Sharing knowledge on Martu Country

Sharing knowledge on Martu Country

    By Jennifer McMillan  August 9th, 2023

    In the heart of the Western Desert region, school students and locals recently came together to plant a diverse array of native species that hold significance for the Wiluna Martu people.


    The Martu are the Traditional Owners of a vast area of central Western Australia, stretching from the Great Sandy Desert in the north to Wiluna in the south. Martu Wangka is the Aboriginal language spoken in this area.  

    Martu lands possess immense conservation value on a local, national and global scale. The area is one of Australia’s last havens for several iconic but highly endangered desert species, such as the mantarngalku (greater bilby), nganamara (malleefowl) and tjakura (great desert skink). 

    Wiluna Remote Community School caters for students from kindergarten to year 12, with approximately 63 enrollments. The school promotes a Two-way Science approach that connects Martu knowledge with Western science under the Australian Curriculum1.  

    Teachers at Wiluna follow a Martu calendar created in collaboration with the local community. This calendar depicts events occurring on Country at different stages of the year related to weather, plants, animals and water. As part of their curriculum, students also delve into the life cycles of tjawul (frogs), wukarta (honey ants) and nganamara (malleefowl). 

    Wiluna’s teaching methods ensure education remains deeply connected to the land and culture through on-Country learning; this allows for the transfer of knowledge from Elders to the next generation. 

    All plants selected for Wiluna’s National Tree Day event have cultural significance and uses for food and tools. Endemic species could not be sourced from a nursery due to the town’s remote location. To tackle this problem, students and teachers collaborated with Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area rangers to gather a variety of local seeds.  

    Students sorted the seeds before they were transported 956 kilometres away to Chatfields Tree Nursery. Here, they were carefully nurtured into healthy seedlings over a period of several months. The mature seedlings then made the ten-hour journey back to the school ready to be planted by students and the community. 

    With guidance, the students established the seedlings in their new home. Each student received a plant to take care of with name tags proudly identifying their tree. Elders from the area joined in to make damper for everyone to enjoy after the activity. And honey ants – an important ancestral totem for Aboriginal Australians and a bush delicacy – provided a sugary treat. 

    Honey ants have a symbiotic relationship with mulga trees. The ants collect secretions from these trees to feed specialised worker ants, whose sole job is to gorge themselves on nectar. Their abdomens enlarge to the size of marbles with this sweet substance that can be eaten directly from the ant or crushed into a delicious paste. 

    The seedlings planted for National Tree Day will provide shade and cool areas to rest, beautify the school grounds and offer shelter for precious wildlife for years to come. The event was a special opportunity for Elders to pass their knowledge of native plants on to the younger generation, reinforcing the strong sense of community and cultural heritage among the Wiluna Martu people. 

    This story is part of this year's Tree Talk: Stories from Planet Ark's Seedling Bank.


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    Jennifer McMillan

    Jen worked as a vet nurse while studying environmental science and completing her master's degree in Journalism. She loves bushwalking, storytelling, caring for baby animals, Australian birds and river red gums. Jen works on the National Tree Day campaign and Planet Ark's Seedling Bank.

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