Experimenting with an Indigenous model of Time.

Humans have long since pondered the notion of Time, and throughout the course of history we as a diverse global human community have sought many different means to capture its true essence and form.

Most cultures have words that imply a deep awareness, understanding and engagement with the complex nature of Time, both as a unit of measurement and as a social and philosophical construct. Some cultures have used story to understand its purpose and functions, particularly through relating it to the changing of seasons and cycles on the landscape, in water, and across the night sky. Further, some cultures have sought to locate meaning by personifying Time, or Fate or “old age”, thus developing a series of narratives to conceptualise the anthropocentric relationship/s that humans have with Time. Lastly, some have looked to their animal kin and Country to describe and make sense of patterns of Time, and how such patterns can promote greater conceptual awareness of chaos, entropy, and cycles of life, death, rebirth and renewal.

In Gamilaraay, along with most Indigenous languages around the globe, there are many words and suffixes which imply different variables and understandings of Time. This has been so long before the introduction of Aristotle’s Order and Direction of Time (Bowin, 2009) and the reductive ideas of limiting Time to “past, present and future”.

These Gamilaraay language interpretations can take many forms, and is inclusive of words for ‘time as a place’ or ‘time in space’, as well as distant past, near past, present, momentary, immediately, near future and distant future. There are also words which refer to past and future simultaneously, and there are even words that refer to a Time before/outside of time.

Stories about the Seven Sisters, Orion’s Belt and the part of the Milky Way known as the ‘coal sack’ beside the Southern Cross, all have embedded layers of meaning across cultures around the globe, which contain massive amounts of information and data pertaining to changes on the landscape and within water cycles and systems.

Many of these stories describe in incredible detail the environmental changes specific to particular bioregional contexts. They give warning and foresight to humans regarding different weather patterns, ecological changes, the emergence or departure of certain bird and insect species annually, and several other changes across the continuous flow or cyclic nature of Time.

Story can also contain personifications of Time, such as the Norse story of Thor fighting Elli, or Heracles wrestling Geras. Given the God-like power and strength of these well-known culture heroes in their respective localities, neither of them, it was said, could defeat Time, and there are many other stories from other continents which describe so-called culture heroes’ defeat or demise at the hands of Time, old age or Fate personified. These stories serve to underline human relations and interactions with Time, and especially demonstrate the limitations that have been placed on human beings in their creation and inhabitation of the Earth and the Cosmos.

Time perceptions from a biological and scientific perspective, ultimately depend on ‘how rapidly an animal’s nervous system processes sensory information’ (Reas, 2014). Therefore, given that animals and insects have vastly different metabolic rates than humans, this means that they experience time very differently to us. Some insects due to their high metabolic rate, can take in more information over a set unit of time than others, to the point where some insects are said to be able to perceive time and reality in ‘slow motion’ (Reas, 2014). Some insects are even said to have the ability to move faster than their eyes can comprehend, which causes them to have to stop at intervals to assess their situation!

So, as we can see, there are many models of Time that can each co-exist all at once and overlap across different biological and ecological systems. However, we have been socialised into only knowing about or understanding in-depth a single (mostly Western) model of Time, forcing everything else to fit into this unified model. This can have devastating consequences for the land and our non-human kin especially, but also on people as well, and this arguably is evidenced in health and wellbeing statistics worldwide. So we ask, what would an Indigenous model of Time look like?

Going back to the language component from a Gamilaraay perspective, the suffix “-baa” is described as a locative case, denoting “place/time of”. The attachment of a root word gives context to the place-time of a particular event or activity in either the past, present and/or future concurrently.

For example, walaaybaa can mean ‘place where we camp(ed) or will camp in the future’ and simultaneously ‘the time when we camp(ed) and/or will camp in the future’. Similarly, baan baa can be ‘place of the mistletoe’ or simultaneously, ‘time of the mistletoe’ because the place where it grows also implies the time it is growing or existing, in a certain place at a certain time. Therefore, the addition of this suffix (-baa) always gives context to the root word (the words ‘walaay’ or ‘baan’ in this case) and the concept subsequently indicated by the root word, is given context by where it is physically situated in a given place and time – which in more simplified terms, is its ‘locatedness‘. This can be summed up by the statement, “It is located, therefore it is“.

Additionally, this same pattern can be applied with abstract nouns to invoke the use of a conceptual metaphor, and this is done so in consideration of the presence of place/time, physical/metaphysical, mind/spirit intersections and relationships, which is a key component of Indigenous societies and cognition. For example, some Elders and language speakers are said to use “yaliwungabaa” which translates to “always time of, always place of” (Vlatkovic*).

If we were to construct a model of Time just from this concept, it would likely debase the Western Time construct from its economic foundations, thus forcing ngiyaninya (us-all) into seeking a greater understanding of the intangible and temporal systems that inform or which are affected by human planning, design, implementation and future decision making.

Moreover, it would force us to look beyond the current parameters of Time to identify what is lost through our adherence to the current models by way of relationships, opportunity, social positioning, development, and of course, restoring our own natural human pattern.

What do you think Time could look like from this perspective, and what might be the implications for the current model of Time to venture away from it?

*This was a term gifted to M. Vlatkovic in her creative work Dhinawan Ngami-li, a gift bestowed on her by Kamilaroi Elder and language speaker Aunty Bernadette Duncan.


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