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.

Crabbing Industry at Milingimbi and the Crocodile Islands 1960-1975.

In the1920’s the Reverend James Watson described Milingimbi Island as an ‘emerald jewel in a sapphire sea’ (Mackenzie 1976: 28). The Rev Theodore Webb, 1925-39 describes ‘primeval mud, swarming with crocodiles’ (McKenzie 1976: 34). Certainly there are lots of mangrove tree lined rivers full of crocodiles and mud in the Crocodile Islands. In the early 1960s the fishing industry at Milingimbi had a prosperous side line in the form of a crabbing industry. The crabbing industry was orchestrated entirely by Milingimbi women who worked energetically in the mangrove forests surrounded by the constant danger of crocodiles.[i] A system of job sharing, an informal practice among the men working at Milingimbi at the time, was followed by the women, with some looking after children, fixing nets and weaving while others caught crabs. The ladies who formed the vanguard of the industry were; Ŋuluru, Mayŋgurawuy, Djarrakurramawuy, Yaŋgana, Yalapany, Djaŋ’kawu, Ganyitiŋu, Warrŋayun and Muwat no 1[ii] All are well remembered as are those old crabbing days.

On Milingimbi Island, or more properly Yurruwi, largest of the inner Crocodile Islands, reside a wonderland of mangrove forests.[iii] The Islands rich in mud are rich in mud crabs that live in the mangroves (gathul)[iv] and sometimes can be found swimming in the shallow water on the mud flats (ṉinydjiya). Each day at Milingimbi, depending on the tides, the women would go to a different named mangrove forest to look for crabs. At different times, and tides, the women would search the mud in the mangroves for crabs at; Ŋambalpuma, Djiŋgilimara, Muwala, Binimirriŋguli, Gatjaw, Guḏudutji, Baḻma, Bulmatjirra and at Womila. [v]At the end of each day, or again depending on the tide, Alan or Lillian Fidock, or their helpers would pick up the ladies. After 1972 Lange Powell and Peter Dunstan would drive out to the edge of the mangroves to pick up the women and the crabs. At other times the men would take boats to the outer reef to fish and drop the women on the islands. The children would accompany them and learn their roles. The following story is happily remembered by Michelle, one of those lucky children.

Nhuŋi ŋapurr ŋyumukuniny

Nhuŋi ŋapurr ŋyumukuniny yan ŋapurr martjin bala River Songthu dhakalil nyoka’w, guyaw dirramun ga miyalk nyoka’w, ga djamarrkuḻi dhu marrtji buma wurruruwurruru ga goŋ gurrupan dirramuny märr ga walal dhu guya rakum. Walaltja miyalkwurr marrtjin ḻarrthalil nyoka’lil. Ga ŋunhi walal dhawathurr ḻarrthaŋur nyoka’mirr, ga walal roŋiyirriny marthaŋayu dirramuwurr mala guyamirr, walala dhu bala gurtha märram ga dhaŋalkum guyaw ga nyoka’w. Ḻurrkun ḻukanharraw ga wirripun marrtji fridgelil. Bala ŋayi captain waŋan ‘marrtjin limurr!’ bala wala miyalk marrtjin yan Wudarritjthu ga dirramu mala marrtji River Songdhu bala Milingimbilil. Watjim walal nyoka’ ga mipthurr guya ga bala galkaranha freezerlil. Yalala walaldhu sellinggu. Bala walal ga djulŋithirri bukmak yolŋu-yulŋu, ga balanya walal gan ḻukanhan guya free.

