18 Jun 21

‘The past is in the present is in the future’


The knowledge, practice and tradition of the Yambirrpa fish traps.

The NGV exhibition Big Weather provides unique insights into specialised knowledge of weather systems and a First Peoples view on climate change. Inspired by these themes, filmmaker, artist and Yolŋu woman Siena Stubbs shares her reflections on the sustainable practices in her community in North-East Arnhem Land that are coming under threat because of the changing climate.

My name is Siena Stubbs. My full identity as a Yolŋu woman is Siena Mayutu Wurmarri Mitjparal Yumalil Barakara Baḏatjuna Stubbs. At eighteen, I have just finished school and am working at The Mulka Project at the Buku-Larrŋgay (ŋ as in ng) Mulka Centre here in my beautiful community, Yirrkala. In Yolŋu Matha, (the language of the Yolŋu people), ‘Mulka’ means ‘a sacred ceremony’ and to hold or protect. This means at Mulka, our mission is to protect Yolŋu knowledge under the guidance of our Yolŋu elders, be that through film, audio recordings or documents in our archive.

As an eighteen-year-old, I get scared about the effects global warming is having on the earth and as a Yolŋu eighteen-year-old, I already see these effects everywhere. I see it in the dead, rooted djomula (casuarina trees) that used to line our beaches. I see it in the irregular rain of the dulundur’ (wet period between December and March) and I see it in the late fruiting of the mundjutj (green plum), which has shifted from late January to March.

For 60,000 years, we as Yolŋu have lived in harmony with the land through our system of gurrutu, the system that relates everything in the world to each other. Through gurruṯu, everything is connected. I relate to you, you relate to me, we relate to everything in the world, From the wäkuṉ (mullet) in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the current they follow, to the pockets of rainforests that surround us and the guyita (witchetty grubs) within them. Through gurruṯu, Yolŋu have stayed in equilibrium with our earth since the beginning of time. This has shaped the way we live our lives and the sustainable practices that have been followed to make sure it stays that way.

One of these many practices include our method of catching fish. You might be familiar with the gara or spear that Yolŋu men use. A three-wire-prong fishing device that is used by many cultures around the world, usually consisting of a long straight wooden stick cut from the beach hibiscus (hibiscus tiliaceus). But we also use many types of fish traps. Each clan has a specific design related to the area of their homeland. For Yolŋu, the fish trap can be seen literally (catching fish) but also metaphorically, as a net that catches our knowledge.

When I sit in my backyard, I look out to the direction of Wulthu Yambirrpa Gurruwuruŋu Ŋamaṉḏa Gaypaḏa Dhawnyilnyil (commonly known as Yambirrpa); the names of the fish trap that belongs to the Rirratjiŋu and Dhudi-Djambarrpuyŋu clans.

Recently, The Mulka Project was asked to go out and film the renewal of Yambirrpa. Yambirrpa is a Rirratjiŋu and Dhudi-Djambarrpuyŋu fish trap, which means it is found within Rirratjiŋu and Dhudi-Djambarrpuyŋu songlines. When Yolŋu sing, we sing in a tense that doesn’t exist in English. To explore this tense, let’s take an activity, say a young boy walking along the beach. Within the song lines, this boy was walking along the beach, is walking along the beach and will walk along the beach, simultaneously. As a non-Yolŋu person, it might be hard to understand this, but it might make sense when you hear the songlines.

Songlines can be looked at like a method or procedure. They hold all of the information required to see the world and live as a Yolŋu person.

When The Mulka Project came back from filming, I was curious about any other footage that was filmed at Yambirrpa and looked to our archives. Our archives hold every single piece of footage and audio that we can obtain, of Yolŋu people singing, dancing and living.

I searched for the Yambirrpa trap and found that this exact same workshop happened sixteen years ago, in 2004, captured in a film called ‘Remaking the Yambirrpa’. The footage in this film held the exact songlines, dances and ‘procedure’ related to the same area and fish trap. I love learning from the knowledge captured in the old films in our archive so when I found this one, I was excited to learn more.

