The last of the last Yan-nhangu Atlas’

Jaypeg_40 Yan-nhangu AtlasThe last Yan-nhangu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands has been distributed to the Australian Studies Centre in the University of Köln.


The university kindly offered me a research and teaching role as a partner of the Australian Studies Centre at the University of Köln, at which time I had the opportunity to visit some beautiful places in Germany.  ( father is from Germany.

I thank the GBS (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Sprachen) that supported my work in Yolngu Linguistics. GBS (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Sprachen) organisation is dedicated to saving endangered languages. In December 2017 they celebrated their twenty five year anniversary.[GBS] GBS Mitgliederversammlung am 18.11. in Berlin, 14-18 Uhr – 20 Jahre GBS! The Yan-nhangu atlas was one of the four projects they celebrated. Polymath Professor Marie Carla D. Adone Ph.d Head of Applied Linguistics (English Department) and Co-Director of Centre of Australian Studies at the University of Cologne presented the Atlas on my behalf.


She reports resounding international recognition of Baymarrwangga’s project. Comments included “Dieses höchst beeindruckende ethnologische Werk stellt einen der Höhepunkte der Forschung an Indigenen Sprachen Australiens dar, (This ethnolinguistic masterpiece is one of the high points of Australian indigenous language research ) Zusammen haben Dr. James und Frau Baymarrwangga dazu beigetragen, nicht nur eine Sprache, sondern auch die damit verknüpfte kulturelle Welt zu retten. Dieses Werk ist ein mutiger und beharrlicher Ausdruck menschlichen Überlebenswillens”. (Together, these two have saved a world in a language, a tribute to the human spirit of survival, a land mark of courage and perseverance.) and kindly, “James ist ein äußerst bemerkenswerter Anthropologe und Ethnograph.” (This is one of the greats of ethnography)

Generally, there is a much greater awareness of, and sensitivity to, issues arising from colonial settler interaction with Australian Indigenous people, in Germany, than there is in Australia. Not only students but people on the streets are refreshingly interested in and concerned with, what is happening in Australia. Consequently, there was standing room only at public lectures and informal talks about this work in Germany.


There is strong agreement that we must delink the epistemological imperialism of setter ideologies in Australian colonial state policies for indigenous people. Particularly in regard to access, content and delivery of ‘services policy’ in justice, policing, schools, language, land rights, health and housing. Thank you, to all those who gave so generously to support one wonderful old lady’s dream of saving her language for her children and children’s children. It has brought joy to serve such an idea.


Thank you


Crocodile Islands Draft IPA 2017. No Small Beer.

On a celebratory note, as we bring in the new year let us celebrate the long awaited “The Crocodile Islands Draft  IPA  2017 – a heady blend of local cultures and more cosmopolitan strains pitched in Yan-nhaŋu some 20 years ago in Big Boss and Bentley’s multilingual Murruŋga Island brewery”

A forward looking copy of the Crocodile Islands Rangers Mariŋa Indigenous Protected Area Draft Plan of Management: 2017-2022 reminds us, at this transitional time, to remember how we got here. Those who forget the past are bound to relive it.  Or as Big Boss was want to say “Limalanha gurrku mana maŋutjiguma limalama djäma märr ḏilak yanama dhuyugu Yolŋulu gurruku mana nhäma marŋgiyirri limalagara. Bilabilagumunu ŋanapuluma nhaŋ’kumunu dhäŋuny bulthuna nhapiyana mananha limalama ḏilak miṯṯji nyenanha baman’ŋatjili”. We follow the way of the ancestors, the way of those who come before.


The Crocodile Islands Draft IPA is a worthy classic of culture and power nurtured in the way of the Dao-der-Jiŋ: Dao- strength, power, and integrity, virtue: Jiŋ -way, path, custom, manner.

The way that can be spoken is not the constant way,

The name that can be named is not the constant name,

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth,

The named was the mother of the myriad things,

Hence always rid yourself of desire to know its secrets,

But always have desire in order to observe its manifestations.

I wrote the following introduction for the ‘Crocodile Islands Rangers Mariŋa Indigenous Protected Area Draft Plan of Management: 2017-2022 to celebrate the virtue and insight of Big Boss, [1] leader of Mariŋa, [2] for alas, most of those now working on her projects never met her, let alone speak her language or visited the secret places of the islands.

Laurie Baymarrwaŋa (1917-2014) [3] was a humble and inspirational leader.[4] She lived to celebrate many triumphs including creating a homeland and a bilingual school,[5] saving her language,[6] gaining recognition as the ‘Traditional Owner’ over her country,[7] winning the 2012 Senior Australian of the Year award [8] and creating the Crocodile Islands Initiative (CII) incorporating the Crocodile Islands Ranger (CIR) Program junior rangers program[9]and Turtle Sanctuary[10] to name a few. Baymarrwaŋa spent a lifetime promoting the intergenerational transmission of local language and knowledge to sustain authentic livelihoods and links to homelands unique to this remote part of Australia’s marine estate:[11]

Nhaŋu dhaŋuny yuwalkthana Yolŋu miṯṯji marŋgimana dhana mayali’ mana dhaŋuny mana limalama ganatjirri maramba barrathalayuma gurrku mana waŋgalaŋga.