When we were young

When we were young we would go with the fishermen on the River Song and out to the islands to collect mud crabs with the women. We children would collect wurruruwurruru (sand crabs) as bait for the men’s fishing lines. The women would go into the mangroves to collect nyoka’ (mud crabs). We would collect fire wood and make a fire. When the men got back with fish, and the ladies got back with crabs we would eat some of them on the beach. Then the captain says ‘let’s go!’ and the men would return to Milingimbi on the River Song and the women would return on Wudarritj. Then we would wash the mud off the crabs and fillet the fish and put them in the freezer for selling. We were all happy and we had a big feed of fresh fish and crabs.[vi]

This photograph is taken on Bodjiriki Island. The little white boat in the left mid ground is Wudarritj, Big Bill Buthurugulili (Daŋyguli) was the captain. The black barge is Wurrpan no 2 – ŋurru djinbulk (sharp nose)[vii], behind which lies a lipa-lipa or dugout canoe. The island in the left background is Martharayŋa, and on the right is Djiŋgilimarra and Ŋambalpuma at Milingimbi. The trees in the middle ground are giyapara mangrove trees and look the same today as they did back then. Women would also take crabs from the other inner Crocodile Islands at; Gurmurrmurraŋa at Rapuma, Ganaŋgarrŋa Is, Martharayŋa Is, and mugupala Ck. at Nilpaywa Is.

My beautiful picture

Women crabbing at Bodjiriki Island. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 1602. Circa 1964)

When the tide goes out the crabs retreat to large holes in the deep grey anoxic mud and under the tangled mangrove roots. Ladies poke a stick, or the preferred steel rod with a hook at the end djimiku, into the opaque muddy holes and under the roots to feel for the tell-tale knock of hard crab shell. Then the game of wrestling them out without getting caught by the powerful nippers begins. Once out on the ground it is sometimes easier to break off the arm, and render the claws harmless, but the women carefully tie up the claws with string and, holding them down with their feet, wrap the string around, so that the crabs don’t fight. The powerful claws can easily crush fingers and toes and do damage to each other in the bag.

My beautiful picture

Untied crabs escaping from the bag. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 119. Circa 1965)

Mud crabs, nyoka for males and nyeŋa for females are plentiful on the inner islands[viii].Women only take the male crabs so as not to interfere with the natural increase. As Alan Fidock says ‘the women are consummate conservationists’. They said ‘we only take the males so there will be plenty of crabs for tomorrow’. So too, by moving around and leaving the females the crab population of any one place does not decline too significantly.

All of these named places in the mangroves are also home to crocodiles (bäru). The women kept a sharp eye on these large reptiles while out collecting crabs and when a bäru was spotted a great commotion erupted making sure everyone knew exactly what size and where the bäru is. Long experience and co-existence beget a mutual wariness and everyone and everything, reptiles, crabs and people got along fine as long as the rules are followed. Like everything that emerges from the mangroves the crabs were covered in mud.

My beautiful picture

Here is Marragalbiyana (Gamalaŋga) and Wulukaŋ (Warramiri) washing crabs at Ŋamuyani Milingimbi. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 223. Circa 1965)

The crabs must be handled very carefully and could not be left for too long and so were weighed and processed as soon as could be. A full grown male mud crab weighs in at about one kilogram. When all the crabs were tied up they were washed in cold sea water. This removed any mud and sand.

My beautiful picture

Crabs washed and tied and ready for cooking (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 539. Circa 1965)

Before the crabs were cooked in boiling hot sea water, they were put in the freezer for about half an hour to stun them first. After the crabs had come out of the freezer they were immobilised and easy to pop into the big pot of boiling sea water. When the crabs turn bright orange then you can be sure they are cooked. They are left to cool for a while and then placed straight into the freezer to be sent to markets in Queensland and down south.

