Introduction to Yiriman

The Yiriman Project, going back to country and bringing out stories across generations in the Kimberley.

Preface: Ned’s story

Yiriman3This is a story about many old people of the Kimberley. Ned is just one of them.

Ned is a Walmatjarri bloke who was ‘grown up’ by his senior people in the northern parts of Australia’s Great Sandy Desert). He now spends much time in Fitzroy Crossing, one of the six towns in the region.  This desert country is infamously inhospitalible to all but the most seasoned bush people. It is often raging in heat and humidity, extremely remote and uncompromising for newcomers. In addition, Ned has lost a leg so there are added challenges associated with being out bush.

Despite this, Ned loves returning to country. He is often the first one in the car on Yiriman trips. It is nothing for him to be sitting waiting in the front seat, instructing young people in the heat of the day or having a two-hour conversation at night when everyone else is exhausted. He is often the one to get up first thing, sing out for country, rally people and great get people to do things that demand discipline and hard work.

Yiriman2This is pretty amazing if you keep in mind that he is a fella who spends most of his time sitting quietly in a tough place where the whirlwind of town life is whistling back and forth with grog, fighting, enormous emotional pain and kids  ‘humbugging’ with the law.

But when you see Ned out on country he becomes a boss. Ned asserts himself, his knowledge, his position and his language. He demands respect and ensures that other old people are respected.

But respect is not a one-way street for Ned. He gives it out too, beautifully offering it to young people. You can see it when he speaks to them, often in language and always in a tone that is soft and kind. He usually does this in Walmatjarri, showing that when language gets used you simultaneously hold culture and law, take care of country and look after the old people.

And like many of the senior people he sings on country. He sings to show respect to the old people who came before, passed away and now dwelling in country. On trips people wake up to his voice in traditional song. Every night he is singing by the fire. When you visit important places he sings. He sings to look after and teach young people, making them feel welcome and secure, warm and wrapped up in his arms. This is what Ned and that mob love to do. For them it is like going to the movies but better.

His message to young people is clear and consistent. He looks them in the eyes with silence for a few seconds. He softly says in Kriol, “we are here because we care about you, we have love for you. We know you; you come from a good family. We know all of your family, you have a name and we care for you, you are not just no one walking on the street. You are someone very important and you have a big life and a big role to play … don’t ever forget that.”

Ned is one of a number of important educators in the Kimberley, wielding something more powerful than a Cert 4 in Train the Trainer or a University degree in teaching. Ned has country, he has stories and he has family (Simon Keenan, Yiriman Men’s Coordinator 2010).


Yiriman4The Yiriman story comes from the Kimberley region in northwest Australia southern. The Kimberley itself covers a substantial area approximately twice the size of the Australian state of Victoria, three times the size of England or three-fifths the size of Texas. It has a relatively small population with just over 30,000 residents living in the region’s six towns (Broome, Derby, Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek, Wyndham and Kununnurra) and more than one hundred small Indigenous communities.

People living in the Kimberley are confronted by a climate of extremes. Temperatures range from close to 0°C at night in the desert to 45°C and humid in the middle of the day in summer. More than 40 percent of those who call the Kimberley home are of Indigenous Australian decent. Across the region, at least 15 language groups with 30 dialects are still being spoken. Much of Yiriman country has been relatively isolated from western influence (apart from the odd missionary, pastoralist or traveling police officer) until the past 50 years.

As a consequence, a considerable number of Karajarri, Nyikina, Mangala and Walmajarri people have remained close to the country of their ancestors, maintaining culture, language and law more than many other Indigenous groups from more ‘settled’ Australia.

This chapter provides an account of attempts by community to ‘educate’ their young people. It offers a story of senior people who are reigniting old systems of education. In this way the chapter describes about how desert people think about and carry out, what we often call people ‘education’ and ‘training’. In particular it explores the important part relationships (skin), place (country) and narrative (story) play in knowledge transfer across generations. In this way the chapter provides an example of how traditional ‘law and cultural’ practices have been used influence the solutions a community seek.

The Yiriman Project

Yiriman6-smallSince 2000 the Yiriman Project has worked with young people, their elders and other generations across the southern Kimberley. It represents innovative attempts by community dealing with one of the countries most pressing social policy challenges: the future for Indigenous young people living in remote Australia.

