Introductory activities

  • Myths are a gateway to a people’s culture, customs and values. Students should use a think-pair-share approach to revise what distinguishes a myth from other types of stories.
    What are some of the purposes of a myth?
    Do they know any Aboriginal myths?
    Students should enter the agreed definitions and purposes into their workbooks.
  • After reading the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Unaipon, students construct a table which lists his talents, achievements and the challenges he faced.
  • Students should use GoogleEarth to explore Unaipon’s homeland around Lake Alexandria.
    What types of land use are evident?
    How much of an impact has European settlement had on the environment?
  • Students can use the ABC Indigenous Language Map to find Unaipon’s language group, the Ngarrindjeri, and count the number of language groups in the Riverine region. Students then suggest reasons to explain why some language groups occupy larger areas than others.
  • Students should now make a list of the skills demonstrated by the Aboriginal people in the non-fiction essays.


Personal response on reading the text

Complete as you read

Create a table like the one below to explain how the myths conform to the purposes the students decided upon in the introductory activities:

Name of myth  Type of purpose Type of purpose  Type of purpose 

After reading the myths

Answer the following questions in full sentence, paragraph answers. Give reasons and textual evidence for your answers.

  1. Who do you think was the intended audience for this book? Think in terms of age, race and religious background.
  2. What do you think was the main purpose of the book? Do you believe that it achieved its goal?
  3. Did you enjoy the stories? Why or why not?
    (ACELT1641)   (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1752)   (ACELY1754)   (EN5-3B)   (EN5-8D)   (EN5-2A)


Outline of key elements of the text

There are three elements in the text: the introduction, a selection of myths and some non-fiction descriptions of traditional customs.

  • The introduction. This section is essential reading. The editors’ purpose is to restore Unaipon as the author of the myths, which were originally published as the work of William Ramsay Smith, a man not known to Unaipon. The story of its publication is symbolic of the appropriation of Aboriginal land and culture by Europeans.
  • The myths. Unaipon compares some of the myths and characters with those of the Bible. His purpose in doing so may have been to validate the stories in the eyes of the European audience. Unaipon was also a sincere Christian, so seeing the links between the two seemingly disparate religions was a way of reconciling the different cultures he moved between.
  • The essays on customs. These essays provide an invaluable insight into Ngarrindjeri life. They highlight the skills of the hunters and the peaceable nature of Aboriginal society.


Synthesising task/activity

Students should re-read the introduction carefully and create a timeline showing the development of the book and its ultimate publication by Angus and Robertson under Ramsay Smith’s name.

Next students should compose an argumentative essay on the topic: “Angus and Robertson were justified in giving Unaipon’s copyright to William Ramsay Smith.” The Shmoop website provides a useful template.
(ACELA1565)   (ACELT1640)   (ACELY1752)   (ACELY1754)   (ACELY1749)   (EN5-7D)   (EN5-5C)   (EN5-8D)   (EN5-2A)

Text and meaning

In this section, a selection of the essays and stories will be looked at in some detail, indicating the purposes and nature of the individual works.

The first essays

Three short essays begin the collection. Their purpose is to put Aboriginal myths into a wider context, to explain the basics of Aboriginal knowledge and culture in order to give them status in the eyes of a possibly prejudiced European reader.

“Aboriginal Folklore”

Students should answer the following question using the think-pair-share process.

  • What techniques does Unaipon use to validate Aboriginal myths to his European audience? Consider tone, language choice (diction) and comparisons.

“Aborigines, their Traditions and Customs: Where did they come from?”

This essay, in addition to explaining that Aboriginal stories concerning their origins appear to tally with those of science, explains the three tests youths must pass in order to become full members of the tribe and the strength of a traditional tribal society. Young men must conquer hunger, fear and pain. Why were these so essential to conquer? Use the activity below to explore this question.