My beautiful picture

Frozen crabs in the freezer ready for export. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 118. Circa 1965)

Some crab meat was packed separately. When the crab comes out of the hot water it is left to cool. Once cooled the crab was cracked open. The white flesh of the crabs is removed and washed with cool sea water. The flesh from the crabs is packed into hard plastic containers and frozen for transport.  Don Williams and Alan Fidock (1982) describe the process in detail;

‘Throughout the processing of fish and crabs, speed and cleanliness are very important. Both types of meat spoil very easily. The whole process must be handled carefully from the time that the fish and crabs are taken live from the water or mud. Even when frozen, care must be taken to make sure that the temperatures of the freezers stay well below freezing point, and do not alter. When fish or crab meat is going to Darwin or other cities, special precautions are taken. Travel is by refrigerated ship or barge, or direct by plane in special containers to make sure that the quality is maintained’ (Fidock and Williams 1982: 205)

Milingimbi senior men, Joe Banguli (Wangurri) and Colin Yerrilil (Djambarrpuyŋu) reminisce that, children would gather around the freezer shed here at Ŋamuyani and wait for any cooked crabs legs that had fallen off to be handed out to them.

My beautiful picture

Jeffery Dhupuditj Garrawitja (Birrkili) packing frozen mud crabs at Ŋamuyani Milingimbi for transport by air to markets in the south. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 1062. Circa 1965)

Alan says that the Milingimbi crabs were often marketed as QLD mud crabs in Sydney in those days. Before the end of the RIVER SONG and changing global influences, it was imagined that the fishing industry might be a permanent local enterprise.  ‘The exporting of fish, and crabs, could eventually become very important for the local economy in North Eastern Arnhem Land, but first local needs must be met.’ (Fidock and Williams 1982: 203).

Women still go out collecting mud crabs at Milingimbi visiting the same named places. On the weekends you can see the smoke rising from the edge of the mangroves and hear the laughter of the children, and smell the burning mangrove stick as crabs are roasted and shared with family.[ix]


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. Thank you to Sue Raeburn, Kay Thurlow 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. And last of all to Big Boss who described the daily detail from the shade of trees on the beaches of Murruŋga.


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.

James, B.1997. Notes and maps on Marine Turtle Custodians of Murruŋga. Unpublished

James, B., Baymarrwaŋa, L., Gularrbaŋa, R., Djarrga, M., Nyaŋbal, R., & Nyuŋunyuŋu, M., S., 2. 2003, Yan-nhaŋu Dictionary (Darwin NT: Charles Darwin University and Milingimbi: CEC Literature Production Centre) ISBN 0-9751719-0-9.

James, B. 2009a. Time and Tide in the Crocodile Islands: Change and Continuity in Yan-nhangu Marine Identity. Ph.D. Dissertation. School of Social Sciences, Anthropology and Archaeology. A.N.U. Canberra A.C.T. Unpublished.

James, B. 2009c. Yan-nhangu Ecological Knowledge and Learning in the Crocodile Islands: How to enhance biological, cultural and linguistic diversity through developing links NAILSMA Ltd.  C.D.U. Darwin. N.T.

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.

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

Lowe, B. 2004 Yolngu-English Dictionary ARDS Inc. Darwin, N.T.

McKenzie, M. (1976), Mission to Arnhem Land (Adelaide, SA: Rigby).

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

End notes

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

[ii] First five ladies are of the Djambarrpuyŋu group, the second two Garrawurra, and then the last two are Warrawarra and Birritjama, respectively.

[iii] Milingimbi is the name of the Well, also known as Macassan Well and Yurruwi is the name of the Island.

[iv] Gathul, alt: ḻarrtha’ (mangroves), includes species like wuḏuku, giyapara, muŋuṉmuŋuṉ and wudarritj, after which the boat was named

[v] Time, season and tide directed life in the Crocodile Islands, James, B 2009a.

[vi] Michelle Barratawuy Garrawurra at Gurruruwa Ŋamuyani Milingimbi 2017 recorded and transcribed by B. James.

[vii] Wurrpan (emu) no 2 was made at Milingimbi by engineer Mr Jim Blyth and Djaŋgalan Gupapuyŋu group. It was used for school camps and inter-island travel around the inner Crocodile Islands. It died of old age in 1977 and its remains lay next to those of the River Song at the barge ramp at Ŋamuyani.

