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The future is female

Published 06 Jun 2019 

The Karajarri Women’s Ranger team has more than doubled in size over the past 12 months as women step up to care for their country and culture.

Carefully stitched onto the Karajarri Women Rangers’ work shirts is a logo depicting two of the Kimberley’s prized species – a Pirrala (Threadfin Salmon) and a Pijarta (Emu).

Senior Cultural Ranger Jessica Bangu guts a catfish with Karajarri Women's Ranger Coordinator Jackie Wemyss. Photo William Marwick.The logo paints a picture of the duality of the 3 million hectares of Karajarri country – on one side; Jurarr (coastal country), symbolised by a saltwater fish. On the other; Pirra (inland country), represented by a desert-dwelling bird.

Supporting more Karajarri women, particularly young women, to proudly wear this ranger badge is at the heart of a new partnership between Bush Heritage Australia and the Karajarri Traditional Lands Association, the governing body responsible for the management of Karajarri country.

The Karajarri women rangers and elders. Photo William Marwick.In the last 12 months, the Karajarri Women’s Ranger team has grown from just two full-time rangers to five – the same number of positions in the long-standing Karajarri Men’s Ranger team. With Bush Heritage’s support, it is hoped this number can double yet again.

For 19-year-old Shannica ‘Shanni’ Boddington, a ranger role provides an opportunity to learn on country from senior women who hold important knowledge about practises like bush foods, bush medicines, fishing and hunting. Tech savvy younger rangers like Shanni are also playing a key role in pairing traditional Karajarri ecological knowledge with Western technology.

“I’m proud to be a Karajarri ranger,” says Shanni, who joined the team last year. “Tagging along with [the senior rangers] is helping to build my confidence and we can help them learn to use tablets and iPhones.”

“I’d like to see more young ones come on board,” adds Senior Cultural Ranger Jessica Bangu.

“The old people fought for this country for us, so we need to keep the legacy going. It’s very important to keep our culture and language strong and alive, because if we lose it we lose our identity.”

A trainee program run with the La Grange Community School in Bidyadanga, the community where the rangers are based two hours south of Broome, sees high school students working with the female ranger team two days a week. Head Karajarri Ranger Jacqueline ‘Jacko’ Shovellor’s daughter is currently part of this program.

Cissy Gore-Birch leads the way. Photo William Marwick.“When we first started it was just me and Jessica, so it’s good that we’ve got younger ones coming on board,” she says. “We need to carry on our past from our Elders and it’s important for [the younger generation] to learn the same things that I've learned from our old people.”

Bush Heritage National Aboriginal Engagement Manager, Cissy Gore-Birch, herself a Kimberley woman, says the female ranger program offers Karajarri women a means to self-determination, particularly in communities like Bidyadanga where employment opportunities are limited.

“The Karajarri Women’s Ranger program is giving women an opportunity to be part of the big picture, be part of the big decisions and be part of looking after country,” says Cissy.

“People often associate the work of rangers as heavy duty but there's a lot of work on country that needs to be done and women are more than capable of doing it.”

Coastal Country. Photo William Marwick.So far this year, the female rangers have led monitoring on the intertidal reef zone (a culturally significant activity for Karajarri women), worked alongside universities to record migratory shorebird species at Eighty Mile Beach and spent eight days in the desert surveying mammals and reptiles at the Edgar Ranges.

Shanni has completed her Incendiary Machine Operator training and assisted the Men’s Ranger team on annual aerial burning. Jacko’s bush medicine products are being sold at the Broome Saturday Market and she's developing a broader bush medicine business plan.

Jacqueline Shovellor with Bush Heritage CEO, Heather Campbell. Photo William Marwick.Underpinning these milestones is the rangers’ deep spiritual, physical and emotional connection to country, known in Karajarri as Palanapayana Tukjana Ngurra (everybody looking after country properly).

“When we’re on country we feel at ease — peaceful,” says Jessica. “Sometimes we sit there and just imagine our ancestors walking this land.”

“When I'm on country, I feel really good, because that's the place I want to be,” adds Jacko. “When we go home we feel so stressed, but when we're out on country we feel everything is good.”

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