‘We will pass on the stories (wisdom) of our sea country for the new generation to make it strong.’  Laurie Baymarrwaŋa, 1999.[12]


In 2003, after ten years of cultural mapping, detailed recording over five hundred previously undocumented sites in the sea and on the islands and a wealth of associated Yan-nhaŋu language and local knowledge, we began the Crocodile Islands Initiative (CII).[13]

This family of projects gave life to the Crocodile Islands Rangers (CIR) and Junior Rangers programs promoting life-long language learning and authentic livelihoods on country.[14] The first rangers worked as volunteers. In 2003, she began a plan for the nascent ranger program to feed local children with fish, ‘Lima gurrku guya riya-gunhanyini ŋalimalamagu yitjiwala gurruṯuwaygu : We will give our kids fish (Baymarrwaŋa 2002).[15]

In 2011 she was awarded the ‘NT Research and Innovation Awards Special Commendation’ celebrating her ‘outstanding and inspiring lifetime contribution.’[16]After receiving recognition as the senior Maḻarra traditional owner of her father’s estate at Galiwin’ku she was finally able to fund the Crocodile Islands Rangers program she had been denied for twenty years.[17]

It is instructive then, given the nature of bureaucratic churn and the superficiality of administrative knowledge, to taste something of the precursors to the CIR IPA  2017-2022.

In 1993 we began to map the sites of the seas and Crocodile Islands for posterity and the cultural future of her children’s children. Unbeknownst and unencumbered by wider interests and of those living outside of Murruŋga, we began to distil a picture of place legible to a wider society, unrecognisant and illiterate in Yan-nhaŋu, and of the near invisible ancestral links to country germinating from countless generations of coexistence with the sea.  By 1995 we had recorded some five hundred sites in the seas and islands. BBEN

In 1996 we worked to make the law of the ancestors clear in the language of the ancestors. Big boss says “ bäyŋugurubu Yolŋulu yana mananha nhäna mananha barŋaranha yana mananha napiyana mananha yindimirribulu nyenanha limalama baman’ ŋatjili. In short we keep to the law.

In 1999 we envisaged the idea of a (CII) Crocodile Islands Initiative, (CIR) Crocodile Islands Ranger Program and Junior Ranger Program to operationalise investment in land and sea country for future generations. In 2003, through our translation of Yan-nhaŋu custom and the language of the islands we made available to others in Yolŋu Matha and English the fantastic inheritance of a rich and vibrant ritual, linguistic and ecological knowledge, inextricably linked to ancestral sites of the islands and the surrounding seas – ‘the reward of generations of intimate coexistence with the marine environment’.  Baymarrwaŋa was compelled by the enormity of this task to undertake the initiative for the protection and nurturance of this unique and endangered inheritance, for all future Australians.

bentley translates fish murrungga

In 2004 we translated for the (NAMBS) North Australia Marine Biodiversity Survey the first inquiry into the flora and fauna of inshore waters of north Australia since Mathew Flinders in 1803. This survey found the pristine environments around the Crocodile Islands of national and international significance but more importantly recognised the crucial role of indigenous knowledge and management of marine biodiversity in the seagrass habitats and associated flora and fauna of inshore waters. The Survey greatly improved scientific understanding across the Top End coast, as well as establishing a foundation for future collaborative work between Yan-nhaŋu people, scientists and Governments. We reiterated that ownership, use and practice of traditional knowledge in its local context must be acknowledged as a foundation for equitable partnerships and that indigenous knowledge is inescapably linked to local language and culture.[18]

Big boss ranger stories

In November 2009 the Biodiversity Conservation Unit of the NT Department of Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport (NRETAS) was engaged to look at the biodiversity conservation values of the Crocodile Islands not yet visited by scientists. Whilst researchers had previously found that there had been a significant decline in small mammal populations on the mainland of northern Australia, the Crocodile Islands were found to provide an important refuge for wildlife without some of the major threats so extensive elsewhere (such as cane toad, cat, pig and frequent fire) on the mainland.[19]

The CIR vision is about ensuring positive diversity for the children of the islands, the diversity that underlies the future of healthy socio-cultural and linguistic, ecological, and economic systems all around the world. Today, 2017, the CIR reflects the strategic framework we designed to deliver efficient and cost effective land and sea management on indigenous lands and, through a multiplier effects, delivers substantial economic, educational and cultural benefits more broadly, to Miliŋimbi people and surrounding Yolŋu communities, and to an awakening wider world. Underlying our intellectual and physical investment in the CIR and associated projects was a vision, a vision with unshakable commitment to Yan-nhaŋu concerns, and those of local kin, and more broadly local issues in sync with global environmental issues.


cir badge

Baymarrwaŋa and I designed this badge to display a central idea.  We made it to represent the vision to enhance the fecundity of local and wider marine resources. The Mariŋa Ocean alludes to the waters of the Arafura sea, linked in ceremonial alliance by Dhuwa and Yirritja Yan-nhaŋu speaking bäpurru or clans.[20] The barramundi (ratjuk) is a symbol of the Yirritja sea (ganatjirri dhulway) and the barracuda (larratjatja) embodies the Dhuwa waters of (ganatjirri maramba). Together they provide a metaphor for the ritual care and re-fecundification of turtle and marine resources.[21]

Loggerhead at Waijtjpirr3.0.17 lawrence Nadjallar

‘Drink deep draughts O the well of knowledge, for a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’-Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744), or more poignantly, Francis Bacon’s essay: Of Atheism, 1601 “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”  – pre-agrarian animism, love for the spirits of country,  fruitfulness and prosperity, welcome fecundity, welcome open mindedness, welcome 2018. Thanks to all those who follow this inspirational dream. A new era begins….IPA

Happy 2018 xox


[1] James, B. 2003a. Report for the Northern Land Council on Maḻarra, Gamalaŋga and Wanguri Bäpurru of Milingimbi and Crocodile Islands. Anthropology Section, Land Information Resource. Restricted. Darwin. N.T.