The students should construct a table as follows:

Relevance to traditional society  Hunger  Fear  Pain 
Relevance to modern Australian society  Hunger  Fear  Pain 

Discussion Questions

  1. Mainstream Australian society does not have a similar set of tests to pass in order to become an adult. What are the key events which signal that one is now a ‘grown up’? For example, getting your driver’s licence, might be one. Others?
  2. Many of the signs which mark the passage into adulthood in current Australia do not require you to possess any particular abilities or qualities other than attaining a certain age. What qualities and abilities should an adult have? Devise your own initiation tests to prove that someone is worthy of becoming an adult in today’s society. These may be serious or less than serious!

“Belief of the Aborigines in a Great Spirit”

In this essay, Unaipon, once again makes important links between European and Aboriginal culture. The students should re-read the essay and then construct a Venn diagram showing the differences and similarities between the two cultures. This template may be helpful.

The later essays


Each of the sports described in the essay has a purpose other than recreation. They also practise skills necessary for survival. Fill out the following table to analyse the sports’ functions.

Sport  How it is played  Purpose

Discussion Questions

  1. Who is excluded from the playing of sport? Why might this be so?
  2. ‘Sport is war but without the disastrous consequences’. Write a paragraph relating this idea to the contest over the ownership of the emu feathers.


The writer’s craft including such elements as:


The collection is based on Unaipon’s original manuscript which has been edited by Mueke and Shoemaker in consultation with Unaipon’s relatives. Students should be asked to take on the role of editor themselves. They should carefully consider:

  • any stories they would remove or shorten,
  • any re-ordering of the stories and essays,
  • additional information about Unaipon and his life.

Taking into careful account the history behind this text, including the circumstances of its first publication, students must justify their decisions in detail either orally or in writing.
(ACELT1640)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1752)   (ACELY1754)   (EN5-5C)   (EN5-3B)   (EN5-8D)   (EN5-2A)


One of the notable features of the text is the inclusion of numerous Aboriginal words, mainly of Ngarrindjeri origin. There is a glossary of them included at the back of the volume. Students should attempt to construct a text using as many of the terms as possible. The text could take the form of a:

  • story,
  • dialogue,
  • song,
  • poem.

English should be used to ‘fill in the gaps’ and provide grammatical structure to the text. A translation should also be provided.
(ACELA1563)   (ACELA1569)   (EN5-3B)


Synthesising task/activity

Unaipon was writing for a 1920s’ adult audience when he was commissioned to collect and write these stories. This is evident from his use of complex vocabulary such as:

Thus it was left to the little, despised Insect tribes to demonstrate to all other Animal tribes the possibility of overcoming death and gaining immortality. (p. 73)

The same passage rendered for a modern, younger audience might read:

So it was the little insect tribes who showed everyone else how to live for ever.

Students are to choose one of the legends and create a new version suitable for a different audience of their choice. A statement of intent explaining who that audience might  be and how they have adapted the story to suit, is also required. The myth may be written as a short story, picture book or comic, but as the stories were originally intended to be spoken and performed, more dramatic textual adaptations such as plays or dances ought to be considered.
(ACELA1563)   (ACELT1644)   (ACELT1814)   (ACELY1754)   (ACELY1757)   (EN5-3B)   (EN5-6C)   (EN5-5C)   (EN5-2A)

Ways of reading the text

Looking at gender roles in a text is a useful way of analysing underlying beliefs and values. Aboriginal cultures are very conservative, in that they do not allow for the rules to change. Each generation is the custodian of their tribes’ stories and lore, all of which allow the people to survive successfully through good seasons and bad. The roles of men and women are clearly defined. Where power lies may not be so obvious. Power may lie in the ability to take action, to have authority over others or to have one’s opinions valued.

