The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land

I hope this finds you well and trust it will bring you joy in these interesting times. (Sen.) Pat Dodson reminds us; ‘As with First Nations peoples elsewhere, Yolŋu people are struggling to keep hold of their culture, laws and languages. This book serves to remind us all that we must share in the struggle to make space for Indigenous languages and culture as part of the collective gift of our priceless cultural inheritance.’ Some of you are cut from this stone.

I would like at this time to present to you the story of one of the volunteers on our wonderful project, Angi Gray, and her journey from Sweden to Elcho Island. Before I do, let me thank again all those wonderful people that helped get this project up and running. If you missed the opportunity to assist or donate during the production stage, some books may be left over to buy.  Do not try donate now, details pending.

To those who are involved, wow, outstanding, but wait until you see what I mean. Wait till you see the book and website. OMB. Your book is coming to you now so check your mail. Please enjoy this story from Angi about her journey to help save YSL with us.

The volunteer project on Galiwin’ku
It was hard to imagine what was awaiting as I got on the night train that would take me away from the snow-covered Swedish landscape on the fourteenth of March 2018. Suddenly I found myself there, three months later, in biting sun and dusty red soil among some of the world’s most untouched landscapes. I had been given the opportunity of participating in a volunteer project aimed on documenting an extremely endangered sign language called Yolngu Sign Language (YSL) on an island off the north-east coast of Australia, today populated by some of the largest and most remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory region. This invitation came from one of the project’s photographers Therese Ritchie, who was a good friend of my father before he moved from Australia thirty years ago.

Good to know:
• The island’s original name is Galiwin’ku, but it is also known under the European name
Elcho Island.
• Today, about two thousand people live on the island.
• Ninety-nine percent of the population are Yolngu, which is a collective name for
Australia’s indigenous people living in the northeastern parts of Arnhem Land.
• Eight different languages and twenty-two dialects are used on Galiwin’ku.
• All languages spoken on the island are part of the language group Yolngu-matha, which
translates into “human tongue.”
• Galiwin’ku has been under colonial rule as long as the rest of Australia, however, the
island’s isolated location and lack of natural resources have resulted in it remaining
relatively untouched by western influences in comparison to other parts of the country.
On Friday the twenty-fifth of May I stepped out of Galiwinku’s Airport with Therese and David Hancock, both of whom had been photographers during a similar project on the island about twenty years ago. Well outside we were met by a tall man wearing an emblem-covered shirt, introducing himself as Dr. Bentley James: anthropologist and linguist. Next to him stood an elderly Aboriginal woman who looked from him to us, and then started a conversation in a language I did not understand. Dr. James started talking to her and she nodded after a while as to show that she had accepted us.
Shortly after that we sat in Dr. James’ car and he drove us over swirling dust, pointed at one of the valleys and spontaneously began to tell us the ancient story of how this came to be according to the Yolngu people’s faith. Still unaware of what my role would be during the project, I could only pull out my camera in an attempt to capture the intense drive. Dr. James told us that he has worked side by side with Yolngu people for twenty-five years and knows two of the local languages: Dhuwal and Yan-nhangu.


After just a few minutes we arrived at the little house that would be our home for the next seven days. When I was about to take my shoes off in the combined kitchen and living room, I heard Dr. James say: “I’d keep them on if I were you. The floors are covered in dog shit.” The smell of raw fish was thick and he excitedly revealed that our dinner would be the latest catch he had caught with a traditional fishing line called raki. We ate dinner out on the veranda, accompanied by chanting and singing echoing in the distance – a funeral ceremony, Dr. James explained.
Later that evening my task was revealed: to film the signs which the Yolngu people on the island would demonstrate to us, with the goal of creating material for an app that new generations of Yolngu can use. Therese would photograph each character while Dr. James translated them from Yolngu-matha into English. Therese will then design a book which will be donated to the island’s school, Sheperdson College, and to various libraries around Australia, with the purpose of enabling future generations of Yolngu to learn and use YSL.


In Dr. James’ living room we built a small studio in which the air was loaded with enthusiasm, curiosity and appreciation. On the third day we met our first volunteer: the Yolngu-woman Doris Yethun, who has worked with Dr. James through various projects over the span of twenty years.
Other volunteers that joined us were Michael, Daisy, Fred and Shannelle. When we weren’t documenting we sat out on the veranda, drank (huge amounts of) tea and shared our lives with each other. I’ve come to know people whose lives are the direct opposite of mine, but who I came to connect with through the universal, human language. Michael was completely deaf but always filled the room with heartfelt laughter through to the humor and dynamics he had when signing.


I also got to know the exceptional life story of Doris Yethun. She told me that she was born in the mangroves on an island far from Galiwin’ku and that her parents wrapped her in paperbark to keep her warm at night. A few years later, Doris and her family travelled to Galiwin’ku by canoe – including her father’s seven wives and her twelve siblings. On the island she married the man she’d been promised to by her parents and they now have three children.

Today, Doris works as a teacher and for the Strong Women’s Association on the island. She also does volunteer work for the Family Violence Group. Doris’ passion is to teach the children on the island about their culture, language and traditions. A quote from her is: “What is most important are the stories of the country. (…) It is a network of links to our ancestors and their stories and their creations that make us all one people.”


During that week, it became clear to me what an essential connection the signs have to the life and world view of the Yolngu people. The signs spoke about the animals and the seasons, about hunting and marriage, about life and death. We also documented a series of idioms – characters that show one thing to symbolise something else. Newer words such as iPad, computer and Facebook were also included. What makes YSL so unique is that it’s also used as an alternative mode of communication in situations where it is not appropriate to speak, for example, when on holy land or when performing certain rituals. Therefore, YSL is not only a sign language but also an alternative communication method used in the rites and traditions of the Yolngu people.


At the turn of the century, the Australian government began to invest less in bilingual education in the Northern Territory, which made it more difficult for new generations of Yolngu to maintain their native languages as well as their traditional sign languages. For example, a law was introduced in 2009 where school children were only allowed to speak English during the first four hours of school each day in the Northern Territory, where most of Australia’s indigenous population live. In addition, nine municipal schools and a number of private schools began to teach only through English. A national study called the National Assessment Program (NAPLAN) from the following year showed that literacy fell dramatically in several of these schools, which indicates that the students performed better when they were taught through their native tongues first, and then through English.
To enable future generations of Yolngu to share their ancestor’s languages and traditions, the Learning on Country project has been established on Galiwin’ku. Today, the project is run by Dr. James and Doris Yethun among other knowledge-keepers on the island. I got to participate in one of the learning opportunities when a school class was taken to an incredible rock beach to learn about building traditional fish traps – a technique that has been around for at least five thousand years. In addition, the children were taught different words connected to the building process as well as its spiritual significance. The construction of the fish traps is an example of an activity where one should not speak – this is not to upset the good spirits at the place which can help the hunter to attract the fish.


In addition to the fish traps, the children have learned about the essential ties that their ancestors have to different places on the island. Something that surprised me was just how important the names were for the different places and how all of them are linked to a specific creation story, which could be incredibly complex. According to the Yolngu people’s faith, Dr. James explained, the stories of the spirits and songs have created the world. These spirits continue to coexist with us so that the world is treated with respect and in harmony with the traditions. In short, the Yolngu people believe that each place, human and language are linked to each other in a kin-based social universe. Additionally, I learned that each language has a unique way of explaining each of
these places. In this way, the languages are the key to Yolngu’s worldview and spirituality.



Thus, a language is not just a way of communicating – it’s part of our identity and is deeply rooted in our world view. Whether it is a spoken or signed language, they carry on an ancient connection and understanding between people. If a language disappears, so will the knowledge and the essential ties passed through it. Some of the last words that Doris Yethun said to me were, “Do not forget us. And we will not forget you.” I’ll never forget the people at Galiwin’ku, even if their struggle continues on the other side of the world. This trip made me realise more clearly than ever that we are all human beings. If a culture disappears for someone, it disappears for all of us.
– Angie Gray, 21.07.2018
Dr. Bentley James. 2018. URL:
Mark Schliebs, The Australian. Published at 12:00 AM on November 16, 2010.

URL: https://
The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation. 2018.




Fire, Water and Land in Indigenous Australia

qqqIn this new book about Indigenous knowlege linked to country Glenn and Bentley talk with the people of the Crocodile Islands about ‘Saltwater Burning. Here we reproduce the last two paragraphs with thanx.

The ontological shift and new power language associated with ‘environmental
management’ offers great rewards and penetrating challenges to Yan-nhaŋu ‘law’. With new generations coming into this kind of opportunity and their ‘old people’ rapidly disappearing, new approaches and new tools may be warranted to help new generations of leaders maintain a critical eye on what may otherwise be an unquestioned movement of Yan-nhaŋu livelihood and well-being into the political economy of the State. Change is inevitable and not to be too harshly pre-judged from the ‘outside’. A level of continuity is essential to Yan-nhaŋu and other Indigenous Australians because such value criteria as connection to country, identity through language and ancestry, authority to direct the future, unique knowledge, symbiosis with seasonal change, define them and give them surety and presence in an otherwise fickle and opportunistic [wider] society.

In a world bereft of magic, these magnificent trees of connection between earth and
sky, people and place, kin and country continue to re-create the knowledge of the ancestors. Knowledge of ancestral essences in country, embedded in songs, stories and language, heard on the voice of the wind, in the songs of the birds, in the seasonal revisitation of spirits of country. Knowledge so intangible, indiscernible and elusive, at once powerful and precarious. Invisible to the scientific myopic of the modern world, irretrievable, inestimable wisdom linked to place, who can perpetuate this metaphysical jewel but Yan-nhaŋu themselves.

Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL)

The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land

ABSTRACT: Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL)

Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL) is a unique endangered endemic sign language of the Yolŋu people of North East Arnhem Land. YSL is not a signed version of the locally spoken language. YSL is an alternate language for hearing Yolŋu. It is the primary language of Deaf Yolŋu.[1] YSL has a rich ancestral heritage in dance, ritual and kinship reflecting an intimate relationship with the natural world. We describe something of the project, bimodal-bilingualism, the history of YSL and motivation, from a Yolŋu perspective, for collecting, recording and distributing this unique sign language and crucially how to contribute to, and obtain a copy. More so, The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign describes the grammar, vocabulary, structure and conventions of YSL in an easy to use and beautiful full colour guide for learning, to be distributed, free of charge, to the children of North East Arnhem Land, in honour of Baymarrwaŋa’s vision.SAVE YOLNG SIGN PDF NEW


The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land presents research from the fields of the ethno-linguistics of alternate sign language and the intergenerational transmission of Indigenous Australian culture. (Kendon (1988) Adone and Maypilama (2014), (2016), Adone et al. (2017)). The work focuses on the endangered Yolŋu Sign Language [2]. Over the last twenty five years we have documented the varieties, use, grammar and principles of YSL with a view to making that research a repository for disappearing signs and available to all. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land will achieve this and more, but it needs support.

2019 is the year of ‘Indigenous Languages’. Also, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) is celebrating International Woman’s Day in 2019 by recognising Laurie Baymarrwaŋa, the 2012 Senior Australian of the Year, and her vision to ‘give language back to the children’. With her vision at its heart, The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land documents, explains, illustrates and teaches the vocabulary, alphabet and grammar of YSL, with captions and text in Yolŋu and in English. The growing popularity of spoken Yolŋu will improve the prospects for this barely known and increasingly endangered language. The book honours the vision of Laurie Baymarrwaŋa and gives opportunities for all to be part of, and contribute to, the aims and aspirations of this profound work. This project, if supported effectively, will ensure the future of YSL.

YSL, once known as Murngin Sign Language, is an endemic sign language of the Yolŋu community of North East Arnhem Land.[3] As previously emphasised YSL is not a signed version of any spoken Yolŋu language but an alternate language of sign for hearing Yolŋu people, and a primary language for the Deaf (Adone 2016) YSL, having evolved to communicate and respond to the unique and complex ritual and religious life of the Yolŋu people, reflects their intimate relationship with an ancestral geography and kin based universal view. (Morphy 2008). Distinctive characteristics entailed in an absolute Frame of Reference for spatial expression and powerfully developed schema of signed kinship relationships (Levinson 1996a). YSL is used during periods of mourning when speech is culturally forbidden. It is also used in the presence of sacred objects and sacred sites, during ceremony and in the company of poison kin. YSL is also used for practical reasons, such as communication over distance, secrecy or for silent hunting practice. In the past YSL was learned from birth along with spoken language but its intergenerational transmission has been severely diminished by changes imposed (both deliberately and coincidentally) by the Settler State.

Anthropologist Lloyd W Warner collected the first seventy signs of YSL on the Crocodile Islands while visiting there during the period of 1926-9. Those signs, bar a few changes, are still in use today. Warner, like Vogelin et al. (1963:25) noted a widespread “culture of multilingualism” but as yet had not recognised the multilingual bimodalism of alternate sign languages. The field of Sign Linguistics defines ‘bimodal-bilingualism’ as the ability to use both spoken and signed languages to communicate. Bimodal-bilingualism is common practice in Australian Indigenous societies. In these societies the hearing population often use several spoken languages (auditory modality) and are also fluent in an Indigenous sign language (visual modality). (Kendon (1988) Adone and Maypilama (2014), (2016), Adone et al. (2017)) Common bimodal-bilingualism, with the exception of Native American communities, is rare elsewhere in the world (Farnell 1995, 2003). Bimodal-bilingualism is an aide to communications among geographically and linguistically distant groups. (Adone et al. 2017)

It is not clear how bimodal-bilingualism on the Australian continent came to be so ubiquitous, perhaps it was born of the continuity of countless generations in place, and its changing of environment over eons. Aridification, uncertain ecological carrying capacity and subsistence economies promoted long distance networks of ritual, marital (connubial) and economic relations, thus stimulating multilingualism and bimodal-bilingualism across geographically distant groups speaking different languages.[4] Ethnographic and linguistic evidence from the languages of Arnhem Land describe profound linkages between the Yolŋu experience of connection to place and each other as kin. It is this singular kin-based universal view and linked ancestral geography that anchor Yolŋu society to sites in place. The deep connections of place, of sites, songs and kin, in physical and social space, form a network of relations that anchor kin to country, evident in Yolŋu languages and YSL. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land records in vibrant colour the bimodal metaphors, idioms and signs of the Yolŋu experience of kin and country.

The accelerating loss of YSL motivated us to conduct this vital research and produce this beautiful handbook. We are a team of Yolŋu and non-Yolŋu people committed to record, retain and pass on this ancestral Inheritance of our languages and links to country. We are brothers and sisters in our commitment to this language. We do it for the children and for the future of Yolŋu society and the broader society that will be impoverished if YSL is allowed to die out. We continue to tell the story of how we were given these gifts by the ancestors and how we continue, despite official indifference, to care for and replenish our rare languages and our history. The following is an expression of the aims of this project from a Yolŋu perspective and is translated into English below.

Yolŋu’-Yulŋuy ŋuli ga ḻakaram dhäwu goŋdhu

Rumbal-yu dhäruk, dhuwandja djorra’ Yolŋuw ga Yolŋu yan, yuṯaw djämarrkuḻiw’yalalaŋumirriw. Djämany napurr balandawal mala dhuŋgarra ŋupan ga märryu ḏapmaram Djalkiri Rom, ga nhämunha wäŋa limurruŋ riŋgitjkurr. Ŋuruŋi yolŋuy wala gan nhäŋal ga ŋäkul nhaltjarr gan ŋaḻapaḻmirr limurruŋ nhinan baman’. Limurr dhu dhärra ga mel-gurrupan limurruŋguwuy djäma märr walal dhu yuṯay Yolŋuy nhäma ga marŋgithirr limurruŋgal. Ga balanyamirriy napurr ŋunhi dhäwuny lakaram nhaltjarr gan limurruŋ ŋaḻapaḻmirr nhinan baman’birr, napurr yuṯakum dhuwal dhäwumirr djorra’marŋgikunharaw yuṯaw Yolŋuny. Napurr Yolŋuy dhu marŋgikum yuṯany Yolŋuny ga dhärray walalaŋ ga marŋgikum yan yuwalkkum Djalkirriw Romgu walalany.

Nhä dhäwu ga lakaram dhiyal djorra’ŋur ga nhäpuy?

Dhiyal djorra’ŋur ga lakaram dhärukpuy ga nhatha ŋuli limurr bäki. Yuṯa Yolŋu dhu marrtji ŋuthan ga marŋgithirr nhaltjan dhu dhäruk bäki rumbal-yu yan ga balanyakurr marŋgithirr waŋanharaw nhaltjan napurr dhu waŋa goŋ’dhu yan. Ŋurukaliyi ŋunhi ŋayi  buthurumiriw ga dhärukmiriw yolŋu, wiripuŋuy yolŋuy mala ŋuli bäki dhäruk rumbal-yu ga goŋ’dhu. Napurruŋ ga ŋorra’ barrkuwatj yäku mala nhakun dhäruk-miriw ga dhoŋulu, yan rumbal-yu ga goŋ’dhu napurr dhu dhäruk dhawaṯmaram walalaŋgal.

Dhäruk napurr ŋuli wiripuny dhawaṯmaram buŋgulkurr goŋ’dhu ga rumbal-yu napurruyingal rrambaŋi yan Djalkarikurr Romgurr, dhuwalatjan napurr ŋuli ŋamaŋamayun napurruŋguwuy ŋaḻapaḻmirriny. Waŋanhamirr wiripuny napurr ŋuli rumbal-yu ga goŋ’dhu ŋunhi napurr ŋuli nhina ga muŋa-muŋany yan, bawalamirrŋur, balanya nhakun wakir’ŋur, buŋgulŋur wo wakalmirri’ŋur. Dhärranayŋu nhininyŋu dhuwal rom napurruŋ. Napurr wäŋa nhininyŋuy ŋuli ga nhäma, wäŋa ga marŋgi nhaltjan napurr ga nhina rakikurr ŋunhi ga ŋayatham wäŋay ŋarakay, märr dhu djämarrkuḻi’marŋgithirr dhiyaŋ dhäwuy.

