Weaving in Mäpuru with the Yolŋu Women - 2012
Mäpuru is a small and remote township in East Arnhem Land; 1000 kms from Darwin and 50kms south of Elcho Island as the crow flies. CERES’s (a community environmental park in Brunswick) runs trips each year to Mäpuru as part of their global cultural exchange program.
In August this year 17 of us headed off from Darwin in two vehicles to travel along dusty roads for two days to get to our destination. Once there we set up camp alongside the community in an open bush setting and enjoyed our first night in Mäpuru. The weaving workshops are run over 5 days. Rather than learn in the western way by asking the teacher ‘101’ questions, participants were encouraged to sit quietly and observe. To begin with there was some anxiety about learning the techniques that these women are so adept at and also the language barrier made communication more difficult. In some ways it forced you to accept a different pace and let go of expectations..
The weavers mostly taught two distinct techniques to our group – a coiled basket form or tall cylindrical form (bag, bowl, basket) using a blanket stitch and a twining (twisting) stitch. You could see by the intricate designs of their own work that there were many variations on these techniques that were far beyond our beginner skill level.
group was established in 2003 by two elders as a cultural and economic enterprise passing on traditional textile skills to Balanda (white people) as well as enabling the community to be self-sustainable and remain on their ancestral lands.
I sat next to Joy Garranggar for the week while she worked with the blanket stitch and made beautiful bags with hand rolled string handles. She had the most wonderful collection of hand dyed pandanus that she carefully selected for you and generously gave away. Using the same hand dyed pandanus we sat side by side, each making our own basket. No amount of spraying or careful pulling of fibre mimicking Joy’s actions would yield the same result. Joy was producing row after row of glossy and perfectly formed stitches, alongside my ripped, broken and loosely spaced efforts. Quickly I let go of my self-reproachment and accepted the process of making and atmosphere under the weaving shelter.
It was endlessly fascinating and entertaining sitting with the women. While teaching with patience and clarity they tended to children who came in and out of view and chatted and laughed with each other. There were four generations of women weaving at times with young girls helping to fix the handle to my bag and laughing with us in efforts to speak Yolŋu language. Sisters, mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers and daughters interacted loudly and enthusiastically. There is a complex, logical kinship and ancestry map that governs family relationships across the Yolŋu language clans. During my time there only a small part of this rich heritage was experienced and understood.
The gathering and preparing of natural materials ready for basket making is a major task. Later in the week we headed off with the women to collect the gunga (pandanus) material that they primarily use for weaving and to watch them prepare it ready for dying. It was not an easy process for the uninitiated. Sometimes the women chop down the pandanus palms with an axe then strip each palm frond into neat strips (while avoiding the spiky rims) and then split each length in half without breaking it. After a few attempts and a realisation that I was wasting carefully harvested materials I retired early to watch with awe. Chopped down pandanus reshoot again for future harvesting.
They also showed us where to find the roots they use for the 7 or 8 variations in coloured dyes they use for the pandanus. Under different types of plants they dug deeply for these roots. The bright yellow root was found under the djundum plant and darker oranges/reds from another place. Once back at the camp the roots were boiled up on the fire with ash, seeds and other plant materials added to get the right mix of colours. The pandanus lengths were then soaked and hung up to dry.
As well as the weaving workshops, the handful of men in our group were able to spend time with the male members of the community making spears, gathering and cooking food in the mangroves and learning about hunting and traditional customs. Many of our group also visited the small community school each morning to work with the children, read stories and soak up the atmosphere. Teachers as well as key members of the community such as John Greatorex and his wife Linda have helped set up two small coops that are used by the children to learn about currency and mathematic equations as well as serving the community. John has lived up there for 35 years and teaches the Yolŋu languages through Charles Darwin University.
Another organization Nature Philosophy runs trips each year. There are many other visitors to the community who are keen to learn the Yolŋu languages and more about Aboriginal land, law and customs. You are also able to organise your own cultural tours and information about this is available on the Arnhem Weavers website as well as video clips on some of the harvesting and weaving processes.
Ceres is again running two trips in July and August next year, which I would highly recommend. The week living in the Mäpuru community has been both a deeply enriching and personally confronting experience. In contrast to the way I live my life, alone with two cats and family dotted around the country; there families live side by side with deep respect, love and joy.