[2] Six Yan-nhaŋu clans or bäpurru of two moieties, three Dhuwa bäpurru[2]—Gamalaŋga, Maḻarra and Gurryindi[2]—and the three Yirritja bäpurru —Walamaŋu, Biṉḏarra and Ŋurruwulu— are known as, and refer to themselves as, Märiŋa, people of the sea (James 2003, 2009, 2014). Märiŋa (Maringa) refers to a shared ceremonial connection by these bäpurru with the sea.


[4] Baymarrwaŋa, L, and B, James. 2014. Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. Tien wah press, Singapore & Sydney Australia. p 576

[5] Posthumous award of the United Nations Peace Prize for Indigenous Film. 2015. ‘Big Boss Last Leader of the Crocodile Islands: Buŋgawa bathala rom ḏäl ga rälpa ḏumurru’. Year: 2015. NITV; Runtime: 53 min, Directed By: Paul Sinclair, Produced By: Jade Sinclair Matt Dwyer, Language: Yan-nhangu language, English subtitles

[6] James. B., Baymarrwaŋa, L., Gularrbaŋg,R., Darga, M., Nyambal, R., Nyŋunyuŋu 2, M. 2003. Yan-nhaŋu Dictionary. Milingimbi, CEC Literature Production Centre Northern Territory University press. Darwin. N.T.

[7] James, B. 2006b. Report for the Northern Land Council, Background, Constitution and Articulation of Traditional Land Ownership for the Town Area of Galiwin’ku from Dhambalaŋur to Dayirri Ck.


[9] James, B. 2010c. Crocodile Islands Rangers Prospectus Report on prospects for upscaling Ranger Program for Yan-nhangu Maringa language groups and sea country. Murrungga Island. Unpublished. N.T.

[10] James, B. 2005a. Regional Activity Plan RAP Dugong and Marine Turtle – Maringa and Gulalay Yan-nhangu speaking people, Crocodile Islands, North Coast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory  NAILSMA Ltd. C.D.U. Darwin. N.T.

[11] Aigner, K (editor), 2017.  Australia: the Vatican Museums collection.  CittaÌ del Vaticano : Edizioni Musei Vaticani Exhibition Vatican City Vatican Museums Ethnological Collection. Vatican City, Rome, Italy.

[12] Baymarrwaŋa, L, and B, James. 2014. Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. Tien wah press, Singapore & Sydney Australia.

[13] CI-letterhead-11-11.pdf


[15] NAIDOC WEEK 2017 Poster ‘Our Languages Matter ‘ Laurie Baymarrwaŋa and Bentley James – a language partnership’ Batchelor National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee press. Canberra. ACT.

[16] NT Research and Innovation Awards.,

[17] ‘Big Boss.’ Year: 2012 Ronin Films, Runtime: 25 min, Directed By: Paul Sinclair, Produced By: Tom Zubrycki, Language: Yan-nhangu language, English subtitles.

[18]2007 North Australian Marine Biodiversity Survey-interactions between indigenous knowledge and western science (2007)

[19] Conservation significance in the Castlereagh Bay and associated islands (NRETAS 2009) and Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan and NT Regional Investment Strategy (2006).

[20] The moieties Dhuwa and Yirritja are two halves of an ideational system that divides the world into two categories fundamentally classifying every aspect of the Yolŋu universe. Everything is either one or the other, so that every aspect of the physical and nomenal world, person or animal is Dhuwa or Yirritja, and is essentially/spiritually associated with a particular Dhuwa or a Yirritja bäpurru (clan).

[21] The cycle of water provides a powerful metaphor for understanding a Yolŋu world view. A view linking all aspects of natural diversity into a network of connectedness, creating an environment populated with social and ecological relations. This network of human and biological interconnectedness is articulated through the idiom of kinship and as such implies obligations for the care of the lands and seas and waters. The underlying patterns of ancestral waters form a flowing system, a geography of human and environmental relations reflecting the distribution of clans or bäpurru understood by a generation of people that lived before the coming of the Miliŋimbi mission and the children of predominantly eastern bäpurru groups that followed.

Little Red Book – Galiwin’ku


Shepherdson2 - Copy

With much thanx, to the wonderful people of Galiwin’ku and its surrounding homelands.




Dr. Bentley James in full flight, presenting his latest publication to the Students, Staff and Community of Milingimbi School. By James Dodd. Homelands teacher Milingimbi C.E.C 2017

Hi there, back again in Milingimbi for the opening of the new Literacy Production Centre.  Teacher Linguist Jenny says ‘As one of the first 5 Northern Territory communities to offer a bilingual programme in the 1970s it was with great joy that we celebrated at last having a purpose built space, a legacy of Cyclone Lam’ (Robbins. J. Yurruwi School LPC Opening 1.6.2017)

On a lighter note, thanking children, dignitaries, important actors past and present, and the ancestors, I launched into an animated pasquinade about the book with much fire and brimstone. We split our sides laughing … it was short, a happy moment quickly forgotten, if you wish you may read the review by homelands teachers James Dodd below…but be warned its rich… however, the book remains.

