Edie Ulrich and her mother Edna Sceghi are two of the last fluent speakers of an endangered Aboriginal language, and it has been in the open bush setting on the country where they both grew up that their language and cultural practice has been able to survive.
Tjupan is the language of the Aboriginal people to the south of Wiluna in the northern WA Goldfields, now spoken by people around Laverton, Leonora and Kalgoorlie.
But with no children currently speaking the language as their mother tongue, and fluent speakers in decline, it is up to linguists and cultural leaders like Edie and Edna and to continue to record and preserve the ancient language.
The women were both brought up on the country that their forebears walked for thousands of years.
Edna, now an elderly woman, tells of how they managed to avoid being taken to nearby missions by running off into the surrounding bush on the stations where they worked, and hiding until government representatives had left.
This meant that the family was able to stay together and maintain their language and cultural practice relatively uninterrupted.
‘Bush was our playground’
This fortunate set of family circumstances is not lost on Edie who, now approaching middle age, remembers her upbringing.
“We were lucky with mum, because dad was a prospector and we grew up in the bush, with Nana Daisy, Mum’s mum [and] her dad Tjamu Wulpi (Edie’s grandfather),” Edie said.
“When we were growing up, that bush was our playground.”
Edna has a straightforward answer to why her family like to join her on trips into the bush.
“Well they like to come. They say, ‘we want to come too.’ They want to come so they get all the honey, nyamanka ‘honey ants’,” she said.
Photo: Edna Sceghi is one of the last Tjupan speakers, and likes to spend days at a time in the bush, sharing language and stories. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Nathan Morris)
Hunting the honey ants
We all bundled into a car and headed about an hour north of Kalgoorlie to a special spot amongst a large patch of wilga trees.
Edie explained that it was around the base and root systems of these rough-barked trees that honey ants could be found.
Bumping through the table drain and off the main road, we made our way around the scrub and trees, looking for signs of the ants.
Edie suddenly stopped the car, pulled a shovel from the back, and wandered off. She kept her head down, scouring the ground for movement while Edna shouted instructions from the car.
“It’s good when a lot of us are here, all the family, doing things together,” Edie said.
Suddenly she spotted a few of the worker ants, scurrying around on ground near the trunk of a wilga and let them lead her back to their nest.
Edie explained how they would not dig directly on top of the nest; they would work back from the main hole to try and locate the underground chambers where the ants with the sacks of honey on their backs reside.
“Eventually you’ll find the honey ants; like little apartments, and all the honey ants inside,” she said.
Photo: Edie Ulrich holding a hand full of honey ants that she dug up at a spot in the bush near Kalgoorlie. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Nathan Morris)
Family business in the bush
Edna explained how speaking in language around her grandchildren and taking them on trips to the bush helped them to soak up the words and the meanings.
“They hear what we say, they follow — they talk too,” she said.
After settling on which nest to dig, the Edna sat close by the digging, keeping a watchful eye on her daughter, relentless in her offer of sharp instructions.
Her ailing body clearly frustrated the bush-born elder, preventing her from getting involved like she once would have.
Despite being far beyond phone range, a message must have been circulated prior to our departure from town because the sound of vehicles slowly navigating the scrub was heard.
Out of the cars piled the extended family and their children, all keen to get in on the action.
Edna directed her grandchildren to light more smoky fires in an effort to thin out the flies, and Edie’s sister Margerie was suddenly barefoot, and down in the large trench with Edie, taking over the digging.
The dirt fell away from the trench walls, revealing small chambers full of ants and Edie demonstrated how to gently scrape the ants out with a small stick, so not to break the sacks of honey on their backs.
Edna watched closely from the side, demanding that some of the ants be directed her way once they were freed from the earth.
In her ageing, soft, creased palms, she grabbed one of the ants by the head and raised it to her mouth, quickly sucking the sack of honey from its back, immediately pleased by its tangy, bush sweetness.
Photo: Edna Sceghi and her daughters and grandchildren often head out onto the country where their family are from. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Nathan Morris)
Cultural freedom on country
Edie said there was a cultural freedom and connectedness being out on country.
She said that while the family always enjoyed heading to places closer to Kalgoorlie to spend the day, it was when she went further north to the areas around Lake Darlot and Bar Widji, where her family used to live, that she felt a stronger connection.
“I sort of feel more at home there because it’s where these mob all grew up,” she said.
“I love walking around the bush where these mob walked.
“And you know what? When we’re bush, it makes us talk a bit more language and that’s where the kids pick up on it more.”
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- Nathan Morris