Bili dharrwa ga mulkuru rom marrtji yuṯay yolŋuy ga bäyŋu dharaŋan baḏuwaḏuyunamirr rom. Napurruny ga wiripunywuy yup’maram ŋunhi wanhaŋuwuy napurr yuwalk, balanya nhakun napurruŋgiyingalaŋaŋur yirralkaŋur mala, bäyŋu dhukarr ga ŋorra nhakun nhinanharaw ŋaḻapaḻmirriwal ga buluŋuw marŋgithinyaraw Djalkiriw Romgu ŋamaŋamayunaraw. Dhumukthirra marrtji romdja balandany marrtji ŋurruthirra romdja marrtji ḏälthirra. Mulkuruynha romdhu ga nhina dhiyaŋuny bala balanya nhakun mobile-yu ga TV-nha. Ŋunhi baydhi limurr dhu ga nhina dhiyaŋ romdhu ga yaka yan limurr dhu moma limurruŋguwuy Djalkari Romdja dhuwaliyi mala ŋunhi gämurruny napurr nhina ga ŋamaŋamayundja dhuwal dhäwumirr djorra’ yuṯaw yolŋuw yalalaŋgumirriw.

English translation.

We are working hard to keep the precious knowledge about our world fresh and pass it on to a new generation following in the footsteps of our ancestors. Many great people have come in front to show us how to live and pass on this important knowledge. We must continue to show the way for those who come behind. We are the people who are the guardians of the land and the knowledge for the new generations.

what this book is for and about

This book is about the language we Yolŋu use to communicate with each other when we don’t want to speak. Before, every Yolŋu child would grow up learning sign language as they learn to speak their language. We learn to speak and sign. People who can’t hear and people who can all use this language. We have a number of names for this alternate language of signs. We call it ḻakaram goŋdhu

Here is a language we use in dance, in ceremonies celebrating the ancestors. We follow their actions and movements, we mimic the way that they created the world we live in. We perform the characteristics of the ancestors in signs that celebrate their gifts to us in the form of the world, language, in the way we live our lives.

This is a way of talking when silence is needed, in hunting, in ceremony, for fun. It is a natural part of life. We people of the land have signs that we read, talk, know and understand that show our connection to each other, to our country, it is part of our heritage. It is something we want the children to know.

This language is endangered for many reasons that stem from the coming of the colonists. The routines of community life are diminishing opportunities to visit and reside on homelands, opportunities to travel to and participate in ceremonies, less time spent with elders, and western styles of teaching, curriculum and changing technologies and attitudes have left less space for our sign language to be used. The television and recent small screen phenomena have also changed the way we see ourselves and communicate. Even though these things are changing it is still important to care for our ancestral heritage.

End of translation.

The success of distributing the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands for the kids of North East Arnhem Land demonstrates the practical on the ground value of this strategy. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land, is poised to save this unknown Indigenous Language and bring it to light.

We need your support to bring over five hundred signs of YSL collected from across North East Arnhem Land together in an exceptional and substantial volume.

Help us honour Baymarrwaŋa’s vision to save this Indigenous language and give back to the children. There will not be many. Email your donation into the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas Account with your name and postal address so we can mail to you your copy on completion.

The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Managers Alliance (NAILSMA) is again offering DGR tax-deductible donation capacity: BSB: 085–933 ACC: 140012871 Yan-nhaŋu Atlas Fund Phone Janely 0488 068 738 or



Mobile: 0402704354

Help us save Yolŋu Sign Language at:




Adone, M.C.D. (2014)“Research Report: Indigenous Sign Languages of Arnhem Land.” Australian Aboriginal Studies (AIATSIS), vol. 1, , pp. 132-136.

Adone, M.C.D., & Maypilama, E.L. (2015). The Sociolinguistics of Alternate Sign Languages of Arnhem Land. Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts [Special Issue: Indigenous Sign Languages], 16, 14-25. doi: 10.18793/LCJ2015.16.02.

—- (2014a).A Grammar Sketch of Yolŋu Sign Language. München: LINCOM.

— (2014b) “Research Report: Bimodal Bilingualism in Arnhem Land.” Australian Aboriginal Studies (AIATSIS), vol. 2, 2014, pp. 101-106.

Adone, M.C.D., Elaine L. Maypilama, B. James and Melanie A. Brück. Anchoredness in Nature and Environment: Linguistic Evidence from Indigenous Australia. Paper presented at the Centre for Australian Studies Universität zu Köln (Cologne) 1.3.2015

—- in press, (2018a) Yan-nhangu Language of the Crocodile Islands: Anchoredness, Locatedness and Connectedness. Centre for Australian Studies Universität zu Köln (Cologne).

—- in press, (2018b) A Signed Lingua Franca in Arnhem Land. Centre for Australian Studies Universität zu Köln (Cologne).

—- in press, (2017a) Indigenous Languages of Arnhem Land in Key Concepts in Indigenous Studies Routledge Press, Series editors G. N. Devy and Geoffrey V Davis.

Baymarrwaŋa, L, James, B (2017). ‘Voice of the Land: Laurie Baymarrwaŋa in Aigner, K (editor), 2017.  Australia: the Vatican Museums collection.  CittaÌ del Vaticano : Edizioni Musei Vaticani.

—- (2014) Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. pp.576. The Tien-Wah press, Singapore & Sydney Australia.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. and Lydon, J. (2014), ‘The Myalls’ Ultimatum’: Photography and the Yolngu in Eastern Arnhem Land, 1917 in J. Lydon (ed) Calling the Shots: Aboriginal Photographies, (Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press)

James, B., (2019) Fish Traps of the Crocodile Islands: Windows on another World in At Home on the Waves: Human Habitation of the Sea from the Mesolithic to Today eds Tanya J. King & Gary Robinson, Berghahn Books New York-Oxford.

—- (2015) The Language of Spiritual Power: From Mana to Märr on the Crocodile Islands. In Strings of Connectedness: Essays in Honour of Ian Keen (Ed Toner P.G.).pp.235-263. ANU Press Canberra.

Kendon, A., (1988) Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia. Cambridge UP.

Levinson, S. C. and D. P. Wilkins (eds.) 2006. Grammars of Space: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maypilama, E.L., (2012) Cross- Modal Contact in Shared-Signing communities: Kinship. Paper accepted but not presented for the EuroBABEL final Conference hosted by the European Science Foundation, Leiden, The Netherlands, 23-26 August.

Maypilama, E.L., & Adone, D. (2013). Yolŋu Sign Language: An undocumented language of Arnhem Land. Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts, 13, 37-44. doi: 10.18793/LCJ2013.13.05.

—- (2012a) Non-Manual Features in an Alternate Sign Language. Invited paper presented at the National Institute for Deaf Studies and Sign Language. La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. July, 2012.

—- (2012b) Yolngu Sign Language an Alternate Sign Language? Invited paper presented at TELC meeting, Charles Darwin University, Darwin. Australia. August 2012.

—- (2012c) Language Mixing between a spoken and signed language: A Case Study of bimodal bilingualism. Paper presented at the Workshop on Language Contact. University of Aarhus. Denmark April 11-13th April 2012.

Morphy, F., (2008) Invisible to the state: Kinship and the Yolngu moral order. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) seminar series, Wednesday, 29 October 2008. ANU. Canberra.

Warner. L. W., (1937), A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe. Harper and Brothers Publishers. London, UK.

—-1978 Murngin Sign Language in Aboriginal Sign Languages of the Americas and Australia volume 2 eds, D. Jean Umiker-Sebeok and Thomas A. Sebeok. Indiana University Bloomington. Plenum Press New York and London.


The authors would like to thank,

Forrest Holder, Ferg Ferguson, Glenn James (HBDay-2U), Janely Seah, Therese Ritchie, David Hancock, Lavinia Landa and Ricky Archer.

This collaboration between Elaine Maypilama, Marie Carla Dany Adone and Bentley James began in 1994 when the three met and proposed to write a book on YSL. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land is encouraged by sustained Yolŋu support and has continued to collaborate with Yolŋu elders from Blue Mud Bay in the east to the sunset west of Milingimbi in the Crocodile Islands, to document, share, inform and entertain through YSL.[5]

Author’s Biographies.

Dany Adone is Professor and Chair of Applied English Linguistics at the University of Cologne. In Australia, she is also a University Professorial Fellow at Northern Institute/Charles Darwin University, a Visiting Professor at AIATSIS and a Visiting Scholar at the Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre in Kununurra.

Elaine Läwurrpa Maypilama is a Principal Research Fellow in the Northern Institute, College of Indigenous Futures, Arts and Society. Dr. Maypilama is a senior Yolŋu educator and researcher with a wide range of research experience related to nutrition, child and maternal health, hearing loss, sign language, chronic disease, intercultural communication, child development and program evaluation.  Läwurrpa is widely respected for her high level of expertise in developing and conducting culturally responsive and high quality research.

Bentley James, MA Linguistics, PhD Anthropology Australian National University has lived in remote N.T Indigenous communities since 1989. His recent publications are in archaeology, Australian anthropology, poetics, sign, shellfish lore and innovations in ethnographic and linguistic research. He is currently tutoring Yolŋu Studies at Charles Darwin University.

[1] The word deaf is conventionally written with a capital D when it is used as a cultural label especially from within the culture and identity of sign language users.

[2] YSL is also designated Glottolog yoln1234, ISO 639-3 ‘ygs’ (inclusive)and the Individual code for Yan-nhaŋu Sign Language is: ‘yhs’.

[3] The name ‘Murngin Sign Language’is an anachronism from the 1920s coined by the famous American Professor of Anthropology and author of A Black Civilisation: Social Study of an Australian Tribe (1937) Lloyd W Warner.

[4] More broadly this geographic separation and multilingualism might explain why a bimodal-bilingual hearing population of Indigenous groups in many parts of Australia used sign languages as an improvised lingua-franca. (Adone et al)

[5] YSL and yhs data is verified by senior Yolŋu and has been annotated using digital video annotation software called ELAN (Eudico Linguistic Annotator). Further data was processed using the dictionary building tool Lexique Pro developed by SIL International. Further data is stored in video and photographic files with the Yan-nhaŋu Dictionary Team.

Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL)

Words and Pictures courtesy David Hancock

As rich afternoon light skips across the waters of the Arafura Sea bathing the sands of Elcho Island in a golden glow, Doris Yethun Burarrwaŋa moves lithely over the beach teaching her granddaughters the dance of bäru, the saltwater crocodile.

_1056507Twelve year-old Grace Burarrwaŋa glides with the confidence of a young girl who has participated in many ceremonial events while her cousin, two year-old Rekisha Gaykamaŋu, watches with curiosity and wonder, mimicking their movements with a child’s delight.

Bäru is the main totem of the Gumatj clan of north-eastern Arnhem Land and the crocodile dance is performed at major ceremonies. Doris bends over and extends her arms forward and parallel to the beach and dips her hands – this is the ‘sign’ of the bäru and it is woven into the dance. _1056461They spend 20 minutes dancing together before moving on to search for maypal (shellfish) among the rocks. Later, the group – including Rakisha’s mother Abby Dhamarraṉdji, settles around a fire to eat and chat as the sun goes down._1056712The group talks about clan totems, relationships and country in Yolŋu Matha, the main language of north-east Arnhem Land. It is a conversation aimed primarily at Rakisha and Grace and in a way that embeds Yolŋu traditions. Interestingly, hand signs accompany all words and phrases. For example, the word “fire” (gurtha in Yolŋu Matha) is expressed as breath being expelled from the mouth in accompaniment with a hand moving from the lips, “water” (gapu) is depicted as one cheek inflated whilst being tapped by the index finger. Many words have a corresponding sign and just as words are linked in sentences, hand signals are joined to create complex phrases, capable of expressing the full range of human experience. Traditionally, Indigenous children of Arnhem Land grew up using this alternate language of hand signals in concert with everyday conversation and, importantly, in situations when cultural protocols demanded it.PIMG_5207

Photo by Angie Gray at Galiwin’ku

“In the past, every Yolŋu person whether they could hear or not, used sign (language),” Doris says. “Children grew up understanding hand signs because they see people signing all the time. Signing is used in dancing, in buŋgul (ceremonies), with hunting and also when there is a need for quietness.”Those times include initiation and mortuary ceremonies – some mortuary conventions require silence – in some groups and kinds of relations, these periods of public silence may last for years. There are also certain kinds of avoidance relationships in Indigenous culture where two people are not permitted to communicate directly. Yolŋu people – use sign while hunting, at ceremony, for decorum and secrecy and around the fish traps, so as not alert mischievous ghost’s mokuy and appease the spirits of the fish traps.Images from Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, showing the coastal landscape and floraThis alternate sign language is also useful in everyday situations such as when groups of people travel over bumpy or corrugated roads in noisy vehicles, in boats, light aircraft and communicating over distance. Young Yolŋu people are also expected to remain quiet out of respect, when visiting sacred sites, in the homelands of other families, and hand signs have always been a preferred method in making those special secret assignations.

For the small number of Deaf and significant partially hearing community, Yolŋu sign language provides a way to easily integrate into society. Doris Burarrwaŋa’s nephew Michael Ganambarr who was born Deaf is a painter, talented dancer and full ceremonial and social participant._1055313“He knows how to communicate with people,” she says. “The old people taught him by singing and clapping sticks – he can see them and see their actions. He can do the shark, crocodile and kangaroo dance and other important dances. He knows all these (ceremonial) things. He learned by reading lips, watching us closely and through actions. He has not been limited because he uses hand signs very effectively, and we all understand.”_1056226Daisy Wulumu, a bilingual teacher for 33 years, with more than 20 of those at Shepherdson College at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, the largest settlement in eastern Arnhem Land, learned Yolŋu sign language from an early age.

“My uncle was Deaf and I watched him and talked to him,” she says. “As a Yolŋu teacher, I find it is a very handy thing to use in the classroom and going out on excursions or at a school camp out bush because I don’t have to yell as much.

“Children have fun with Yolŋu sign language and I like it because it was taught a long time before I was born. It is a very ancient thing that links us to our ancestors.”

Unfortunately teaching of hand signals dropped away as Indigenous people were moved off their country and into large communities under European control. Mainstream, non-Indigenous education placed exclusive importance on English so eliminating local dialects and discouraging or banning Yolŋu hand sign in classrooms. Other factors include changed living conditions, fewer visits to country, European-style houses with walled rooms, compared to the open-air camps of yesteryear, mobile phones._1056244According to linguist and anthropologist Dr Bentley James, Australian Indigenous hand signs were not recognised as an alternate language until the mid-to-late 20th Century. Early explorers and anthropologists, such as Baldwin Spencer, noted that Aboriginal people in northern and central Australia used hand signs but no comprehensive study was made until British academic Adam Kendon published a record of Warlpiri sign language in 1988.

“in 1989 I started living with Warlpiri people in Yuendumu and his work gave me a fascination for hand signs that has stayed for a lifetime,” Bentley says. “I have been frantically gathering hand signs in Arnhem Land for the past 25 years.”_1055293Dr James is working closely with Doris Burarrwaŋa, Professor Dany Adone of the University of Cologne, in Germany, and Dr Elaine Maypilama to compile and publish a book of hand signs for the Yolŋu of north-eastern Arnhem Land.

Dr James believes there are over eighteen hundred hand signs in Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL) with regional variations, but we focus on a fragment of these, some 500 of the most relevant will be published – (in our new book The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land) “otherwise you couldn’t carry the book”. He says._1056815“Linguistically, we have mapped many changes in Yolŋu culture through hand signs. There is a whole raft of signs that deal with the influence of Macassan material culture associated with navigation, boats, ceremony and integrated into dance with topics such as long knives, axes, alcohol, money, and tobacco. “More recently, signs are evolving to describe a contemporary world such as signs for changing styles of telephones, televisions, ipads, credit cards, motorcars and school.”

Dr James says Yolŋu people have brought culturally inflected and intensely imaginative constructions into creating signs that represent a changing modern world. “Signs for television, air conditioning, washing machines and dishwashers signified by a rectangular outline, an iconic sign of an idea that represents a box that washes, or a computer – a box that thinks, a camera – a box that looks, a television – a box you look at, an ipad – a box you write into.”_1056802The roots of this collaboration with Doris Burarrwaŋa, Bentley, Dr Elaine Maypilama and Prof Adone reach back twenty five years with a chance meeting at Galiwin’ku. ‘None of us imagined we would still be working on this book all these years later.’ ‘So many that have helped us in this work have passed away.’

“This book is a collaborative effort borne out of a desire to give back to children the priceless inheritance of their alternative sign language, the YSL of Arnhem Land” Bentley James says. “The document includes a precise ethnographic and linguistic description of enormous interest to academics internationally.”

David Hancock


The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land, has been superbly photographed by Therese Ritchie in fabulous full colour. – For Free !!!_1056921The Yolŋu hand signs for the associated Yolŋu Sign Language APP for telephone and computer are being captured by the wonderful Swedish videographer Angie Gray.

For free !_1056953David Hancock has again rendered his ample services free of charge yet again in  support of this worth while project. Thank you David.


This year 2019, is the year of ‘Indigenous Languages’ and AIATSIS is celebrating International Woman’s Day 2019 by recognising Senior Australian of the Year Laurie Baymarrwaŋa’s vision to ‘give language back to the children’.

Capture 1

Following on from the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands, this beautiful new volume, The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land, will be distributed for free.

Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL) is an endangered Indigenous Language.

YSL is not a signed version of a Yolŋu language, but a totally unique and rare Australian Indigenous Sign Language, an alternative Yolŋu language for the hearing and the primary language of Deaf Yolŋu. Arising from a rich ancestral inheritance of song, dance, ritual and kinship YSL reflects an intimate relationship with the natural world. Used when speech is forbidden, in mourning, near sacred objects and in ceremonies, in dance, over distance and for stealth in hunting. This rare and endangered indigenous language is very easy to learn, however, we can make only few copies, so I urge you to buy into this book project now.

We bring together some five hundred signs of YSL collected from across North East Arnhem Land collected in striking full colour with a comprehensive learner guide to produce another rare and beautiful book.

Please help us honour Baymarrwaŋa’s vision to save Indigenous language and give back to the children their priceless ancestral inheritance

To donate email North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Managers Alliance (NAILSMA) to make a DGR tax-deductible donation or bank online to: BSB: 085–933 ACC: 140012871 Yan-nhaŋu Atlas Fund. Please include your postal address so we can send you a copy of this wonderful book when complete.

Questions, please phone Janely 0488 068 738, or email, or email: Mobile: 0402704354


Please pass on this information to your friends so that they may participate.







Losing a Language

W.S. Merwin.

a breath leaves the sentences and does not come back

yet the old still remember something that they could say


but they know now that such things are no longer believed

and the young have fewer words


many of the things the words were about

no longer exist


the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree

the verb for I


the children will not repeat

the phrases their parents speak


somebody has persuaded them

that it is better to say everything differently


so that they can be admired somewhere

farther and farther away


where nothing that is here is known

we have little to say to each other


we are wrong and dark

in the eyes of the new owners


the radio is incomprehensible

the day is glass


when there is a voice at the door it is foreign

everywhere instead of a name there is a lie


nobody has seen it happening

nobody remembers


this what the words were made

to prophesy


here are the extinct feathers

here is the rain we saw



Pg 980, Norton Anthology of Poetry (1997). Fourth Edition.

