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Laurie Baymarrwaŋa

Laurie Baymarrwaŋa is featured on the 2019 AIATSIS International Women's Day poster.

‘Nhaŋu dhäŋuny yuwalkthana Yolŋu miṯṯji marŋgimana dhana mayili mana dhäŋuny mana limalama ganatjirri maramba barrathalayuma gurrku mana waŋgalaŋga.’

‘We will pass on the stories (wisdom) of our sea country for the new generations to make them strong.’

Laurie Baymarrwaŋa, 1999.

Laurie Baymarrwaŋa or Big Boss as she was affectionally known, was born on the island of Murruŋga, largest of the outer Crocodile Islands 500km east of Darwin in North-East Arnhem Land around 1917. A senior Yolŋu leader she was instrumental in preserving the endangered Yan-nhaŋu language and all its intimate ancestral knowledge, linked to her seas and island homelands, for future generations.

Big Boss started a school, ranger program, junior rangers, language nests, dictionary, mapping project and an Atlas with her own funds, to provide younger generations their priceless ancestral heritage and resist the awesome pressures for assimilation.

Baymarrwaŋa, a gentle and energetic mother of seven boys and kind great-great grandmother to many passed away on Murruŋga in August 2014. She will always be remembered for her vision, wisdom and tireless struggle to follow the law in care for kin and country, for the benefit of all Australians.

In 2012, Laurie Baymarrwaŋa was named both Senior Northern Territory Australian of the Year and Senior Australian of the Year for her lifelong commitment to educating others about culture and language.

'Big Boss' Baymarrwaŋa at Murruŋga working on the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands 2009.

Laurie Baymarrwaŋa receives her Australian of the Year Award trophy among family at her homeland on Murruŋga Island North East Arnhem Land N.T. Photo courtesy Dr Bentley James.

Laurie was a fluent speaker of Yan-nhaŋu and spent her last twenty years creating a three language dictionary and Atlas with co-worker and friend Bentley James.

Beginning in 1993 with 250 words, 10 years later the first Yan-nhaŋu dictionary was published in 2003. Then in 2014 the unequaled Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands was published. This Atlas with over four thousand Yan-nhaŋu words translated into Yolŋu matha and English, encompasses the deep linkages of language to knowledge about country.

The Atlas maps some 600 names sites, songs, stories and local knowledge with Baymarrwaŋa’s insightful explanations about the people and times in Yan-nhaŋu and in English, in the rare photographs of Sir Hubert Wilkins, Prof Lloyd. Warner, Rev. T.T. Webb, and Dr Donald Thomson.

Baymarrwaŋa distributed this 576 page Atlas free to children in over thirty homelands, fifteen schools, eight N.T ranger programs, and to over three hundred libraries nationally at her expense.

In addition to the Atlas, Baymarrwaŋa and Bentley initiated heritage protection projects on Island fish traps, shellfish, hand sign expressions, fresh water wells, local fire regimes, cultural artefacts, sacred sites, and a 1,000km square turtle sanctuary around North East Crocodile Island and a plan yet to be realised, to feed children with local fish for free.

‘Lima gurrku guya riya-gunhanyini ŋalimalamagu gurruṯuwaygu :

We will share our fish with our kin’

Baymarrwaŋa’s love for her language and culture, and her wisdom in caring for kin and country, was founded in the principle of following the law, she said;

‘Ŋalinyu märr buḻaŋgitj marrkapthana linyalama linyu ga romnha :

We respect each other and the law.’

A posthumous project honouring her vision called The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land, is almost complete and will be distributed free for the children.

In 2015, the film Big Boss: The Last Leader of the Crocodile Islands was winner of the 2015 United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Award. This extraordinary film by Indigenous production company Mirri Mirri about the life of  Baymarrwaŋa was shot on location at Murruŋga, Milingimbi and Galiwin’ku islands over seven years.

Vale Big Boss

The very much adored, and deeply admired paramount matriarch of the Yan-nhaŋu people Laurie Baymarrwaŋa passed peacefully away in her ninety seventh year on Wednesday 20th of August. Her life was inestimable, her virtue remarkable, and her passing bequeaths a fabulous legacy.

Born in the time before the coming of the missions, she remembered the old ways, the ways of kin and country. Her dream to entrust this knowledge to new generations as a foundation, a font of strength and counsel in the law, drove her to create a homeland, a school, ranger and heritage programs, marine sanctuaries, language nests and an Atlas among other gifts.

Senior Australian of the year 2012, her vast knowledge of generations of social and physical geography was revered by others who themselves are old and wise. To the very end she struggled to save her ocean home from mining and exploitation, unspoiled for future generations.

Baymarrwaŋa’s love and generosity for the world is something one rarely sees . . . if only it were more common. A truly great leader, a nurturer, her spirit returns to the homelands that created and compelled her. 

Dr Bentley James, September 14, 2014.

2019 AIATSIS International Women's Day poster featuring Laurie Baymarrwaŋa


Last updated: 16 February 2024