Arnhem Weaving. 3rd June, 2011
Today I start my adventure, awaking early from sleep all that
was in my head was the fear and excitement about the unknown
ahead. I was so excited and nervous as I really didn't know
what to expect. This was my first visit to the Northern Territory
I am now on the plane to Darwin (from Sydney) and as I take
off I am excited to take in a learning from people I have always
wanted to meet. I never wanted the tourist visit to meet a
community on their land. As I fly across the desert I am in
awe of how beautiful the landscape is below, red, orange, green,
cracked patterns. Like looking at a Fred Williams or John Olsen
Arrived in Darwin and then off to meet the women with whom
I will be travelling. It was great to have one familiar person
on the trip, this was Camilla who I had met previously on a
weaving workshop at Sturt in Bowral.
Off to bed early and next morning meet everyone at Jingilli.
As we were loading our stuff into the troopies John who was
taking us into Mapuru asked for a volunteer to help him load
his troopie. We loaded two freezers(one for our group, and
one for the community) and fantastic coloured chairs in red,
blue, green and yellow for the school at Mapuru. We loaded
masses of fuel, and picked lettuces and zucchini from the garden
to take to Linda, John's wife who is headmistress of the school.
I warmed to John immediately and we drove for hours listening
and learning about Yolongul people. I learnt from him to listen,
watch and learn, not too many questions. Everything is about
generations, what came before. As we pass cyclads he explains
they are spirits of the land, we are one. Storm clouds could
be mother, individuals do not exist, from one family the Yolngu
go back forever. As we journey through the bush, white termite
mounds like giant sculptures appear, some look distinctly like
families communicating with each other. Termite mounds now
terracotta in colour and have changed shape. Shadows forming
on the road, sun is starting to set.
never-ending road has started, gravel freshly raked, which
John tells me is easier to travel on than usual. Sun has set
now as we go over dips into blackened holes of water. One of
the dips was a beautiful small lake, reflection of trees in
very black water.
Finally arrive very late to meet the group who have already
set up camp and have kept us some dinner on the campfire, next
to the Winton River. To my delight a great greeting from Camilla
and Joanna who had surprised me by setting up my tent. It was
so kind and generous and very mothering.I am no longer nervous,
I feel like I really belong on this land and with the people
with whom I am sharing this journey. Camped under the stars,
Next morning off again this time in one of the group troopies.
Sat in the back sketching away having a great conversation
with Kate learning all about being an Environmental Lawyer.
Bounced around as we talked enjoying the company.
Now at the Goyder River. Flows from the highland. Saz (our
leader) and John deciding how we will cross the river as it
is still quite high from the wet season, which has run later
this year. Very peaceful, everyone enjoying this beautiful
place. This is a magical moment - everyone doing what they
want. Some writing or reading, some talking and some being.
Wow now came the river crossing...amazing. I watched Saz move
up and down the river waist deep in water, feeling the tide,
the depths, soft or hard, deep or shallow, and Meg watching
for anything dangerous in the water, yes maybe crocodiles.
John now swam across the river with a safety rope to attach
to each troopie. It was such an exciting crossing and fortunately
a safe one.
John went ahead after we all had lunch, and at the next river
crossing we bogged one of the troopies. Amazing what a group
of women are capable of. We all gathered together and realized
the shovels and ropes were with John. This did not deter us
for a moment. We shoveled with our hands, pushed the trailer
up the hill, and together got us out of trouble.
Then on our way all a little weary we were met by John and
some of the community from Mapuru . Three more bogs on the
way, so much part of the adventure. We had an extreme ride
in with Jimmy driving us towards his home. On a very rough
track - hours of jolting and then we arrived. I would not have
changed this journey in any way. It was just the beginning
of why I had come.
We were shown to a cleared part of the land of the community
and we pitched our tents, while some cooked dinner for all
of us. Left the waterproof off the side of my tent to watch
and sleep with the most fantastic galaxy of stars.