I have been handing out the book in big communities like Milingimbi but also in the homelands.

As you know, homelands on country, in the ever present ancestral geography, are peopled by kin- in relationships with country that enhance the reproduction of local knowledge, language, identity and local power.

Michelle Barraṯawuy, (Octogenarian and Baymarrwaŋa’s granddaughter) is taking bilingual education to her project on country, teaching kids about maypal, while collecting them, and referencing – Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place.[i]  On distant Murrungga Island she is using the book as a tool to teach kids to read, while she takes kids to the sea – passing on local knowledge, science, and learning how to obtain nutritious food in healthy surroundings.

Barraṯawuy observes, ‘djäma limurr dhu marr ga limurr dhu guyaŋa rom ga dhäwu maypalwalaŋuwuy. We must work to remember the law and stories of the shellfish’.[ii]

At Gäwa, senior man Dhawa, at his homeland at the northern tip of Galiwin’ku tells us; Ŋurruṉaŋgal ŋätjil djanal banha maypalyu bili bilanyamiyu waluyu ḻuŋgurrrmayu: the north wind tells of the ancestors and the time for maypal in the Warramiri Language.[iii] A practical expression of kinship the intergenerational transfer of ‘locality specific’ ancestral knowledge, language and identity, he and others on homelands are working to reinvigorate important knowledge about country, food and identity around Yolŋu tradition.

Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place incorporates seven languages from across North East Arnhem Land.  We are giving this book to schools and homelands for free. This is a gift of intergenerational generosity in line with the obligation to help a new generation ‘walk in the footsteps of the ancestors’[iv].

Attachment One

Review of the Milingimbi LPC hand out- Dodd, James. Homelands Teacher.

Yurruwi School Milingimbi, Crocodile islands was treated to a visit from Australian Anthropological Royalty last week!

With gathering national fame, Bentley James made his way on stage at the grand opening of the school’s new Learning Publication Centre. Dr. James is our new Donald Thompson! (That pioneering and celebrated anthropologist to the top end in the 30’s)……  In a hundred years or so, future Australians will look back with gratitude for the twenty years Dr. James tirelessly spent documenting the ancient and dying Yan-nhangu language of the Crocodile islands and preserving its precious record.  There are no other Australians alive, quite like him. Certainly no other Balanda could even dream to share his window of understanding.

Each time I have had the pleasure to witness Dr. James make a public address I have seen the anticipation build in the audience of Yolngu, staff, students and community members. They know they are in for a euphoric celebration. They are to be treated to a speech in their own language delivered by a White man but which they know will entertain and connect with them completely.

Bentley did not disappoint. Within seconds, the audience was in stitches. An energy exploded from the crowd and cocooned the outdoor space connecting and unifying everyone. We all smiled. We all felt excited whether we understood Yolngu Matha or not. What a treat it was for the children to be entertained by such a dynamic voice in their native tongue. But what a shame job it was for all the monolinguist Balanda who sat floundering in their lack of comprehension.

Bentley spoke to us about the ancestors, about the link between them, us and those yet to be born. He talked about his relationship with Baymarwanga, The Big Boss of the Crocodile islands and of his 20 year journey with her mapping the country and learning her language. He told the students the nickname she gave him and the students collapsed with laughter. He reminded them of the Big Blue Book, the Atlas and Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands which he and Big Boss had made for them. And at last he presented his new publication, the Golden Leafed Red Hardback outlining Maypal, the shellfish of the Crocodile Islands

Bentley held us all-spellbound but when he left the stage it was like a bridge fell down.

A high vibrational field emanates from Bentley when you walk with him through the community. He knows and jokes with everyone. He has mastered one of our precious dying languages completely and has become as one with the land and sea from which that language was born. Bentley is a megaphone of the message that all Australians can share the link with the Dreamtime. That we are obliged to open our hearts. That we are all united by the pleasure felt beneath a moonlit starry night spent sitting by the fire and telling our stories. The Australian culture and language evolves as it always has, dictated by the land and the sea, unifying us, whether we are black or white and from a time long before 1788.


[i] James, B. North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance Ltd (NAILSMA) (2016) Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place. A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land. NAILSMA Ltd.

[ii] ibid p2

[iii] ibid p10

[iv] Baymarrwaŋa, L., James, B,. (2014) ‘Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands.’ The Tien-Wah press, Singapore & Sydney Australia.


Thankyou Ramingining School for the fabulous hand out !!!



NAIDOC WEEK – Language Champions; thankyou from Baymarrwaŋa & Bentley

Our Languages Matter !!! Thank you to the people at NAIDOC;


‘So greatful for this award, thank you, let me say that, the fight to save our precious language heritage goes on’. and that we have alwasy felt that ‘In the land where ‘closing the gap‘ is short hand for assimilation, and assimilation means extinction, we understand Ted Strehlow to be on the right track’ ;

“Above all, let us permit native children to keep their own languages, -those beautiful and expressive tongues, rich in true Australian imagery, charged with poetry and with love for all that is great, ancient and eternal in the continent. There is no need to fear that their own languages will interfere with the learning of English as the common medium of expression for all Australians. In most areas of Australia the natives have been bilingual, probably from time immemorial. Today white Australians are among the few remaining civilized people who still think that knowledge of one language is the normal limit of linguistic achievement.”

T.G.H Strelow, 1958.


David Hancock rocks the house at the non-official launch Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place. A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land.


