In 2021 the Yindjibarndi people of the Pilbara (North-Western Australia) became the first Aboriginal people to gain exclusive native title over a mine. As evidence of their timeless link to their land they submitted to the court songs, stories and paintings from their archive — Juluwarlu.
Juluwarlu was started in the late 80s by Yindjibarndi people, inspired by the recordings of German anthropologist Carl Von Brandenstein. It is an example of what Indigenous curator Margo Neal1 calls “the third archive”. The combination of a Western written and technological archive and an Aboriginal archive embedded in “country” as songlines — a mnemonic device for remembering vast amounts of oral history and ecological information.
In 2021 and 2022 I was invited by SPACED, Juluwarlu and Ngaarda Media to take part in a two-part residency in Ieramagadu/Roebourne on Ngarluma country. For an artist interested in sound and linguistics (I work across radio, performance and exhibition) it was an incredible opportunity to work with a culture that privileges orality and is actively preserving its endangered language. I volunteered my skills with sound to extend Juluwarlu’s aims, proposing to use anarchist ecologist Peter Kropotkin’s concept of mutual aid as a research methodology and develop projects with shared aims and outcomes. I’d later find out that mutual aid has a Yindjibarndi equivalent: nyanti.
The Pilbara is not a place that immediately springs to mind as being central to narratives of what Australia is and yet the contradictions of the entire colony are at the surface here. Colonised in earnest in the 1920s, many Indigenous resistance movements originated or had strong presences there; stolen wages, the station walk off, black deaths in custody and land rights struggles.
It is also a place where Australia’s richest people and companies originated. Both the Hancock and Forrest families transformed pastoral leases (which often included indentured aboriginal labourers) into multi-billion dollar iron ore mining operations. Fortescue Metals, Hancock Prospecting and Rio Tinto all come out of the Pilbara.
My first collaboration with Juluwarlu was an oral history that documented the struggles of a generation of Elders who lived between the 1930s and early 2000s that premiered at The Autostrade Biennale, Kosovo in July 2023.
During my second residency I collected contemporary stories from Ngarluma elders Frank and Ricky Smith who had lived at the Yindjibarndi community of Ngurrawaana for more than 20 years. These stories involved encounters with the Yindjibarndi spirit called the Marlaangu, a bigfoot-like creature capable of shape shifting who protects the land and plays tricks on the people living there.
Humorous and scary by turns, the Marlaangu Project collects these stories and re-tells them in Yindjibarndi as read by Michael Woodley, Lorraine Coppin and Wimiya Woodley. The work is set to music and soundscapes that were recorded on location. The audio is subtitled and accompanied by the artist Wendy Hubert’s paintings, a Yindjibarndi elder who advised and assisted me greatly on the project and whose images depict the landscapes the stories inhabit.
The intention of the work is not simply to exist in Australian and European art galleries but also to provide a new text in Yindjibarndi that reinvigorates young Yindjibarndi people’s interest in their language. To this end it will be played on Ngaarda Radio and exist online alongside a bilingual transcript.
For me these projects were transformational. My abstract interest in sound and linguistics could be applied to concrete projects that supported Indigenous languages and archives, themselves important in preserving knowledge and culture.
Australia is in the midst of a change that the current moment’s brief resurgence of racist ideologies can’t hold back: a cultural transformation that acknowledges and centres the importance of Indigenous knowledges and incorporates the advantages of both Western and Indigenous systems.
At a time when Indigenous land struggles and ecological practices are of urgent global concern — these projects feel extremely timely — after all language, story and song are the containers of a culture’s knowledge.
It’s a sincere privilege to work with the many Yindjibarndi and other First Nations people who I met along the way. It’s my profound hope that we can continue to work together to preserve and promote the vibrant, globally important Yindjibarndi language and culture.