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Bringing the stories home: the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project

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Warning: This story contains an image of an Indigenous person who has passed away.

The primary aim of the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project is to revitalise the collective memories and memory practices of the Noongar people of the south-west of Western Australia, and communicate those memories and practices to the wider world.

The creative production research project provides a forum for the dissemination of stories, songs, dance, drawings, and paintings of a past— in some cases a very recent past— that has been traumatic and destructive for Noongar people and communities. The project produced a number of non-traditional research outputs, including six picture books (published in 2011, 2013 and 2017) co-written by Curtin University’s Professor Kim Scott and community members, illustrated by community members, and published by UWA Press.

The books were developed from the stories told to Gerhardt Laves in 1931 by Noongar people in the Albany area along with material developed independent of that archive, and retold through extensive community engagement and consultation. In December 2012, the chief literary critic of The Australian newspaper, Geordie Williamson, called two of these books – Mamang and Noongar Mambara Bakitj – “two of the most significant publications of the year”.

A video reading of Mamang in Noongar was developed and released as a YouTube video in 2015 with English translations subtitled over visuals of the illustrations from the book. The book was then further developed as an iPad app in partnership with UWA Press and Writing WA. These initiatives have brought the story and cultural context in the book to a vastly wider, international audience, and increased accessibility of the story.

Wirlomin Noongar group posing for photo
The Wirlomin Noongar Reference Group

These books are a Noongar language resource: told in Noongar with English transliterative glossing underneath each word, with an English prose translation below the Noongar text. A glossary of Noongar lexical and morphological items is included. Accompanying CDs are available, and free audio clips are available for download with audio of the books being read in Noongar and in English. These language features make the Noongar language more accessible to an English-speaking audience and to people learning Noongar.

Through the associated workshop series (2007–2017), the group has returned the old stories, bringing them back to family, community and land. The development process engages community in the drafting process, shares the stories with community groups through creative participation such as illustration workshops, and invites critique and contribution to the draft version. The story is then taken by members of the reference group to their landscape, bringing the story and the people to ancestral country. The last part of the workshop series is the presentation of the story to school and community groups (including both Noongar and non-Noongar), which involves sharing the stories, sharing songs, and sharing information about Noongar culture.

The impact of this research has been far-reaching in Noongar communities, where workshops have been held every year since 2007. The nature of the intended impact is clear in a passage from Scott’s essay, ‘Not so Easy’, published in Griffith Review 47 (2015):

“I’d like to think there is a place for literature, for story, in social transformation. I’d like to think a ‘creative writer’ can ‘awaken consciousness’ and ‘reveal identity’”.

The engagement with the wider community through the workshop series has also strengthened community, developed skills in Noongar participants and workshop leaders, and developed cultural competency in non-Indigenous participants. Participants in a workshop in 2011 at the Albany Regional Prison reported that the experience sparked interest in learning and literacy.

The group also presents at public and school events, bringing the stories and cultural knowledge to a broader audience. These have included the Perth Writers Festival, All Saints Children’s Festival, Denmark Festival of Voice and the English Teachers Association WA State Conference.

Scholarly works have discussed the impact of the project in terms of both its literary and cultural empowerment achievements. For example, Natalie Quinlivan’s Finding a Place in Story: Kim Scott’s writing and the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project (2014); and The Wirlomin Project and Kim Scott: Empowering Regional Narratives in a Globalized World of Literature (2016).

The work of the project has also contributed to the tourism and landscape of the Albany region. The Mamang Trail, a 15.4 km hiking trail in Fitzgerald River National Park includes illustrations and text from Mamang in its interpretive materials along the trail. The South Coast National Research Management and federal National Landcare Programme also worked with the project to facilitate the connection of the published Wirlomin stories to the landscape.

Interpretive panels are located at key points along the newly-created Mamang Trail, featuring stories born out of the Wirlomin Noongar project.

These partnerships have contributed to knowledge and facilitated increased connection between Noongar communities and the Albany region, empowering Noongar people to access and control their ancestral cultural knowledge.

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