In Unaipon’s essays the most important roles are given to men: the Mooncumbulli (wise old man), the Rainmaker and Medicine Man. In the glossary, there is no word for ‘wise old woman’. Unaipon also invariably uses the male gender to describe ‘The Great Spirit’, whose earthly messanger, Narroondarie, is also male. When a marriage is to be arranged, the mother is consulted, but it is the uncle who undertakes the mission to find the suitable partner. These are all indications that Aboriginal society was a patriarchal one. Classically, in a patriarchal society a woman’s proper place is to be an obedient wife. Women must be attractive, in order to gain a husband, but their sexuality is seen as a dangerous thing which must be controlled.

The story, “Narroondarie’s Wives” reflects this patriarchal role. The unnamed spirits of two women have been trapped in various plants and animals because many great men have ‘fallen victim’ to their ‘wonderful’ charms as they travel to the spirit world. This symbolises the need to control women’s sexuality because it creates a sense of weakness in men. Narroondarie too becomes their ‘victim’ and marries both girls. The wives, however, break the law by eating fish which is only allowed for men. They run away and are ultimately drowned by Narroondarie as punishment for their crime. This punishment reinforces the need for wives to be submissive to the law and their husbands. It maintains the patriarchy.


Students should re-read “The Love Story of the Mar Rallang” and “Narroondarie’s Wives” and answer the following questions:

  1. How are the characters of the sisters in both stories similar?
  2. What is the significance of having named male characters in the stories? How are their characters similar?
  3. How does “The Love Story of the Mar Rallang” reflect the patriarchal nature of Aboriginal society?


Comparison with other texts

Anthologies of myths and legends often present abridged versions of the actual stories. They follow the traditional pattern of exposition, conflict, climax and conclusion, with perhaps a short coda as well. Unaipon’s stories do not always adhere to this convention. They can be very discursive, e.g. “The Mischievous Crow and the Good He Did”, with multiple narratives included within the one tale. The actual natural phenomenon the myth is meant to explain can be cursory, almost a coda, possibly because the stories are not just creation myths, but also describe the complexities of Aboriginal relationships and law. There is still very much the element of a tale being spun out to while away the evening around the fire.

Unaipon’s myths were not the first collection of such stories to be published. In 1923 W. J. Thomas produced an anthology of Aboriginal myths. Comparing the two collections is a revealing exercise. Thomas’ stories, though eloquent, are very stripped down and straightforward. In contrast, Unaipon’s stories reveal a richer imagination and a greater use of Aboriginal phrases which make for a more authentic text. Thomas’ introduction makes it clear that these are simple stories from a simple people; he does not share Unaipon’s vision of his myths belonging to a wider sea of stories and being of equal merit to them.


1. Students should read Thomas’ introduction to his myths, then undertake or address the following:

  • Make a list of the terms used to describe Aboriginal people. Which would be unacceptable today?
  • What is the overall impression given by Thomas of Aboriginals. Use quotations to prove your answers.
  • How is this introduction different to Unaipon’s preface and short essay, “Aboriginal Folklore”, which serves as a kind of introduction?

2. The students should read, the Whale and Starfish myths from both anthologies then:

  • Draw a graph which charts the plot of Thomas’ version. The X axis is Time, the Y axis is Tension. Mark which sections comprise the introduction, conflict, climax and resolution. Summarise the plot on the chart next to each section. Is it possible to do this easily with Unaipon’s version? Why or why not?
  • For Unaipon’s version, create a story web which shows how the characters’ interact with each other. Inspiration may be a good program to use to create your web.
  • Thomas’ story is very linear, Unaipon’s is not. Which story is easier to understand? Which story gives a better understanding of Aboriginal culture? Why?


Evaluation of the text as:

Representative of Australian culture

This book is representative of Australia in two ways. Most obviously it documents parts of Aboriginal culture, making it available to a much wider audience of European Australians. Its publication history is also indicative of Australian culture at the time. The Englishman, William Ramsay Smith, was able to take Unaipon’s work and publish it as his own, with no acknowledgement of the source of his text. Aboriginal people were of little regard in mainstream Australian society of the 1920s and 1930s. It was long believed that, as an inferior people, they would die out, but when this did not prove to be the case, assimilation into white society was deemed the best solution. Traditional culture was to be abandoned. Publishing Myths and Legends under William Ramsay Smith’s name is an example of the discriminatory treatment Aboriginal people received at the time, and which Unaipon worked to reverse.

