Language & Culture

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Our language is more than the thangani (words) that we speak. It is our culture, it is our country, it is who we are as a people

We identify as Bunuba through our language and cultural practice. Language forms and shapes us into the people we are, it holds the stories and knowledge of Country, it constructs our moral universe and determines our relationships with each other and with the living world. Language defines our water systems, our animals, our plants, our rivers, our skies and everything in between. When we speak language, we are speaking life and the interwoven relationship between all human and non-human things.

Our language is not only a tool to name things, it is knowledge itself. In this way, our language is relational and connected. Speaking our mother tongue keeps Country alive. Language gives voice to those things we might otherwise mistake as being silent. Our thangani is part of the rich global tapestry of language diversity. For it is Indigenous languages that describe the earth on which we live, and that give form to many different ways of thinking about life in all its complexity and brilliance.

The reach of our language marks the boundaries of our Country, and this was set in place during ngarranggani, the creation time. Our creation story tells of two mythical tharra (dogs), our ancestral beings. As these tharra crossed the Savannah, they listened to Country and marked the borders of each land by each new language that they heard.

On Bunuba Country the two tharra could hear our thangani in the land. They heard its echo in the winamu (sandstone) of Miluwindi, in the flow of Bandaralngarri, across the vast galanganyja (black soil plains), to the balili (limestone) ranges in the south. But when the two dogs went to move onto Ungumi Country in the northwest, they could no longer understand the language spoken. Knowing they were in another country, the tharra stopped and came back to Bunuba Country where they found shelter in a cave at Barralama. These two tharra still remain resting in this cave, marked by the images of them painted on the wall.

The story of the two tharra shows how closely language and Country are interconnected, with each one defining the other. It also tells of our obligations to Country. As the two dogs travelled the galanganyja they grew thirsty. Striking their claws through the earth below, they dug themselves a big soak from which to drink. The soak which they dug remains today and in the carving of the rock we can still see the scars of the dingoes’ paws.

It remains our responsibility to look after these special garuwa (freshwater) places. Protecting these areas from pests, weeds, cattle, and human interference, we are conserving the garuwa and all the plants and animals around. In doing so we are also preserving our cultural heritage. Keeping the soaks of the dingoes healthy and alive, then our ngarranggani, our stories, our traditions and our identity lives on.

We have many malayi (increase sites) throughout our Country, that are connected to the knowledge that are held by Bunuba. The malayi are access points to another realm though which we can connect to all things in the universe, including realms we cannot see such as the weather and the movement of the seasons. Each malayi is connected to Country through their story. In knowing these stories, we also know the cultural practice that is associated with the particular malayi.

It is our role and responsibility to ensure that these malayi are maintained, and that their stories are passed on from one generation to the next. It is important that each generation understands the significance of these stories and the meaning of these places so that we can maintain the malayi and the life that they bring forth. When we engage with the ritual that malayi requires, we are requesting the universe to provide and respond to us. These stories are held in our language, which is why it is vital that our thangani are maintained. Country and the spirits that inhabit are can only communicate to us through language.

In maintaining each malayi we are ensuring the health of Country, our culture and our people. One of our malayi is a rock that is connected to the gindili (grasshopper). When it is the season for hunting baniy (goanna), then we rub this rock to make sure there are enough gindili to make the baniy nice and fat and good to eat. There is also a low rolling cloud, heavy and grey that we call to during barranga, hot weather time. When our ancestors hear our voices, they know that we have been looking after Country and are now ready for the rains to replenish our lands, plants, and animals once again.

We see connections in all parts of Country – the rocks, the rivers, the trees, the birds, the plants, the animals, our stories, our ngarranggani and ourselves. It is our responsibility to ensure that balance is maintained so that Country remains healthy. This obligation was bestowed upon us during ngarrangani after a meeting called by Wadawiy (spotted nightjar) and Jirringin (owlet nightjar). With all of our ancestors present, Wadawiy and Jirringin passed down the kinship system. Our kinship system sets out our relationships to each other, our social & cultural responsibilities, and the roles & obligations we each have in looking after Country.

At that time, our ancestor were humans but through events recounted in our ngarranggani stories many of them became the animals of our Country. The skin names that we are born into today link us back to these ancestors through our human and non-human relationships. Our skin name tells us of our obligation to look after our non-human relatives, as well as the parts of Country that it depends upon for its survival.

All of our knowledge is reflected in our thangani, the language that we speak. As our children learn the names of places, they learn the passage of life over the year. Whether that is the movement of the balga (barramundi) or the flowering of our mayi (bush foods), our language connects us to Country.

In 2019 we launched Yarrangi Thangani Lundu, Mayi Yani-u, the Bunuba Trees and Bush Foods book. Working with our partners at Environs Kimberley, this book is a record of a selection of the language and knowledge we hold of our bush foods, bush medicines, plants, and trees. Whilst this book shares our knowledge of Country with the wider community, it is also the opportunity for us to record our knowledge for future generations of Bunuba people.

In July 2020 we also hosted the inaugural Yajilarra festival at Danggu. Meaning ‘let us dream’ Yajilarra provided us the opportunity to celebrate our cultural knowledge and practice. During the 3-day event, we revitalised the traditional songs and dances that link us to Bandaralngarri and the river country. Our children also performed two of our ngarranggani stories – Winthali (the fire story) and Ray (the spirit children).

These performances are the embodiment of our culture. In every line, every movement, and every gesture that you see, there is the echo of our elders and the memories of our ancestors. Our knowledge lives in our stories. And for every word of Bunuba that rings out across the stage, we are reclaiming the role of our language in today’s world and ensuring that our children are strong in this practice.

As we move forward, culture, Country and language remain our priority. We look for any opportunity to strengthen our people today and our future generations to come. In doing so we are not only looking to the future, but we are also upholding our obligations to country and remaining faithful to the lessons of ngarranggani.

Current Season


August - mid December

Barrangga is build up time. It is hot and humid, with thalangu (dust & storms), and walangu (gales) whipping across country. The hot weather signals a big shift for our reptiles as the jungurra (olive python) and walaganburu (rock python) wake up from their cold weather sleep. The flowering Bandiran (silver-leaf paperbark) tells us that the gayi (crocodile) are now laying their eggs.

Image Credits:

Bunuba girls - Natalie Davey; People & Culture - Jalangurru Muwayi Bunuba Heathy County Plan; Knowledge - Jalangurru Muwayi; Stones - Jalangurru Muwayi; Garuwa (freshwater place) - Kerry Aiken; Napier Range - John Augusteyn; Junba performance - Russell James; Goanna - uncredited artist, Thangani Bunuba, KLRC; Emu in the sky - Jalangurru Muwayi; Young emu dancers - Russell James; Yarrangi Thangani Lundu, Mayi Yani-u launch - Damien Kelly, EK supplied; Winthali performance - Rift photography & Wesfarmers; Ray performance - Russell James; Mother & joey - Rift photography & Wesfarmers;