Baymarrwaŋa & Bentley’s Blue Book inspires a story; Three Notes at Midnight

The most extrodinary thing ! This little girl, Lucia Gelonesi, wrote to me and sent me the story she wrote inspired by the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. She is in primary school, and her story is wonderful…

I was overwhelmed and i thought you might like to read it too.

Three Notes at Midnight

“Wake up Fletcher!  Wake up man!  You’re dreaming again!”

I awake in a tangled sweat staring into the face of a boy I hardly know. It is twelve minutes past midnight. I have moved from everything I know and love – friends, football team, my dog Julius and ten years of memories – to end up in a dormitory with12 other boys who all seem to look the same. It is my third night of my first term as a boarder at Grimwade Grammar, and the third night of having the same tantalising dream;

I am standing on the other side of an iron gate peering into a keyhole. I see a narrow path enveloped by a cathedral of toweringtrees.In the centre of the pathway sits a white rabbit. The rabbit is whispering something. I strain to hear him. I try to read his lips. Then I wake up.

Over the years I have become quite clever at unravelling my own dreams. I can be very persistent. My name is Bentley, by the way, Bentley James Fletcher. My parents named me after the distinguished Australian anthropologist who compiled an Aboriginal/English dictionary. I find myself identifying with Bentley quite a bit, lately. He moved to a remote part of Australia, far away from everything familiar to him. He must have felt pretty lonely at times. Good old Bentley James. You should Google him one day. He’s fascinating.

Anyway, the thing that most interests me about dreams is the feeling I wake up with. Finding a feeling is not as easy as you might think. Feelings are rarely one emotion. They are like perfume. You know when you sniff a perfume it has different smell “notes”? I learned this from Mrs Morris who lives next door and works at the Chanel counter in David Jones.

“All the perfumes of the world are different combinations of smell notes, Bentley. Just like different tunes in music!”

So feelings can have high notes and low notes too. In my dream there Is a low note of grief, a middle note of shame and a thin, ever so high, ever so fragile note of hope. But where do these feelings come from? I lie awake thinking about this for some time. The clock says1am.

First of all, that rabbit has to mean something. Did I own a rabbit? No. Had I recently met an amazing rabbit? No. Hang on. There was a white rabbit. One I would prefer to forget.

Picture this. My old school, Holdsworth Primary, is performing musical called Scenes from Alice in Wonderland. It isn’t very wonderful. Rather, am not very wonderful in it. I am playing the Mad Hatter. My hat doesn’t fit properly and keeps slipping down over my eyes when I am dancing. I end up falling right on Alice, who knocks the white rabbit off stage into the orchestra pit. On the way home in the car I announce to my parents that I will never act again. Never. My mother says that I have a real tendency to catastrophize.

“He gets that from his grandfather,” replies my father.

“It doesn’t matter where it comes from – he needs to toughen up!”says my mother.

She had been thinking for some time, apparently, that Holdsworth Primary was not the right environment for me. The next morning it’s; “Bentley, we need to have a serious chat…”and before you know it I am at boarding school a thousand miles away so I can “build resilience.” That’s how quickly your life can change.

If I could only read that rabbit’s lips. The cathedral of trees seems familiar somehow… and the gate? Then it comes to me…my grandfather, the one I am always being compared to, the catastrophizing one, rode horses in Centennial Park. I have a photograph of him on a horse surrounded by trees just like the ones in my dream. I glance at the clock. 3am.

This is what I know about my grandfather: his name was Milton, he was intensely proud, he had a volcanic temper, he adored horses, he looked just like me, he was prone to catastrophizing.There was one horse in particular he fell in love with. Her name was Christmas. She was a toffee coloured pony with shining, brown eyes as soothing as dollops of liquid chocolate. In my grandfather’s time, people believed you strengthened a young horse’s legs byallowingitto swim. Like other animals, horses are meant to know how to swim instinctively, but when Christmas was led into the water she panicked. Christmas drowned at scarcely a year old. It broke my grandfather’s heart. He never owned another horse. Never.

5am. Everything is beginning to make sense. My grandfather and I are alike. I quit drama because of a single mistake. Grief and shame, that’s exactly what I am feeling! Grief, because I miss drama so much. Shame, because I am mortified by my very public clumsiness. I feel like my grandfather must have felt when he lost Christmas.

Now I get it. I gave up the one thing that could help me to belong at my new school. I had locked myself out of the iron gates of Grimwade – drama was the key that could let me back in. I love drama you see. I mean really love it. I love drama the way my grandfather loved horses. For better or for worse, I am one of those people who feel happiest when I’m pretending to be someone else. But that’s a whole other story.

6 am. The words in my dream become clear to me. The rabbits telling me: “Forgive yourself.”And now I think I can.

I lay my head on the pillow and softly close my eyes. I think of Bentley and his dictionary. I think of my grandfather and Christmas. I think of the plays we might do this year. I can almost smell them.

Lucia Gelonesi

WOW, thank you.