1938, eight years after the book’s initial publication, was the sesquicentennial of the founding of the NSW colony, and celebrated more widely as the founding of the nation. Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack’s satire on the celebrations, Pioneers on Parade,makes it clear that not only were Aboriginals not considered worthy of inclusion in the festivities but even convict ancestors were to be forgotten. Australian history was rewritten as white and free. The publication of Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines under Unaipon’s own name helps to create a more accurate picture of Australian culture.

Significance to literature/the world of texts

This book is a significant achievement because it is the first book by an Aboriginal author to be published. It contains valuable information about Aboriginal culture, particularly that of the Ngarrindjeri people. Most ground-breakers have to be extraordinary in order to overcome the cultural norms which they challenge. Unaipon is no exception. He is not just literate, an achievement in itself at the time, but a literary person with a grasp of anthropology, science, religion and literature acquired by very few. He synthesises his knowledge to produce a text which is not just a collection of stories, but a treatise to raise the level of respect Aboriginal culture was held in at the time. There are many collections of folktales, myths and legends and equal numbers of anthropological studies, but very few which contain both and are authored by one from the culture itself under examination.


Identifying and justifying language/stylistic techniques for specific narrative or dramatic purposes

Although Unaipon states that he uses only ‘the simplest forms of  expression’ to tell his stories, he actually uses a wide range of vocabulary and does not hesitate to use polysyllabic words. He also uses the archaic ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ in his characters’ dialogue.


Students should consider the following passage from “The Mischievous Crow”:

The little Bat put in an appearance, sitting down on a branch a little above the Falcon, grasping it by a hook on its wing, allowing himself to hang head down near the ear of the Falcon. He said: ‘I saw a stranger, it seemed by his actions that the(y) had committed something wrong not long while ago. I was up the valley. I saw an object, first I thought it was my friend the Owl who sits on the other side of you. This something went up into the sky so wonderfully quick, then when it reached a certain height it shot forward like a meteor, leaving a shower of light behind. I became so afraid that I hastened to my den and stayed there for awhile. So when I thought that all danger had passed, I came out to seek my friend, the Owl, to warn him of this unknown danger, this dreadful enemy, this wicked monster, making his way down the Murray. I saw you sitting here, and I also saw the Owl sitting beside you, so I availed myself to inform you of this occurrence. (p. 102)

Students should:

  • Highlight the main clause and subordinate clauses of the sentences within the passage. What is the effect of so many complex sentences on the student’s response as a reader?
  • Explain how Unaipon creates tension and menace in the approach of the mischievous Crow, as described by the Bat. The students should consider techniques such as repetition, use of adjectives and similes, the archetypal fear of the unknown and the reactions of characters.
  • Create a storyboard which recreates the approach of the Crow and the actions of the Bat. It may be hand drawn or electronically produced using a program of the student’s choice.
  • Re-write the passage using less complex sentences and vocabulary. Which passage is more interesting to read? Why?
    (ACELA1563)   (ACELA1565)   (EN5-3B)   (EN5-7D)

Extension Activity

The ‘Dust Echoes’ website contains a large number of Aboriginal stories which have been animated. The animations have minimal dialogue and are accompanied by a brief written synopsis of the plot. The students should choose one of these synopses and rewrite it in an expanded form, attempting to emulate the style of Unaipon.
(ACELT1815)   (EN5-3B)


The students should discuss the reasons Unaipon has chosen this style of language. It may, among other reasons, be linked to his purpose in collecting the stories.


Rich assessment tasks

Oral Presentation

David Unaipon is represented on the Australian fifty dollar note. Students are to prepare a five minute presentation where they will try to persuade their audience as to who should be the next Australian Aboriginal to feature on a banknote or coin.