[viii] Mud Crab (Scylla serrata), djikuyu (generic), nyoka’ (adult male), djinydjalma’, nyeŋa (adult female), nyuwaḻiyarr (plural) crabs.

[ix] Text, translations and research by Bentley James

Where’s the Fish. Milingimbi Island 2017

While walking around Milingimbi talking to people about the old days I saw my old mum sitting in a wheelchair by the sea. She was sitting with my sister so I asked if I might share the breeze and yarn for a while. While talking about the old days mum made the following comment. She says it’s ok to repeat it! So I wrote it down. This is a story about how important fishing and fish are to the people of the islands.


Doreen Collins, granddaughter of Laurie Baymarrwaŋa, the Ranger! Photograph courtesy ranger Jonh Skutja

“Wanha guya : Where is the fish!”

‘Ŋarra gan nhinan aged careŋur, ga Yolŋuy yuṯa gäŋal ŋatha yakumirriw shoppuy, yaka wakinŋu, bayŋu rerrimirriw ŋatha nhakun guya[1]. Yaka märr-guyupa, yan. Bitjarr warrpam diḻkurruwurru rerrimirr yolŋuy “ŋapurr ŋuthar guyaŋur, ŋappur djäl nhuma yuṯay yolŋuy dhu guya märram balanya baman guŋgayunharraw gurruṯmirr. Warrpam dhu ḏälkum yolŋuny balanya nhakun ŋathil yolŋu gan nhinan walŋa guyay. Guya ŋayi ŋatha ḻatjtukunharraw, ga märrmirri, riŋgitjmirr ga yakumirr. Billi ŋapurr marŋgithin guyaw.”’

“Wanha guya : Where is the fish!”

‘I was sitting in aged care when the young man brought us some unnamed food. We’re not complaining but, we grew up on fish here. We said you “boys should start catching fish in the family way, sharing fish with your family and helping people like they did in the old days. Helping people, making yourself and your families strong on fish. This is an island, surrounded by fish and shellfish and turtles. We want young people to go and catch fish, making people and country strong again, like in the old days when everybody was well, living on fish, fish is good food, and it is life giving, health filled, powerful food, food with names, food we are meaningfully connected to. We grew up on fish.”’

My sister, Doreen, Ranger, said ‘Yo, napurr djäl guyaw djama ga lukanharraw: Yes, we like fishing and eating fish. We want to start a fishing industry again, it’s a good idea, I like it’.

In 2010, after ten years of struggle, Big Boss, Senior Australian of the Year 2012 Laurie Baymarrwaŋa, launched the Crocodile Islands Rangers, with the very phrase that inaugurated it ten years before, ‘Lima gurrku guya riya-gunhanyini ŋalimalamagu gurruṯuwaygu : We will share our fish with our children’[2] Not a new idea, but a good one, an idea with a most substantial genealogy !

Photo courtesy of John Skutja – Crocodile Islands Junior Rangers Coordinator (Milingimbi).

Thank you very much to my mother Michelle Barraṯawuy, and rangers Doreen Collins and John Skutja – Research, B. James; 15.04.2017.

[1]Wakinŋu in this sense means wild or natural distinct from its usual connotations of bad, belonging to no one or illegitimate.

[2]Laurie Baymarrwaŋa 2006 Crocodile Islands Initiative (Crocodile Islands Rangers program) History of the Crocodile Islands Rangers Unpublished notes, B. James. (James. B,. et al 2003)

Baymarrwaŋa & Bentley – Red Book, Blue Book … Big Boss …

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Dr. Zeuss …

‘Virtue’ Portrait of Baymarrwaŋa


‘Virtue’ Portrait of Baymarrwaŋa at Milingimbi by Gill Warden (entrant Archibald Prize) 2013.