“For Yolŋu people, language and country are connected parts of a sacred inheritance, the wellspring of knowledge, wisdom and a truly priceless possession. This wisdom is reflected here in this collection in the Yolŋu names, poetry and ecological associations of maypal.”

We were overwhelmed by David’s magnificent close up photographs of the characters of the sea shore and their most intimate moments.

Then, I described the precise scientific (Linnaean) identifications with matching colour photographs that make it the only comprehensive field guide to Australian shellfish above the tropic of Capricorn and thus utterly unique.


Then, under a full moon, I read a poem by Barraṯawuy, we had free drinks and it was a wonderful night. Thank you to all of you who came, it was lovely to see you!


Barraṯawuy –  “Yakarra manupaŋu”

Yalalaŋumirrinydja  walalany dhu ŋuthan dhiyakidhi maypalgu wiripu yäku mala ga marŋgithirr.

Later as the children grow they will learn the many names of shellfish.

Ḻirra-ŋäṉ’ka gaŋga galkirri ga ḻuŋgurrma gaŋga, ga djalathaŋ, ŋayaŋu wargugu ḻiya roŋiyirr gurruṯukurr.

When the wind blows gently from the North-west, softly from the North, the South, you remember loved ones.

Gapu wapurarr ŋayi ga ŋorra ga ḻirra ŋäṉ’ka

ŋayaŋu nhuŋu wuyunhamirr gurrupanmirr ŋayaŋu marrtji nhuŋuwuy gurruṯumirr yarratakurr marratjamirriŋulil ga marrkapthun bitjandhi billi bala maypal yurrnha nhe dhu märram.

When the sea is calm, when the wind blows gently from the North-west, you yearn for family, long gone – remembered, this is the time to gather shellfish.

Ḻirra-ŋäṉ’ka ŋayaŋu nhuŋu wuyunhamirr gurrupanmirr ga dhamanapan guyaŋanhawuy djäy’-ŋupan gurruṯumirriyanhamirr

When the wind blows, feelings intertwine joining with memories, memories of loved ones;

Maypal nhe dhu guyaŋa ga ŋayaŋu nhuŋu dhaman

apanminy djäy’-ŋupan gurruṯumirriyanhamirr.

remember the shellfish and your heart will reconnect with family and friends.




_969446worked copy

Maypal – tales from the Yolngu tidal zone.

The Yolngu coastal range covers 1500 kilometres of coastline to the mainland and 1750 kilometres of coastline on the islands.

Twenty-three striking images from the Arnhem Land tidal zone will be exhibited at the gallery by north Australian photographer, David Hancock, a major contributor to the publication.

Maypal, mayali’ ga wanja: shellfish, meaning and place, is a Yolngu bilingual identification guide to shellfish of north-eastern Arnhem Land; the beautifully bound book is written in three languages – Yolngu Matha, English and Latin and is designed to celebrate, pass on and protect Indigenous knowledge of the region.

Dr Bentley James – distinguished Arnhem Land beachcomber, Yolngu shellfish name collector, anthropologist, author and linguist, will launch a unique publication at Gallery TwoSix in Winnellie on Friday evening.

Here in the Northern myth: you can read about Maypal, mayali’ ga wanja: shellfish, meaning and place, the Yolngu bilingual identification guide to shellfish of north-eastern Arnhem Land.

The Milingimbi Fishing Industry: The story of the River Song 1960 – 1975



The crowning glory of the Milingimbi Fishing Industry RIVER SONG at Dhamala on the Glyde River steaming towards ‘White Star Landing’ and the freezers at Naŋgalala (Photograph courtesy Joyce Gullick Collection, Circa mid 1960’s)

Yolŋu people say ‘ŋuli napurr gan ninhan gapu monukŋur : We have always lived by the sea”, and so in 1961 some of the older Yolŋu men and the Milingimbi School Principal Alan Fidock sought to develop an appropriately culture based fishing enterprise at Milingimbi.[i] During the 1950’s and 1960’s this industrious group of artists provided paintings for a prosperous arts industry generating a comparative wealth for a number of senior men and giving them disposable money to buy boats.[ii] These senior men wanted boats to go fishing for their families. They collaborated in an autonomous local fishing industry which employed several important old and new techniques to catch fish. These techniques incorporated; spears, fish traps, trolling lures, baited fishing lines and the key commercial technique of gill-netting rivers for barramundi. Barramundi was at the time the most marketable of local fish, although mackerel and tuna were sometimes caught around the outer Crocodile Islands of Murruŋga and Gurriba. Local fishermen were paid for their catch and profits took care of the local business infrastructure.

My beautiful picture

L – R Bininyawuy (Nyinyimi), Dawiti, Djawa and Burranday. Painting in the shade at the park at Ŋarawundhu (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 686. Circa 1965)

A good deal of the fish caught, except those for sale, were shared freely with families in accordance with Yolŋu tradition. The ethic of sharing is central to Yolŋu values and at the heart of the local industry. Many local stories extol the virtue of sharing and warn against greed[iii]. Yolŋu fishermen say they are related to the sea, and that they sing the songs of the fish and the names of the sea. When island people have caught enough fish for their needs they stop fishing. People say, ‘we are not greedy fishermen: limurr yaka ḻalkal guyaginiŋ’. It is the nature of local business that after the fish has been shared out; sometimes there was not enough Barramundi to sustain a strictly commercial fishery. Yolŋu people do not see the market as the judge of value in their relationship with each other, the sea, or the commercial interests in their fisheries; they have a far older tradition to sustain their views.[iv] While out on their sea country they are looking after the coasts, keeping up island fire regimes, beach combing and visiting important ritual sites.

