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The Northern Myth

Jul 4, 2017

Maypal, mayali’ ga wanja – tales from the Yolngu tidal zone

Maypal is a complete part of Yolngu diet and it is free from the sea—celebrated in songs, dance and stories, integral to their world. In fact, maypal is an utterly fundamental part of the Yolngu world: Bentley James

Dr Bentley James—Arnhem Land beachcomber, Yolngu shellfish name collector, anthropologist, author and linguist—will launch a unique publication at Gallery TwoSix in Winnellie on Friday evening.

Maypal, mayali’ ga wanja: shellfish, meaning and place, is a Yolngu bilingual identification guide to shellfish of north-eastern Arnhem Land; the book is written in three languages – Yolngu Matha, English and Latin and is designed to celebrate, pass on and protect Indigenous knowledge of the region.

Maypal were popular across the Top End of the NT as well as north-east Arnhem Land. In a 2015 paper titled ‘Poor man’s tucker’ – historic and contemporary consumption of longbum shellfish around Darwin’ that represents a sterling example of local ethnography and ethno-archaeology Darwin-based archaeologist Patricia Bourke examined a number of shellfish middens around Larrakia country near Darwin, concentrating on the gastropod shellfish Telescopium telescopium, colloquially known, along with other Terebralia species of the family, as longbums.

Bourke focussed on the hundreds of large mounds of shells dotted around Darwin Harbour, which showed that longbums have been part of the diet of Aboriginal people around Darwin for thousands of years.

For an example of similar research from further afield in the Top End, the twenty-three striking images by north Australian photographer David Hancock taken from the Arnhem Land tidal zone that grace Bentley James’ book will be exhibited at gallery TwoSix, as a major contribution to the publication of Maypal, mayali’ ga wanja: shellfish, meaning and place .

The Yolngu coastal range covers 1500 kilometres of coastline to the mainland and 1750 kilometres of coastline on the islands. Bentley James says that maypal:

… is a key, life-giving food for coastal people. Everybody loves it. It is a complete food with plenty of protein and all trace elements, everything you want in your tucker … and it tastes great. You can have it raw, cooked—there are lots of recipes about ways of preparing it. Maypal is a complete part of Yolngu diet and it is free from the sea—celebrated in songs, dance and stories, integral to their world. In fact, maypal is an utterly fundamental part of the Yolngu world. Tasty and good-looking, and easy to get. Just down to the beach and grab some. So very much something that sustains them physically, spiritually, emotionally.

Bentley will deliver a floor talk at the opening of the exhibition and launch of the book on Friday evening (6pm, 7 July 2017) at Gallery TwoSix, 6 Catterthun St, Winnellie, NT. The exhibition will be open July 8-9 from 10am to 3pm.

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Maypal, Mayali’ Ga Wanga: Shellfish, Meaning and Place a Yolngu Bilingual Identification Guide to Shellfish of North East Arnhem Land. James, Bentley. North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.
ISBN 9780987426451

‘Poor man’s tucker’ – historic and contemporary consumption of longbum shellfish around Darwin, Patricia BourkeNorthern Territory Naturalist (2015) 26: 4–12.

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