Born before the coming of the missions Baymarrwaŋa recalls the seasonal patterns of inter-island travels in the lives of island people in the old days. Surviving foreign fishermen, the usurpation of her homelands, WW2 bombings and forced assimilation, Big Boss as she is affectionately known, started a homeland and school on Murruŋga Island to give back the children’s language and heritage. Raising seven boys, she showed a younger generation the value of walking in the footsteps of the ancestors. She believed very strongly that we must show the world by resisting pressures to assimilate because our culture and languages are unique gifts for the future of all people. Light-heartedly she recalls meeting Bentley in 1993;

‘Yuṯam dharramu garana baŋubal. Nani dhuŋa guya milawa mana man’taṉ, rulka murru rebamthala mana yugupala. Ŋarra mananha marŋgiyunha warrpamgu gana nani buthuru dhumuluŋu. The young man came to the islands. He was unable to catch a fish, collect his dinner or even light the fire and so I had to teach him everything as he was helpless and illiterate’.[1]

The projects they generated to promote innovations in Yan-nhaŋu local knowledge and encourage residence on ‘healthy homelands’ were guided by the principle; ‘Ŋalinyu märr buḻaŋgitj marrkapthana linyalama linyu ga romnha’. We respect each other and the law.’[2] Together, with little to no support, they generated a family of interlinked collaborative projects to create language learning through the life cycle.


Bentley and Baymarrwaŋa talking Yan-nhaŋu, the language of the Crocodile Islands. Murruŋga 2009

In her late eighties and with no English Baymarrwaŋa worked in Yolŋu matha with Bentley, and together they visited and recorded the first Yan-nhaŋu maps (600 sites). Starting with barely 250 Yan-nhaŋu words having previously been recorded they began the Yan-nhaŋu dictionary team (1993-4) preparing the first Yan-nhaŋu dictionary, first ethnography, and using self-generated funds, create a family of lasting collaborative projects. Side by side they created conceived, designed and ran the Crocodile Islands Rangers and junior rangers programs, an on-line (talking-pictorial) trilingual dictionary for homelands schools, multi-generational ‘Language Nests’ project, heritage protection projects on the fish-traps, fresh water wells, fire regimes, creating cultural artefacts, and care for and registration of sacred sites on the Crocodile Islands. They conceived of and negotiated the creation of a turtle sanctuary and were working towards a plan to feed local children everyday with local fish caught and distributed by local rangers, ‘Lima gurrku guya riya-gunhanyini ŋalimalamagu gurruṯuwaygu : We will share our fish with our kin.[3] Senior Australian of the Year 2012, she produced and paid for the lion’s share of the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands, and was deeply grateful to those gracious people that donated to assist her in this work. People who shared her vivid insight. At 576 pages it was a daunting and time consuming task to distribute these unique books to the children of north east Arnhem Land for free. It took over two years to reach the children in over thirty homelands, twelve schools, eight ranger programs, and three hundred libraries nationally. Truly, hers was a gift for the future of all Australian children.


Baymarrwaŋa and Bentley making plans for a culture based future on the islands. Murruŋga 2010.

Together they originated life cycle language learning activities and employment for kin through Ranger projects on country, and also hundreds of hours of language recording on the Homelands comprising a priceless collection of her language, so very nearly extinguished. This work has recently been continued with a new project in Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place. A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land. NAILSMA Ltd.

Bentley has worked on this project for the last three years guided by the principle; ‘Ŋalinyu märr buḻaŋgitj marrkapthana linyalama linyu ga romnha’. We respect each other and the law.’ Following in a direct line from his work with the Big Boss and the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands, the Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa project marries two very different knowledge systems combining intimate Yolŋu wisdom of place with that of modern western science.

Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place. A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land.


On the surface, it is a bilingual book that explains, describes and educates about the availability, names and distribution of shellfish (maypal) throughout the varied ecological zones of Arnhem Land in northern Australia. Precise scientific (Linnaean) identifications with matching colour photographs make it the only comprehensive field guide to Australian shellfish above the tropic of Capricorn and utterly unique.