My beautiful picture

RIVER SONG moored at Ŋamuyani (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 939. Circa 1965)

In 1965 Yolŋu Skipper Alfred Guŋupuny Garawirrtja and Yuwati Djambarrpuyŋu went to Brisbane to pick up the new fishing boat RIVER SONG. The captain they had paid to help them learn the ropes abandoned ship on Thursday Island, leaving the young men to sail her home alone.

With the RIVER SONG’S esky filled with ice the men would take their families out to the islands to collect wurrurwurruru (sand crabs) and shellfish for bait. Children would chase and dig out the scuttling sand crabs for the fishermen, and the women would collect nyoka’ (mud crabs) for sale as part of the crabbing industry. Although a number of traditional methods for catching fish were used, like the old three prong spear djimiṉḏi’, the most prolific methods were netting and line fishing. The reason why such comparatively large quantities of fish were able to be caught by line fishing is simple; Yolŋu people really know a lot about how to catch fish. Given thousands of generations of intimate co-existence with the sea they know precisely the pattern of seasonal fish movements. They know where the different kinds of fish are, what they eat, and when and how to catch them and more interestingly they know their names, dances and their family relationships. [1]

My beautiful picture

L- R Buruminy, Djapala, Yipity (sitting), Mamukun, Banhdharawuy, Djeriŋgal, weighing fresh fish (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 277. Circa 1965)

Fishing with a net catches a number of fish that do not take bait, and are so only caught in this way. These include; nyuŋala, oxeye herring, wäkuṉ, sea mullet, garkuyi, blue-tailed mullet, whereas others, such as ratjuk, barramundi are also caught with handlines. So too are djuḻurrpi, giant threadfin, and yarrwarri the queen fish. Yarrwarri were also commonly caught in good numbers trolling with a lure behind the boat, as were dhinimbu’, mackerel and tuna, warrukay, barracuda, gaḻaya, golden trevally and dhakuḏa’, white trevally. Reef fish were caught by skilful angling with baited handlines, usually with crabs or shellfish, in the lea of the tidal wash over the coral reef as the changing tide brings edible titbits within their reach. Many smaller but tasty reef fish were caught this way including; wuḻwindi, painted sweetlips, maṯpuna’, bream, bambaŋa’, red emperor, ŋarrawu, mangrove jack, wäṉḏurrk, whiting and the highly prized au, or ḏiḏimu, blue tusk fish. There is so much more to learn about fish and fishing here that it takes years of intergenerational transmission, what is patently clear is respect for sharing, kinship and continuities with local traditions remain at the heart of local ideas about fishing.

My beautiful picture

L-R Mamukun, Alfred Guŋupuny (Skipper), Big Bill Danyguli Buthurrugulil going fishing (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 950. Circa 1965)

On return to Milingimbi the fishermen would sell their fish to the co-operative. Commercially valuable species like the big barramundi were processed to a very high standard of sanitation and in a style designed for sale in far flung southern markets. Those fish that were not of any commercial value were often those most highly valued by a discerning local piscatorial palate. For example, garkuyi mullet, gently roasted on mangrove twigs by the beach absorb a smoky flavour into the yellow buttery fat that has no equivalent.

My beautiful picture

Mowandjil Garawirrtja (Birrkili) filleting Barramundi for sale. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 1064. Circa 1965)

The fish that were in demand for the fishing industry were very carefully cleaned, skinned and filleted to remove all bones and others such as mackerel were cut into cutlets. Fish parts were then packed into polythene bags and frozen for markets. When time to transport came these bags were packed into waxen cardboard boxes of standard sizes and put onto planes or barges with refrigerators. This was all part of maintaining the local industry and creating enough profit to sustain the small scale local infrastructure. Experience shows that many small businesses fail even in times of an economic mining boom and small scale industries are vulnerable to shocks from powerful natural or economic influences.

When the weather got rough the captain would take the RIVER SONG to shelter at Manigarratha Creek just around the corner north of Ŋamuyani .[v] But, on the morning of April 8, 1975 the captain and everyone else was taken by surprise when Cyclone Amelia, the first cyclone after Cyclone Tracy, dashed RIVER SONG on the rocks at Ŋamuyani. There she stayed in front of the giant tamarind tree called Rulku for many years.


(Photo courtesy Milingimbi CEC, BRDU, Ŋamuyani Milingimbi Mid Circa 1970s)[vi]

The death of the RIVER SONG signalled the end of the Milingimbi fishing industry. It may have been possible to have repaired her. In 1976 the Department of Aboriginal Affairs responded, ‘in view of the need to cut government expenditure’ so only 5000 dollars was available for the fishing industry.[2] Yolŋu eagerness to participate in economic activities, while retaining their relative autonomy, married well with the activities of a local fishing industry. It provides a good example of an occasion of a shared interest, interest in fishing by locals and the market’s desire for profit, together supporting conscionable and sustainable ecological exploitation, under local direction. People continue to catch fish and share. The Crocodile Islands Rangers project was set up in part to revive the sharing of fish. In 2009 senior Australian of the year Laurie Baymarrwaŋa inaugurated the Crocodile Islands Rangers program with the expression, ‘Lima gurrku guya riya-gunhanyini ŋalimalamagu gurruṯuwaygu : We will share our fish with our kin’[vii] In the end the ethic of sharing and spiritual connection are strong moral drivers of sustainable social and ecological relations. As Alan Fidock himself says ‘the way a southern fishery is run could never have been acceptable to the people of Milingimbi.’ After all people follow the law, Rom.

