Feature

The Arnhem weavers

Green Lifestyle magazine

With the aim of protecting their culture and providing an income for their children, a community of indigenous women in Arnhem land are sharing their basket-weaving skills.

These colourful baskets are woven from pandanus fibres.

These colourful baskets are woven from pandanus fibres.

Credit: Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn learns how to grind cycad seeds for flour.

Claire Dunn learns how to grind cycad seeds for flour.

Arnhem-cycads

A lesson in harvesting cycad seeds.

Credit: Claire Dunn

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The border between Arnhem Land and the rest of the Northern Territory is unmarked, despite the need for a permit to enter the designated Aboriginal land, about the size of Victoria, that lies to the east of Darwin. There’s no roadhouse with a ‘big boomerang’ or ‘welcome to Arnhem’ sign for holiday snaps.

Seasonal fires snake in arcs across the landscape. Jabirus stand idly by roadside waterholes. This is no tourist country. Yet for the eight women in the back of the troop carrier who have signed up for a 12-day basket weaving and bushfood experience in a remote Arnhem community, there is a good 16 hours of corrugated dirt road in which to acclimatise. Just when I thought the savannah woodlands would never end, the flickering shadows of cooking fires alerts us to our arrival at Mapuru community.

Roselyn, founder of the Arnhem Weavers project, bounds over to greet us, two cheeky grins peering out from behind her skirt. I breathe a sigh of relief and collapse into my swag.

Woken at dawn to the sound of crows, I barely have time to stretch before being hustled to the weaving shelter, an open thatch structure adorned with brightly coloured baskets and dilly bags. Marutharra (Linda), the unspoken matriarch of the community and hub of the weaving collective, is waiting for us. Nodding us a silent greeting, we watch as strips of pandanus fibres bow to Linda’s fingers as she moulds them into small spirals, the heart of our first basket. By this time of day I have usually achieved nothing more than a cup of tea, but now I have completed three rounds of my rapidly expanding ‘snail’, my fingers already finding familiarity with the fibres.

Linda, her husband and their families were part of a movement to reclaim their homelands in the mid 1960s. They settled back on their custodial lands at Mapuru, and since then a permanent community of 140 or so residents has grown, sporting a two-classroom school, an airstrip, a smattering of basic houses and a small food co-operative. Linda’s daughter Roselyn initiated the Arnhem Weavers project. For the last decade it has been welcoming small groups of mainly women to learn traditional weaving, bringing much needed income and cultural exchange to the community.

Weaving transcends the language barrier. Much can be learned just by observing the trained weavers at work, their baskets growing in neat concentric rings and complex colour patterns. We laugh together as we hold up baskets looking more like the lumpy branches of the nearby woolly butt trees. In the heat of the afternoons we swim in the croc-free waterhole (although we spot a number of ‘logodiles’). The bush telegraph alerts the kids of our daily pilgrimage. Within minutes the mirrored surface of the paperbark-lined swimming area becomes a writhing mass of slippery long limbs and white teeth.

It is during the expeditions we take on these vast ancestral lands – collecting food and pandanus for weaving – when the women seem happiest, greeting landmarks like old friends. At Djiliwirri, on the edge of a vast dry flood plain, we learn to harvest pandanus. Hooking a forked branch around the heart of the tall tree, I pull down until the fibres are low enough for me to carefully wrap my hands around the spiky leaves, and with a sharp tug, snap them free. Looking out onto an army of slate-smooth termite mounds, we split the pandanus in strips, readying it for dying with bark and roots before being woven into our baskets. Linda suddenly breaks into song, the song of the pandanus. Her eyes well with tears and for a moment our fingers pause, resting in the shade of her family tree.

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For more information on Arnhem Weavers Cultural Tours see www.arnhemweavers.com.au