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First Nations language, stories preserved through Fitzroy Crossing Indigenous literacy project

Callan Morse -

Local Indigenous women from the Fitzroy Crossing area have written and illustrated four bright, fun and bilingual children’s books, which aim to preserve First Nations Languages of the region whilst sharing a snapshot of life in the remote Western Australian community.

The texts, which include three board books for babies and toddlers and a picture book aimed at older children were collaborated on at a workshop held at Fitzroy Crossing’s Baya Gawiy Buga yani Jandu yani u Centre, a service which includes the area’s Early Childhood Learning Unit and Children and Parent Centre.

There, local women worked with Indigenous Literacy Foundation Lifetime Ambassador Alison Lester, children’s author Jane Godwin and designer Lee Burgemeestre on the project which produced the texts Mayarda (Pelicans), Manyi Nganyjaali (Bush tomatoes), Kurrartuwarnti (Brolgas) and Jirntipirriny jaa Lamparn Parri (Willy Wagtail and the Little Boy).

Mayarda (Pelicans) is written in both Gooniyandi and English by author Patricia Cox. The text is a playful song book that teaches you how to count in Gooniyandi. 

“We’re making books and songs for the little kids to learn, but the words we put in place have a lot of meaning,” Ms Cox said.

“They tell about caring for Country and having respect for your environment. Our books and songs are all about strengthening, and that’s empowering for us. We get empowered, you know, through the words and the songs.”

The song was composed in collaboration with Dr Gillian Howell from The University of Melbourne as part of Perth based Cultural Tura’s ongoing Sound FX program in Fitzroy Crossing.

Dr Howell said working with the Baya Gawiy educators to turn their stories into songs was a joy and a privilege.

(Image: supplied, Indigenous Literacy Foundation)

Mayarda was one of the first songs we wrote together. The Baya Gawiy team have a saying, that the more you tell a story, the stronger the story becomes,” Dr Howell said.

Turning songs into books and books into songs is one of the ways that these women tell and re-tell their many stories, keeping language and cultural knowledge strong for future generations.”

Author and illustrator of Kurrartuwarnti (Brolgas) and Jirntipirriny jaa Lamparn Parri (Willy Wagtail and the Little Boy), June Nixon said she learned to speak Walmajarri when she was small from her old people.

“I learned all the stories, and about going hunting,” Ms Nixon said.

Kurrartuwarnti (Brolgas) follows a family of Brolgas nesting in the long grass in the wet season whilst Jirntipirriny jaa Lamparn Parri (Willy Wagtail and the Little Boy), is about a little boy and his family out looking for bush berries.

“I started doing books in Yakanarra School and Bayulu School, teaching the kids, singing the songs in Walmajarri, and then I came here to work at Baya Gawiy a couple of years back, and I started to do my own books here at Baya Gawiy,” Ms Nixon said.

“And it’s good to teach all the little ones from when they’re little, growing up, to learn their language.”

Ms Nixon said The books and the songs produced through the Indigenous Literacy Foundation project help young Indigenous people to learn their language and their culture by hearing it every day through songs and stories about the land.

(Image: supplies, Indigenous Literacy Foundation)

“It shows them the way to do their stories for the next generation. If my old people were here now, they’d be so proud to see the little ones grow and to carry it on, and carry the knowledge from them in their hearts.”

Authored and illustrated by Delphine Shandley, Manyi Nganyjaali (Bush tomatoes), which is also written in Gooniyandi and English, is a snapshot of daily community life as three cousins head out in a red car, searching for a feed of juicy bush tomatoes.

“Delphine's illustrations had this fabulous little red car with her sisters in it off on a road trip to find bush tomatoes. You could really feel them bouncing along,” designer Lee Burgemeestre said.

Indigenous Literacy Foundation lifetime ambassador, Alison Lester, said the project revived memories of working at Baya Gawky years previous.

“I have such happy memories of working at Baya Gawiy in 2022. Janie, Lee and I were flat out keeping up with the group of women who were already well on the way with their books by the time we arrived,” Ms Lester said.

“The publication of Purlka ngamaji Kakaji (Big Fat Mummy Goanna) written and illustrated by Emma Bear, and Jarrampa (Yabbies) written by Marshia Cook the year before had shown everybody just how lovely the books could be, with support from the ILF.”

Published by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the four texts will be gifted back to the Fitzroy Crossing community for use in playgroups and in the home.

They are also available commercially so readers can discover words in Walmajarri and Gooniyandi and learn about life in the remote Indigenous community.

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