At its heart, Shellfish, Meaning & Place project captures Yolŋu ways of collaborating, exchanging and engaging with place. Born of the inter-generational generosity of kin and their vision for the future it has taken years to create this book. It engaged extended networks of senior knowledge holders and speakers of many languages from Blue Mud Bay in the east to the Crocodile Islands in the West and beyond.

Original Yolŋu poetry in five languages evokes imagery of the ancestors, seasonal winds and maypal.


The book, organized in Yolŋu alphabetical order, is designed as a resource for bilingual education in schools on homelands and communities. It appeals to those who care for and depend on the marine and coastal environments of North East Arnhem Land and those who want to know more about Yolŋu kinship with the sea. Bringing together again the photographic skills of David Hancock and designer Therese Ritchie it is a work of lush and splendid beauty reminiscent of the Yan-nhangu Atlas.

Lists of Yolŋu ecological communities or zones specify the place, home or wäŋa where particular maypal live. A key to identification indicates the many Yolŋu names for maypal, also alternative scientific identifications that have been recorded in the past – as many may still have currency – and lists sources, resources and bibliography.

It includes a beautiful colour map by cartographer Simon Watkinson tracing the broader geographical range of Yolŋu languages and important named sites. Gäwa song man and elder Dhawa says– The north wind tells of the ancestors and the time of maypal. Intricate circular seasonal calendars reveal the names of the winds and seasons of Gäwa and cyclic return of resources in the Warramiri language.

From a linguistic perspective, the book refers indirectly to the distinctive and connected world-views of over fifty North east Arnhem Land clans (bäpurru) speaking some seven discrete Yolŋu languages and their many dialects.


Bentley and Baymarrwaŋa recording dance, songs, stories and poetry of the distant sea. Murruŋga 2010.

Following in the tradition started by the Senior Australian of the Year Laurie Baymarrwaŋa, the book Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa will be made a gift for children across Arnhem Land. The Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa book project has been supported by North Australian Indigenous Sea and Land Managers Alliance Ltd.

For more information on this project and its antecedents see the following references.


Baymarrwaŋa, L., James, B., Barraṯawuy, M and the Yan-nhaŋu Dictionary Team. Forthcoming. The Yan-nhaŋu Grammar.

Aigner, K (editor), 2017.  Australia: the Vatican Museums collection.  CittaÌ del Vaticano : Edizioni Musei Vaticani Text by: K. Aigner, K. Akerman, H. Boyd, P. Dodson, D. Ferguson, J. Healy, J. Hunt, B. James, W.P. Jampijinpa, P. Jones, S. Kleinert, A. McGrath, I. McLean, H. Morphy, B. Pascoe, A. Poelina, B. Rooney, J. Ryan, T. Swain, M. West. Exhibition Vatican City Vatican Museums Ethnological Collection. Vatican City, Rome, Italy.

Poem: Baymarrwaŋa, L. 2016, Lima barrŋarra ŋalamaya wata dhuptana gurrku gayaŋa warguguyana mana limalanha ŋurruṉaŋgalbu. When we hear the wind blow our thoughts turn to our ancestors. In James, Bentley & NAILSMA Ltd. in Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place. A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land. NAILSMA Ltd. p18

Portrait: Baymarrwaŋa, L. 2016, B&W (Bapa Shepi: Rev. Harold Shepherdson collection) in James, Bentley & NAILSMA Ltd Maypal, Mayali’ ga Wäŋa: Shellfish, Meaning & Place. A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land. NAILSMA Ltd. p10.

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

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

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)

Baymarrwaŋa, L. Milinditj and Horniblow T. 2014. Nhaŋu dhaŋuny giyitibu. Murruŋga Homeland Learning Centre Milingimbi CEC.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. Milinditj and Horniblow T. 2014. Nhaŋu dhaŋuny garambakabu. Murruŋga Homeland Learning Centre Milingimbi CEC.

