A gentle sea breeze touches the tamarind trees of Milingimbi where Laurie Baymarrwangga is sitting in the dappled shade on the beach of her mother’s country. The ninety six year old Senior Australian of the Year 2012 is weaving as she is being painted by Melbourne artist Gillian Warden. Gillian spent many days with Laurie Baymarrwangga studying the changing island light and said, ‘the art of portraiture is to portray a special quality of the person’. ‘I named her portrait Virtue because of the kindness and generosity of Laurie Baymarrwangga, someone so wise who shows us the way ’.
Laurie’s concern for her country’s vibrant linguistic and customary heritage generated a family of interrelated projects under the Crocodile Islands Initiative. Designed to support language, livelihoods and homelands the initiative aims to skill and employ people on country, follow traditional law, and protect the linguistic, cultural and biological diversity of the Islands. The initiative includes a Ranger Program, a Trilingual Dictionary and support for homelands residence. In 2011 this initiative won her the NT innovation ‘Life Time Achievement Award’ for services to country.
The Ranger Program she started with her own money was formally launched in 2010, after a decade of struggle. The Crocodile Islands Rangers now protect more than 10,000km2 of sea country with 250km2 of registered sacred sites. Caring for some of the last breeding and nesting places of many endangered species they have created a 1000km2 turtle sanctuary. The Rangers are working to improve economic, social and cultural wellbeing by providing meaningful employment and education through dedicated language and cultural programs. Programs are set to manage, conserve and protect the natural marine resources and the priceless traditional ecological knowledge living inside Yan-nhangu language.
For the last twenty years Laurie Baymarrwangga has been working on a trilingual Yan-nhangu dictionary project to support language education. Aside from the positive health outcomes and psychological resilience attending bilingualism it promotes a locally controlled mechanism to enrich the intergenerational transmission of local knowledge to a new generation of natural resource managers. This dictionary brings together two Yolngu languages, Yan-nhangu and Dhuwal/a (6000 speakers) with English to form a resource for education on the homelands. She plans to give the full colour dictionary free to Yolngu children, schools and homelands throughout the region before Christmas 2013.
Laurie Baymarrwangga says ‘Homelands are at the heart of knowing our country’. This knowing depends upon complex cultural knowledge linked to country. Homelands provide vital services to the Australian nation in heritage preservation, environmental management services, and better health and education outcomes, not to mention the jewels of our national cultural heritage and arts. This relationship is assured on the homelands where positive engagement with country life promotes their vitality but homelands are under threat.
The portrait ‘virtue’ captures something of Laurie Baymarrwangga. She says to resist assimilation we must ennoble the hearts of those who humiliate us. Perhaps Baymarrwangga is showing us the virtue of gentle kindness in her struggle to save her kin and country, her culture and language.