Warlpiri elders and expert trackers are leading a program in northern Australia to teach younger generations how to read Country.

In June 2022, some of the most respected elders of the Warlpiri nation gathered for a workshop in Lajamanu, a remote town in the northern Tanami Desert, south of Kalkarindji. It was one of the largest such gatherings in recent years and, were it not for the flies, it could have been the Roman senate: here were the elders of the nation, gathered to discuss the great issues of the day. One minute they were talking about complex matters of law and ceremony and custom. The next they debated the intricacies of Warlpiri language and stories of the past.

Any resemblance to the ancient Romans was truly ended by the fact of women being at the heart of this gathering; they wore beanies and cast-off clothes. There was much laughter, mobile phones rang often, and arguments erupted over such topics as which species of snake had left behind tracks across the red sand nearby. This was especially significant, for the elders in attendance were also the Warlpiri’s kuyu pungu, or master trackers.

Many, perhaps even most, of those present grew up in the desert or out bush. There, they learnt to read the tracks of the animals: which animal left the tracks, where it was travelling, and how long ago it passed by. The kuyu pungu at the Lajamanu workshop were from a long line of Warlpiri people who grew up learning how to read the country. Over time, they entered into an intimacy with the land that went to every aspect of their lives – kinship, ceremony, survival. The current kuyu pungu, those gathered at Lajamanu, were the last in that long line.

By the time that most of the workshop’s participants had reached adolescence, their desert lives were if not lost then much curtailed. Travelling between missions, cattle stations and cities, they worked as drovers and domestic help, if at all, returning to country whenever they could. Aside from rare exceptions, their children and grandchildren had little opportunity to learn the old ways. Torn between the lure of the cities and the obligations of the past, the young Warlpiri returned to country at weekends, if they were lucky, where they picked up fragments.

This is why the Warlpiri elders gathered in Lajamanu. Part of an ongoing project known as Yitaki Mani (“Reading the Country”), the aim of the workshop was to find a way to bridge that gap between generations, to address the possibility that some knowledge may soon be lost forever, and to find new ways to teach a people who no longer grow up on country. Run by the Central Land Council, the program and the workshop – and other workshops like it across Warlpiri country – faced the most daunting of tasks: to distil thousands of years of lived knowledge into teaching materials and techniques that could work in a classroom.

Witnessing the sessions – which ran under the guidance of Warlpiri elders, pastor Jerry Jangala and Myra Herbert Nungarrayi and others, assisted by linguists and anthropologists – was like watching an encyclopaedia unfold in real time. Flow charts emerged, the frequent use of photos maintained the visual essence of the experience, and field trips – to Emu Rockhole or the track to Tennant Creek – kept things practical. There were times when momentum seemed to unravel. On one of the excursions, a goanna had the misfortune to appear close by. Consequently, much of the day was “lost” as everyone shared a goanna feast around an impromptu fire. But like other seeming distractions – a sudden recitation of a Dreaming story, or an unplanned detour down a side track to honour a cultural obligation – these moments deepened the stories and the ability of these kuyu pungu to tell them.

“We have to make sure we all have all the knowledge, that knowledge of how to read the country. And that knowledge comes in many ways,” says Jangala. “We need this knowledge if we are to get back the old Warlpiri ways.”

The establishment of the Yitaki Mani program reflects changes in Australia regarding First Nations peoples, and builds on those defining points in the process of reconciliation. Recognition of citizenship in 1967, the development of land rights in the 1970s and the outstation movement in the 1980s all represented the move away from the nation’s integrationist impulse.

Yitaki Mani builds on this process, drawing from another nation-shifting development: Indigenous ranger programs. Running for more than 15 years, the establishment of these initiatives has expanded across the country, and there are now around 130 federally funded ranger programs, with additional state-funded groups. Most of them operate on Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs).

So successful have ranger programs become that their funding became a campaign issue during the 2022 federal election. The Morrison government promised to double the funding for Indigenous rangers, to $686 million over eight years. Labor matched this commitment and added $10 million per year to expand the programs.

From a conservation perspective, every now and then work undertaken through the ranger program makes headlines, and is credited with significant successes. Indigenous ranger groups have, for example, been central to the discovery of new night parrot populations across Western Australia.

Stephen van Leeuwen, the Indigenous chair of biodiversity and environmental science at Curtin University in Perth, says ranger programs have enabled conservation activities to operate on a much broader scale than would be possible through scientific programs working alone. “You can’t have an IPA without a ranger program. And you can’t have an IPA ranger program without a healthy country plan. You’ve got a workforce and people who want to be there.”

Van Leeuwen recognises the importance of elder knowledge in the process of engaging the younger rangers. “Yes, you want to empower [First Nations peoples] by giving them meaningful work. But the elders in the communities want to manage the country, and that commitment quickly flows on to the younger people in the community. They want to look after their country … Lots of the threatened species that are still extant are on the Indigenous conservation estate in the deserts and in northern Australia, so there must be something good happening there.”

The ranger program is also driving a wider re-evaluation of traditional forms of knowledge and storytelling. Successes like that of the night parrot “demonstrate the power of proper two-way science”, says Steve Murphy, an ecologist who has worked extensively with traditional owners. “Indigenous people were highly attuned and acutely aware of all aspects of the environment that they were living in over millennia. So the observational-based science that they built up was incredibly detailed. In many cases, people aren’t living 24/7 on country and aren’t needing to get their whole subsistence from these landscapes. It’s pedalled back a little – it’s more a knowledge about place and landscape. But it’s still there, and it’s better than any [geographic information system] and remote-sensing analyst can give us.”

Much has also been lost, Murphy acknowledges. “Historically, a lot of that ecological knowledge would have been held by people, but it’s gone. We have to acknowledge that it has gone from so many places. And that is another very important and often overlooked role of two-way science – rekindling and rebuilding that knowledge.”

It is with this backdrop of loss and renewal that the Yitaki Mani project carries such potential. If it is successful, its organisers hope benefits won’t be restricted to the Warlpiri. The conceptual frameworks and teaching materials will become available to other communities, enabling them to tap into their own deep wells of knowledge.

It is, as ever, a race against time, something of which the elders at the Lajamanu workshop are keenly aware. “Some of the young ones are interested, and want to learn more,” says Jerry Jangala. “But some are losing their culture, their ceremony, everything. It’s not good for our people. It’s not good for Australia. Our country will be lost. That’s why we’re here. To teach them another way to learn. After all, one day I won’t be here with you.”

Article written by Anthony Ham and published in The Monthly.