Djäma limurr dhu marr ga limurr dhu guyaŋa rom ga dhäwu : We must work to remember the law and stories. Our Languages Matter

Incessant initiative and industry

Dr Bentley James speaks to children at Sanderson Middle School

WOW how fabulous. The Sanderson Middle School asked me to come back and talk to their Year Nine students about Big Boss and the CII. That is the Crocodile Islands Initiative. That is the project that Big Boss started in 2004, and won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the NT Research and Innovation Board in 2011. In the main for her work creating language nests, bilingual resources and junior ranger and heritage programs on homelands. Big boss tells us that the connection between language and country is strongest on the homelands, where, and this should be no surprise, most of the last 100 intact indigenous languages in Australia still exist[i]. Australia is leading the world in language decline, singled out as the continent where languages are disappearing the fastest, as are small mammals, with the prospect that all Australian Indigenous languages may disappear within the next few decades. (Nettle and Romaine 2000 4-5; National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS 2005).1 Schmidt (1987), Troy, Obata and Marmion (2016), Zuckermann (2016)

From her tiny island she, in a tin shed with no water, Big Boss fostered local resources and deployed modern technologies to build livelihood activities in a cultural-based economy for her kin on the Islands”[ii] Her family of projects are still driving continuities and innovations in local knowledge and sustainability in the biological and linguistic diversity of the homelands. Crocodile Island Rangers started as part of the broader aims of the CII, was captured in essence by Baymarrwangga as she pronounced emphatically, “Lima gurrku guya riya-gunanyini ngalimalama gurutuwaynha We will share our fish with our kin” The Crocodile Islands Rangers are sharing the fish they are catching with kin on Milingimbi today.  Hers is but one of many examples of enormous local strength in need of support across the north of Australia. [iii]

Now her wonderful work is being recognised in some lucky schools around Darwin. Sanderson Middle School celebrates NAIDOC Day:

SMS – Our Languages Matter/Excerpt from school Magazine (1.5.17)

This year our NAIDOC celebrations will take place in week 2 of Term 2. The theme for NAIDOC 2017 is Our Languages Matter. Year 9 Indigenous Language and Culture (ILC) classes have been exploring ways that Indigenous languages are being maintained or revived, as many have been lost or have been ‘sleeping’, as a result of colonisation. Students watched a documentary called Big Boss: Last Leader of the Crocodile Islands and were fascinated with the story of Baymarrwanga, a 95 year old Yan-nhangu elder, who strived to breathe life back in to her language and culture. Baymarrwanga, affectionately known as ‘Big Boss’, worked with Anthropologist Dr Bentley James, to create an amazing Yan-nhangu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. Baymarrwanga was the 2012 Senior Australian of the Year, recognised for her “leadership and commitment in caring for the Crocodile Islands biological and cultural environment”.

Dr Bentley James speaks to children at Sanderson Middle School

Dr James visited our school to talk about his experiences in working with Baymarrwanga and the development of the atlas. He is a fascinating, engaging and animated speaker and our students gained a lot of knowledge and insight in to his remarkable career and liaison with Baymarrwanga. Sadly she passed away before the Atlas was [completely handed out] printed; however, as a part of her ongoing legacy, SMS is very privileged to have been given 10 atlas to refer to in the ILC classes. We are very proud to continue to focus on teaching our students about the significance and importance of Indigenous history, culture and language.

Ms Tammy Llewelyn
Senior Teacher

Now is the time to recognise the social, cultural and other capital that Indigenous people hold, grow and bring to the table is inseparable from more obvious assets like their legal property rights

Wonderful Janet hunt (2013:2) tells us an appreciation of—and the cultural competency to respond to promote and nurture the implicit resilience in local cultural resources understood as essential to successful strengths based community development approaches.[1] Big boss shows us that Indigenous people have credible and valuable local cultural assets to bring to our vision of the future.

Putting aside settler silence, colonial guilt, and instrumental mythologies of indigenous dissolution assuming eventual assimilation, let us recall the many indigenous voices that evoke the rich legacy of local cultural values (Stanner 1968; Stanley 2009; Ashenden 2013; Reynolds 2013). Growing non-utopian evidence attest to the cohesiveness, functionality, prosperity and resilience of Australian indigenous life world’s pre settlement (MacArthur 1948; Thomson 1949; Sahlins 1968; Rhys-jones 1980; Altman 1987, 2009; Keen 2004, 2006; Pasco 2014; Mahood 2016). The richness and fullness of Australian cultures living sustainably in place had produced the largest estate on earth (Gammage 2011). The metaphysics of indigenous life accepts a spiritual element. A kin based social organisations extends reciprocal social relations out to the surrounding world, where woodlands, rivers, grassland planes were carefully tended and islands revisited, no place unknown or unnamed, but sung, beloved and ritually revivified (Stanner 1933; Hiatt 1977; Morphy 2010, Keen 2013 , Toner 2015).

Big Bill Neidjie (c. 1920 – 2002)

Bill Neidjie is perhaps best known as last remaining speaker of Gagudju language and his quotes and poems, such as; you look after country…he look after you” Bill generously recorded facets of his life for a younger generation and non-Aboriginal people to help them understand how to look after their country and remember its stories — stories and practices of local knowledge central to the establishment and continued wellbeing of the world-heritage listed Kakadu National Park: now a resource for all ‘Australians’ and the world.

Bill Neidjie says

That tree now, feeling…

e blow

sit quiet, you speaking…

that tree now e speak…

that wind e blow…

e can listen…

We think.

Story we think about, yes.


That story e listen.

Story…you’n’me same.

Grass im listen.

You’n’me same…anykind.

Bird e listen…anykind, eagle.

E sit down. E want to speak eagle eh?

Im listen. You listen…eagle.

Because e put im through your feeling.

But for us eagle…

all same.

Listen carefully, careful

and this spirit e come in your feeling

and you will feel it…anyone that.