In their presentations the students should:

  • Define their criteria for a good candidate to go on the banknote. The Reserve Bank of Australia website may be helpful with this.
  • Give a summary of their candidate’s life and achievements, linking them to the criteria they have established.
  • Use visual material to supplement their presentation.
  • Use persuasive techniques such as rhetorical questions, expert opinions etc. to enhance their presentations.
  • Use oral presentation skills such as variation in tone, pace, pitch and pausing to make their audience listen attentively.

Suggested candidates may include, but are not limited to:

  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker)
  • Mick Dodgson
  • Evonne Cawley
  • Mandawuy Yunupingu
  • Lowitja O’Donoghue
  • The Bangarra Dance Company

At the end of the presentations, a vote could be taken to decide who is going to be on the banknote.
(ACELA1563)   (ACELA1565)   (ACELA1569)   (ACELT1640)   (ACELT1641)   (ACELY1752)   (ACELY1754)  (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1757)   (EN5-3B)   (EN5-7D)   (EN5-5C)   (EN5-8D)   (EN5-2A)

Synthesise core ideas by:

  • addressing and justifying any revisions to the initial response;
  • developing a coherent, conclusive statement of understanding regarding the text and its themes, structures and/or techniques, as applicable;
  • reflecting on awareness of the text’s wider cultural value;
  • reflecting on one’s own processes of responding to and creating texts.


Students should return to their list of skills exhibited by the Aboriginals in the essays – compiled during the Close study section of this unit – and answer the following questions:

  • How do these skills and customs allow the Aboriginals’ society to survive?
  • What does the inclusion of the essays add to their understanding of the myths?
  • What could modern Australian society learn from Aboriginal culture?

Students should divide into groups of four and sit around a four square mat (PDF, 163KB). Each student is allocated a corner into which they write different examples from the text which interested them. This could be certain stories or essays, the introduction, or aspects of the language. When this has been accomplished they discuss their answers and decide upon the most important one to put in the centre square. Groups then come together to create a final list of special aspects of the book.


Rich assessment task

To conclude, students should write a review of the book which contains:

  1. A brief explanation of the publication history of the book.
    Explain how Unaipon collected the stories, but that they were published under another person’s name. Explain how this came to be. Strong responses will explore how attitudes towards Aboriginals may have influenced its publication history.
  2. A brief synopsis of the text.
    A synopsis means a summary of the book. Students should outline the two different types of texts within the book and the main stories.
  3. Their evaluation of the text as an insight into Aboriginal culture, giving examples.
    What the students have learned factually as a result of reading the book. Strong responses may consider how social cohesion is maintained both within and between tribal groups, connection with the natural world and survival strategies, as well as Unaipon’s religious comparisons.
  4. Their evaluation of the text as a piece of literature.
    What did they like or dislike about the style of writing; considering language and the structure of the stories and essays. Strong responses may consider different audiences, vocabulary and imagery.
  5. A comparison with W. J. Thomas’ text.
    What stylistic differences exist between the two books. Strong responses may include structure of stories, audiences, vocabulary and attitudes to Aboriginal society.
  6. A statement of its suitability as a text to study at Year 10 level.
    Why might the text be a useful or valuable text to study? If it is not believed to be suitable for Year 10s, which age group would benefit from reading Unaipon’s work.

The review should be approximately 500 words. While it is appropriate for the students to voice their personal opinions, the tone should still be fairly formal and measured. Exaggerated praise or invective should not be encouraged. The review could be written in more of a report style, using headings, but more advanced students may attempt to write an extended essay response. The linked assessment rubric (PDF, 132KB) may be helpful.
(ACELA1563)   (ACELA1565)   (ACELT1640)   (ACELT1644)   (ACELT1815)   (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1752)  (ACELY1754)   (ACELY1757)   (EN5-3B)   (EN5-7D)   (EN5-5C)   (EN5-6C)   (EN5-8D)   (EN5-2A)