The remote community of Yirrkala on the tip of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory is using traditional culture to teach western subjects.

Langani Marika is in her 80s and has a big task ahead.

As the oldest living member of the Rirratjingu clan in East Arnhem Land she has to pass on, both symbolically and literally, all her cultural knowledge to the next generation before she dies.

Under Ms Marika’s leadership, hundreds of Yolngu children and their families are gathered on a large patch of red dirt for the monumental Merri Galtha workshop.

The bush lies on one side and the green-blue ocean on the other.
Lagani Marika (

Ms Marika has organised the event to solidify her retirement as the “boss lady”.

“This ceremony is a very sacred thing for Rirratjingu and Djambarrpuynu people,” she said.

It is clear Ms Marika is the matriarch of the group — she has a group of women at her beck and call and she is running the proceedings.

“This is the message that I’m giving through this bungul or ceremony… for future kids to learn so when we are not here they can take it on,” she said.

“My family and my relations have been learning from me and now they can take over what we’re singing today.”

The event is multi-faceted — not only is it for Ms Marika’s retirement but it is also part of the Yirrkala School’s Learning on Country program.

The program uses traditional culture to teach western subjects.

Ms Marika’s workshop centres around the Merri string story — which talks about the creation of East Arnhem Land.

“Long ago at Yirrkala there lived Yolngu people … These people danced for the creation of a sacred string called Merri,” the song says.

Senior Cultural Advisor at Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, Djalinda Yunupingu is Ms Marika’s daughter.

“Now we’re teaching our young children about the Merri and how that Merri is connected to each and every one of us,” she said.

Thousands of years after the creation story is set, Yolngu people are replicating what happened generations ago.

Women sit in the shade and use natural materials, like shredded bark, to physically make the Merri string which is to be used in the ceremony.

Men sit in groups singing, playing the didgeridoo and clap sticks.

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