The Mapuru women arrived and laid out the dyed and colorful
pandanas ready to start weaving. We arrive one by one in silence,
respecting the space we are in. We sit and watch, waiting to
be asked to weave. I sat on the ground next to Linda, a grandmother
of her community and leader. She has taught many before me
and with her sister Margaret and sister in law Clara set up
these workshop to support their families and integrate and
teach their culture to us.
I watch Linda starting a basket, no words are spoken. I start
after being handed the piece she has started. I love being
here, not much talk, concentrating on weaving, very much a
meditation. Children giggling around us, a close community.
From there each day started with some of us going to the school
where Linda (headmistress), Danielle, and Roslyn were teaching
the children Yolngu and English. We would listen to the children
read English. This was such a wonderful experience. A gift
to us and them. This would be followed by songs in both languages.
So happy, the children love it. Their smiles are worth a million
The following day we went out and gathered pandanas followed
by another day of root collecting and fishing led by Clara.
The mangroves were amazingly picturesque and at times we were
knee deep in mud.
There were so many memorable moments including swimming in
a rock pool with some of the children, the young women sitting
around weaving with us and the young men in another part of
the land bark painting with their fathers and elders, cooking
on a campfire, sitting and listening to Margaret, Linda and
Clara converse wondering what they were saying. So many moments
with the community that some cannot be described.
One of the mements was when I was so frustrated with myself
not understanding how to weave, and Linda in English says "think"!
She was so wise, I had got so caught up with getting it right
I had forgotten what she had taught me not in words but by
watching. An important message learnt.
And so the week came to an end, with a beautiful send off
of dance and didgeridoo.
We said our goodbyes that night and some of us promised to
return. I want to thank Linda, Margaret, Clara and all the
women who taught us so much.
I have taken with me an experience that words cannot describe.
I can only say thank you for a lifetime experience which in
the future I will return to again.
Photos by Joanna Park and Jo Meisner
Arnhem Weaving trip….
a thank you from Kate Cranney
There are moments that, four months on, I remember vividly
from Mäpuru in June 2011.
Mangrove mud oozing between my toes, the women’s colourful
baskets swaying in the wind and Linda’s thumbs up when
I’d finally understood how to weave a dilly-bag. Then
there was the happy gurgle of baby Tiesha as she was passed
between the Mäpuru women and girls, the sudden cackle
of laughter underneath the paperbark shelter and the echo of
dozens of kids singing ‘my island goaty-oaty-oaty-oaty-oat’ from
the school building.
I am grateful for the generosity of the Mäpuru women
in taking the time to teach our hodgepodge group of balanda
(Western) women about Yolŋu culture.
Our group was made up of a wonderful array of ladies, mostly
from Melbourne and Sydney. We quickly got to know each other
within the first two days, travelling by troopie across Arnhem
Land. While it was sometimes challenging, I would never dream
of trading the drive for a flight. The country was beautiful,
the trip gave me time to breathe and it was good fun digging
the vehicle out of the umpteenth bog, covered in mud, singing
muddy songs. Still, it was a relief to be greeted by Angeline
and some of the men and boys an hour from the homeland.
Digging the troopie out of a bog. Practicing dance moves, possibly
I think most of our group was a little nervous the first couple
of days, chatting busily and asking lots of questions…the
way that we are used to communicating. But over the days a
quiet calm gradually wove its way under the hut. It felt comfortable
to be silent, sitting next to each other. I was alone with
my own thoughts and still connected with the women around me.
Over the week we wove day and night, swam in the crystal-clear
waterholes, helped out in the school and ate buffalo. I was
adopted by Marceil -my sister or yapa- who I hope to meet again
over the coming years.
Clara leading the way to the mangroves, where we went fishing & ate
latjin (mangrove worms).
The Mäpuru women and girls shared with us their culture:
how to fish, be still, collect pandanus and weave with the
stripped, dyed and dried leaves. I left with an appreciation
of the depth of knowledge that these women hold.
There is also depth of meaning and interconnectedness in every
thought and decision that is both beautiful and hard to grasp.