Sustainable Land Sector Development in Northern Australia


Sustainable Land Sector Development in Northern Australia sets out a vision for developing North Australia based on a culturally appropriate and ecologically sustainable land sector economy. This vision supports both Indigenous cultural responsibilities and aspirations, as well as enhancing enterprise opportunities for society as a whole.

  1. Authors are all international leaders in their fields and include not only academics but also leaders of Indigenous communities
  2. Explains Indigenous cultural and knowledge systems to a degree that has rarely been accessible to lay and academic readers outside specialized disciplines like Anthropology
  3. Responds to growing need for new approaches to managing human-ecological systems that are in greater sympathy with Australia’s natural environments/climate, and value the knowledge of Indigenous people
  4. Timely for scholarly and interest groups intervention, as the Australian government is again looking to ‘develop the north’

After reading this you will understand precisely why we need to intervene on behalf of the future in Northern Australia.

Shellfish, Meaning & Place


Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place, A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land celebrates the insights and differences of two knowledge systems, incorporating seven Yolŋu languages, English and Latin names, and with exquisite photography it reveals hundreds of beautiful shellfish of the northern coastline. The wise say we must not forget the meaning and place of maypal in our words, in the songs of place and the spirit of land and sea.

Billi yaka limurr dhu moma dhäwu ŋaraka ga mayali’ maypalgu bamanpuy ga dhärruk ŋurruŋaŋgalgu. Walu ga wata wapurrar ŋayi manymak maypalgu ga warray wirripu walu dhu ga wata wutthu’wutthun maypal ga binydjitjthirr ŋayi dhu. Dhiyaŋ bala ga yuṯa miyalkthu ga ḏirrimuw walal dhu ga moma ŋaraka ga mayali’ maypalgu, ga bayŋu walal gi guyaŋi dhäwu ga rom maypalgu.

This is a story for the children. This is a story about shellfish and the places that they live.

thomson Childre from Maypal

TPH 1277. Children’s buŋgul at Ŋarawundhu, Miliŋimbi. D. F. Thomson. Courtesy of the Thomson family and Museum Victoria. Page 19 Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place.

Dhuwal dhäwu djamarrkuḻiw ŋayi dhu marŋgithirr maypalgu nhä ŋayinytja maypal ga ŋorra limurruŋgu ga bulu dhäwu dhu ḻakarram wanha wäŋaw walalaŋgu maypalgu dhika djuḏum’ŋur, raŋiŋur ga ḻarrthaŋur wäŋa walalaŋgu. Dhuwal djorra djamarrkuḻiw matha ga yäku wirripu matha ga ŋorra marr ga walal dhu marŋgithirr nhä yaku ŋayi maypal ga ŋorra ga yaku mala ga dharrawa wirripu mathakurr limurruŋgu ga mayali’ ga wirripu dhärruk ga ŋorra. Manymak marŋgithirr walal dhu ga maypalgu romtja ga mayali’ ga djäka wäŋaw ga ŋuthan marrtji manymakthirri. Billi yaka limurr dhu moma dhäwu bamanpuy ga dhärruk ŋurruŋaŋgalgu.

This beautifully illustrated, scientifically precise, full colour reference contextualizes data about shellfish and environment illuminating the intimate links of Yolŋu knowledge and ancestral connection to sea country and its delicate living abundance. Striking Yolŋu poetry from the old and wise, and those who have gone before, accompany maps and illustrations that resonate with the spiritual dimension of this magical volume. In its words are worlds. Will Stubbs of Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Arts of Yirrkala tells us ‘It has the weight and feel of a prayer book. And in a way it is. It is a reverence … a ritual incantation of this knowledge and these names that they may live on in the hearts and minds of the people who live with them for eternity’[1]

Djalu Gurruwiwi, Yolŋu elder[2]

 “As the seasons change we think of the old people, the ancestors, we think of gathering maypal.”

In 1993 I was doing a stopover at Maṯamaṯa and Rurruwuy homelands as a visiting teacher. At that time Doris Yethun Burarrwaŋa was the outstations teacher at Maṯamaṯa. Yapa (sister) was committed to helping children know their kin, country and language. (familiar plaint). We shared a strong desire to help the next generation ready themselves for another wave of relentless state-imposed assimilation. She said she wanted to prepare them to try and keep the homelands and its language. Yet to come was the bitter ‘Intervention’, ‘better futures’, ‘growth towns’ and still more imperial horrors rebadged ‘help’, the quiet strangulation of homelands[3] and a new stolen generation taking children as ‘responsibility to protect’[4]. We found solace among the maypal.NANGURADoris and her family taught me of the joy of this country out hunting for maypal. There, off the rocks of Gikal, we found the legendary Giant Black-Lipped Rock oysters(ṉamura), eaten raw (ŋäṉarr) or lightly roasted in their shells (ḻuku), the ‘nectar’, the ‘Golden Fleece’, how rare, how sweet it is. It was this early exposure to the beauty of shell fish that inspired a further twenty years of investigation on the western islands.

Handing out Maypal.

Up here in the North of Australia people share maypal. We have been sharing the story of Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place across North East Arnhem Land. With support from NAILSMA we have been giving this book out to schools and homelands for free. The spirit of this book is in the gift of those who have gone before, in the intergenerational obligation to help the young ‘walk in the footsteps of the ancestors’, a gift of so many ancestral journeys. Each pathway a different way, each country a different country, a different language. Accordingly, in making this book for such a broadly differentiated linguistic audience, so many different identities, sixty or more bäpurru ‘clans’, in very different places, for teachers and researchers, we had to utilise lot of different names from a lot of different languages.ShellFishCommunityMap_HI_RES_300_DPI_07052016 - Copy.tifMap of North East Arnhem Land homelands, communities and sites. Page 6-7 Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place.

There are some very important differences between the five major ex-mission communities [growth towns] in North East Arnhem Land. Yirrkala, Gapuwiyak, Galiwin’ku, Ramingining and Milingimbi, not to mention the spiritual birthplaces (yirralka) of their populations from a dwindling number of homelands.[5] Each of these ex-mission ‘communities’ are made up of very distinctive amalgams of families, ‘totemic heaps’, kinship complexes, networks, nodal individuals, interest groups, service providers and visitors. Each has been informed and shaped by different contact histories, geographic settings and community politics. Moreover, their relative position within a complex pre-existing ancestral geography entail distinctive metaphysical predispositions within the Yolŋu universe. One size cannot fit all. From among the diversity of these multiple choices we searched for a title for the Maypal Book. This book’s name, Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place, talks to the importance of place and its different yet connected meanings to Yolŋu people across diverse histories, stories, ages, backgrounds and settings.

Organisation of the text reflects the significance of difference.

Lists of Yolŋu ecological communities indicate the place, home or wäŋa where particular maypal live and may be found. A key to identification reveals the many Yolŋu names for maypal, also alternative scientific (Linnaean) identifications that have been recorded in the past, as these may still have some currency for ongoing research, and so are linked to a robust list of sources. The Yolŋu moiety; Dhuwa or Yirritja, of maypal is recorded and importantly – the most commonly used eastern and western regional Yolŋu names currently used by Yolŋu, appear as headwords. This means that the names most familiar in the East-Mewatj region, and those more familiar in the West-Gatjirk region, are to be found with their own separate headwords and recorded in bilingual alphabetical order.Yirrkala (2)

Orthography, Spelling and Difference.

Bilingual alphabetical order a ä b d ḏ dh dj e g i k l ḻ m n ṉ nh ny ŋ o p r rr t ṯ th tj u w y ’

Recognition of the ritual and religious significance of geo-linguistic similarities and differences is a necessary conceptual precondition for a book like this. Additionally, it is fruitful to recognise this knowledge has been passed on by word of mouth for a thousand generations. That’s why we found it challenging to imagine an appropriate design for this priceless repository of knowledge, let alone light upon a standardised mode, convention and language of representation. Less challenging and more flexible, in terms of spelling at least, was the choice of orthography. We chose spelling rules and orthography as applied to Yolŋu languages throughout north-east Arnhem Land. While based on the order of the English alphabet the Yolŋu bilingual alphabetical order keeps the distinctive sounds in Yolŋu languages grouped together.GAWA2

The Importance of Cultural Difference

Finely calibrated linguistic difference is a key signifier of distinctive ancestral inheritances vital to discriminating local identities. For this reason, the spelling of names is of paramount consequence. However, a generous number of variations of spelling was found for each of the many elicitations of Yolŋu names for shellfish over the years. Well over a thousand different names were uncovered with most having at least two or three prospective spellings. In the end, those that could be found in David Zorc’s 1986 Yolŋu Matha Dictionary became the final spelling for all those shellfish names with unresolved or indeterminate spelling.