I feel it…my body same as you.

I telling you this because the land for us,

never change round, never change.

Places for us, earth for us,

star, moon, tree, animal,

no-matter what sort of a animal, bird or snake…

all that animal same like us. Our friend that.[2]

The spirit of country is celebrated, a conduit for art, dance, poetry and music. Here in each place is the hearth and home and the central node of relatedness, in a network of locations spanning the continent. What inspiration deeper, or more vital than the colours and energy of one’s homeland and the feeling of belonging, of kinship and centeredness in the world. In its winds the voices of the ancestors, the tangible spirit of the land, the emotional foundation of its people. We have all heard of this deep connectedness, this belonging to place, our land is our life. In these ancestral connections to place are found the mental map of resilience and the enduring strength and prosperity of the people of the land. (Wenten Rubundja 1997; Yibarrbuk 1998, Mängay 2007, Garŋgulkpuy 2010, Baymarrwaŋa 2014)

Gagudju Man Bill Neidjie, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

LAND (excerpt)


They can’t listen for us.

They just listen for money.



Million no good for us.

We need this earth to live because

We’ll be dead,

We’ll become earth.

This ground and this earth,

like brother and mother.


My children got to hang onto this story.

This important story.

I hang onto this story all my life.

My father tell me this story.

My children can’t lose it.


White European want to know asking ‘What this story?’

This not easy story.

No-one else can tell it

Because this story for Aboriginal culture.


I speak English for you,

So you can listen,

So you can know,

You will understand.

If I put my language in same place,

You won’t understand.


Our story is in the land.

It is written in those sacred places.

My children will look after those places,

That’s the law.



It is sacred



[2] The Geopoetics of Affect: Bill Neidjie’s Story About Feeling JASAL.13.2 FARRELL Geopoetics of Affect PDF

[i] A homeland’s population is usually made up of one or two related family groups and their kin living together on their country. Homelands are different from communities, as communities are places where many clans coexist, and where they live and work in one place. Life on home­lands is more immediately organised around landownership and care, family and ancestral connections (see Slotte 1997; Morphy 2005; Altman 2008; Blakeman 2013). There are 468 homelands in the NT and only 46 homelands schools (NT Government, Beadman, 2011). Not providing schools for these children over the last fifty years may have saved the Australian government a lot of money (Baymarrwanga 2014)

[ii] Working for Culture and Country: Territory Quarterly 2011


Jurlpu Wardikinpirri-wana: Bilingual Warlpiri Bird Book & thanks to Frank and Wendy Baarda

Jurlpu Wardikinpirri-wana: Bilingual Warlpiri Bird Book



—back in Yuendumu again doing some visiting with the preeminent desert philosopher Frank Baarda and the fabulous Warlpiri linguist and educator Wendy. Frank and Wendy have been living in this beautiful part of the world for over forty years now. Wendy and the team from the BRDU took me on an extraordinary trip down memory lane to the hills of Yarripilangu We camped at Wardikinpirri pirli (a Warlpiri Jukurrpa site marked by hills) in the Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary. Old people, students and Rangers got together out bush, singing songs of country and telling stories of birds. Travelling from place to place, visiting sites, talking and singing – the country was prolific with birdlife. From the hills of Yarripilangu we traveled to waterholes near Napanangka-jarra, out to Yajarlu, the clay pans at Kapuka on the Nyirrpi road, and then on to the spring at Yankanjini (Lake Bennett).


The Jurlpu Wardikinpirri-wana: Bilingual Warlpiri Bird Book project was all about on country inter-generational engagement of older knowledge holders with multi age students and specialist scientists to improve the status of local authorities, numeracy and literacy, school attendance, and to exemplify practical steps toward higher education pathways. Getting back to country and going hunting, yuway !!!

The broader project seeks to encourage community group participation, that is all those service provider institutions, in such a way as to provide useful local outcomes, that is the kinds of things that local people want. These outcomes related to further education, not necessarily as conceived by kardiya (whitefella institutions) but in a practical way that incorporate local and traditional knowledge. This local knowledge gives indigenous learners confidence in the imposed institutional spaces provided by the state and gives useful, interesting and necessary advantage to participation in these mainstream contexts. ( for a full treatment of this emic perspective see Peter Toyne’s 2000 thesis the Internal Colonization of the Warlpiri and it Resistance Through Educational Practice)

Yuendumu is the largest remote community in Central Australia. It is located 300kms North West of Alice Springs. It has a population of between 800-1000 people. The population of mostly Warlpiri speaking people is situated on the eastern edge of Anmatyerr country. Yuendumu is located within the Yuendumu Aboriginal Lands Trust area, which includes numerous outstations, though most suffer from lack of services and issues with distance, water, sustainable natural harvest etc. Yuendumu retains links with other Warlpiri communities at Lajamanu, Willowra and Nyirripi included in the Bird project

Yuendumu and Nyirripi Rangers service the Southern Tanami Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) which spans some 101,000 square kilometers comprising of vast spinifex sand plains, broad paleo-drainage channels (ancient rivers) and low rocky ranges. The Southern Tanami Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) covers the southern portion of the Tanami Desert. The Walpiri traditional owners of this vast land continue to take the intergenerational responsibility for its care as the highest value.