It was only when I spoke to a friend (who had done the men’s
group) that I realised I had made a mistake. Margaret had indicated
that I should weave with yellow then green, yellow then green
and so on. I didn’t understand why she seemed disappointed
with me when, on a whim, I decided to include a band of white
pandanus. I didn’t know that the women choose your colour
carefully, thoughtfully, based on your character, your relationship
with your adopted sister, mother, grandmother etc.
I recently heard Wade Davis, the ‘explorer in residence’ at
National Geographic, remark that all of his travels have taught
him one thing: that the wealth of community is best measured
not on physical possessions, but on the cohesion and harmony
of the group. I felt the sense of belonging and care at Mäpuru:
from the way that Tiesha was held to how food was shared with
I also learnt what it means to be strong. I fancied myself
as a fairly capable, resilient young country woman until I
heard some of the ladies’ stories. In the 1960’s
Elder community members had cleared the airstrip by hand. There
were no bulldozers, wheelbarrows, graders or heavy machinery.
Instead they had cleared the trees from the airstrip with axes,
removing stumps with iron bars and, to fill holes, they had
carried soil from the creeks on paper bark sheets. I imagine
it also took considerable strength of spirit to overcome bureaucratic
hurdles and establish a school that respects and strengthens
I have many funny memories from the week at Mäpuru. Balanda
women digging the troopy out, covered from toes to tonsils
in mud; playing games around the campfire and Linda laughing
at my re-enactment of a cane toad’s unceremonious death
and then acting out her own amphibious story. When I ate a
latjin (mangrove worm) without squeezing the mud from its bowels,
learning quickly from my mistake (Yolŋu education is refreshing,
empowering and truly heuristic). Then there was one afternoon
when Danielle, the lovely balanda teacher, looked up mid-explanation
and inadvertently began teaching a Mäpuru lady a Yolŋu
word. There was a moment of confusion and then everyone burst
into laughter. And finally, I remember noticing some of the
young girls shaking their bodies and making strange noises,
suddenly realising that they were mimicking my laugh! Brilliant.
The trip was supported by a number of Balanda. Sass, from
CERES, was an incredibly selfless and perceptive group facilitator.
Bojan and Meg drove the troopies from dawn til dusk. John Greatorex
was patient and generous, both with his time (helping us travel
to and from the homelands in one piece) and with this knowledge,
answering our questions with diplomacy and kindness. Linda
and Danielle were wonderful company and helped everyone feel
Collecting pandanus; walking towards the mangroves; and detail
of Angeline’s beautiful basket.
Finally, I thought I might share a gentle lesson I learnt
on letting go.
One afternoon, I was helping Roslyn to strip the pandanus
that we had helped to collect. Characteristically, I was determined
to do a good job, perfect even. I sat with Roslyn, the ever-kind
and motherly Yolŋu teacher, as she showed me how to gently,
firmly separate the fibres: “like this (bend, halve,
strip), like this (bend, halve, strip), like this…” It
looked easy enough. But I continuously split the fibre (too
thick, then too thin), rendering the whole strip useless.
I apologised, “Argh! Roslyn, I’m sorry. I keep
wrecking them!” I felt frustrated and guilty for ruining
the pandanus; pandanus that had taken some time to collect
Roslyn touched my hand and, without realising the significance
of her kind response, said simply, “it’s okay,
you’re just learning.”
I feel I have much to learn…about Yolŋu culture, Indigenous
issues closer to home, how to comprehend what has happened
in the past and to understand my part in what is happening
now. The Arnhem Weaving women and girls shared their knowledge
with such love and generosity. It still makes me smile thinking
about Mapuru: Linda and Margaret and the girls teaching me
how to weave, Roslyn enfolding me in her bosom when I was saying
goodbye and the manymak balanda women who I was fortunate enough
to share the Arnhem Weaving trip with.
Thank you to Lol (Loredana) and Joanna for the photos.