Rom, nhä yuwalktja romtja wäŋaw ga guyaw ga nyoka’w?[3]

Ga dhuwal ŋapurr gan nhinan munybunuman. Ŋapurr dhu ga nhina yolŋu ga guya ŋapurr warrpam. Yolŋu, ga wäŋa ga guya, ga maypal, yakumirr, ga gurruṯumirr. Nhakun ŋaṉḏimirriŋu wo marimirriŋu, ga yuwalk riŋgitj walalaŋgu ga ŋorra, ga Dhuwa ga Yirritja warrpam. Walalaŋ dhu ga djägaŋur ga nhina. Ga wäŋa, ga guya gurruṯumirr, warrpamgu, Dhuwa ga Yirrijta ga walal dhu manapanmirr ŋurrukidhi romgu, ga dardaryun, ga djäga walaldhu. Balanya, wäŋa limurr dhu djäga, dhuwalidhi ŋapurr yaka dhu ga buma guya warrpamgum, ga ḻurrkundhu märram.

Law, what is the law for country, fish and crabs?

We have been here forever. We co-exist with the country and the fish. The people, fish, shellfish and places have names, and are connected in kinship. Similar to our relationship with our mothers, or our mother’s mothers, we have strong elemental links to other groups, and all are linked by moiety.[viii] We all care for our country and our fish, for all things. All people Dhuwa and Yirritja hold to this sacred law, we sing the songs, we take care. This is how we look after our country, this is why we don’t kill all the fish, but take just what we need.

There were many successful fishing industries spread along the northern coast housed in indigenous communities, on the Tiwi Islands, Crocker Island, Maningrida, Galiwin’ku and further afield with their histories waiting to be told and perhaps waiting to be rekindled.[ix]

Addendum –The Milingimbi Fishing Industry by Lange Powel – Fishing Advisor – 1972-75

Fishing activity at Milingimbi underwent some important changes during the first half of the 1970’s – not only because of the wrecking of the RIVER SONG, and its impact on fishing opportunity; but also because of broader developments in the United Church in Northern Australia (UCNA), and the election of the Whitlam Labour Government in December 1972.

With the RIVER SONG out of action and deemed unsalvageable, Milingimbi fishers had access to privately- or Mission-owned aluminium dinghies, powered by high-revving outboard motors.  The technology was less than ideal, both because of the vessels’ limitations of size, and because of the vulnerability of the motors to damage, drowning, inappropriate fuel/oil mixes and other mishaps.

The financial arrangements of the industry also changed from those which had applied during the 1960’s.  In 1972, men and women assigned to the fishing crews received a training allowance, related essentially to their attendance at the worksite rather than to any assessment of their catch.  In addition, the fishing enterprise was regarded by the Mission primarily as a potential revenue source – by no means an unreasonable expectation, given the financial constraints within which UCNA had to operate; but inevitably in some tension with traditional obligations around the sharing of the catch, as described earlier in this article; and also, to some extent, with emerging ideas about sustainable economic development within the management capacity and cultural ‘fit’ of the Aboriginal community.

In September 1972, UCNA appointed Lange Powell as fishing adviser on Milingimbi, assigned to work with 2 principal families with a strong history (and community reputation) as skilled fishers.  Several members are pictured elsewhere in this article.  Lange arrived after 2 years’ volunteer work in Madagascar, with a keen interest in contemporary thinking around community development in what was then commonly known as the ‘Third World’.

Unsurprisingly, Lange had more to learn from Aboriginal fishers than to teach about fishing techniques in these waters.  Instead, his contribution focussed on introducing more robust, fit-for-purpose boats and engines (consistent with the ‘intermediate technology’ ideas being advanced at the time by EF Schumacher[4]); and on assisting the fishing crews to develop a stronger appreciation of a simple cash economy related to their catch rather than on external (if more reliable) sources of income.

In practice, these endeavours found expression, at various times, in initiatives such as:

  • The purchase of 3 larger fibreglass boats, 2 with built-in iceboxes, powered by small marine diesels;
  • The training of an Aboriginal mechanic in the maintenance of this plant;
  • The trialling of a ‘mobile fish shop’ – a set of scales mounted on a Landrover which slowly wound its way through the Milingimbi camps, selling fish and crabs for cash as it went.

The Whitlam Government introduced a number of policy changes that had a profound impact on these efforts.  For example, the modest training allowance paid to fishers (and a wide range of other workers), on traditional communities was replaced by a commitment to publicly-funded award wage payments.  Wages were still unrelated to basic elements of productivity – a precarious economic approach in a primary industry environment like fishing.

Significant investment capital became available for a variety of enterprises – fishing, cattle, timber exploitation, to name three.  Although a welcome relief from the financial constraints of previous years, this measure had a number of less desirable long-term consequences in many Aboriginal communities.  These included, for example:

  • an over-investment in sophisticated and inappropriate technologies;
  • the formation of Aboriginal companies which remained reliant (and sometimes heavily so), on balanda expertise, both to direct operations and to control finances;
  • the creation of business models in which substantial loans were granted and notionally had to be repaid, but were well outside the experience and world outlook of the Aboriginal families and communities that were responsible for them.

