in our culture,” she says. “And living in the society we live in now, we’re told to assimilate and leave it all behind, but that’s not the way forward. I think the way forward for Australia is to create a space in which we celebrate and embrace all First Nations cultures.”
You can sign up to the challenge as an individual or group. Funds raised through the challenge will allow more stories to be filmed next year in new communities – it cost roughly $20,000 to record and share a new story. And the impact is invaluable.