Through the open scrub a barefoot Märi (grandmother)
gracefully, methodically strides through the crisp understory,
her gaze steadily fixed on the ground. Drawing a deep knowledge
from the landscape she touches a fine leaf and tweaking it
follows the fragile vine in its illusive weave until she reaches
its source. With little effort she is cross-legged on the ground
and after a strenuous dig, unearthed is one of the many varieties
of ŋatha (carbohydrate food) or yams. Like the leaves and vine
that lead to the ŋatha itself, thousand of years of story telling
and singing guide the modern day Yolŋu women who continue this
tradition of sustaining their families by collecting bush tucker.
Linda Marathuwarr with “djalpiŋu”- a variety of ŋatha.
The multi generational gathering of bush tucker is usual practice
for the women of Mäpuru. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters and
great granddaughters are always together collecting, preparing
and eating the local foods. Like the ŋatha buried deep underground
there is so much more involved in this process than the leaf
on the surface. Each food has connection to these families
through kinship and deep cultural significance. Every time
the food is collected the younger generation hear the stories
and songs of their ancestors and learn about their relationship
to people and place. They learn more of who they are in this
complex Yolŋu world. We are fortunate to be here with the women
of Mäpuru, to hear their songs and stories and to work in collaboration
with the younger women, as they record and document the gathering
of bush tucker. The first day begins with a lengthy discussion
amongst the women, the younger women who already know and harvest
twenty or so varieties of ŋatha would like to find and eat
some of the ŋatha species that they know of but are yet to
experience. The older women are happy to collect the nourishing
ŋatha and share their vast knowledge with the younger generations.
Rebecca Gayurrwi and Linda Marathuwarr
Rebecca Gayurrwi and Juliette Gitjpulu, take to using the
video cameras very quickly and within no time both are confidently
recording their grandmothers, Linda Marathuwarr and Margaret
Bambalarra, as they collect ŋatha and tell stories.
A spine tingling moment occurs when one of the elders, Marathuwarr
sings an old song about the bush food. I am transported to
the heart of this ancient place by the haunting melody which
conveys the richness of its meaning, even though I am lost
by the words.
Gayurrwi is easy with her grandmother and her ability to ask questions and draw
out information from her elder, gives the strong sense of the depth of their
relationship and the respect that is present between them. The elders are unstoppable
in their drive to collect ŋatha, their instinct is to sustain their
community with this food and their stamina is inspiring. Whilst observing Gayurrwi
filming her grandmother Linda Marathuwarr, I suddenly see her whole face light
up. Marathuwarr has unearthed a variety of ŋatha, “djalpiŋu” that
Gayurrwi has not seen before. Her delight is obvious and she
excitedly asks more information about the treasure, much communication
ensues amongst the elders of the group as they tell the stories
of this particular food.
We return to Mäpuru and shortly we feast on all the ŋatha that
was collected. Firstly a large fire is built and rocks are
heated up to form coals, the ŋatha is washed in preparation.
The coals are then place in a pit with wet grass or leaves
on top- the ŋatha is next and then a layer of wet
paper bark. Finally a layer of soil to seal the heat and the
food is left to steam for half an hour. People begin to gather
around the fire in anticipation of some delicacies. Amongst
them is Jackie, uncle of Gayurrwi and Gitjpulu. As he enjoys
one of the uncommon ŋatha he exclaims, “it reminds
me of being a child”. A sentiment to which we all relate, the
textured memory of sharing a favourite food that has been lovingly
prepared with family and friends.
Margaret Bambalarra washes theŋatha in
preparation for cooking
That evening we upload the day’s footage and Gayurrwi and
Gitjpulu are really pleased with their efforts and the quality
of information they have collected. Very quickly Gayurrwi picks
up the program i-Movie and begins to produce short films following
the chronology of events, collecting preparing and enjoying
the food together. As she is training to teach at the Mäpuru
Christian School she has first hand knowledge of several obscure
yams, and as a bonus, video skills and a great resource to
share with the future generations. We leave Mäpuru nourished
and humbled by these remarkable women, satisfied, like after
a good feed of ŋatha.
I was fortunate to visit Mäpuru in 2010 for a weaving
trip with the Arnhem Weavers. This project is a result of that
first trip and also involved Nia, Sas, John, and the generous
residents of Mäpuru.