The bird rich wetlands in this area take in the Lander River system and its associated swamps and waterholes, botanically important paleo-drainage systems and many small soaks and rock holes. It includes Yinapaka (Lake Surprise), a culturally significant site which is included on the Directory of Important Wetlands of Australia. This lake is considered to be in near pristine condition and when full it is the largest body of fresh water in the Tanami Desert. It is known to provide important habitat for waterbirds and fish.  Another large (saline) lake system, Lake MacKay, to the west of Yuendumu, also has international significance as episodic breeding grounds for wetland bird species protected under international treaties (CLC, URL:


Warlpiri people, Yuendumu residents and school councils have been unyielding promoters of bilingual education, both through the school (often despite Education department policy settings) and through all other community activities (again often despite cross-cultural issues with non-Warlpiri project delivery.  For example, Warlpiri Media, now PAW, started by community members in 1986 to create local television and radio programs for the community and school in Warlpiri language). As you may know I worked for WMA for three years from xmas 1989 to 1992 as a volunteer and living on the floor of my brothers shed. These were wonderful times as people were filled with the strong desire to drive back this fourth invasion by TV satellite. This bi-lingual/cultural education resistance movement dubbed ‘fighting fire with fire’ by the wonderful then octogenarian Darby Jampijimpa Ross was and is seen as a cornerstone of further learning and the foundation of a “cultural future”.  (See also Eric Michaels’ Invention of Television and Tim Rowses’ wonderful Administrative Imagination). This sense of emic perspective is a fundamental element in any positive engagement with Warlpiri people. There are many resources (human, written, multi-media and other) and significant good will for project managers and proponents to access Warlpiri and bi-lingual language support in project delivery and outcomes. The value of Bilingual education has been masked by the state through NTED in order to reduce their responsibility to respond to and cost of providing proper education for remote children. Frank tells us that

In 1994 IAD Press published ‘Aboriginal Languages in Education’

Nangala Baarda contributed a ten page article to this compendium titled: ‘The impact of the bilingual program at Yuendumu, 1974 to 1993’ Nangala didn’t shy away from mentioning some of the problems faced by the school in delivering education to Warlpiri children, but overall presented a very positive scenario, because it was. Under the sub-title ‘Benefits of the bilingual program’ there is this: “…The status of the Warlpiri language has improved greatly in the community, in the eyes of both white people and Warlpiri people. It is not ignored or put down by anyone. Lots of meetings are conducted in Warlpiri these days, with the decisions being related to the white people afterwards. And the language has gained in respect, so have the people. The bilingual program, together with the much less racist treatment of Aboriginal people, seems to be producing young people who are more sure of their identity and more satisfied with it…”

Glenn and I went down to YND and caught up with some old friends. Calling on long standing friendships and kinship links at Yuendumu we sought direction from the community members for a focus in this bilingual project. A three part project was conceived of by countrymen to allow for bush trips to Newhaven Station (Wardikinpirri) close to Nyirripi, to Willowra and to Lajamanu. This geographical spread would allow us to obtain pictures, sound and stories of birds present in all the different ecological zones inside the Warlpiri domain. Further it would provide opportunities to gather knowledgeable elders and young people on difficult to access country to exchange important knowledge.

The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance Ltd (NAILSMA) partnered with Yuendumu School Bilingual Resources Development Unit (BRDU), the Yuendumu and Nyirrpi Rangers and Dr Bentley James to deliver an on-country workshop recording songs, stories and photographs of birds for the Warlpiri Bird Dictionary. The trip involved Yuendumu School students, traditional knowledge holders, Warlpiri language specialist Wendy Baarda, and PhD candidate and bird whiz Micha Jackson.

The following fabulous photo by Micha and taken at Yarripilangu is of mani-tirrpi-tirrpi – Red Capped Robin and the story by Tess Ross Napaljarrirli


Mani-tirrpi-tirrpi jukurrpa kujalpa nyinaja ngulaju yapa-wiyi, kujurnulpa-nyanu kuruwarri yalyu-yalyu rduku-rdukurla manu jurrungka karntaku-purdarlu. Ngulajangka yarnkajarra. Nyangu jana karnta-karnta.  Pirri-manu wurnturu ngula rdirri-yungu yunparninjaku. Ngurun-manulpa manu yunparnulpa karntapatu-kurra. Yunparnulpa yilpinji ngurrju-nyayirni manulpa jana jurlpu panu-kari yirdimanu yungurlu panungku yunparni yilpinji. Jukurrpa nyampuju ngulaju Japaljarri, Jungarrayi.

In the dreamtime when the robin was a person, he put red on his chest and head to get himself a wife. Then he set out. He saw some women. He sat down a little way off and got ready to sing. He was humming and singing to the women. He sang a lovely love song and he called out to the other birds to come and sing love songs with him. This dreaming is for Japaljarri and Jungarrayi.

The Jurlpu Wardikinpirri-wana: Bilingual Warlpiri Bird Book categorises the different kinds of named country in which the various bird varieties are found. The following is an excerpt from the book in English.


  1. 37. Manangkarra – spinifex country

The little birds that lay their eggs in the spinifex are the quail, the red-browed pardalotte and spinifex pigeons. These make their nests and look after their babies on the ground in the spinifex. Bush turkeys and emus lay their eggs in a grass nest on the ground in the spinifex plains. Birds of prey like the fork tailed kite, collared sparrowhawk, hobby, nankeen kestral, hawks and falcons, fly high above the plains

  1. 45 Pamarrpa-wana – In the hills

Eagles, hobbies, buzzards and other birds of prey live around the hills. They make their nests for their eggs up high on the cliffs or in tall trees in the hills. The spinifex pigeon also lives around the hills and lays its eggs on the ground by stoney creeks.  Fairy martins build their mud nests on the roof of caves in the hills.

