Since I first began experiencing and examining the complexity of First Nations culture, I have become convinced that it was the colonial destruction of the hierarchies and discipline that were so essential to Aboriginal survival in Australia for 55,000 years that lead to the depleted society that we imagine we see today.

Which is why I was pleased to find confirmation in the new National Museum book, Law – The Way of the Ancestors, that the Lajamanu community in the Tanami Desert attributed their first youth suicide ‘to the erosion of the Warlpiri social order’. “That loss for that youngfella it was like having the guts taken out of the Warlpiri nation. How do we find a way to teach ourselves again that each one of us is precious?”.

And the answer for that speaker, Steven Wanta Patrick/Pawu, was to found Lajamanu’s Milpirri Festival in 2005 so that ceremonial law could be experienced regularly again in the township, and Patrick’s five-fold ngurra-kurlu philosophy emphasising language, kin, law, ceremony and Country could attempt to stabilise the Warlpiri world again.

The famous Garma Festival in East Arnhemland was an earlier attempt to achieve the same outcome, which is where the book’s co-author, Aaron Corn comes in. For the non-Indigenous ethno-musicologist realised that songs such as Yothu Yindi’s Treaty came from a specifically Yolngu manikay tradition as well as from Western pop, and he ended up producing a serious book with Manduwuy Yunupingu, in which the singer was clear that “all ceremony was about maintaining a sovereign relationship with Country”.

From there Corn jumped to Elcho Island and the late Joe Gumbula, whose researches lead to his becoming a Doctor of Music. And from there to Lajamanu and the deeply serious Steven Wanta Patrick.

Both of the latter now work at Melbourne University’s Indigenous Knowledge Institute alongside co-author Marcia Langton, who, as well as fighting the good fight for the Referendum is Foundation Chair of Indigenous Studies at the Uni. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Corn’s appointment as Director of the Institute caused a local Koori uproar and this headline in a recent Guardian – ‘Melbourne University faces censure for hiring non-Indigenous academics to lead Aboriginal studies’.

Clearly Dr Langton thought Dr Corn a worthy partner in writing this study of the vital role that the largely hidden subject of the survival of Indigenous law plays in seeking the Voice, achieving Native Title and negotiating treaties with the colonial Crown.

And the word hidden is justified by so much of the ignorance that has emerged during the Voice debate, confirmed by the fact that Langton herself – a Yiman woman from Central Queensland – was unaware of her peoples’ law until she began anthropological studies as a young adult.

For there’s law and law. The imported British legal system that invented terra nullius is all there in dusty tomes and reports of Parliamentary debates. Indigenous law would have been almost impossible for colonialists to recognise when presented as ceremony, utilising song, dance, body-painting, desert sand-paintings, ochres on bark, etc.

How many, even today, recognise the 196 sq mtr Michael Nelson Jagamara mosaic that sits in front of the current Parliament House as a deep statement of Aboriginal law, philosophy and religion as they might apply to the governance being attempted in the House?

As Kumantye Jagamara himself has said: “A lot of white people, you don’t seem to understand … They look at my work, all they see is a pretty painting, a pretty picture. That’s … why they asked me to come to Canberra and explain this forecourt mosaic to help people understand that it means so much [more] than the pretty painting. You’re the white people took this country from us. You must recognise Aboriginal people have our own culture, our Dreamtime, ceremonies, place where we held our corroborees for our Dreaming, dreaming stories … It is what my paintings are about”.

For Jagamara, the law lies in the respectful way the possum and wallaby ancestors, portrayed through their footprints, approach the central fire of the Jardiwarnpa purification ceremony in his artwork.

For Emily Kngwarreye, her fields of dots or stripes reflect her “seeing busy spiritual landscapes filled with ancestors and evidence of their creative feats”, according to Langton.

For the great actor David Gulpilil, who initiated the film Ten Canoes, the two-time saga punctuated with fart jokes which was also a long and delightful explanation of strict marriage rules. Ironically he himself had broken them, which excluded him from the film.

For another Yes campaigner, Rachel Perkins (working with ethnomusicologist Myfanwy Turpin), collecting Arrernte women’s songs from the deserts was more than justified because “Our continent was once alive with song. This is how laws, knowledge and life-sustaining skills were carried and transmitted across hundreds of generations”.

And of course Aboriginal Songlines served to carry those songs and laws across tribal boundaries. The book takes us into the Kimberley and down to the Central West of NSW where the Wiradjuri concept of Yindyamarra has been adopted by the local Charles Sturt Uni as a core value : “Respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in”.

The Way of the Ancestors may leap about a bit in its efforts to peel back the metaphorical layers of the ways in which First Nations law came ancestrally into existence and worked in Aboriginal societies – still working today. But then, it is an urgently needed study. And if you doubt the law’s jurisprudential existence, especially in this Referendum week, you should leap out and buy this valuable addition to the National Museum’s First Knowledges series of books.

And in case you prefer your info on the law, etc to come in podcast form, Marcia Langton and Aaron Corn now have 21 interviews up on a site called The Deep End!

Rachel Perkins, Zali Steggall, Ken Wyatt, Jack Thompson, Paul Grabowsky and Dr Fiona Stanley have all found time to contribute.