While travelling around the homelands gathering, naming and recording shellfish varieties and names there was a great sadness about the lack of, and growing pressures from outside and within, to dampen opportunities for children to learn the language of country. Loss of an older generation, fewer visits to country, unfamiliarity with sites, names and ceremonies, lack of exposure to seasonal phenomena, ripening of fruits and return of species and the vicissitudes of modern life all-over convinced us to search for old names and synonyms for maypal. This is why we have complemented the maypal text with bäpurru specific synonymous and alternate names or guruŋay dhäruk, for all the different shellfish species we found.RAMOThis strategy of supplementing Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa with guruŋay dhäruk; old or high language, has multiple benefits in diversity, interest and its potential to enhance children’s knowledge of their linguistic heritage. Prompted by elders to restore guruŋay dhäruk, we have inserted a ‘richer more intellectually stimulating lexicon’ into the maypal story to enrich children’s education. Reintroduction of uncommon and interesting synonyms for key words in the text helps emphasise the richness of Yolŋu language and familiarises a new generation with an endangered lexicon, highlighting wider linguistic and ecological relationships more broadly.55Openly the Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place project is about bilingual approaches to local knowledge and science around shellfish. It’s also about the intergenerational transfer of ancestral knowledge with an inclusive vision for a cultural future.[6] Enormous and seemingly unstoppable state sponsored pressures continue to deny homelands residence, fully funded bilingual education, full two-way learning and opportunities for intergenerational transmission and in so bequeathing an overwhelming, and non-accidental, burden on the kids of tomorrow and Indigenous futures. The challenge of this future, where cultures with different world views exist in the same time and space, is creating a space where both can co-exist and positively engage with each other.[7]Shepherdson4Dozens of [closing] outstations scattered along the coast evidence an extensive pre-existing network of Yolŋu sacred sites, song lines and waŋarr journeys that constitute a magnificent endangered ancestral geography of global significance. This network of sites, linked by extended strings of kinship, are at the heart of managing and living on country. Life on country that nurtures mutually supporting bonds of kin, language and a priceless disappearing local environmental knowledge, values that have sustained the indigenous estate for eons. Irreplaceable knowledge of life we must cherish. Only homelands provide the opportunity for intergenerational transmission of this rare and distinctive local knowledge.IMG_3401From a more global perspective, the greater part, and last, of the less than one hundred indigenous Australian languages that still exist, are found in the N.T on the homelands. The homelands are being dismantled by governments of all colour. In North east Arnhem Land people typically spoke Yolŋu languages as first languages, but, their children are still denied classification as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners by the N.T education department. Remote education, what little is offered, and denied on homelands, has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the ESL status of forty percent of the school age cohort of the Northern Territory, to ‘save money’, much of which is syphoned off for urban schools. [8] ESL speakers, learning key concepts in their home languages first, may then translate these understandings into English, for non-Yolŋu literate visitors. Clearly it is not only Yolŋu children that are missing out.P1000147At its heart, Shellfish, Meaning & Place is about Yolŋu knowledge’s. Yolŋu ways of collaborating, exchanging and engaging brought the project to life. The process of cultural and linguistic translation of the north gains more import as we come to recognise our status as visitors. However ill prepared and temporary our engagement with this place we must not destroy it. The merry-go-round of teachers, nurses and service providers barely awake to the delicate subtlety of Indigenous relationships to country unintentionally tear at its edges. Engagement with Yolŋu ways of collaborating, exchanging and engaging together help balance unequal power so often vested in visitors, thereby creating potentials for genuine relations, links of emotional connection and indebtedness between people that enhance both ways of knowing.teachingYolŋu people must be allowed, supported and encouraged to continue to look after the 1597 km of mainland coast and a greater 1778 km of island shoreline, its names and its languages. The State cant do it, even if it wanted to, an none can give life to the dead.

Maypal, Winds and the Ancestors.

And then what of a more poetic emotional engagement with maypal and the deep past. The songs of maypal reverberating in the memory. In the names of the maypal are the names of the ancestors forming the linkages between heaven and earth, of a mystical spirit world hidden in bright moonlight on the sea. Here-in light, in the sea and maypal are the people’s names, the names of places. How do these names affect us, how do metaphysics and memory shape our psychic identities and our ways of remembering.DSCF4598It’s a new day and on the salty wind the sound of the sea whispers hints of memories of other lives buried deep within our being. In the sounds of the sea half heard names speak to those who have gone, speak to memories in the endless cycle of existence and non-existence. The Yan-nhaŋu people say, rathaŋu djiŋgamurryun. The sound of the sea on the voice of the wind. Rathaŋu djiŋgamurryun, can be heard from all over the islands, in it the supernatural sound signifying ancestral powers present in the everyday. This sound permeates the sleeping and waking world, the world of dreams and of the ancestors. The song of maypal.YIRRKALATo paraphrase Will, It is a prayer, a ritual incantation of names, of knowledge, and a prayer that they live on in the hearts and minds of the people for eternity. I have left the last word for Baymarrwaŋa;

Baymarrwaŋa (Yan-nhaŋu)-When we hear the wind-

Lima barrŋarra ŋalumaya wata dhuptana gurrku gayaŋa warguguyana mana limalanha ŋurruṉaŋgalbu.

Ŋalumaya wata dhuptana gurrku gayaŋa ŋalima yindi mitji gaṉtumunha guya luthana buḻaŋgitjirri.

Ŋalumaya wata dhuptana gurrku gayaŋa ganatjirri dhawal-ŋaruna djiŋgamurryun man’taṉ maypal buḻaŋgitjirri runu-runu nyena dhakaldhakalmurru.

Ŋalumaya wata dhuptana lima barrŋarra limalama ŋurruṉaŋgalbu yanakuŋu gurrku ran’tan-mindapuma bäyku dhawal-ŋaruna dhagarra dhulamunu Miliŋinbiŋa, Rapumaŋa, Murruŋga, Gurribali maypal man’taṉ runurunumurru nyena dhakal-dhakalmurru gurrgurramurru nhankum, bilamunu.

When we hear the wind blow our thoughts turn to our ancestors.

When the wind blows our fish traps fill with fish.

When the wind blows the distant sea brings shellfish to the islands.

When the wind blows we hear the ancestors of the distant sea creating shellfish for the islands, yielding the food of island people, amen.



Day, MM, (1993). Habermasian Ideal Speech: Dreaming the (Im)possible Dream, Accounting& Finance Working Paper 93/13, School of Accounting & Finance, University of Wollongong,

[1] Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda – Maypal- Shellfish of the Arafura Coast, Salon Indigenous Arts Projects in association with Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Arts Yirrkala, Outstations- Art from Art centres, Paul Jonstone Gallery, 1-31 August 2018 Outstation. Vickers St Parap, Darwin.

[2] Djalu Gurruwiwi, Yirriṉiṉba Dhurrkay, Galinini Yunupiŋu, Djarrka, p 12 in James, B. (2016) Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place. A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land. NAILSMA Ltd. Tien Wha press, Sydney, Singapore.

[3] report revealed that successive governments under-spent on allocated Indigenous and remote disadvantage GST funding. The total of under-spending has now reached around $2.2 billion dollars. In 2014, we saw outrage when Tony Abbott and Warren Mundine announced nationwide Indigenous budget cuts of over $500 million. Now it has been revealed that $2 billion was stripped secretly from some of the most disadvantaged Aboriginal communities and there is nothing but silence.

[4] The Responsibility to Protect doctrine is the enabling principle that first obligates states and then the international community to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. (These crimes (assimilation) continue to be perpetrated on Australian Indigenous people and misrepresented by the Settler State).

[5] The plight of the homelands is another festering blister on the future of all Australians as their populations are discriminated against, denied citizen’s rights, adequate health care, housing, and education while the value of an intact indigenous estate is neglected, obfuscated and misrepresented. For Yolŋu children it is a glimpse of the diversity of opportunity to be denied them in their lives to come.

[6] NTG misleadingly and mendaciously labels NT indigenous ESL students EALD (English as an Additional Language or Dialect). A dishonest ploy to negate their full obligation under United Nations law to provide adequate first language education in the chosen location, homeland or community.

[7] A cultural future as described by Francis Kelly and Eric Michaels 1988 celebrates the embeddedness of people in country, law and languages and values thoughtful collaboration across knowledge systems.

[8] In the Australian context local knowledge is a decisive feature of Indigenous culture in the education realm (Schwab: 2003, 2015: Fogarty: 2015; Altman: 2010, 2015). Fully supported first language cultural competence valorises local knowledge giving confidence and psychological resilience to ESL learners in cross cultural and mainstream contexts. The practices of a [purposefully?] poorly equipped and critically underfunded remote education system obstruct bilingual and Two-Way learning, increasing local disadvantage (White: 2015; Piva: 2016; Nicolls: 2005). However, to be fair, remote education delivery to cattle stations is much more fully resourced.

Galiwin’ku ‘Learning on Country’ MAYALTHA – MIḎAWARR

Doris and I have been working on a Learning on Country guide to the season of Mayaltha/Miḏawarr March/April/May, to inform teachers and students about what is coming up during the season. This is a collaboration with the Shepherdson College LPC, Yalu Marŋgithinyamirr, Gumurr Mathakal Rangers, Diḻak (wise old people) and the land, Wäŋa. These five elements furnish the synergy that powers and the knowledge that directs our work at the Learning on Country (LoC) project at Galiwin’ku.

loc logo

We thought you might enjoy a sneak preview of some of our work. The photography is contributed by Craig Danvers, Yasmin Steel and of course David Hancock. Production on the book for children is beautifully designed by Craig.


This is a story about the time of the year called Mayaltha and Miḏawarr. This book talks about the kinds of food and resources that become available at this time of the year.

Dhiyaŋ wangany goŋdhu limurruŋ mel-lapmaram ḻiya-marrjitiyamiriyam wanha limurruŋ gurrkurr ga ŋorra.

