Profile Space 06 February 2017
2 minute read 

The passions of Aboriginal astronomy guide, Willy Stevens


It wasn't til his late teens that Muruwari man Willy Stevens learnt about his culture. But he's embraced it – and teaching it to the next generation, writes Duane Hamacher.


Willy Stevens: Aboriginal astronomy guide.
Supplied

Willy Stevens grew up knowing little about his ancestral Australian Aboriginal culture. Born a Muruwari man in New South Wales, he was adopted into a Kamilaroi family.

But when at the age of 17 he met his biological mother, she regaled him with traditional stories, many featuring the stars.

Today, the 28-year-old’s passions lie in sharing those stories of Aboriginal astronomy, passed down through millennia, with students and the wider community.

While working as a tour guide in the Sydney suburb of The Rocks, he was recruited into a new “Dreamtime Astronomy” program at the nearby Sydney Observatory.

As the observatory’s first Indigenous Australian presenter, he quickly became the face of the program, appearing on numerous radio and TV shows, including a French documentary called Between Heaven and Earth.

Given this, it might seem curious that Stevens doesn’t actually hold much interest in astronomy as an academic discipline.

“For me, it’s about teaching culture,” he explains. “I love to share my knowledge with my community.”

But as a tour guide and university guest lecturer, he continues to develop new ways of sharing culture, especially traditions relating to the sun, moon, and stars.

His passion is palpable as he explains to undergraduate students the importance of the sky-world in Aboriginal cultures, and how this informs kinship, ceremony, and survival practices.

He notes, for instance, how the star cluster called the Pleiades in Western discourse is known to the Muruwari as Gambu Gambu – a group of girls.

Some of the girls were shy and tried to hide, making them difficult to see. The ability to identify the fainter stars was used to test a person’s eyesight. Their appearance in the early morning sky signalled the start of winter and the arrival of morning frost.

An optical image of the Pleiades star cluster, around 440 light-years from Earth – otherwise known as Gambu Gambu.
RUSSELL CROMAN / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

For Stevens, it’s the effect his work has on Aboriginal people that most inspires him. Because of the devastating effects of ongoing colonisation, many Indigenous Australians have limited knowledge of their heritage or culture. When they attend his talks, he sees it an opportunity to share knowledge.

“I feel very humbled when Aboriginal people thank me after coming on my tour and discovering things about their culture they had never known,” he says. “Learning these stories gave them a sense of pride and made them want to learn more.”

His passion also inspires indigenous people from other cultures: “I was once given a gift by a Native American lady and her granddaughter who came to one of my tours. It’s a seashell necklace worn by men.”

But the most important thing for him is teaching his community about history, morals and traditions. When visiting family in Narrabri and Lightning Ridge, he instructs his younger brothers about making age-old tools and learning from elders.

Stevens recently developed a potential higher education course on Aboriginal astronomy, geared toward Indigenous Australian students. He hopes participants will develop skills to work as guides and rangers across Australia, sharing more ancient stories of the stars.

Duane hamacher.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Dr Duane Hamacher is an astronomer and Senior Research Fellow at the Monash Indigenous Centre in Melbourne. His research focuses on Indigenous astronomical and geological knowledge and traditions, particularly in Australia and the Pacific.