Often when you open the newspaper the news is full of doom and gloom, but today there was a story that put a permanent smile on my face. Laurie Baymarrwaŋa has been given the Senior Australian of the Year award. Baymarrwaŋa* is the senior custodian of the Crocodile Islands, off Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.
When she was born, the number of Europeans who had been to Arnhem Land could probably be counted on one hand. When the Milingimbi mission was established, it was supplied by a barge that came once or twice a year. Now there are daily flights, a weekly barge, TV, and a few years ago, Milingimbi got 3G internet and phone reception. Murruŋga’s got a public phone too. There’s a picture of Baymarrwaŋa in Donald Thomson’s photo collections from the early 1930s. She’s standing in a stone fish-trap, looking at the camera a bit skeptically.
My yapa has been active in community development and cultural projects since the 1960s. She established Murruŋga outstation on Yan-nhaŋu country, where Yan-nhaŋu kids can learn about all sorts of things, Yolŋu and Western, in a traditional environment. I met Baymarrwaŋa first in 2004, when I started work with her and some of the other Yan-nhaŋu women on a documentation project. Before that, she had been working with Bentley James, a teacher at Milingimbi school. Working with the Yolŋu women was quite different from other fieldwork I’d done. They knew exactly what they wanted to get out of the work, what they wanted to contribute, and what they expected from me. It was very exciting for me not to be in charge of the project, to take direction from the people who were the experts in the language. I was there to provide some structure to the project, but right from the start it was far more collaborative than anything else.
The still centre of that project was Baymarrwaŋa. She’s one of these people who “knows everything”, who always knows the answer to any question, who has an extraordinary patience and determination. While I worked with her on Yan-nhaŋu, her main language, she is also a true Yolŋu in that she’s also totally fluent in Dhuwal, Burarra, and Ganalbiŋu, and quite happy in Gumatj, Gunwinygu, and a few other languages too. The newspaper reports say she doesn’t speak English, but I asked her about that once and she said that with all these other languages, if White people couldn’t be bothered to learn even an easy language like Dhuwal, it wasn’t her job to do all the work of communicating. We worked in a mixture of Dhuwal, Yan-nhaŋu, and English, and as you can imagine, someone with that attitude to language is a wonderful person for a fieldworker to work with.
She’s been concerned for some time about the fragility of knowledge, and was careful to make sure that it was “backed up” on paper, not to be put in a museum, but so that it would be available for Yan-nhaŋu people to come. She has also been keen for others to learn about Yan-nhaŋu language and culture, and to recognise that there are still custodians of the Crocodile Islands. For example, when we were recording information about women’s business, my instructions were to play those tapes to the female students in my classes, because they deserved to have that knowledge shared too. Some of the Yan-nhaŋu materials are available. There’s a learner’s guide to the language, and a dictionary is in progress.
It’s wonderful that Baymarrwaŋa has been recognised for her hard work. The committee really got it right with this award. Buḻaŋgitj mini, yapa, nhunu mana yindi djäma binmunu. Gatjpu’yun nhämayini lima gurrku, ŋarra roŋiyirri Murruŋgali ga nyena rrambaŋi lima gurrku ga waŋayini yänmurru. Dhäpirrk, marrkapway ditya.
*This is her Yolŋu name. Many Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land have an English name like “Alison” or “Margaret” and a Yolŋu name. For official forms, the Yolŋu name is a surname, but it’s the name that’s often used when talking about people. (In other Yolŋu areas, people use their Yolŋu name and a clan name. For example, Mandurrwuy Yunupiŋu’s last name is a clan name, not a Yolŋu first name.)