Going native with the Kuku Yalanji

As I travel, I usually try to do as the locals do to get a sense of culture, but recently I decided to go a step further – not just local, native.  As I’ve ventured through Australia, I read about the aboriginal peoples who lived there.  In every country I’ve visited there have been a native people, similar to the Native American Indians in the US, who are slowly dying off because they have lost their land, their way of life, and many times their ability to share their stories.  Each of these peoples has a unique way of life and an amazing ability to reap more from the land and its flora and fauna than most current day city dwellers.  I didn’t want to leave Australia without learning more about some of these peoples, so while visiting the Daintree Rainforest in Cairns, it seemed like the perfect place to learn about it’s aboriginal clan.  In Australia, there are more than 200 clans, or mobs, as they are sometimes known, all of whom speak their own dialect of aboriginal language.

Binna's studioThe day started at the Brian Swindley Gallery in Mossman.  Brian goes by “Binna”, and his gallery is also his home.  Binna is passionate about sharing the Kuku Yalanji way of life so that it is never forgotten and he does so by telling stories through his artwork.  Binna was born with a severe hearing disability that he has overcome by learning to speak and lip read and he has been communicating through his painting for over 20 years.  When our group arrived at his gallery, we were welcomed with Binna’s giant smile and great sense of humor.  Binna explained that before his people had language, they communicated through art, and the art told stories about the land and the animals.  The colors used are typically an earthy red to represent the land, a mustard yellow to represent the sun, and white to represent water.  The artwork is often painted using sticks and creating variations of dots and lines.  Once he taught our group about some of the symbolism of the paint colors and how to create the patterns, he asked us all to paint something that we had seen when we walked through the rainforest.  As I looked around the table, I could see everyone thinking hard about what they should attempt to paint and how to do it.  DSC04187I, myself, found that painting by using a pattern of dots and lines was very detailed and time consuming even for the small canvas that we were given, yet Binna, who joined us and continued working on one of his own pieces, seemed to paint effortlessly.  The picture in his mind was very clear.  He was remarkable to watch.

While the paint on our canvases dried, Binna ended our session by teaching us how to play the didgeridoo, a wind instrument developed by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.  This instrument was used to recreate the sounds
found in nature and again, to tell a story.

Binna playing the didgeridoo

Binna playing the didgeridoo

There are specific dances that are performed to the music that also emulate the habits and movements of the animals.  In general, only men play the didgeridoo because it is believed that if a woman plays it, she will become barren.

After leaving Binna’s house, we went to the Daintree Rainforest for a nature walk to learn about all of the edible, medicinal, and poisonous plants, as well as some of the animals and insects in the forest.  We filled our water bottles up with the fresh mountain stream water, and after a delicious lunch of fresh barramundi or kangaroo, we were off to the mud flats.

Cooya BeachCooya Beach (Kuyu Kuyu in Aboriginal language) is a unique coastal place with three diverse ecosystems – beach, mangroves, and coastal reef – that are connected to each other by the ever-changing tidal lagoons.  It has traditionally been the hunting ground for the Kuku Yalangi because when the tide goes out, the ocean floor turns into a sandy, muddy mix.  There are crabs, fish and other sea creatures that don’t always make it back out to sea with the tide, which makes them easier to catch.  Because of the heat of the day, they all tend to burry themselves in the sand to stay cool.  The Warra family, of the Kuku Yalanji clan, has been fishing on this beach for decades and now owns a block of land just across from it.  The family has over 200 members and many of them live within a few blocks radius of the beach and one another; their community is close-knit.

There are two brothers, Linc and Brandon Walker, who strive to preserve the rights of their people to fish on this beach and who are passionate about sharing the Bama Way, an Aboriginal journey from Cairnes to Cooktown that follows story lines of two different cultures and how they operated as traditional custodians of the land.  Linc was waiting for us when we got to the beach and also greeted us with a giant smile and lots of enthusiasm.  There was an empty bucket sitting next to him along with a pile of bamboo sticks that all had a metal point fastened to the end of them to create spears.  The tide was out, the mud was fresh, and Linc explained that we would be searching for mud crabs, mussels, and maybe even fish on the beach today.  He gave each of us a spear and then taught us how to hold and throw them.  Linc placed a few coconuts ahead of us and we all stood in a line to take a few practice runs at throwing our spear at the coconuts.   We would be attempting to hunt and catch our food that day so that we could take it across the street to Linc’s house for an afternoon meal.  After watching everyone’s initial attempts at throwing their spears, it was looking like we might go home a little hungry, but we were certainly an enthusiastic and determined bunch, so off we went.

