Skip to content
Pandanus on the Robinson River. By Will Sacre
Pandanus on the Robinson River. By Will Sacre

Learning Garawa

Words by: Will Sacre
Location: Rhumbarriya Country, Northern Territory
Published 13 Jan 2023

At Waanyi Garawa’s annual Culture Camp Aunty Nancy passes, on language and with it, the knowledge to care for Country.

It’s a two-day drive from Darwin to Robinson River, north-east Northern Territory, the remote Gulf of Carpentaria. The road leading there is long, and at times, tiresome, but every kilometre is worth it. The Bush Heritage team and the Northern Land Council are headed towards the gulf to help support the Garawa and Waanyi Garawa Rangers to run their annual Waanyi Garawa Biodiversity and Culture Camp, as they have since 2016.

At Waanyi Garawa’s annual Culture Camp Aunty Nancy passes, on language and with it, the knowledge to care for Country.  It’s a two-day drive from Darwin to Robinson River, north-east Northern Territory, the remote Gulf of Carpentaria. The road leading there is long, and at times, tiresome, but every kilometre is worth it. The Bush Heritage team and the Northern Land Council are headed towards the gulf to help support the Garawa and Waanyi Garawa Rangers to run their annual Waanyi Garawa Biodiversity and Culture Camp, as they have since 2016.    Camps bring people together to pass on culture, look after Country and importantly, learn language. For the Waanyi-Garawa community, language is central to ecology, spirituality, and place. When communities are away from Country, reconnecting with language necessitates the survival of knowledge.  The road fades to rough gravel after the remote town of Borroloola, and the team are welcomed to Rhumbarriya clan Country at Limestone Creek, near its junction with Robinson River by Garawa Senior Ranger Karen Noble on behalf of her family and clan. The savannah woodlands are scarred by fires after the harsh dry season, except for bright green pandanas that line the riverbank.  While excited kids go out searching for Redclaw Crayfish, Aunty Nancy McDinny yarns with the other aunties. Nancy is a force, one of the oldest living Garawa Elders and a keeper of language and stories. She is a linguist, educator, and artist.  “My Garawa name is Yukurwal and my skin is Nangalama”, she says. “I grew up speaking Garawa, no English.” “When we first went to school, and teachers used to ask us, what is your name? We would just sit there and look at her because we didn’t know English, but we learnt slowly.”  For Nancy, her native language is not just about basic communication, it’s the way the land works and how plants and animals interact with the environment.    “We started speaking English, so we lost Garawa a bit. When I go back for holidays and weekends, hunting and eating from the land again, sitting down with my dad and my grandmother, I started learning again.”  Her experience has inspired her to teach and tell stories. She has been leading the kids to create a guide to the seasons of Garawa Country: what foods are available in which seasons and the indicators of when to hunt and harvest.  “I think to read and write in Garawa out in the bush is everything,” says Nancy. “You’re on the land to learn about your culture.” The kids have had a swim in the river, and dusk provides relief from the day’s dry heat. Over the course of the last four days, they have learnt about the animals that inhabit the area, looked for lizards and helped with the annual bird survey. As the sunset turns the camp orange, the flies finally cease, night birds begin to call and the kids chase one another.    After dinner, there is dancing, and Aunty Nancy explains the stories behind each dance to the kids. One story is about the bright constellations above – about a man left suspended in the sky after being thrust out of a tree over a love triangle. They laugh hysterically.  Nancy then reflects on the camp, and shares what it was like for her as a child, and the importance of keeping culture and language alive.  “We used to walk from that camp to this camp and have a corrobboree at night. We really loved when we were kids, dancing and learning, at the same time how to sing and tell stories. We had good life walking, healthy eating, bush tucker, no shop food, no vehicle, just on foot.  We don’t want our language, our culture, to get lost. One day you kids will be here dancing and singing with your children, on this land.”  We thank and acknowledge the Rhumbarriya Traditional Owners who welcomed us to their Country and shared this special time with us.

Camps bring people together to pass on culture, look after Country and importantly, learn language. For the Waanyi-Garawa community, language is central to ecology, spirituality, and place. When communities are away from Country, reconnecting with language necessitates the survival of knowledge.