Yiriman is governed by senior Karajarri, Nyigina, Mangala and Walmatjarri cultural advisers and is managed by the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre (KALACC), a not-for-profit organisation concerned with the social and cultural well being of Aboriginal people across the Kimberley. It started because senior people were concerned about young people who were harming themselves with drugs and ‘grog’ and getting in trouble with the law. Following long established traditions, they set about organising ‘back to country’ trips.

Yiriman has been described as a ‘youth diversionary program’, a ‘cultural maintenance project’ and “a way to heal young people, heal country and heal community”. However, the most poetic and illuminating way to understand it is to listen to how its ‘bosses’ talk.

  • The old people came up with this little program called Yiriman to protect and look after kids. When they looking after kids they looking after the old people and country same time (John Hopiga, 2010).
  • We got lots of kids not following our culture, not following mainstream culture, they following lazy culture. We gotta stop the bad things and concentrate on the good things. This is what Yiriman has been doing for ten years (Anthony Watson, 2010).
  • What we been talking about is a role model, give them (young people) that confidence, we gonna lift them up to be leaders, so they are the next lot to pass things on (Annie Milgen, 2010).
  • Most of our young people have grown up in town … going out bush is beautiful and our young people find themselves when they’re out there … (Annette Kogola, 2006).
  • Going on Yiriman trips help me learn from old people, and help me learn how to help others. Help me feel that I was being part of something (Joy Nugget, 2010).
  • All you gotta do is chuck away that idea that you got somebody over you, you can overcome that. That’s why we bringing you guys out here to clear your brains to think where you gonna go (John Watson, 2010).
  • To me Yiriman is a vehicle that is used in healing for our old people and our young people. Going back to country with our old people they know exactly where their grandfather country is. And it gives the old people a chance to open up and be kings and queens of their country (William Watson, 2010).

One of the reasons for establishing the Yiriman Project was to ‘keep old stories alive’. This experience of story telling, the raison d’être for Yiriman, both gives elders the chance to have their accounts listened to, young people the chance to learn and Aboriginal culture the chance to rejuvenate. As a consequence young people become an active part of the stories their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have featured in. It also allows young people’s stories to emerge. Peter Lubic, the project’s first coordinator, describes it in this way,

It is giving young people the opportunity to reconnect and redevelop relationships with their old people and with country and build something positive. The theme, the objective, the goal, the outcome is building stories in young people. It does this by providing resources to the old people to travel out on to country and create space for knowledge of country to be transferred (October 2010).

Women’s Coordinator, Michelle Coles:

On country, young people are listening to the old people, discussing their concerns. They learn more from elders with each trip to the area and they come to understand how those elders are weighing up the complexities of life (cited in Taylor 2010, p. 87-88).

Yiriman also gives people a chance to have new experiences, visit new places, work with land management experts, share time with researchers and scientists, health practitioners, filmmakers and artists.  They also use new technology including digital cameras, video, sound devices and GPS equipment. This helps build in opportunities for self-development, cultural knowledge transmission, land management skills, respect for elders, literacy work and creative production. “We really encourage the kids to develop profiles of themselves, place and cultural context using art, music videos, photo-stories (a slide show with voice over) and photo-journals” (Wallace Smith cited in Taylor 2010, p. 86).

Another feature of Yiriman’s work is that trips are carefully planned to incorporate others such as pastoralists, fire managers, fish scientists, zoologists, biologists, cartographers, archaeologists, general practitioners, nurses, teachers. This has many benefits including providing economic rewards to senior people, establishing them as knowledgeable and reinforcing their status with young people as the legitimate custodians in their country (see Nesbit, Baker, et al., 2001, p. 191–192).

As Preaud describes, on Yiriman trips young people are reacquainted with their country.

During a trip, whether on foot or in a car, elders point out salient or meaningful features of the landscape which are all fragments of the living body of country. This hill which is really a Dog, this tree under which we camped last time, this old windmill where your uncle used to work. All these fragments are part of a multiple history that gradually builds the young people as country themselves … Thus Yiriman opens up new horizons … in which stories build upon one another into a living memory (Preaud, 2009, p. 9).