DSCF3746Later in the year we will learn about the season of Dharratharramirr, the cold time. Then we will learn about Rrarranhdharr, the season of hot sand called ”ḻuku ga nhära’ Feet on fire!!! We will learn about the kinds of winds, plants, birds and animals, shellfish and fish that are prevalent at this time of the year. We will include the many different names for these things of our world from the many languages of our place, these names have meanings we must not forget.

Yalalaŋu limurr dhu nhäŋu Dharratharramirrindja ga bala nhäŋu Rrarranhdhamirr waluy term dhambumirriwyu. Dharratharrany dhuwal walu ŋunhi ŋuli guyŋarrmurriyrra. Ga Rrarranhdhamirr waluy ḻuku ga nhäramirr. Ga dhiyal dhuŋgarray ga waltjan dhu nhäŋu wata, dukittj, warrakan,  maypal ga guya, ga bala nhäŋu ga marŋgithirr litjalaŋgu ŋaḻapaḻmirr mala romgu ḻarruŋal ŋathaw. Ŋurruyirrynydja ŋuli ŋatha-ŋamakuliŋu mala ŋalindiy Aprilyu. Mayaltha ga Miḏawarrŋur nhakun ḏukitjdhun marŋgithirr nhä malany ga ŋuthan, ga nhaku dhu ḻarrum ŋathaw.

a3The first shoots of the season are sprouting now and telling us the season of Mayaltha approaches. The time for the young and old people to meet on country is beginning. Together the old and young will discover the stories living inside the places of the country. Together we will learn to read and listen to the stories, sounds and signs of the country.Images from Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, showing the coastal landscape and floraŊuruṉiny dhu ḏukitjdhu ŋuli mel-ḻakaram ŋunhiyiny walu Mayalthanha. Ga waluny dhuwal djamarrkuḻiw ga worruŋu mala nhänharaw dhiyak wäŋaw ŋurruyirr’yunaraw. Rrambaŋi worruŋu mala ga djamarrkuḻiw mala dhu nhäma ga ḻarrum ga märram dhäwu’ ŋorra ga djinawa dhiyal wäŋaŋur ŋarakaŋur. Ga rrambaŋi limurr dhu bala marŋgithirr nhänharaw ga märranharaw rirrakaywu, dhäwuw’, meḻ-ḻakaranhamirr dhiyak wäŋaw ŋarakaw.

Images from Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, showing the coastal landscape and floraGarrukal (kookaburra) laugh in the early morning as the gentle wind blows from the North East.

a12Along the cliff edges the miḻimiḻi, (dragonflys) play in the morning breeze and over-head wirri-wirri (Rainbow Bee Eaters) whistle.

Gurrka Walpa in the distance - CopyMayaltha is the time the grasses flower on the hill tops from Miḻabalŋa (Gorabi Cliffs) and down to Ŋurruwurrunhanaŋa (Point Bristow).

Images from Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, showing the coastal landscape and floraNew frogs and cicadas are beginning to sing as the land dries out and the new season begins.

_674672Mayalthany dhuwal walu ŋunhi ŋuli mulmu ga wurr’ki mala ŋurruŋu dhawat’thun ḏukitj. Beŋur ga Miḻabalŋalil ga Ŋurruwurrunhanaŋur ga bala runu’runu wäŋalil mala. Dhiyaŋ Mayalthay ḏukitj dhu ga mulmuy ga ŋurruyirr’yun wurr’ki mala beŋur garramatŋur dharpaŋur ga bala ŋoylil.

_757603Ŋunhili garrukal ŋuli gitkit’thun yurr goḏarr munhawumirr ŋayi ŋuli wata boyun yawulu luŋgurrma yäku wäta’. Ŋunhili wata’ŋur ŋuli miḻi-miḻi ga won mala wirri-wirri ga buḻyun wataŋur, ga yuta won mala ga garkman mala dhawat’thun dhiyaŋ waṯa’y.

as3The yindi guya (big fish) that have been out at sea are returning, dhinimbu (mackerel), gopu (tuna), warrukay (barracuda) and dhikarr (flying fish) swim around Ŋalkaŋa and Gukuḏa reefs in front of Dhalmana (Abbot Island).

_1055691Beŋuryiny yindi guya mala ŋuli wulanŋur ga roŋiyirr ḻup’ḻupthun dhuwali dhinimbu, gopu, warrukay ga dhikarr ŋarirri ŋuli lup’lupthun ḻiw’maram Gukuḏaŋur ga Ŋalkanŋur gumurrŋur Dhalmana.

aaaaThere are a number of named types of permanent stone based fish traps or ḻoḻu around the coast of the mainland and islands. These fish traps are focal parts of the pre-existing ancestral geography and as such key sites for residence and food gathering. As these fish traps belong to the ancestral inheritance of particular groups they have specific names. These names include Yambirrpa, Yirwarra, Rrurrambu, Neny, Guluwurrulu, Gaṉḏamu, Naṉḏawarra and the Betŋu. The wind and tides tell us when to use the fish traps.

IMG_6794At this time, Mayaltha and Miḏawarr, the lowest tide of the daily tides, occurs during the day and so these permanent stone fish traps are best used during the day light hours.  The following kind of fish trap built at Ŋayawili is called a Naṉḏawarra and is a named part of the ancestral inheritance of the Gamalaŋga people even though it is situated here on their mother’s mother’s country.

2These fish traps have not bee reactivated since the 2010 ‘Fish traps of the Crocodile Islands’ film was made on Murruŋga Island.

a7 (2)Ḻakarram dhu watay ga gapuy nhakurr limurr dhu marrtji. Ŋurruthirr ga raŋithirri gapuy ga lakaram ŋatha manymak guya ḻoḻumirr walu ga marrtji. Ga beŋur Mayalthaŋur ga bala Miḏawarrlil ŋunhiyiny walu dhiyakun ḻoḻuwunha djämaw. Dhiyaŋuny walu dhuwandja gapuny barkun marraṉdilnydja baṉḏanynha mirthirra walupuynydja waluy, ga ŋunhiyi walu manymak, yurr ḻoḻu gaṉḏumu nhirrpanaraw.


For the other six months of the year the fish traps are best used at night. The fish trap catches ratjuk (barramundi) and djuḻurrpi, (giant threadfin salmon).

_1056410Ga ḻikan ga ḻikan ŋuli ŋorrany. Ŋunhinyiny ḻoḻu wiripuny ŋayi ŋuli dhärra wiyin’nha yan ga munhawun ŋurruthinyaray ŋuli gärriny ratjuk ga djuḻurrpi.

Book of shellfish from north Australian waters - Arnhem Land

Book of shellfish from north Australian waters – Arnhem Land

These fish traps are also a good source of shellfish. Maypal. In Mayaltha and Miḏawarr the old days people would remake the fish traps on the ocean side of Galiwin’ku and collect shellfish.shells and shellfish from the Arnhem Land coastDhiyaŋ Mayaltha and Miḏawarr baman ŋurruŋu mala yurr guyaw djäma ḻoḻu gaṉḏamu ŋarirriw, dhiyalanydja wayaŋakurr gali’ŋur dhiyal Galwin’ku dhaŋaŋ’kuŋ ŋarirri yurr’ ŋurruy gapay ga gaṯmaraŋal maypal.

In Mayaltha and Miḏawarr we will collect shellfish on the westerly side of the island. The kind of maypal collected on this side at this season are garrwili, gumin’ka, djuḻkumu, dhupugaḏi, dhotay, diyamu, buthurru wuŋany, barawatharr, ŋäṉ’ka, mitawara and, girriwitji.Images from Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, showing the coastal landscape and floraDhiyaŋ bala Mayaltha and Miḏawarr limurr dhu maypalandja buma wayaŋaŋur gali’ŋur dhiyal Galiwinkuny dhiyaŋuŋuny walu ga dhuŋgarray ga maypalnydja garrwili, gumin’ka, djuḻkumu, dhupugaḏi, dhotay, diyamu, buthurru wuŋgan, barawatharr, ŋäṉ’ka, mitawara ga girriwitji.

In Mayaltha plants and grasses are starting to flower on the hilltops, like the ḏambaŋaniŋ or galpuŋaniŋ (Purple Clover).a12sMayalthanytja waluy ŋayi ŋuli wurrkiny ŋuthana, nhakun ḏambaŋaniŋ.

Ŋaḻapaḻmirrr (Old People) have a story about this ḏambaŋaniŋ. These flowers told the Old People the time of yindi ŋatha (big food) is coming.Walal worruŋuy mala ŋuli ga ḻakaram ŋunhi dhiyaŋ waluy ga dhuŋgarray ŋunhi yinidi ŋatha manymak walu.

