Caring for Country: Transmission of Aboriginal Environmental Knowledge in Western Australia

Credit: Kimberley Language Resource Centre

Project Contributor: Kimberley Language Resource Centre Aboriginal Corporation

Barbara Sturt and Bonnie Marisha Sampi with Barndu (water goanna) and Jalij (freshwater prawn) Credit: Kimberley Language Resource Centre

The Kimberley region of Western Australia is one of the most linguistically diverse areas of Australia. At least 42 languages, plus dialects, were identified post-colonisation. According to 2009 data from the Kimberley Development Commission (, Aboriginal people form almost 48% of the population of the region, or roughly 16,500 people. The Department of Environment and Conservation has acknowledged this region as an area of great biodiversity. The Kimberley Language Resource Centre (KLRC), the first regional language centre established in Australia, was incorporated in 1985. In over 26 years of operation it has cemented its status with Aboriginal people as the most representative body for Kimberley Aboriginal languages. It services an area of 422,000kmsq, including six towns and approximately 50 Remote Aboriginal Communities. It is governed by an elected Board of twelve Aboriginal Directors accountable to a membership representative of the approximately 30 languages still spoken, which represent about a fifth of the remaining national languages.

The KLRC is often asked to provide linguistic support to Kimberley language groups carrying out documentation of plants and animals through other bodies working in the Natural Resource Management (NRM) field. When collaborating with language groups and other agencies on ethnobiological projects, the KLRC takes the following position: 1) Ensure the development of ethnobiological resources appropriate for knowledge transmission in the community – with strong language outcomes; 2) Provide appropriate professional development for Aboriginal people to document their own knowledge; 3) Provide direct support to the community to produce language resources, e.g. DVDs, bilingual books; and 4) Encourage language immersion at every opportunity.

A general problem with language transmission outcomes in these kinds of projects was identified by the KLRC Board and by language groups. Often, the fast disappearing Aboriginal languages documented during field trips figure as just a list of words in publications or other resources. The knowledge found in oral language captured in audio or audiovisual recordings remains unused because of the prevailing focus on written documentation in English. The KLRC is often left to find additional funding in order to increase the language transmission outcomes – but these funds are not easy to obtain, since ethnobiological work is primarily regarded as NRM and not as language and knowledge maintenance.

One example is the Jaru Plants continue reading–>