  1. 43. Ngalyarrpa-wana – In the sand hill country

In the sandhill country we see birds of prey, the buzzard, the hobby, sparrowhawk, nankeen kestral and others. They eat quails and little birds and moles and sand lizards, Blue backed dragons, sand swimmers and others.

  1. 44. Yuurku – Mulga forest

Lots of birds live in the mulga forest, small ones like the bell bird, crimson chat, red capped robin, hooded robin, mistletoe bird, they all build their nests and lay their eggs in the tops of trees. So do bigger birds like the grey crowned babbler, butcher bird, crested pigeon, diamond dove and bronze wing pigeon. The southern boobook owl and the barn owl make their nest for their eggs in hollow trees in the forest or inbloodwood trees on the plains. They come out at night to hunt for meat.

  1. 46 Marliri – Claypans

After a big rain, when water lies in the claypans, lots of birds gather there, wood swallows, plovers, budgerigahs, finches and wood martins and make their nests in the trees around the claypans. Lots of waterbirds come too, ducks, cranes, native hens and curlews. They eat small things that live in the water, frogs, tadpoles, mosquitoes and dragonflies

  1. 47 Warnirri – Rockholes

Around the rockholes we see zebra finches, honey eaters, robins and many others. They come for water and to eat honey from the Beantree flowers. After that they fly off to the forest and the plains. Zebra finches always stay close to water and they show us where the rockholes are.

  1. 48 Murluwurru – Salt Lakes

After a big rain, when there is water in the salt lakes, lots of birds come, duck, native hens, cranes and even pelicans. When the water is gone or there is only a little salty water the water birds leave. Only the red capped plover stays around the salt lake for a long time.

  1. 49 Karru – Creeks

Along the creeks and ditches there are lots of birds. Kingfishers and rainbow lorikeets dig themselves a home in the banks high up. Lots of others make their homes on hollows in the river gums, budgerigahs, ringneck parrots, cockatiels, little corellas, cockatoos.

  1. 49 Ngurra-wana – Around the camp

We see lots of birds around the camp, crows, butcher birds, magpie larks, pigeons, galahs, zebra finches, willywag-tails, black faced cuckoos, rufous whistlers, red capped robins, honey eaters and others. These are not frightened to come close topeople’s camps.

  1. 50 Bore-wana – Around the bore

Around the bore we see very many birds, major Mitchell cockatoos, zebra finches, galahs, crested pigeons, diamond doves, bronzewing doves, spiney cheeked honey eaters, These are frightened of people. When we go close they fly away.

Thank you to Tess Napaljarri and Nangala Baarda for the wonderful experiences and the fabulous bilingual children’s book. If you want to access a copy of this beautiful book contact the YND School BRDU.


With NAILSMA we produced an eNews report entitled Singing Songs of Country: practical pathways and confidence building for Higher Learning NAILSMA eNews update 18 December 2015 to be found at :

The following paraphrases the Enews describing how we found a total of 34 bird species during the week and recorded Warlpiri names and knowledge about many birds not described in the existing dictionary, Jurlpu kuja karlipa nyanyi Yurntumu-wana (Warlpiri Bird Dictionary; Yuendumu BRDU and Central Land Council)

Talking to young people one young person said ‘old people know too many stories’. The delight of students coming to know the names of locally familiar birds is enhanced by the onomatopoeic character of Warlpiri bird names. There were thousands of Jiyiki (Zebra Finch) who say, ‘ji-yiki ji-yiki‘; and at night Kurrul-kurrulpa (Tawny Frogmouth) who says ‘kurrul-kurrul’; Kaarnka (Crow) who says ‘kaa-kaa’; Jintirr-jintirrpa (Willy Wagtail); and Pinparlajarrpa (Masked Wood Swallow, (a nomadic bird that appeared in thousands at Kapuka), not to mention Mani rtirrpi-rtirrpi the Red-Capped Robin, putting on his red paint to look handsome.

These bush trips were focused on bringing together old and young people on country to share knowledge. Local knowledge held by senior community members and Rangers promotes understanding of the work and cultural responsibilities community members have for look after country and kin. These experiences and collected materials and composed into a variety of useful learning tools that reinforce this knowledge into the future. For example, photo dictionaries, work books, habitat posters, audio/visual material for iPad’s and I-Tracker applications (for use by students and Rangers)

This project is one of a number of projects that NAILSMA has facilitated through the Charles Darwin University led Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Projects (HEPPP) Whole of Community Engagement (WCE) – an initiative of the Australian Government. NAILSMA helps identify and facilitate opportunities for remote Indigenous students and adult learners to participate in higher learning. NAILSMA works alongside local community leaders to run projects that reinforce local and traditional knowledge (linguistic, cultural, site specific) and build confidence for engaging effectively in mainstream education and training, with a practical focus on sustainable benefits from natural and cultural resource management on land and sea Country. That is why I like working with NAILSMA.

These projects really do produce fabulous outcomes decided and designed by people on country about the things they are concerned about. NAILSMA and the people of the Warlpiri people who own the country have a vision for northern development that needs real consideration, just ask them.

