Senior Australian of the Year

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by Lindy Allen
Publish date
1 February 2012
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Lindy Allen curates the Northern Australian Collections at Museum Victoria. These collections include important historical ethnographic, manuscript and image collections of Baldwin Spencer and Donald Thomson.

On Thursday 26 January, Laurie Baymarrwangga was announced as 2012 Senior Australian of the Year. There wasn't much coverage about this extraordinary Australian in the press; the only report I saw was on the ABC on the morning of Australia Day that showed a segment of film of this grand old lady on Murrunga, a tiny island in the Arafura Sea of northern Australia that can only be reached by charter plane or by boat.

Laurie Baymarrwangga Laurie Baymarrwangga, Senior Australian of the Year 2012.
Image: Mari Ekkje
Source: Mari Ekkje at Broken Yellow
 

From her biography on the Australian of the Year website:

...Laurie Baymarrwangga has seen the arrival of missionaries, exploitation by Japanese and European fishermen, war and tumultuous change. Undaunted, she has almost single-handedly nurtured the inter-generational transmission of local ecological knowledge through a lifelong commitment to caring for kin, culture and country. In the 1960s Laurie established a housing project on her homelands that has benefitted generations of kin. Speaking no English, with no access to funding, resources or expertise she initiated the Yan-nhangu dictionary project. Her cultural maintenance projects include the Crocodile Islands Rangers, a junior rangers group and an online Yan-nhangu dictionary for school children. In 2010, after a struggle stretching back to 1945, Laurie finally received back payments for rents owed to her as the land and sea owner of her father's estate. She donated it all, around $400,000, to improve education and employment opportunities on the island and to establish a 1,000 square kilometre turtle sanctuary on her marine estate. In the face of many obstacles, this great, great grandmother has shown extraordinary leadership and courage in caring for the cultural and biological integrity of her beloved Crocodile Islands.

Baymarrwangga is at least 90 years of age because she was about 13 years old when a young anthropologist called Donald Thomson sailed to the island and stayed for a few days in 1935 taking photographs of her and other family members. He also photographed the sophisticated system of barriers constructed to trap fish.

I first met Baymarrwangga in 2004 on my very first field trip to Milingimbi, the largest of the Crocodile Island group, the preservation of the culture and environment of which Baymarrwangga has been deservedly recognised by the award. Fortunately I had a 4WD (taken in by barge), which meant that I could drive out to Bordeya, an outstation in the middle of the island, to find the old lady that everyone told me I needed to talk to. Baymarrwangga was still there after a funeral days earlier, and I talked to her about the photographs taken by Thomson at Murrunga and at Milingimbi. She recognised herself and the close relative who had just died in some of the images, and because I had a printer with me was able to provide copies of these and others including her father and grandfather also photographed by Thomson. During discussions at Bordeya, Baymarrwangga also identified each of the five Burarra men from Cape Stewart (on the mainland to the west of the Crocodile Islands) painted up for ceremony in another of Thomson's photographs. This proved to be of immense importance to the descendants of these men when I met them a few weeks later on my way back to Darwin via Maningrida.

The following year I travelled by charter plane to her home at Murrunga and spent a week working with this remarkable woman. While the island has no power and few facilities that one would expect to be available to a 2012 Senior Australia of the Year, it is a community led by this strong old lady and is alive with a thirst to teach and nurture the young in the ways of their country and culture. I have encountered few people in Arnhem Land with her extraordinary capacity for language (she speaks eight languages and understands at least another four) and cultural knowledge as there are very few Yolngu who survive to such an age.

Fish fence by Laurie Baymarrwangga Fish fence made in 2003 from undyed vegetable fibre by Laurie Baymarrwangga, Arnhem Land. Size: 610 (h) x 1135 (w) x 130 (d) mm. Registration number X101208.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

In late 2004 a gift for the museum's collection arrived from Baymarrwangga. She had made a section of a fish fence from sedge, just as it would have been made in 1935 when Donald Thomson was at Murrunga. She had given it to Gupapuyngu elder Joe Neparrnga Gumbula when he was coming down to the museum to work with me in the collections. And then in 2006 Baymarrwangga herself travelled all the way to Melbourne to see the Donald Thomson Collection. Members of her family who were to come abandoned the trip, but Baymarrwangga spent a week with me at the museum and at my house. It is only through her generosity and patience in sharing her knowledge and teaching me that I am able to understand the importance of what is here at Museum Victoria in the Indigenous collections.

Links:

Australian of the Year Awards

Donald Thomson Collection

Crocodile Island Rangers

Comments (5)

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JD 2 February, 2012 15:26
True sacrifice in the face of adversity. What a great woman
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simona blatman 3 February, 2012 00:46
Absolutely a great woman and no doubt dear to everyone.
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Lucy 3 February, 2012 09:37
Really enjoyed reading about this. Thank-you for sharing!
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Deb 13 April, 2012 08:52
A strength to her community and her country. I am humbled by this inspirational woman.
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Susan 6 May, 2012 15:36
Laurie has a fantastic and generous spirit, and nurturing approach to her community and her environment. We all need a Laurie in our lives and for our future world. Thanks for letting us know about her and her support for the Museum.
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