Posted by Bernadette Trench-Thiedeman
The Big Country Puppets project in Mulan Community began with a trip out to a small lake within a network of larger lakes where the 'Jalka' story is told. Walmajarri elders Veronica Lulu, Bessie Doonday and Raymond Chungula worked with the Paruku and Kumirrki Rangers to shape the theatre project around two stories - the (Ngarlku) bilby who took the Jakurli (pearl shell) from Paruku to Broome- and the Jalka (great egret) who took the (Balga) barramundi north to Kununurra. These dreaming stories trace a geological continuum of an ancient receding inland sea that has been mapped over time and space by scientists and archaeologists such as Jim Bowler in collaboration with elders and rangers.
The community here has undertaken decades of work looking at the intersection of western science and Indigenous knowledge in the context of Tjurabalan Country that encompasses the lake system. The rangers have been conducting surveys for bilbies, cane toads and the elusive night parrot, as well as carrying out aerial and land based fire management. Not long after we arrived we met our first bilby - Shaun - who was on his way to a wildlife sanctuary. The community has worked hard to strengthen Walmajarri language, since the dominant language here is Kukatja - the result of colonial displacement. Our theatre project sought to shore up the community's efforts in language learning through the creation of a theatre experience told in Walmajarri language and accompanied by Walmajarri songs.
For 3 weeks myself and Karen Hethey worked with people of all ages from the Mulan and nearby Billiluna community to design and craft a series of giant puppets. We brought a trailer full of materials, but we also found some useful things in the tip (aka Mitre 10). Working at the ranger base, we braved cold desert winds as we wired together cane structures that were skinned with fabric, old tent materials, shower curtains and upholstery foam offcuts. In the final weeks we will be working with the school students to create smaller puppets and rehearsing the show with the whole community for a performance on the football oval. After 2 years of planning this project it has been wonderful to finally get this show on the road!