The road fades to rough gravel after the remote town of Borroloola, and the team are welcomed to Rhumbarriya clan Country at Limestone Creek, near its junction with Robinson River by Garawa Senior Ranger Karen Noble on behalf of her family and clan. The savannah woodlands are scarred by fires after the harsh dry season, except for bright green pandanas that line the riverbank.

While excited kids go out searching for Redclaw Crayfish, Aunty Nancy McDinny yarns with the other aunties. Nancy is a force, one of the oldest living Garawa Elders and a keeper of language and stories. She is a linguist, educator, and artist.

“My Garawa name is Yukurwal and my skin is Nangalama”, she says. “I grew up speaking Garawa, no English.”

“When we first went to school, and teachers used to ask us, what is your name? We would just sit there and look at her because we didn’t know English, but we learnt slowly.”

For Nancy, her native language is not just about basic communication, it’s the way the land works and how plants and animals interact with the environment.

Catching Redclaw Crayfish at the Robinson River, Garawa Country, Northern Territory. Photo Will Sacre

“We started speaking English, so we lost Garawa a bit. When I go back for holidays and weekends, hunting and eating from the land again, sitting down with my dad and my grandmother, I started learning again.”

Her experience has inspired her to teach and tell stories. She has been leading the kids to create a guide to the seasons of Garawa Country: what foods are available in which seasons and the indicators of when to hunt and harvest.

“I think to read and write in Garawa out in the bush is everything,” says Nancy. “You’re on the land to learn about your culture.”

The kids have had a swim in the river, and dusk provides relief from the day’s dry heat. Over the course of the last four days, they have learnt about the animals that inhabit the area, looked for lizards and helped with the annual bird survey. As the sunset turns the camp orange, the flies finally cease, night birds begin to call and the kids chase one another.

After dinner, there is dancing, and Aunty Nancy explains the stories behind each dance to the kids. One story is about the bright constellations above – about a man left suspended in the sky after being thrust out of a tree over a love triangle. They laugh hysterically.

Nancy then reflects on the camp, and shares what it was like for her as a child, and the importance of keeping culture and language alive.

“We used to walk from that camp to this camp and have a corrobboree at night. We really loved when we were kids, dancing and learning, at the same time how to sing and tell stories. We had good life walking, healthy eating, bush tucker, no shop food, no vehicle, just on foot.

We don’t want our language, our culture, to get lost. One day you kids will be here dancing and singing with your children, on this land.”


We thank and acknowledge the Rhumbarriya Traditional Owners who welcomed us to their Country and shared this special time with us. 

Our podcast Big Sky Country featured the following episode with sounds and stories from the Culture Camp. 

It’s a two-day drive from Darwin to Robinson River, on Garawa Country in the NT, just south of the Gulf of Carpentaria. While the road there can be long, the destination is worth it. The annual Waanyi Garawa Biodiversity and Culture Camp brings together Elders, rangers and kids together to keep their culture and language strong.

Episode details >

More stories in this edition of Bushtracks

Yajula from above. By Benjamin Broadwith

BUSHTRACKS 13/01/2023

Ngapa Kunangkul – Living waters

A long-awaited return to sacred water sites on Karajarri Country provides Elders and rangers with the chance to preserve knowledge and protect country for future generations.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 13/01/2023

A station with a vision

The future of farming looks different when you step closer at Napperby Station, where the mission is to “feed the world with a system that lasts forever”.

Read More
Pandanus on the Robinson River. By Will Sacre

BUSHTRACKS 13/01/2023

Learning Garawa

“I think to read and write in Garawa out in the bush is everything,” says Nancy. “You’re on the land to learn about your culture.”

Read More
Grasstrees on Yourka Reserve. Photo Scott van Barneveld

BUSHTRACKS 13/01/2023

Call of the woodlands

Sound could hold the solution, according to Bush Heritage eco-acoustic researchers on a mission to save Australia’s birdlife.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 13/01/2023

Annie Mayo's happy place

When we heard Bob Brown had established Bush Heritage, we thought it was a brilliant idea, a conservation no-brainer, so we began supporting the organisation.

Read More
Loading...
{{itemsInCart}} Items - {{formatCurrency(grandTotal)}}