In 2006 the elders made an agreement regarding an iron-ore mine on Koolan Island. It’s outside Lulim but on Worrora tribal land. According to the deed of trust, royalties are shared among all the descendants of the native title claim.
This money has lifted the Worrora people, giving the tribe its own money, paying for school and university fees, for example, without the need to jump through bureaucratic hoops for a government-funded education.
This, along with some grant money from the government, was used to build the camp infrastructure at Wijingarra Butt Butt which Isobel and her children now occupy. The camp and the setup are still a long way from what Isobel needs to effectively manage the country, and the steady influx of tourists with a thirst to visit the land and get a glimpse of her culture.
Isobel is candid about some of the more recent history, including taking the local lands council to the Human Rights Commission for discriminating against her as a female, a move which led to a major straightening out of her position, and the steady healing with her tribal administrative structure, to be where she is today.
“Things have really changed,” she says. “Being able to live here makes a big difference. It wasn’t something that was easy to do when I was growing up, so far away, having to be in Derby.”
“I’d never eaten [cultivated] vegetables like peas and corn – the sorts of things I found on my plate”
Even further away, two and half hours’ flight south, Perth is where Isobel was sent to school, aged fourteen. Her mother told her, “You have to go learn your almara ways now.”
“It was really important to my mum that I was educated, that I learned English, and got away from Derby. And it did make a big difference,” Isobel says. “At first it was really frightening. Lots of things were different. I’d never eaten vegetables like peas and corn – the sorts of things I found on my plate.”
Writing the Worrora language is a fluid business; there’s no accepted spelling just yet. The reason is obvious as soon as I try to write down the family’s tribal names, with Isobel correcting me where need be.
Isobel is Wudugu. Older son Neil is Winjaryin, but he’s named after his father, whose name Isobel doesn’t say now that he is dead. So she calls him Junior, always. Daughter Naomi is Moloddginy, named after a dead grandmother. And younger son Bart is Murungnu.
It’s like trying to translate bird song into writing
Spelling is always a frustration, and something regularly prone to revision by academics.
“It gives me a headache to look at the letters and try to match them up with the sounds I’m making when I speak,” Isobel says. And I agree. It’s like trying to translate bird song into writing.
The boys take their father’s last name, Maru, and the girls take their mother’s, the adopted foreign name Peters, given to her family by missionaries – it’s from the Christian name they gave to a grandfather.
And there’s another in their family, the white man from Perth, Peter Collins. As a reporter for The West Australian in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Peter began working with Kimberley tribes on tracking stolen sacred artefacts.
In 1994 he progressed to working with Isobel’s elders, including Paddy Neowarra, on reclaiming their history. At the time, well-funded archaeology circles denied that the tribes could claim cultural continuity over tens of thousands of years.
His was almost a lone voice at this time in presenting the Aboriginal view. But things have moved on significantly since then and those ’80s and ’90s ideas are now accepted as having been racist and plain wrong – possibly motivated by a desire to exploit the land.
This explains my connection as well, as a long-time friend of Peter, a Perth-based fellow reporter on the newspaper at that time.
When the elders grew to know Peter, they explained that they were concerned about the next generation, who weren’t listening to the law and knowledge that needed to be passed down, who weren’t spending time in country. They inculcated Peter with their vision for the community and passed to him. He describes it as “just a little, but enough” knowledge needed to “do his little bit” to help achieve that.
Peter and Isobel both describe their coming together as like an arranged marriage, but are careful to qualify that it wasn’t anything negative, like the forced marriages of foreign cultures.
“Our old people bought us together,” Isobel says. “I needed someone to help me with the children. I also had the children of other people, like tribal elder David Mowaljarlai, with me at that time.
“And I needed help with getting my land back under my control. Peter was the right one to help me do that, he had worked with my old people on their land and culture rights and knew the way we were meant to do these things.”
“We are like the Queen’s mob that way, if we got no men on the line, the woman follows that line on”
Despite the often misapplied-notion that women are second-class citizens in Aboriginal culture, in Worrora culture, while women traditionally live in their husband’s country, they never surrender their rights to their own country. Often, when required for law and culture management, the husband will live with his wife’s people, to help manage their estate.
