Martu women teaching and learning plant knowledge at bush camp

[December 2015] 

Forty two Martu women from Jigalong, Parnngurr and Punmu communities in the Pilbara came together at a five-day camp in August 2015 to teach and learn about local plants that are edible and medicinal.

Joining and supporting the camp were four Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) staff, CSIRO facilitator Dr Fiona Walsh, and filmmaker Dave Wells.

The camp was part of a project supported by Rangelands NRM through the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme that is empowering Martu women to manage their country, its natural resources and threats to these resources, including weeds and ‘wrong-way fire’ (large, very hot fires).

KJ’s Women’s Land Program Manager Tracy Carboon said the bush camp was established at a site chosen by the Martu women, at Yulpu, about one hour south of Parnngurr on Martu country in the Great Sandy Desert.

Martu women sharing knowledge on food preparation“The aim was to reinvigorate knowledge sharing between older and younger Martu women about many different native plant species and how to process and prepare them for practical use and supply,” she said.

“The collaboration between the three women’s groups and the engagement of participants from all ages was a highlight of the camp.”

“There was respect for one another and a sense of one big group working together.” 

“Some of the older women had lived and walked on Martu country as pujiman (bush women) before they saw kartiya (white people).”

“Middle generations, women in their thirties and forties, helped to explain things and engage the teenagers and children. They all became involved… collecting and sorting more than 30 plant species.” 

Ms Carboon said the older Martu women were recognised as the ‘experts’ in plant knowledge and practice. It was also recognised that the facilitator and staff had plant-related expertise that was relevant.

“The Martu women learnt about the areas where key bush food and medicines are found, traditional and modern preparation techniques, and the threatening processes (weeds, feral animals and burning at the wrong time) that can impact the availability of these plants,” she said.

“Buffel grass can take over country after hot fires, which burn at the wrong time of year and fire burning in places that traditionally Martu would have kept fire out of, such as water places.  These changes to the landscape can impact important bush food species, and in a short period of time reduce plant species that available for Martu to gather.”

“These lessons reinforced the importance of the native plants and of the natural resource management work being undertaken on the Martu country to maintain healthy, productive land.”

“We also had school children join some sessions and little ones playing, mimicking the actions of the others. They enjoyed sorting the plants and making foods from seeds using traditional artefacts, Yandi bowls, grinding stones, etc. that have been found on the Martu lands,” said Ms Carboon.

With some extra funding, KJ are aiming to finalise production of some resources for the Martu women and Pilbara community from information gathered and synthesized at the camp.

In draft is a reference guide of the plants that were collected and categorised according to their uses and illustrated with drawings by the Martu women. 

Also in production is a recipe book of sorts on how to process and prepare the plants as food or medicine. This book also uses hand-drawn illustrations, and the Aboriginal words along with English words in the descriptions.

Filmmaker Dave Wells of Prevailing Winds Productions is preparing a video record of the camp for those who could not attend, as well as a summary video for other people and organisations to understand the processes, aims and achievements of the camp, incorporating interviews with participants.

Photos of the camp by Fiona Walsh, CSIRO, provided by KJ.