Karajarri cultural database

Karajarri people believe all forms of life and ecological processes, including the landscape, people, language and customs are connected to Pukarrikarrajangka (the Dreamtime). Set down from Pukarrikarrajangka, Karajarri country is the source of spirit, culture and language and is the country where Karajarri people’s spirits return. (Karajarri Healthy Country Plan 2012–2022).

Realising that there were only a few elders and cultural knowledge was being lost Karajarri cultural coordinator, Mervyn Mulardy began recording stories and information.

For many thousands of years, the Karajarri people have lived in their country that stretches from the Indian Ocean, east to the Great Sandy Desert. They share cultural traditions with their nearest neighbours, the Yawuru people (north), Nyikina and Mangala people (to the northeast), and Ngarla and Nyangumarta people (to the south). (Healthy Country Plan).

Once the Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) over the Karajarri land was declared in 2014, Mervyn together with the then IPA coordinator (Sam Bailey), began the process of setting up a structured database to store the cultural information Mervyn had been collecting.

Using modern technology, the Karajarri Cultural database is a way of preserving and passing on cultural knowledge for future generations. The database has two categories – one for cultural knowledge and the other a work database for rangers, informing and linking to the rangers’ work and storing information that they collect when on-country.

Photo: Karajarri Cultural Database & Language Workshop 2019

What information is stored in the Karajarri Cultural database

Mervyn has recorded cultural knowledge and stories, which includes:

Land management

The Karajarri Cultural database contains information that can be used by rangers to know their country. There is a large site map of all the waterholes and springs on country. For instance, if rangers are at Dragon Tree soak, they can click on that icon and the information about Dragon Tree soak will come up, including the cultural name, information about the place, and pictures and videos from that site.

Rangers also assist in the ongoing development of the database by recording their work when they are working on country, alongside Mervyn. They record where they are, what they have done and take photos. This enables Mervyn to access the information from recent ranger work. As Mervyn says, “It’s easy for me to get information to report to the project. Can go back and see what I did on what date and what I did.”

The cultural database helps weave the cultural stories of caring for country in with land management activities.   But it is more than just about storing information and being used for land management; this information is also being actively used to share knowledge and cultural information, which is being used for:

From Pukarrikarra, it is Karajarri people’s responsibility to look after country and to ensure that traditions are passed on to future generations. (Healthy Country Plan)

Community research

Karajarri are working with scientists and anthropologists to learn more about their culture and history, particularly where knowledge has been lost.

Some sites are only known from stories which has been passed down through generations; sites which have not been visited by current Karajarri traditional owners. Mervyn commented that knowing more about the sites and when and how their ancestors used them, ‘lift[s] our spirit up to know our people have been here’.  

This important work helps to identify important dreaming places and sacred sites to learn more about how and when those sites were used (including the dating of ancient paintings), is then added to the Karajarri Cultural database.

Revitalising culture and ceremonies

Cultural knowledge is transferred through many different ceremonies and through everyday life. Wampurrkujarra (Karajarri Law) is a critical element of passing on Pukarrikarra (Dreamtime) knowledge to young generations and in progressing young boys into manhood. Wampurrkujarra requires the whole community to be involved in various ceremonies with law bosses and family members carrying out duties depending on their relationships. (Healthy Country Plan)

Mervyn stated that some traditional ceremonies haven’t been performed for many, many years; and as a result of the cultural Karajarri Cultural database, these ceremonies are being revitalised. For example, in late 2019 the Mijilmilmyia Lore Revitalisation – a traditional ceremony was performed in Broome that hadn’t been performed for 50 years.

Family and friends (many from across the Kimberley region and southern parts of Western Australia) gathered at Mijilmilmyia to take part in welcoming and bringing out thirteen young men from the bush; and provided support to all experiencing Aboriginal cultural lore ceremony for the first time.

This activity supported cultural travel across native title boundaries for youth and elders. It led to the strengthening of family ties and inter-group relationships as well the revitalisation of over 50 songs which were practiced and secured by Karajarri singers, including up to 50 young boys.

The Karajarri Traditional Lands Association created a cultural arm that dedicated to running cultural activities and programs, doing ceremonies, and keeping language alive.

And later this month, a pearl shell ceremony will be performed. This will revitalise a ceremony that hasn’t practised for 30–40 years.

Mervyn described learning songs from his elders when he was a boy and remembering how it took a long time to learn how to twist his tongue (maru) the right way.   Songs his grandfather past down – Pintirri – he is now teaching to young people; the importance and meaning of these songs, performing and singing them properly…and twisting maru correctly.  The pintirri came from yatangal or ‘spirit’ form which comes in dreams.  Mervyns grandfather walked around places in his dreams which gave him songs. The cultural importance of places, animals, country and water holes are held in these songs.

With the Karajarri Cultural database, each song has a description of what the song is about and the lyrics in language. This has made it much easier of the kids to learn to the right sound and pronunciation.

Bush food book and seasonal calendar

Karajarri people traditionally live by the seasons, reading the signs to know when and where they should go to harvest the resources on country. (Healthy Country Plan)

The Karajarri women rangers have printed a book on bush foods which they have presented and shared with the kids at the school.

The Karajarri team are also working with scientists to learn more about their bush medicines. The TOs have the knowledge of what plants were used for and for what purposes; but are interested to know what ‘chemical’ or active ingredient is inside the plant.

“We would like to know more about the science side what is in this”, Mervyn said.

A related project is the development of a seasonal calendar using information and stories from the Karajarri Cultural database and knowledge from the rangers. Once completed, the seasonal calendar will present the interaction around animals, plants, constellations, and how people use them in land management. The calendar will include a map of migratory patterns of animals and people (where they used to seasonally move), seasonal flowering and fruiting of plants and how that links with animals and hunting (for example, when a particular plant is in flower it means it’s time to hunt kangaroo).

How is the Karajarri Cultural database shared?

Currently the rangers have access to the database through Mervyn. The next step is to have meetings and workshops with the community to discuss making parts of the Karajarri Cultural database public, whilst retaining culturally important information private and offline.

10 Desert Project would like to thank Meryvn Malardy, Karajarri cultural coordinator. Find out more about the great work Karajari is doing on country – https://www.ktla.org.au/

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