Fleur Brett September 2012
Reflections from Mäpuru – Renata
Roslyn was attempting to explain herself to me, the city Balanda (white person), as we sat in the shade of the weaving shelter. She was gesturing grandly with her arms. “All connected” she kept saying. “Everything ….all like one”.
She was trying to express an idea. At first I took it to be a reference to her expansive kinship system which dictates that all the people within her world had a way of being related back to one another, a system which focuses on inclusion and relationships. Then she continued, “My mother, my sister, the tree, the wind …..all one. For everybody. Not just for me, not just Balanda…..everybody, all connected…everything…..together”. Then the penny dropped as she said “Just like baskets” and she placed her hand on the partly woven basket that was in front of her.
I looked at the basket and its different strands and colours which twisted and turned into a beautiful cohesive whole; each strand relying on the one next to it, each piece only existing in relation to its connection to each of the others…. and her words flowed on. “All Connected”.
I didn’t just learn how to weave a basket in Mäpuru, I took a brief glimpse at my universe differently.
Story by Renata Cetinich 2012
Glimpsing Mäpuru How can I explain to you what it was like at Mäpuru. This is possibly one of the most difficult things I have had to do. There is so much that language cannot begin to explain and if I try, it is as if I will do an injustice to the experience. If I begin to try, I will no doubt categorize and quantify something that fits into a realm that is diminished by such an interpretation.
Pollen collected and stored as balls by native bees One of the most interesting parts of the trip was being able to gain a very slight understanding of Yolngu culture and the way they perceive the world. I realised what a huge part language plays in how people relate to the world, other people and their relationship with place.
One night around the fire John was talking to us about Yolngu language and counting.
Yolngu don’t actually quantify much. Rather things are measured (if measure is the right word) by relationships. Yolngu languages counts to two, and after that there is few, some, many and heaps. That is all. When Yolngu people explain distances, they don’t talk in numbers; rather, they talk in relationships to that land. For example, our land, their peoples land and those people beyond their peoples land and so on. I was so struck by this. Western discourse assumes rationalisation and quantification are the only ways to make sense of the world. From this it is evident that our language restricts the way we can perceive and make sense of things.
But I digress; my intention was not to provide you with a philosophical rant about language. I will start the rest of this story at the beginning.
From Darwin it took us 2 days on a long and dusty corrugated road to get to Mäpuru. We camped our first night on the side of the Arnhem Highway, road trains roaring past. From our campfire, beyond the Woolly Butt trees, we looked out over the escarpment. Behind us in the western sky, the moon was an impossible sliver, our city eyes struck by the starry sky. I began to feel my thoughts sink into my heart.
The next day we turn off the red highway with rivers reaching to the top of our tyres, onto a track that takes us north. Three boys from Mäpuru have caught a lift home with us from Darwin. Lionel sits in the front with me, directing me across the bumps with simple hand gestures. No words are spoken.
At Mäpuru we spend most of our days under the weaving shelter, the women guiding our stiff hands with smiles and a gentle “yo… yo” (yes). I sit next to Linda, it is impossible to tell how old she is, she could be anywhere between 50 and 70, her hands are long and strong with large curved nails hardened by stripping pandanus. Her hands alone seem to tell a whole story shaped by how she uses them.
One day we go to the mangroves fishing and collecting worms. I follow the women through the mud carefully navigating the roots of the mangroves which they break up to pull out the mangrove worms. They taste a little like oysters if they are small. However, I found it much harder to get the big ones down..
Other days we collect pandanus for stripping and “colour” for dying. But what is most memorable about the trip are the little conversations we have with the women, the smiles and the strong hands. In a quiet moment I tell Roslyn about CERES. I explain how the park in the middle of the city was once a rubbish tip and how it has now been regenerated into food gardens and native bush providing employment, environmental education and a place for the community. I tell her of the return of the Kingfisher and the Platypus in the area. It's a lovely story to share together because we realise we are seeking the same thing – to look after country and people.
Many times over the course of our stay, Roslyn sweeps her hands in front of her saying, “this is our dream, this here.”
I had been struggling to explain what it was that was so special about the women of Mäpuru, until one day under the shelter. I was sitting next to John, trying to explain what I felt. We both had tears in our eyes when he said, “it is grace, these women are full of grace”. And that is exactly it.
When we leave, there are big warm strong hugs. Roslyn starts crying when I hug her and says, “I will miss you my waku” (a mother’s child – my kinship relationship to her). I tell her I will be back in a week with the next CERES trip and new visitors. She laughs and says, “I will miss you waku”.