These unintended consequences, and their undermining of what purported to be a policy of building Aboriginal self-determination, have been identified and analysed in a range of publications[5].

These developments notwithstanding, daily life for Milingimbi fishers changed relatively little during the mid-1970’s.  Line fishing remained a preferred technique over netting – often for understandable reasons.  Gill nets placed to seaward of mangroves regularly disappeared overnight under the weight of shark (bulmandji) – a species generally shunned as food by the yolŋu, and of little commercial value in Darwin; and generating a catch which resulted in a good deal of heavy work and lengthy net repairs.

Women, often with their children, continued to hunt mud crabs with djimuku [a hooked steel rod]; and this produce was, in fact, exported in modest quantities for sale.

Larger, more seaworthy boats enabled longer trips to be undertaken to more distant islands like Murruŋga – but with a clear emphasis on maintaining traditional associations with land and on gathering foods like eggs from the nests of turtles (miyapunu), in the appropriate season, rather than on seeking a commercially-richer catch.


[1] Gurruṯu, or system of kinship extends social relations to all aspects of the environment brining everything into named relationships, hence the interesting notion ‘that fish is my brother’ is not so ‘odd’ an expression to Yolŋu people.

[2] National Archives Australia Box E629.1976/10/7203 Department of Aboriginal Affairs – application for funds – Milingimbi Community Incorporated – Fishing and Crabbing.

[3] Rom, the law, includes correct behaviour in sharing, in kinship and proper practice in dance, song, and ritual, but more deeply it urges principled striving for harmony and balance in relationships in society and nature.

[4] EF Schumacher: Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.  Blond & Briggs 1973

[5] See for example: Charlie Ward: A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-off.  Monash University Publishing 2016 and Peter Sutton: The Politics of Suffering.  Melbourne University Press 2011 (second edition)

[i] Alan Fidock Pers Com 2017

[ii] David Malangi received a medallion presented by Dr. H.C. (Nugget) Combes, one 1000 dollars, with which he bought a boat, and a fishing tackle box, for his Gurrmirriŋu great hunter ancestor image on the one dollar note. Norman Daymirriŋu, grandson. Pers Com, Jenkins et al 2004:34.

[iii] Greed is reviled by Yolŋu and expressed in deprecations like; biyaŋ, gaypunhamirri, guḻga, ḻalkal; miyarrka, rakal, ŋaramutj, wangarrak. Zorc 1986.

[iv] The average price for frozen ‘barra’ circa 1960s from north east Arnhem Land was around 1.50 per kg.

[v] Alt: Maduŋgum Ck – (Walamaŋu-Yan-nhaŋu) (James et al 2003)

[vi] Milingimbi Community Education Centre Bilingual Resources Development Unit BRDU. Thankyou to Paula Madiwirr, Jenny Robins.

[vii] Laurie Baymarrwaŋa 2006 Crocodile Islands Initiative (Crocodile Islands Rangers program) History of the Crocodile Islands Rangers Unpublished notes, B. James.



Baymarrwaŋa, L., James, B. 2014, Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. Tien wah press, Singapore & Sydney Australia.

Fidock, A., Williams, D 1982. Introducing Aboriginal Australians., The Aboriginal Austrians of north eastern Arnhem Land, Series III, the Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra, Mead and Beckett Publishing Sydney.

Jenkins. S, 2004. No ordinary place the art of David Malangi Susan Jenkins (Ed). National Gallery of Australia. NGA. ACT.

National Archives Australia Box E629.1976/10/7203 Department of Aboriginal Affairs – application for funds – Milingimbi Community Incorporated – fishing and crabbing.

Zorc, R. D. P. 1986. Yolngu Matha Dictionary. Batchelor, NT: School of Australian Linguistics, Darwin Institute of Technology.


A very big thank you to: Alan and Lillian Fidock for their enormous contribution over the years and their wonderful photographic record of an amazing period. Thanks also to Joyce Gullick who, with her husband Clem and son, who worked with Yolŋu in East Arnhem Land for many years in the commercial fishing industry that operated at Galiwinku Elcho Island in the 1960’s. Thank you to Ted Whittaker who worked at Milingimbi for years and brought our attention to this photo of the Rivers Song that appeared on the ALPA RJCP face book site under the title. “EAST ARNHEM’S ECONOMIC PAST: 2015-05-27. Thanks also to Ross Campbell from the Galiwin’ku fishing industry, son Don Gindha, and daughter Sonia, for their friendship and knowledge. Thanks to Ruben and his wife and their son David Collins for their work and companionship at Milingimbi and at Elcho. Thank you to Sue Raeburn, Kay Thurlow, Henry Harper and Margret Miller who have in one way or another been behind so many positive projects of over the years. More thanks goes to my mother Michele Barratawuy Garrawurra, and elders; Colin Yerrilil Djambarrpuyŋu, Master Joe Baŋguli Wangurri, Nellie Milindirri Gupapuyŋu, Susan Balbuŋa Warrawarra, Judy Djinmalina Gamalaŋga, Norman Daymirriŋu and to Sandra, Michael, John and Mathew Garawirrtja for their help. Thank you to Baymarrwaŋa.

[viii] Dhuwa and Yirritja are two halves, or moieties of the Yolŋu system of thought that divides the world into two categories, classifying every aspect of the physical and spiritual world. These moieties are characterised by complementary reciprocal relations understood to create the fundamental conditions for life. (Baymarrwaŋa and James 2014:26)

[ix] Text and research Bentley James.