Craig Anderson, deep in Mirning Country. Photo SA Rips


By Uncle Bunna Lawrie (with Jock Serong)

“I’m a Mirning elder, an ambassador for my tribe. I learned the things I know from my mother and father and my grandparents. The Mirning are sea people: there are thirty-five clans of us from Israelite Bay in the west, past Eucla and the Head of Bight (mirranangu, where the people connected with the whales in rituals) in a great curving sweep, to Streaky Bay in the east. The word mirning itself carries all sorts of meanings. It means to listen, to learn, understand and observe, all of which leads to wisdom and knowledge. All of the elements in nature here are very sacred to us.

“Our totem is the sea, the billia. We consider it the father, because everything lives in the sea and the sea feeds everything: the whales, seals, dolphins (wandjala) and penguins (jilia). We have names for all of the fish in the sea. The beach is the wanna, the earth is the yoolla, or mother, and the great ocean in its entirety is called the mocalbar. The sea sends the rain, the clouds coming up off it, as its son, and the rain makes the place fertile, leaving water for us to drink. Wiribi is the water which flows from the rain, off the land and back into the sea. It replenishes the earth.

“Warrndar is the wave, and it’s also the word for hill, a hill that the father sends to travel along the water as a cleansing, clearing thing, and as a plaything for the creatures. The wave comes into the shallow water and the beach, a place we call the warnar. The top foam on the wave we call djalyji, and when it’s driven inland and it dries up it produces the salt in the ground.

“The great white whale jeedara, he’s the master – he blew that djalyji into flint on the land, which we call jaljar. We used it as currency, as something we could barter with. The Yaum are the great diving people – they had little canoes, and they’d go out fishing, and they’d dive to get seaweeds and kelps, which they call binyidierr. There are certain good ones for eating: we place it in the guts of the fish – maybe a butterfish or a snapper, before we cook it. We put the fish on a sharp stick from a mallee tree with the seaweed and some bush herbs in the gut, some wild potato or wild turnip.

“Mirning country and traditions take in the caves of the Nullarbor Plain, the massive Bunda cliffs of the Bight, and all of the creatures in the waters below them. All of it is governed by a sophisticated system of laws called goonminyerra, which emphasise balance and harmony. The connection between people and country is so old that it includes lands that are now deep under the Southern Ocean as a result of glacial retreats: we are a people older than a geological age. That’s why Mirning people were central to the campaign over recent years to keep deep sea oil exploration out of the Bight.

“Later arrivals have attached their own languages to this coast: the Dutch called it Landt van Pieter Nuyts, and the English named it Fowler’s Bay. It was Matthew Flinders who took away the proper name for the place, yerrlarda, and used a rough approximation, ‘Yalata’. There’s a big whale tale just around the corner from yerrlarda, connecting to the epic Seven Sisters songlines that relate to the stars in the night sky (the Pleiades), and take in swathes of the Australian desert. Noel Pearson has compared the songlines of Central Australia to the Odyssey, the Iliad, and the Book of Genesis – Australia’s very own Book of Genesis. In this place, the Seven Sisters songline relates to jeedara having impregnated all seven sisters and creating the massive cliffs.

“Mirning people have always extended their welcome, or wenyo, to their coast. They’re friendly and caring people, but they haven’t always found their generosity reciprocated. They’ve had no benefit from the roads, the trucks, the caravans and all the tourists. The Mirning are currently seeking World Heritage protection over the Bight coastline.”

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*Please note the words used here are protected Mirning language.