So, dinner at Frank and Wendy’s was hilarious as always overwhelmed by stories of travels and anecdotes. Not least of all the horrible increase in dysfunction and disadvantage foisted upon the families of YND by the intervention and punitive policing regimes OF settler state colonialism. The big buzz word these days is family protection, HA ! Sorry for sounding cynical but listen what Frank has to say about family at YND.  I have copied this from one of his fabulous private emails from which I am going to steal, so forgive me Frank -but you say it so well.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Walalja is a Warlpiri word, often translated as Family.

Mishpocha is a Hebrew derived Yiddish word, usually translated as Family.

It isn’t the first time I mention that the meaning of Walalja is closer to Mishpocha than it is to Family

Walalja means so much more than just Family. It is everything your extended Family ‘owns’ including your homeland.

I was in conversation with a Jewish-American (U.S.A.) academic working in Yuendumu. (You might remember this guy as the fellow who wrote the ‘Aboriginal invention of Television, with Francis Kelly) When I used the word Mishpocha, the academic got all dewy eyed. The word Family is far less likely to evoke such a strong emotional response.

The Family-Mishpocha-Walalja sequence could be said to increase exponentially in depth and scope of meaning.

At one end of the Family spectrum are the single-parent and nuclear Families. Ranging through various polygamous or extended Families until the other end of the spectrum is reached. The Family of Nations.

The stereotypical nuclear Family appears on cereal packets. A man, a woman, a boy and a girl, all with perfect teeth and haircuts. A regular Family in more ways than one.

In fact, in the global experience it is the most irregular Family. In Africa, Asia, the Arab World, Latin America and the 4th world, extended families are the norm.

More insight into this thesis of ‘Hypernormalisation’ can be seen in Adam Curtis’s new film by that name. Or to hear the words of the deserts’ foremost philosophical poet write to Frank at YND mining CO/ Post office Yuendumu 0872 and ask to go on his mailing list for pointed and brilliant philosophical insight on the state of play on the ground. I am lazy and will leave the last word to Frank

Remote Aboriginal Australia refuses to be what they, the assimilationist authorities, expect them to be. They are the twisted branch, the most diverse section of Australian Society. They are the biggest Disappointment in ‘Team Australia’ (the lovely Australian Family of our collective national psyche)

Until the next time,

Jungarrayi (brother of Jungarrayi and Nungarrayi, father of Japaljarri and Napaljarri, husband of Nangala and so forth…)


Coastal Livelihoods

Coastal livelihoods, inter-tidal zones, shellfish and the future for Yolŋu kids at Galiwin’ku

Hi- went back to Elcho Island just the other day, where I had lived for a couple of years in the early nineties while working at the school. For six months I worked with NAILSMA as education consultant.  North Australian Indigenous Land & Sea Management Alliance Ltd is an incorporated bioregional forum for Traditional Owners supporting strategic approaches to care for country across the whole of the North. It does this by combining practical science and research and Indigenous knowledge to produce cultural, environmental and economic benefits for people on country, and in this case linguistic benefits too. So with the help of a raft of others we designed interesting bilingual investigations of the near shore environment with local experts, scientists and students.

NAILSMA engaged me to facilitate this project on “Coastal livelihoods, Inter-tidal Zones, Shellfish and the Future”. The initial project linking senior knowledge holders, scientists and teachers with young people was designed to explore traditional knowledge and science about the near shore environment and shellfish. What is most interesting about this project, in comparison to so much else that is conceived elsewhere, is the overtly inclusive engagement processes necessary to linking the multiple Yolŋu local language and knowledge experts involved in its development.  The challenge for creating this kind of inclusivity here today, where cultures with different world views and powers operate in the same time and space, is creating a window or opportunity where both can positively and fairly engage with each other. Such practical projects can be a catalyst for sharing that bring to light new knowledge or approaches to recalcitrant problems like surviving settler state imperaialism.

The project is about bilingual approaches to local knowledge and science around shellfish and a practical expression of intergenerational transfer of locality specific ancestral knowledge and language with, and driven by an inclusive vision for a cultural future. Given the context, and view from a broader linguistic perspective, most Indigenous students in the N.T are ESL (English as a Second Language) students. That is 44% of the NT kids at school are Indigenous. ESL students learn key concepts in their home language first. NTED still does not properly respond to ESL student’s status or needs. Bilingual education allows Yolŋu to engage with the growing tide of English only speaking visitors, school teachers, administrators and other service providers on a more equal footing. For permanently resident Yolŋu bilingualism enables fuller collaboration in partnerships with visitors and participants who can’t understand local language and culture. Confidence in local language gives students an advantage in the educational space, promotes English literacy and creates opportunities for further education more widely. That’s why many N.T Indigenous communities continue to struggle to get proper bilingual education.

From a purely educational perspective the “Coastal livelihoods, Inter-tidal Zones, Shellfish and the Future” investigation aimed to scientifically measure distribution of near shore shellfish species in a given area using quadrants and I-Tracker. To identify which species of shellfish are present in which zones while acquainting students with the work of marine biologists, Indigenous Rangers, local knowledge experts, scientist and translators working together to map the near shore environment.

As education is a journey from the familiar to the unknown new scientific research and practice came to students and knowledge holders in classes on country. Beginning with the familiar coordinates of Yolŋu knowledge, language and kinship, a culturally appropriate foundation was laid on which new knowledge could be imagined. Local knowledge embedded in ḻuku (country), buŋgul (ceremony), rom (law), manikjay (songs), matha (language), and gurruṯu (kin) was extended with new understandings. The common terms of the discussion gave students opportunities to engage with ideas about empowerment, identity, broader connections, roles and values of different knowledge systems and skills. [2] Creating a safe context on country in which to blend ideas from these two knowledge systems was the catalyst for new learning and the development of new knowledge.