She explains, laughing, “People have said we are like the Queen [Elizabeth II] mob that way, if we got no men on the line, the woman has to follow that line on.”
In the late ’90s, Isobel had a serious medical issue that led to her staying near Perth’s major hospitals. Here, she continued to project her children into the future her elders future her elders, like David Mowaljarlai and Paddy Neowarra, were arranging. And she provided a base for the elders as they moved up and down from the Kimberley.
Removing the community from the traps and destruction of alcohol and town life, and moving back to country, was essential.
Isobel’s place, often called Ngarinyin House, was an embassy in the city, where the tribe stopped in for a rest and a talk as they came and went on their cultural and often medical business.
Isobel and Peter’s “arranged marriage” in the middle of this wasn’t taken lightly by anyone, but was secured by the good fortune of their falling in love.
“It wasn’t easy at first,” she says, of meeting Peter. “I didn’t really understand him. But eventually I could see that he wanted to take care of me and the children; that he was a good man.”
And anyone who meets the pair will agree they make a wonderful double act. It’s a partnership dedicated to making the right decisions about Lulim and its sacred law. This is what’s hoped of tribal marriage, as well as enjoying each other’s company, which of course is what anyone hopes to get out of a relationship.
As the rocks change colour at dusk along the Wijingarra Butt Butt shore, they seem also to change shape. Huge tidal shifts alter the perspective too, shapes that weren’t there earlier appear, and vice versa.
When the sun sets, the skyline’s luminous tropical pink, mauve and orange surge and fade, making way for a final red glow before the darkness takes hold.
At night, tiny shells, of many different types, mobilise en masse around our feet, taken up by thousands of hermit crabs heading inland as the tide approaches. As they grow out of their shells, they abandon them for larger ones.
The resident quoll crashes about when we’re in bed, particularly keen on any biscuits that haven’t been secured tightly.
And the birds at dawn, in concert with the lapping waves, welcome the day in energetic and inspirational chorus.
Lalai, Dreamtime, also means the soft, unformed light of day, a metaphor for the new era Isobel faces, and the choices she must make for her country.
“You don’t need to write all this down, you’ll remember it. And if you don’t, we’ll remind you”
I want to record this important moment in time, scribbling notes discreetly and taking photos.
But Isobel says, “You don’t need to write all this down, you’ll remember it. And if you don’t, we’ll remind you. That’s how knowledge works. It’s no good written down, you need to carry it with you.”
Men remember men’s law, women remember women’s law, and aunties, uncles and elders all remember the piece they’re responsible for, working together to look after the clan and the tribe with their shared knowledge.
In country, knowledge is no good unless it’s in your head – and your stomach. There’s no time to go and look it up. You need to know how to act in any moment, following tracks, looking out for the signals. It’s not just about avoiding dangerous fish, or sharks or crocodiles, or eating the right foods. It’s about traversing the right way through the spiritual elements of the land, so you can live well, and avoid getting hurt or going mad.
Isobel and her people believe they can pick up spirits from the land and this needs to be dealt with or bad things can happen.
For this reason, before I leave, of course I am, along with all my luggage, laptop, phones, cameras, everything, smoked well and truly. Isobel has packed guru stick, or cypress pine logs, in my luggage. Back in my flat, I smoke each room thoroughly, filling them with the heady, pungent smell of salt and pine oil.
Isobel is by any standards a remarkable woman. She has raised her own six children, along with the children of others. For many years she did this as a single mother inside a community well documented as suffering extreme poverty and social violence.
She’s the champion of humpback whales and other wildlife
She extricated her children from that without breaking their traditional ties to law, culture and community. She is a sole surviving female descendant of a tribal clan with scientifically documented presence in this area of the world for at least 50,000 years.
She has seven grandchildren. She’s the champion of humpback whales and other wildlife. And she continues the master plan of her elders, for survival in this time and place.
You can also check out her whale advocacy web page here.