I was walking cautiously through the mud to try to sneak up on any crabs I found so that they wouldn’t scurry off beyond my reach.  I was certain after my own attempts at throwing my spear that the closer I could get, the better.  Plus, I didn’t want a crab pinching me if I accidentally stepped on it buried in the sand.  We had a group of 10 people, so we fanned out.

We were only walking for about 10 minutes when, Jayne, one of the ladies in our group, called out to Lync.  She had found 2 mud crabs mating!  This worked out quite well because they were distracted and she was easily able to spear the male.  Linc explained that according to the Bama Way, we would only take the male because the female was too small and it was best to give her another chance to mate.  This made perfect sense and didn’t matter much anyway because male mud crabs are huge.  Just after we got the male crab in Linc’s empty bucket, one of the other members of our group found another female mud crab, this one was large enough to keep and eat.

Sea Snake on Cooya Beach

Sea Snake on Cooya Beach

After a few more minutes, Marc, our driver and  guide, called out to the group to let us know that he had found a sea snake.  We had no interest in catching or eating it but he wanted us all to know where it was because it was rare to see and because it was extremely poisonous.  We wouldn’t want to accidentally step on it.  Fortunately, it is usually difficult for them to bite humans because there mouths are so small, but nonetheless, it was best to avoid it.

By this point, I was really determined to find a crab.  I’ve never had to hunt for food in my life, but as I participated in this exercise, my competitive drive kicked in and I wanted to contribute.  I fanned as far away from the others in the group as I could so that I could hunt in my own patch of beach.  My eyes were peeled trying to spot even the slightest movement; poking at dark holes to see if I could scare a crab to the surface.  Finally, I saw what looked like two eyes, but I wasn’t certain because I was a few feet away.  I planted my feet, took my stance and jabbed my spear forward, just lower than my target as we were instructed.  Crunch.  Yes!  It was a crab!!  As I pulled it up out of the sand, I realized

Speared sand crab on Cooya Beach

My speared sand crab on Cooya Beach

that it was smaller than the mud crabs we had just caught and it was tinted blue.  I didn’t know what kind of crab it was and wasn’t sure it was big enough to keep so I motioned for Linc.  He came over and identified it as a sand crab.  He said it was big enough to take and it would be a tasty dish because it is sweeter than the mud crabs.  Woohoo!  I had just speared my first catch and I was very satisfied that I would be able to contribute to our afternoon meal.  I couldn’t wait!

Linc demonstrating how large the sea turtles are … it takes a few men to pull them out of the water.

Linc demonstrating how large the sea turtles are … it takes a few men to pull them out of the water.

After hunting for our food, we went across the street to Linc’s family home to cook it and eat it.  There is nothing better than fresh crab!  Link had also made some damper, a type of soda bread, for us to try.  While we ate, he showed us the shells of all the other sea creatures he had hunted and captured in those mud flats and he also explained some of the customs and traditions of his clan.  In their families, children have many mothers and fathers because all of a mother’s sisters are standby mothers to her children and a father’s brothers are standby fathers.  It is also traditional for them to make large meals and eat in a communal style.  They actually catch large, green sea turtles about once every 2-3 months and when they do, it is large enough to feed almost their entire family of 200+ members.  Impressive.

A nest of Weaver ants

A nest of Weaver ants

Our final lesson of the day… the green ant.  It’s formal name is the Weaver ant and it is eaten not only by Australia’s aboriginal people but also by populations in parts of Asia and China because it is high in protein and fatty acids.  It’s gaster, or posterior portion, is bright green and contains formic acid.  Normally, the ant defends its nest by pinching and then spraying formic acid to make the pinch sting.  However, if you stir up a nest, gather a handful of these ants, and then mash them together quickly before they pinch your hands, they will release all that formic acid and it has a lemony-lime smell that the Aboriginals often used for medicinal purposes to clear the sinuses.  Linc insisted that if we ate it, it would taste a little bit like lemon or lime.  My adventurous nature tends to fade quickly when it comes to eating insects but Linc was insisting, so before I could think about it, he gave me one to try.  I think it tastes like lime!!  I don’t know that I’ll go around scooping them up whenever I see them, but I guess if I’m ever stranded in the rainforest, I’ll know what I can have for breakfast.

The experiences of this day were really fun and special for me.  The Aboriginal ways of life are extraordinary and I loved learning about them and hearing the stories.  After all, isn’t that what life is all about? … Creating memories and telling stories?  I hope it makes you want to try something new… something that you’ll be able to share in a story at your next happy hour or dinner party.

Revelling in gratitude for all of the stories people have shared with me.

2 thoughts on “Going native with the Kuku Yalanji

  1. Hi Katie! It was so great meeting you during your Aussie adventure! I look forward to keeping in touch!
    Warm regards,

    • Tori, you as well! And I so appreciate all of the stories we shared in our few short days. Hope you’re well and very curious about your current status but will send you an email. xo

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