The Coastal livelihoods, inter-tidal zones, shellfish and the future project is described in the following NAILSMA eNews update

NAILSMA eNews update June 2015.


Learning on Country (LOC), Galiwin’ku, Shepherdson College, Yälu-marŋgikunnhamirr, the Marthakal, Crocodile Islands, Yirraka Rangers, Gawa Homelands School, traditional owners and Dr. Bentley James are working together to pass on local knowledge about coastal life.

The mainland coastline of north east Arnhem Land is 1597 kilometres long, but the Island coastline is 1778 km making it even more inaccessible. Yolŋu people look after this coast line and the countless reefs, rocks and sand banks that are home to a multitude of life.  This is a carefully managed land and sea scape increasingly under threat from fracking, invasive species and over fishing just to name a few. Given thousands of years of local history, this coastline presents a unique opportunity to promote higher education in local knowledge, multi-lingualism, social cohesion, good science, appropriate technology and positive livelihoods activities on country.

NAILSMA and Galwin’ku Learning on Country (LOC) Co-ordinator Ewen Nettleson have been working with Shepherdson College Middle School classes’ Ŋuykal (trevally), Dhawulŋaniŋ (dolphin), Garraŋunuŋ (hammer head) and Baṉumbirr (morning star) to investigate the inter-tidal zone.  We recognise the fundamental interdependence of biological, linguistic and cultural diversity as an essential first step in the education of the next generation. We make pre-existing cultural knowledge an advantage in the educational space. NAILSMA supports participation in higher education land and our practical sea management based activities are an attractive engagement tool for employment-ready training.

Yolŋu people say at the local level we celebrate thousands of generations of local wisdom and spiritual connection in the language of the ancestors. This land and sea has given us life for thousands of years. An important part of this gift has been shellfish known as maypal. Local knowledge about maypal is incredibly diverse and is influenced by a large number of cultural, temporal and economic factors. We are working hard to share the valuable knowledge that we have about maypal with the students and the people who have come to work at our schools and in our communities.

Higher education, local knowledge, livelihoods and the future

Higher education means engagement with valuable life skills and livelihoods activities in the places we live. Looking forward we see engagement with this kind of valuable knowledge as reinforcing the resilience of local communities, ecological systems, social strength and potentially meaningful employment opportunities. Community participation in local activities really values local skills and systems in caring for country, in a future Australia fit for all Australians.

Shepherdson College Learning on Country advisor Ewen Nettleton organised the Marthakal Rangers and Doris Yethun Burarrwaŋa and a host of other senior Yolŋu to take kids out bush for learning workshops for the next twelve months. While talking to people about maypal in the many local languages and engaging with local knowledge we fashioned a respectful and attentive conversation space based on Yolŋu ethics and forms of sociality, that is, a space in which relationships are based on kinship.

Yolŋu classifications of local shellfish types show up clearly the differences between Indigenous knowledge systems and those of western sciences. In the comparison of these two systems of understanding embedded in different world-views it was found that some ideas may be incommensurable, for example different logics of categorisation in the Yolŋu view are distinctive from some western technical knowledge. What emerges from this conversation is a sense that all these ways are coherent and precious ways of knowing.

Typically the knowledge systems of peoples with prolonged attachment to their environments naturally emphasize symbiotic and spiritual connectedness to place. This intimacy links people, animals, plants and the fundamentals of the cosmos through social relations, giving a look and feel very different from that of modern western sciences. For the Yolŋu thousands of generations of intimate coexistence with their environment has evolved delicate almost invisible links or relations between things that may appear ambiguous from a purely scientific view. These intimate local links reveal a system of complex patterns of connection where kinship, colour, habitat or mythological origins inform the logic of classification.

From a linguistic perspective the distinctive world-views of over fifty North east Arnhem Land clans (bäpurru) speaking some nine discrete Yolŋu languages and their many dialects. These interacting complexes of understanding give rise not only to a network of multiple perspectives over the features of the natural world, but a brilliant linguistic diversity.  As a result of this diversity a named tree or a shellfish may share a number of different names, and those names may be possessed by one or a number of different bäpurru. Only engagements sympathetic to Indigenous ways of doing and being can share in this diverse inclusion of local experience, ancestral knowledge and language. These opportunities reinvigorate the relationships that reproduce the recognisably valuable characteristics of local indigenous links to land and knowledge and pass it on to a new generation.

So much of what is offered to students (NTED) and rangers (WOK) in the post-colonial settler state assumes the values of radical individualism, disengagement from kin, country and local culture, and imposes a neoliberal indifference to environment. The economic logics of the white paper on Northern Development deny the inclusion of indigenous people, owning most of the land and comprising a third of the population.  Yolŋu people are here to stay. They have not changed their story. The Settler State is planning to take by force or deception all Indigenous inheritance, all their resources, land, sky and sea. I am reminded of the words of Laurie Baymarrwaŋa in 1999;


Nhaŋu dhaŋuny yuwalkthana Yolŋu miṯṯji marŋgimana dhana mayili mana dhaŋuny mana limalama ganatjirri marramba barrathalayuma gurrku mana waŋgalaŋga.