James, Bentley. Painting Virtue: A portrait of Laurie Baymarrwangga [online]. Art Monthly Australia, No. 261, Jul 2013: 32-33.

Portrait ‘virtue’ 1.45m x1.45m oil and (ratjpa) ochre on canvas Gillian Warden, (Archibald Prize: 2013), hanging in NAILSMA North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Managers Alliance at the North Australian Research Unit NARU. Darwin.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B., 2012. Salt Water Burning: Yan-nhaŋu Innovation in Land & Sea Management in the Crocodile Islands. Report for Crocodile Islands Rangers. Milingimbi. N.T. 0822.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. 2012. Salt Water Burning: Yan-nhaŋu Innovation in Land & Sea Management in the Crocodile Islands. Maps, plans and directions for customary burning behaviours on the outer and inner islands for Crocodile Islands Rangers Milingimbi. N.T. 0822.

James, B., Baymarrwaŋa, L. 2011. Yan-nhaŋu Dictionary: 1994-2011 in ‘Voice Of The Land’ – Spring. FATSIL issue 7 (15-17)

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. and M, Barraṯawuy, 2011 Ranger Story. Seasonal work activities of the Crocodile Islands Rangers, Bilingual text Murruŋga Homelands School.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. and M, Barraṯawuy, 2011 Seasons of the Crocodile Islands, Bilingual text Murruŋga Homelands School.

Baymarrwaŋa, L., James, B., Barraṯawuy, M., Watkinson, S., Bussini, C. Yan-nhaŋu Ecological Data Base. Yan-nhaŋu Language and Ancestral Geography of the Crocodile Islands. 2010. 5OOO Geo-spatial entries linked to 600 named sites in the Crocodile Islands. Author’s collection.

Commemorative Stamps 2012 Australia Post. Australians Who Make Us Proud. Laurie Baymarrawangga Community Elder. 2012 . Australian Postal Corporation publishers, Sydney. Australia.

Baymarrwangga, L., James, B and Lydon, J. 2011, Conciliation Narratives Conflict and Conciliation Across Empires: The ‘Myalls’ Ultimatum’: Photography, Negotiation and Reconciliation in the Crocodile Islands. Public Lecture Melbourne University, VIC.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. 2010a. Kantri liaf : Talking Culture on Country. Yan-nhaŋu, Issue 6 July 2010 Page 14-17 CDU Press, Darwin. N.T.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. and M, Barraṯawuy, 2009 unpublished bilingual report Yan- nhaŋu Ecological Knowledge and Learning in the Crocodile Islands NAISMA. Country visits, recordings, video, DVD, bilingual report.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. and M, Barraṯawuy, 2009. Lloyd Warner, TT Webb and Donald Thomson at Murruŋga. Unpublished report, recordings and photos at the MOPRA shed.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. and the Yan-nhaŋu dictionary team, 2007. Gokuluyu Mana Bulthunway, Yan-nhaŋu hand signs of the Crocodile Islands. Unpublished notes.

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.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. 2003. Yindi Djimikubu Dhaŋuny: Putting up the Telstra Tower at Murruŋga. Bilingual text Murruŋga Homelands School.

James. B., Baymarrwaŋa, L., Gularrbaŋga,R., Djarga, M., Nyambal, R., Nyuŋunyuŋu No 2, M. 1994-2001. Draft Yan-nhaŋu Dictionary. Unpublished maps, grammar, ethno-linguistic notes, purpose and aims Yan-nhaŋu Dictionary Team. Author’s collection.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. 2002. ‘Garriwa’: Turtles of the Crocodile Islands. Bilingual text Murruŋga Homelands School.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. 1998a. Unpublished notes on Yan-nhaŋu Sorcery and Ritual at Murruŋga.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. 1998b. Unpublished notes on Yan-nhaŋu Sorcery and Ritual at Gurriba.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. 1997. Unpublished notes on Marine Turtle Custodians of Murruŋga.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. 1996. Unpublished notes on Yan-nhaŋu, Language of the Crocodile Islands.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. 1994. Unpublished notes on Yan-nhaŋu, Language of the Crocodile Islands.


