8 July 2016


Story told by Bessie Doonday, Walmajarri elder, 22 June 2012, reproduced with permission from ‘Walmajarri Plants & Animals: Aboriginal biocultural knowledge from the Paruku IPA, Southern Kimberley, Australia.

In the Waljirri, or Dreaming, Nyarlku the bilby found all the jakurli (pearlshell) in the shallow waters of the big lake, Paruku. They were all sparkling brightly in the afternoon sun and looked beautiful. He put them on the edge of the lake, and he wanted to keep them for himself. He wanted to find big water, not little water.

A long way away he could see another big lake, near Broome. “I’ll take them all to Broome”, said Nyarlku. So he picked them all up in his arms, at night when it was dark so they would not glitter, and took them down his burrow, underground all the way to Broome.

A bilby caught on camera at night
© Martin Harvey / WWF

He travelled right through the desert, Walmajarri, Ngurrara, Mangala and Karajarri country until at last he reached all the way to the saltwater country at Broome. He left all the pearlshell there, at Broome. Nyarlku only had little arms, and he could not pick up all the lingkarr, the small shells, so he left them behind at Paruku.

Now you can still see the beautiful jakurli sparkling in the afternoon sun on the beach at Broome.

Background by Tanya Vernes

This is a traditional Walmajarri story, a story in Law which connects people, place, language and species. It is a story that explains how there came to be pearlshell on the west Kimberley coast, and no longer found at Paruku Lake, according to Walmajarri cosmology. And it alludes to ecological change, species movements, geological and climate change in Australia.

The track the bilby took in the Walmajarri story, moving pearlshell from Paruku to the coast, actually aligns with ancient rivers or streams now under the desert that connect Paruku to near La Grange on the western coast of the Kimberley, just south of Broome.

That is, the Bilby traverses a geological feature hundreds of thousands of years old, under the ground and beyond the recorded existence of Aboriginal People in Australia; beyond any possible existence in Aboriginal memory.

This is where this storyline or songline overlaps with Western science – it is one story told using different narratives based on different ways of making sense of the world. Traditional stories, songs, dances, names, and songlines contain knowledge of a spiritual and personal nature linking people, places, plants and animals in the present with a fluid time. Traditional knowledge systems are detailed, complex and critically important, not only for cultural reasons but also for what Western science knows as conservation.

The places Nyarlku traversed in this songline are now important places for the endangered bilby. In the desert around Mulan where Bessie recorded this story and on Roebuck Plains, behind the pearl leases of Roebuck Bay, small populations of the bilby still occur, as they do on other country this songline traverses - Walmajarri, Ngurrara, Mangala and Karajarri.

Recently, WWF staff attended the Ninu (Bilby) Festival in the Gibson Desert at Kiwirrkurra, one of Australia’s most remote communities. Organised by the Indigenous Desert Alliance, the event asked people to come together to share knowledge about this culturally important, threatened and iconic marsupial.

Over 20 Indigenous ranger groups joined Traditional Owners, scientists and conservation organisations who spent the week sharing knowledge, stories and memories of this once widespread, but now endangered species. It became apparent that remaining Bilby populations thrive in areas where there is ongoing country management undertaken by local people. Bilby dreaming connects a vast area of our country, and each Aboriginal group has their own unique connection to this species.

In the Kimberley, we will work on bilbies with seven Ranger groups across the southern Kimberley, including the Paruku Rangers. Paruku Lake (Lake Gregory) is itself a glittering wonder amid the vast red desert landscape. When the wind is wild the waves crash on the shore as if you are standing on the edge of the sea. It is beautiful country, a place where species like the bilby still thrive, perhaps because songlines are still strong and Walmajarri People continue to tell these stories, sing these songs and look after their country using traditional as well as modern science.

If you can let go of your own ways of making sense of the world and read Bessie’s story, you might get a glimpse of the Walmajarri view of the world, and see Nyarlku today as the same one who actually did take the pearlshell all the way, thousands of kilometres underground to Broome. You might think of him with his little arms trying to gather up all the pearlshell as it sparkled in the moonlight, afraid to lose his treasure, leaving the little shells behind at the big lake so he could take his glittering pearlshell to the big water near Broome. This story is part of Walmajarri People’s cultural inheritance, and it connects all of us working to protect species like the bilby. 

About Tanya Vernes: Tanya is Environmental Consultant at Pinanyi Consulting and former Program Manager at WWF-Australia. Tanya first recorded this story from Bessie, custodian of this story and country, in and around Paruku or Lake Gregory in 2006. This was part of her Master’s degree where she was exploring the use of Traditional Knowledge and science in the management of the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area. Tanya continues to work with Aboriginal People across Australia, finding the space where traditional as well as scientific knowledge can be brought together for the management of country.