The film holds everything about Yambirrpa and its songlines. It might help you see the world from a Yolŋu perspective, so I want to share it with you.

The film starts with my waku (great-grandmother or child) Dhuwarrwarr Marika who speaks to the students before they begin the process of remaking the trap:

… [This is] not just a story, the way that we are about to go and get fish … the way that you walk … the way you sit under the shade when you sit down … on the beach under the trees called ‘Buṉumbirr’… we keen you through these actions … through your reliving of the past … From when you catch the fish and get the firewood … This is not made up yesterday but comes from the ancient past, dear children.

This is how we, as young people learn. It is the metaphor of the Yambirrpa. The gathering of children and the capturing of knowledge. Sitting on the beach, with our Elders, listening, learning. The men commence the songline, the translations reading:

Gathering like clouds, sitting in a long line …
as the breeze caresses the cheeks of the original people. Sitting down in a long row …
they watch the tide going in and out …
Sitting down in long lines …
Picturing the fish trap called Wulthu Yambirrpa
Gurruwuruŋu.

The songmen are recalling the first step of the ‘procedure’. It’s what is happening now. This has always happened, is happening and will happen in the future. Yolŋu people have always sat/are sitting/will always sit under the shaded resting place named Buṉumbirr at this place and were thinking/are thinking/will think about the fish that they will catch later in the day.

Listen to the sound of Bunbuyŋu Miyarama (the ancestors’ voices) …
the sound of the Miliwurrwurr (Rirratjiŋu clan) people talking…
anticipating the sweet taste of the fish.

The past is in the present is in the future. Our ancestors were here, are here and will be here, waiting for the tide to go out so the fish can be caught. Yambirrpa has always provided fish for Yolŋu people and it will continue to.

The next step of the ‘procedure’ continues and buŋgul (dancing) begins. My uncles are performing the dance with young boys, both hands holding the body of the spear bent taught above their heads. They begin to walk towards the fish trap:

Ancestor of this country, hands ready on his spear standing in profile, hands on his spear …
scanning the fish trap, the Yambirrpa surveying the fish trap. Scanning the ocean with his spearhead …
the one from this place, hands ready on his spear.

My uncles are becoming the thunderman Djambuwal. He is an ancestral man that is sung by all Dhuwa clans. The biḻma (clapsticks) speed up and the movement fastens. The men begin to stamp the ground like the thunderman, disturbing the water and exciting the fish. The cliff face that looks upon Yambirrpa is his chest, as he looks over this land:

He sees the Yambirrpa.
See the chest of the Ancestor as he arrives at the fish trap. The fisherman reaches the place of the ancient fish trap. Hands laying down the foundations of the Yambirrpa Gurruwuruŋu.
Laying down the stones of the Yambirrpa,
Stones being laid down by the ancestral fisherman as he thinks about the mullet he will catch.
Thinking of the tasty mullet.

This is the moment in the procedure where Yambirrpa Wulthu Gurruwuruŋu begins to form once again. Women, men, boys and girls walk into the shallows of the water and begin stacking the rocks upon the old rocks, following the foundation of what has been laid before. Within a matter of minutes, the fish trap takes shape. A wall of rocks sits perpendicular to the shore with a small gap, allowing for the fish to swim in at high tide and to be trapped at low tide. It will hold purpose for another twenty years before it is built again.

This structure has helped sustain both Yolŋu life and the balance of the natural world for thousands of years. This is how Yolŋu live. It is in the songs.

But what will happen when global warming causes the sea level to rise exponentially, and the low tide becomes too high? When the sea level exceeds the rock platform the wall stands upon, and the Yambirrpa have no purpose? This procedure has been written in the songlines for thousands of years and could disappear in a matter of a hundred.

It’s scary to think that the increasing pressure of global warming is challenging the songlines of Yolŋu people. Whether we like it or not, the sustainable way of Yolŋu life is being disturbed and, if we are not careful, the knowledge trapped within our Yambirrpa could be lost forever.

This piece was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 28 May–Jun 2020.