‘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

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

‘Big Boss Race Against Time.’ Year: 2011. Mirrimirri Films and ATOM, Runtime: 26 min, Directed By: Paul Sinclair, Produced By: Jade Sinclair Matt Dwyer, Language: Yan-nhangu language, English subtitles; Work guide for students 20p PDF. Australian teachers of media

‘Crocodile Islands Rangers.’ Year: 2010. Mirrimirri Films, Runtime: 26 min, Directed By: Paul Sinclair, Produced By: Jade Sinclair Matt Dwyer, Language: Yan-nhangu language, English subtitles


Hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings on numerous topics related to language and life on the Crocodile Islands.

On-line references;dn=488819924002495;res=IELLCC

Laurie Baymarrwangga: la grande bisnonna.

Big Boss Baymarrwaŋa at Murruŋga working on the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands 2009.


[1](Baymarrwaŋa, L and B, James. 2014: 6)

[2] (Baymarrwaŋa, L and B, James. 2014: 7)

[3](Life time Achievement Award -NTNRM 2011)

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

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

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

Three Notes at Midnight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucia Gelonesi

WOW, thank you.



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

Incessant initiative and industry

Dr Bentley James speaks to children at Sanderson Middle School

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Bentley James speaks to children at Sanderson Middle School

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

Ms Tammy Llewelyn
Senior Teacher

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

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

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

Big Bill Neidjie (c. 1920 – 2002)

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

Bill Neidjie says

That tree now, feeling…

e blow

sit quiet, you speaking…

that tree now e speak…

that wind e blow…

e can listen…

We think.

Story we think about, yes.


That story e listen.

Story…you’n’me same.

Grass im listen.

You’n’me same…anykind.

Bird e listen…anykind, eagle.

E sit down. E want to speak eagle eh?

Im listen. You listen…eagle.

Because e put im through your feeling.

But for us eagle…

all same.

Listen carefully, careful

and this spirit e come in your feeling

and you will feel it…anyone that.

I feel it…my body same as you.

I telling you this because the land for us,

never change round, never change.

Places for us, earth for us,

star, moon, tree, animal,

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

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

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

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

LAND (excerpt)


They can’t listen for us.

They just listen for money.



Million no good for us.

We need this earth to live because

We’ll be dead,

We’ll become earth.

This ground and this earth,

like brother and mother.


My children got to hang onto this story.

This important story.

I hang onto this story all my life.

My father tell me this story.

My children can’t lose it.


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

This not easy story.

No-one else can tell it

Because this story for Aboriginal culture.


I speak English for you,

So you can listen,

So you can know,

You will understand.

If I put my language in same place,

You won’t understand.


Our story is in the land.

It is written in those sacred places.

My children will look after those places,

That’s the law.



It is sacred



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

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

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


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

Jurlpu Wardikinpirri-wana: Bilingual Warlpiri Bird Book



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


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

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

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

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

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


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

In 1994 IAD Press published ‘Aboriginal Languages in Education’

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


  1. 37. Manangkarra – spinifex country

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

  1. 45 Pamarrpa-wana – In the hills

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

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

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

  1. 44. Yuurku – Mulga forest

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

  1. 46 Marliri – Claypans

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

  1. 47 Warnirri – Rockholes

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

  1. 48 Murluwurru – Salt Lakes

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

  1. 49 Karru – Creeks

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

  1. 49 Ngurra-wana – Around the camp

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

  1. 50 Bore-wana – Around the bore

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Walalja is a Warlpiri word, often translated as Family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next time,

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


Coastal Livelihoods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NAILSMA eNews update June 2015.


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

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

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

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

Higher education, local knowledge, livelihoods and the future

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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



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