Stories in Jiwarli 12

Today’s post presents a personal reminiscence story in Jiwarli with English translation, told and explained to me by Jack Butler on 18th May 1985. There is information about the Jiwarli spelling here.

The Earthquake

This story comes from when Jack and his younger brother Joe were children travelling with their mother and step-father along the Henry River in Jiwarli traditional territory. It describes an occasion when there was a loud noise, trees and the earth shook, and water, together with the fish in it, was thrown out of the waterholes in the river. At the time, no-one knew what had happened, and Jack found out later that it had been an earthquake.

According to information from the Seismology Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia, a major earthquake (of approximate magnitude 7.5-8 on the Richter scale) took place at 07:18 GMT on 19 November 1906. The earthquake was centred at 22° S and 109° E, which is off the North-West Cape of Western Australia. Jack’s story takes place at marndaangu, Mundong Well (see map), which is located at approximately 23° S and 115° E. Jack described the earthquake as coming from the north and heading east — this fits well with advancing shock waves from a point off North-West Cape. A date of 1906 also matches Jack’s description, as he and his brother are being carried by their parents, though Jack is described as a ‘little bigger’, suggesting that he was able to walk. In 1906, Jack would have been five and his brother Joe was three. A date in late spring or early summer is also suggested by the fact that the family were travelling, there was water in the waterholes, and there were jalgunungu (bardy grubs, Trictena atripalpis) in the river gum trees. It seems highly likely then that this story is an eye-witness account of the 1906 earthquake, recalled almost eighty years later.

Apart from its historical interest as a first-hand account of an early Aboriginal experience of an earthquake, the story is also interesting for what it tells us about the daily life of the people at that time. The country of the Jiwarli was occupied by white settlers starting in the 1860s; Glen Florrie Station (mimburn), where Jack spent much of his early life, was established in the 1880s. Aboriginal people were conscripted into the pastoral industry as labourers, but they seem to have maintained much of their traditional lifestyle outside the demands of the white economy. Apart from the presence of a buri, an introduced European metal axe, the story describes a purely traditional journey. Other descriptions of his childhood from Jack support this. It was not until the 1920s, when Aboriginal people were rounded up and forced into the pearling industry, that the traditional cultural and social system was irreparably disrupted. Jack was unable to be initiated because ‘the whites had buggered it’, although he did repay the debt in the traditional manner to the man who would have initiated him if the ceremonies had not ended.

Bibijungarla babujungarla mimburnbarndi yananyja gardawurru gawarilari ngurndayi yarrgiyala jirlirra baba ngurndiniya jirlirra. Jumagudharra ngalijunha jimbinggalgurniya. Ngadhadhu barngamurdurru. Ngurndayi ngurnubarndibadhu mirninggadhumirdulyula yardingga. Mundurru yanararri warlbari yardinggamanda garlgaranydha ngunhi marndaanguwagarala yardingga. Nhanyanyja ngalijuru jumagudharralu gurrurdula yinha nyirlbu biji gurrurdula. Babujudhu ngadhala wanggaja. Ngadha gurlalga. Ngunha bayalbandhurru gurlarninyja ngunhiba wurungga burijaga jinyjiyi wandharnu jalgununguwungurnu nyirlbuwu. Jalgunungu ngunha yinidhu nyirlbu. Gumbirarri jalgujaga manangu wiinggarnu. Barrundhu babuju wanggaja yirraradhu. Gurlgayinha nhaanha ngulha bunarni yaburru. Nhugurru bunarni nhaanha. Nhaanha ngulhadhu. Nhuguwirlarrinyja ngunha. Barrundhu ngunha wuru wardawardarrinyjarru. Babuju ngunha julyu gurrgabarninyja yalhanggarru ngaliju jumagudharra ngadhiiniyarru yugarringu wardawardarriyarru wardawardalgurniyalarru. Gurlgayilgarringu barlunyjarrirru wiliwilirriyayirraranguru barlunguru. Gumbirarri ngurnuba gurlgayirnu buniya ngula wardandarirru ngunhaba. Nhaanha ngulha. Nganggarnuburra ngurrunyjarri. Baba ngunha ngurndiniya juma. Ngunhaba yananyja ngula wardandarirru. Nhanyararri babangga. Babadhu ngunha ngularru jugurninyja. Wardawardarrinyja ngunha yalhadhu. Nhanyararri bunyjinyjarrinha. Ngunhirru ngurndinha yaribirlila barlgarralarru.


My mother and father went directly west from mimburn Glen Florrie Station to camp at Yarrgiya claypan where there was water. They were carrying us two children on their backs. I was a little bigger then. After that we stayed at Mirni on the Henry River. In the morning we went south along the river to the fork there at Marndaangu. We two children saw lots of bardy grubs in the gum trees. My father said to me: “I’ll climb up”. Then he climbed up there in the tree, cutting steps with an axe, to collect the jalgunungu grubs. Jalkunungu is the name of that grub. He was getting them with a hook and pulling them out. Then my father called out from above: “I can hear something coming in the north. Something is getting close”. We didn’t know what it was. It got close, and then the tree shook. My poor old father jumped down to the ground as we two children stood crying, and the ground was shaking and we were being shaken. We heard rocks rolling down from the hill up above. We sat listening to it going towards the east. We didn’t know what it was. The old people didn’t know then. A little water was lying there in the river. That thing went east now. We looked in the waterhole, and the water had been thrown out there. The ground had been shaken. We saw the bunyji fish that were lying out on the river sand in the open.


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