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Custodian of Culture Honoured

Laurie Baymarrwangga, an Indigenous community leader from North East Arnhem Land, has won the Northern Territory Senior Australian of the Year award. Laurie, traditional owner of Galiwin’ku and senior custodian of Milingimbi, has also just been awarded a Special Commendation at the Northern Territory Research and Innovation Awards for her work promoting traditional language, culture and knowledge when it comes to managing natural resources and marine environments.

On hearing of her award, Laurie, who is 95 years young, thanked all those people who have supported her vision of Indigenous management of sea country. She said, “nhangu dhangany yuwalkthana bayngu bulanggitj Yolngu mitji marnggimana dhana gayangamana mayili mana dhangany wanggalangabu mana limalama ganatjirri wulumba (maramba).” (We continue to pass on the stories of our land and sea country for the good of new generations.)

Laurie has played a crucial role in assisting the Yan-nhangu traditional owners to establish the Crocodile Islands Rangers Program as an investment in their land and sea country for future generations. The aim of the ranger program is to insert tradition and custom in contemporary natural resource management and, therefore, sustain linguistic, cultural and biological diversity as a basis for sustainable livelihoods on country.

Laurie started her outstation on the remote island of Murrungga in the early 1960s. She also started the Yan-nhangu dictionary project in 1994. Her message is a simple one: “We must show the world by leading, by resisting pressures to assimilate because our culture and languages are a unique gift to the future for all people.”

In 1994, only 300 words of Yan-nhangu were documented and Laurie’s language was expected to die out, but with a team of volunteers, Laurie has recorded nearly 3000 words linked to her marine environment. The dictionary is one of a family of projects directed at strengthening and continuing Yan-nhangu local knowledge and encouraging biological and linguistic diversity on the homelands. The wider aim of the project is to help Yolngu children manage their natural resources, learn their local language and Indigenous ecological knowledge and to encourage residence on ‘healthy homelands’. Laurie says, “This choice is more valuable than all the money in the world.”

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