“As the seasons change we think of the old people, the ancestors, we think of gathering maypal.”– Djalu Gurruwiwi, Yolŋu elder[1]

[1] Djalu Gurruwiwi, Yirriṉiṉba Dhurrkay, Galinini Yunupingu, Djarrka, p 12 in James, B. (2016) Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place. A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land. NAILSMA Ltd. Tien Wha press, Sydney, Singapore.

thomson Childre from MaypalTPH 1277. Children’s buŋgul at Ŋarawundhu, Miliŋimbi. Photographs on page 19, Maypal, D. F. Thomson. Courtesy of the Thomson family and Museum Victoria. The Ŋaḻapaḻmirrr (Old People) say that at this time of the year great hunter spirt ancestor known as the Gurrmirriŋu begins to light his fires on the island of Gurriba Island and the smoke can be seen from the main land. Old people begin to cry when they see the smoke, remembering those that have gone before

Images from Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, showing the coastal landscape and flora

Ŋunhi ŋaḻapaḻmirrr marŋgi ŋunhiyiny wäŋa dhuwalaŋawuy Gurrmirriŋu bala ŋuli ŋurruyirryun gurtha gama dhuŋguryun ŋunhili runu’runuŋur ŋunhal Gurriba runu’ŋur wäŋaŋur. Bala ŋuli wäŋaŋur nhäman ŋawululnha ŋaḻapaḻmirryndja bala walal ŋuli nyayunamirra. Ŋunhi walal ŋuli nhämany ŋunhi ŋawululnydja nhäranhawuynydja, bala guyaŋan ŋunhi yolŋu-yulŋuny warwuyuna ŋuhni ŋathil dhiŋgaŋal.

a1Miḏawarr is the season of smooth waters and time to go hunting for turtles. Miḏawarr is the season of harvesting bush fruits._1055665Miḏawarr is coming to an end when the northwest wind changes to the northeast wind, bringing rough seas and heavy waves. The sound of the sea can be heard all over Galiwin’ku early in the morning, later the east wind blows all day.

Knock’em down winds signal the end of miḏawarr and the beginning of dharratharramirri before the rain falls the wind blows very hard and the air becomes very cold.

Images from Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, showing the coastal landscape and floraBulu Miḏawarr ŋunhi ganatjirri dhapanbal, wapurarrnha, ga gurrumnha ga ŋorra’ ŋunhiyiny walu nhe dhu marrtjin miyapunulil. Ga Miḏawarr ŋunhi walu bunharawnha djiltjipuy borumgu.

_1056149Midawarr ga marrtjin ŋunhi ŋuli Ḻuŋgurrma waṯa’ biw’yun ga gapuny ŋuli ḏuwumirriyirra ga yindin duwuny mirithirra, ga rirrakaydja nhe dhu ŋäma’ny liw’ḏap dhiyal Galiwin’kuŋur munhawumirrinydja bala ŋayiny ŋuli ḻuŋgurrmany ga biw’yuna yan bitjana billi.

170093Ga waṯa’y bulu daw’maranharawnha mulmuwnha bala ŋayi dhu dhawar’yuna Miḏawarrnyndja ŋunhiny walu dharratharraminirra. Bala Miḏawarrnyndja ŋunhiny walu ŋayi dhu ŋurru-djuḻyuna waḻtjanha ga bulu ŋayi ŋuli guyŋarrmirriyirra ga guyŋarrnha mirithirra nhäkun murthawuy.




On 28062018- the July – August Australian Geographic (P 44-47)- celebrated territory photographer, David Hancock’s wonderful article on shellfish, ancestors and links to country was released. David fathoms a deeper level of significance in the ancestral connections of shellfish and their kinship with the people of the country. So much of his work values, celebrates and captures the light of what is truly Australian – if such a thing exists, David gets it.   Here with permission….


Book of shellfish from north Australian waters - Arnhem LandTo the people of Arnhem Land, shellfish and other sea creatures nourish a link to country and culture.

Book of shellfish from north Australian waters - Arnhem Land“As the seasons change we think of the old people, the ancestors, we think of gathering maypal.”– Djalu Gurruwiwi, Yolngu elder

Book of shellfish from north Australian waters - Arnhem Land

WHEN THE YOLNGU of north-east Arnhem Land look to the sea they know the season by the direction and feel of the wind. One thing the wind communicates, they say, is when certain ‘maypal’ are plump and ready to be gathered.

qqThe term maypal covers many marine and some terrestrial creatures that have sustained generations of Yolngu for millennia. In one sense it means shellfish. But maypal includes foods non-indigenous Australians wouldn’t put in that category, such as land snails, marine worms and insect larvae, including witchetty grubs. Maypal are fundamental to Yolngu culture.

Book of shellfish from north Australian waters - Arnhem LandThey are tasty and easy to harvest. Just go down to the beach or among the mangroves. They sustain coastal people not only physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. Huge middens of shells along Australia’s northern coastline attest to the popularity of maypal: in some areas middens more than 30m-high date back many thousands of years.

Book of shellfish from north Australian waters - Arnhem Land“In the north of Australia, we have an incredibly varied, rich and complex coastline, in which exists a large number of ecological zones,” says Dr Bentley James, a Northern Territory anthropologist and linguist who lived in Arnhem Land for many years. “There are more than 1500km of coastline on the mainland and another 1750km of coastline on the islands, not to mention all the reefs and sand bars.” He says the Yolngu recognise some 15 ecological zones inhabited maypal and featuring 110 species. These are described by about 350 different Yolngu names with complex layers of kinship and connectedness entailing a highly sophisticated view of the natural world. Most maypal have multiple names in different clan languages and are celebrated in songs and traditional lore.


SO-CALLED INCREASE RITUALS practised by the many coastal clans ensure the fecundity of maypal, enhancing their fatness and abundance in the coming season. According to Yolngu woman Doris Yethun Burarrwanga from Elcho Island, maypal provide balanced nutrition and “everything a young person needs to grow…That is why children in coastal homeland centres have the best teeth in the country and infinitely better health outcomes in the long-term.” These kinds of shellfish and other invertebrate sources of protein are much loved, she says. “We sing for them. We care for them…We eat them and celebrate them and, in return, they give us life.” Doris says maypal are a crucial part of life by the sea for Aboriginal kids, not just as a supplement to their diet, but also because they provide “a spiritual link and a physical and nutritious reconnection with country and kin.”

Book of shellfish from north Australian waters - Arnhem LandBentley has recently collaborated with Yolngu people to compile a bilingual identification guide to maypal. The knowledge was collected from conversations with traditional owners over many years. During the process, “we had to find the maypal, catch them, cook them, eat them and name them,” he says. “It was a great joy involving families from so many places.” The book, entitled Maypal, Mayali’ Ga Wänga: Shellfish, Meaning and Place a Yolngu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Lan (NAILSMA , 2016), describes maypal in three languages: Yolngu  Matha, English and Latin.Book of shellfish from north Australian waters - Arnhem LandThe process of publishing the book was consistent with the Yolngu way and lore, Bentley notes. More than 500 people across seven language groups were involved, ranging from toddlers to nonagenarians.

Book of shellfish from north Australian waters - Arnhem LandThe book will be distributed to schools in Arnhem Land and among eight ranger programs and eventually be given to libraries across Australia. It offers local children “an opportunity to know the full spectrum of rare names and ecological knowledge of shellfish, hitherto kept safe by a tiny population.”

20170708_132301Bentley says. “This knowledge stretches over thousands of years from one side of Arnhem Land to the other – from the eastern sunrise over Blue Mud bay to sunset west of the Crocodile Islands.” The book is a gift to future generations, he adds, “to help children walk in the footsteps of the ancestors,”

Even more incredible is David’s new book celebrating “the most amazing place in the world”, David who is always in Arnhem Land says “I don’t care what people say about Antarctica or the Amazon or anywhere like that, Arnhem Land is the most amazing place in the world”

And there aren’t many people in Arnhem Land who haven’t seen him island and rock hopping around with his camera early in the morning looking for the light! This light is evident in Kuwarddewardde.

His new masterpiece is ‘Kuwarddewardde: The Stone Country’, in it he details the people, the landscape, history and most stunning rock art of the people of the Stone Country.

See a glimpse of it here…

Australian Geographic: 2018-06-28 – Kuwarddewardde ……/282071982621365

Buy Kuwarddewardde: The Stone Country, direct from – David, $60, available from

  Gallery Two Six 6 Catterthun St Winnellie NT 0820

  • Ring David 0419 884 388




A Prayer for Maypal : Welcome to the wonderful world of Shellfish

Maypal, Mulkuṉ, Outstation, and Will Stubbs.



Welcome to the wonderful world of



I guess most of us could name a few;

oysters, mussels, clams, hermit crabs,

mudcrabs. But then it starts to peter

out. The inspiration for this show was an

amazing publication put out by NAILSMA

with documentation by Bentley James,

Photography by David Hancock and

incredible design by Therese Ritchie. Its

full title is Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish,

Meaning and Place. A Yolŋu Bilingual

Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East

Arnhem. It has the weight and feel of a

prayer book. And in a way it is.


It is a reverence for these sacred

foodstuffs that define and sustain the

magical coast that we live on. But instead of

that handful of species that we sleepwalkers

can name there are over two hundred

pages of individual edible Maypal with

multiple Yolŋu names, their Latin tag and

where available an English Common name.


It is a prayer that the existence of this

knowledge and these names be infinite. It

is a ritual incantation of this knowledge and

these names that they may live on in the

hearts and minds of the people who live

with them for eternity.


This is an excerpt from a wonderful show to be hosted at BUKU-LARRŊGAY MULKA CENTRE on August the first 2018. The show is as yet a secret but I can tell you that it coincides with the opening at ‘OUTSTATION’ of the Miḏawarr harvest show by Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda and John Wolseley. Will gets it. More than that he is it, he lives it, he loves Maypal, he is a shellfish aficionado, little wonder he has been power behind so many great projects. He introduced me to Mulkun and we laughed our way through buckets of Maypal. Mulkuṉ is my mukul bapa (father’s sister) in Yolngu kinship. I am her gathu (son) and her dog is my wawa (brother). Oh isn’t life a terrible thing, and the sea is full with Maypal. But fracking will put an end to that.