‘We will pass on the stories (wisdom) of our sea country for the new generation to make it strong.’ (Yan-nhaŋu Atlas 2012: 30)


In the N.T one third of the population aspire to a cultural future. A future that includes caring for a growing and increasingly at risk population of young people. It makes good sense to invest in projects sympathetic to local differences and providing meaningful livelihoods on country. Caring for kin and country throughout the life cycle.



[2] Frances Morphy has talked about ‘recognition space’ for Yolŋu views to be heard with equal validity recalling Jürgen Habermas’ ideal speech situation as a catalyst for consideration of ontological positions leading to transformative processes.


Thank You !

Thank you for your thoughtful correspondence and kind words. I am sure if I had been able to pass them on to Baymarrwangga she would have smiled too. Her instructions were that the Atlas is a resource of ancestral knowledge not for sale. We cannot sell the Atlas, but we can encourage donations to assist in furthering the project of passing on this rare knowledge asset to the next generations. As always donors giving more than a thousand dollars will receive an Atlas as a gift, the few remaining others are for the children Big Boss created them for. To the many sincere people that generously promised their help the opportunity is here. The distribution of the Atlas to schoolchildren around the N.T continues. The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance Ltd (NAILSMA) as always is helping out and your donation to the NAILSMA tax deductible gift account will help us share this valuable resource to schools.

All around Australia indigenous language is extremely endangered where life on the homelands and bilingual education has been destroyed by the assimilationist powers of the settler state. 1 Baymarrwangga said to resist assimilation “we must ennoble the hearts of those who humiliate us”. Her respect for language and culture compelled her to create a family of interrelated projects in support of language, livelihoods and homelands. Together with the positive health outcomes and psychological resilience attending bilingualism, local languages promote the inter-generational transmission of vital local knowledge to a new generation. This is part of a suite of local initiatives that skill and employ people on country, follow traditional law, protect linguistic, cultural and biological diversity and create an inclusive and liveable future world.

For example, the Ranger Program she started with her own money now protects more than 10,000km2 of sea country with 250km2 of registered sacred sites. The 1000km2 turtle sanctuary she started is caring for some of the last breeding and nesting places of many endangered species including endangered sea birds. Language nests she started brought old and young together to learn not only language but the kindness and wisdom of kinship and knowledge of country flowing from uncounted generations of intimae coexistence with the environment.

Her vison to improve economic, social and cultural wellbeing by providing meaningful employment and education through dedicated language and cultural programs was funded by her and volunteers. She worked to manage, conserve and enhance the natural marine resources and traditional ecological knowledge living inside local languages to share with children around Australia. By giving this Atlas to school children across the NT she continues in spirit to bring a new inclusive perspective to education about the diverse inheritance of living indigenous homelands for the future of all Australians. To assist us to carry on her work you may donate to the NAILSMA Public Fund Account:

BSB: 085 – 933

Acc. No.: 140 012 871

Acc. Name: NAILSMA

Yours, Bentley James for Laurie Baymarrwangga.

[1] The U.N Human Development Report insists that there is ‘… no more powerful means of ‘encouraging’ individuals to assimilate to a dominant culture than having the economic, social and political returns stacked against their mother tongue. Such assimilation is not freely chosen if the choice is between one’s mother tongue and one’s future. (




Vale Big Boss

The very much adored, and deeply admired paramount matriarch of the Yan-nhaŋu people Laurie Baymarrwaŋa passed peacefully away in her ninety seventh year on Wednesday 20th of August. Her life was inestimable, her virtue remarkable, and her passing bequeaths a fabulous legacy. Born in the time before the coming of the missions, she remembered the old ways, the ways of kin and country. Her dream to entrust this knowledge to new generations as a foundation, a font of strength and counsel in the law, drove her to create a homeland, a school, ranger and heritage programs, marine sanctuaries, language nests and an Atlas among other gifts. Senior Australian of the year 2012, her vast knowledge of generations of social and physical geography was revered by others who themselves are old and wise. To the very end she struggled to save her ocean home from mining and exploitation, unspoiled for future generations. Baymarrwaŋa’s love and generosity for the world is something one rarely sees . . . if only it were more common. A truly great leader, a nurturer, her spirit returns to the homelands that created and compelled her.


Overwhelmingly the most wonderful thing is making one old lady happy, if nothing else, this has been the greatest joy.

Atlas Approaches


Dear friends thank you for your support. The Atlas is on a ship bound for Australia as we speak. When it arrives we will begin the work of distribution. 36 homelands, seven schools, seven ranger programs and some three hundred and thirty libraries around Australia.

The Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary seeks to provide opportunities for new generations to know the language of place and walk in the footsteps of the ancestors. The generosity and vision of this project spring naturally from the wisdom of kinship and reciprocity that are at the heart indigenous relations to country.

In our Indigenous languages exists the knowledge of countless generations; the gifts of intimate coexistence with the land and sea; the precious knowledge of place that will enrich our lives and those of future generations.

Baymarrwaŋa shares with us the wisdom of kinship with place vital to a living future. For nearly a hundred years she has endeavoured to share this knowledge of kin and country, so that we may live more harmoniously with each other in our places.

Perhaps now more than ever, at a time when Indigenous people worldwide are struggling to save us from the destruction of our planet, we can see the value of her insight.

We thank you for the gift of your support so far. With your help I am planning to create a scholarship program for ten thousand dollars a year to facilitate further studies in the Crocodile Islands. I intend to raise this money with help from sponsors to focus on the biological and cultural diversity of this wonderful place in the world.