Chapter 3
Alyawarra Culture
Aboriginal people have lived in the Northern Territory for at least 60,000 years.

Family groups belong to certain territories with spiritual connections and obligations to their country.

The Alyawarra people have knowledge of Dreaming for their country – the Central Desert region of Australia – about many things including water holes, bush medicines, food and landmarks.

Parts of this knowledge are passed on and represented through song, dancing, and art.

Alyawarra dreaming
Alyawarra Dreaming includes Kulanada, the Rainbow Serpent. Kulanada’s Dreaming track follows billabongs, rivers, creeks and lagoons.

Kulanada is the source of all life, and the benevolent protector of the land and its people but will punish law-breakers.

There is no image of Kulanada because the Ampilatwatja community made a conscious decision not to paint altyerr (dreaming stories).

A painting by Banjo Morton
Painting by Banjo Petyarre Morton
[ X ] Close
A painting by Banjo Morton

Language is not just a means of communication. It helps create a sense of identity and belonging. It is also an important way for cultural knowledge to be passed on.

A photo of a map of Australia with a pin noting where Alyawarra country is located and where Banjo was born and lived
Approximately 45,500 indigenous people are living under the Intervention’s policies. More than sixty-five communities in the Northern Territory are affected.
This map attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia. It shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people which may include clans, dialects or individual languages in a group. It used published resources from 1988-1994 and is not intended to be exact, nor the boundaries fixed. It is not suitable for native title or other land claims. David R Horton (creator), © AIATSIS, 1996.
[ X ] Close
Alyawarra country is where Banjo was born and lived
[ X ] Close
Around the time of European settlement in 1788, more than 250 indigenous Australian languages were spoken, with 800 dialects.

Only 13 traditional indigenous languages are currently being passed on to children. There are another 100 or so languages spoken by older generations, and these are at risk of being lost as Elders pass away.

2019 was the International Year of Indigenous Languages. It created a dramatic resurgence of interest in preserving and strengthening indigenous languages, and to make sure they are passed on to the next generation.

Alyawarra was found to be the first language of the Aboriginal people at Epenerra, Murray Downs, Mbulatwaty (Honeymoon Bore on Ammarroo), Derry Downs, Urrultya, Ngkwulaya (Kurrjong Bore on Utopia), the Ngurratityi community, the Kargaru School camp at Tennant Creek and the Alyawarra camp at Ali-Curung (Warrabri). In most of these communities the pre-school children were monolingual.
David Glasgow, Report on Survey of the Central Northern Territory, 1974
David Glasgow’s 1974 survey of everyday language, Report on Survey of the Central Northern Territory
Alyawarra language is spoken by more than 1500 people in Central Australia.

Alyawarra-speaking communities include Mt Isa, Ilperrelhelam (Lake Nash), Awerrethel (Canteen Creek), Alepeyewenh (Hatches Creek), and Epenarra.

Alternative names for Alyawarra include: Alyawarr, Aljawara, Ilaura, and Yowera.

a photo of an Alyawarran man
Senior Alyawarra man from Ampilatwatja Donald Thompson.
[ X ] Close
Knowledge of Alyawarra Dreaming is preserved and passed on in many ways: stories, painting, singing, dancing, and ceremonial objects.
Parts of this knowledge are carried by men only, by women only, or by the whole community. The songs reflect the attachment to land and relate to specific areas of traditional ownership.

With the help of Alyawarra interpreter, Slippery Morton, Richard M. Moyle recorded and wrote about Alyawarra music in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Here are samples of Alyawarra songs from that time.

These songs were created as part of a four week Desert Pea Media mentoring program in the remote desert community of Ampilatwatja in Australia's Northern Territory in 2013.

Two Wayz is a message to young Alyawarra people to find balance in your life, and make the right decisions for your future.
Fly Back Home is a fusion of contemporary and traditional story that samples on-location recordings of the sacred ceremony of the Emu Dreaming.
Ceremonial dance being performed at the opening of the Protest House 2009.
Mary Kemarre Morton (green skirt) and Milly Kemarre Morton (red skirt) perform a womens dance at Honeymoon Bore (Arwerreng). The red and white body paint is made from rocks.
Angelina Luck (Banjos sister) and Eileen Bonney perform a womens dance about country at Honeymoon Bore.
Senior Alyawarra men sing while younger men perform traditional dance (Emu Dreaming) at Honeymoon Bore.
Social structure
A common language and strong relationships between families and individuals is what gives the Alyawarra people a sense of a ‘region’.
Different rights and responsibilities are carried down through the generations.
a photo of an Alyawarran man walkinga photo of an Alyawarran child smiling
Patrilineal descent is when members of the community 'inherit' cultural rights and responsibilities through their father and father’s father. In Alyawarra, this is called apmerek-artwey (bosses/owners).

The structure of Alyawarra society is based on two reciprocally named patrilineal moieties each of which contains two sections – Pitjarra and Ngkwarriya, and Upurla and Kimarra. Banjo Morton’s ‘skin name’ was Pitjarra.

An Alyawarra person can have a relationship with up to four separate 'countries', and will appear on up to four different genealogies.
a photo of an Alyawarran walkinga photo of two Alyawarran women walking
a photo of an Alyawarran child smiling

There are also different sets of rights and responsibilities passed on through their mother’s father, their father’s mother, and their mother’s mother.

This sense of belonging to country through 'mother’s side' puts people in a kwertengeri-kurdungurlu (manager/worker) relationship with the land and to the patrilineal members of the community.

Native plants and bush medicine
Native plants are very important to the Alyawarra community and are used for food and bush medicine. Much of this knowledge is passed on through detailed paintings.
Artepwel (broom wattle). Mainly decorative.
[ X ] Close
a photo of an Alyawarran in the bush
Akatyerr (desert raisin). To eat when dried. Ground and cooked in damper.
[ X ] Close
a photo of an Alyawarran bush seeds
Elpare. This plant has a strong smell and is good for colds and scabies. It's applied by rubbing onto the skin.
[ X ] Close
a photo of an Alyawarran bush plants used for medicine
Daisy holds Akatyerr. These are fresh  berries that haven't been dried.
[ X ] Close
a photo of an Alyawarran showing bush seeds used in medicine
Therrpeyt. The nectar from the flowers is sweet to eat and tastes like  honey.
[ X ] Close
a photo of an Alyawarran bush plants used for medicine
Apwen. This bush medicine is boiled and then used to treat sores.
[ X ] Close
a photo of an Alyawarran bush plants
Bush Medicine of Ampilatwatja
Alyawarra traditional knowledge of Dreaming and country is expressed through their world-renowned art.

As well as containing knowledge of water holes, bush medicines, food, and landmarks, the artwork has a positive impact on strengthening the Alyawarra cultural expression.

Most of the Alyawarra artists paint Arreth (strong bush medicine). Every plant and animal has a role to play in sustaining the Alyawarra people.

In keeping with their beliefs, the artists reveal only a small amount of their traditional knowledge. This allows the paintings to be seen by uninitiated people.

The artists talk about two levels of information: 'inside' stories which are restricted to those of appropriate ritual standing, and “outside” stories which are open to all.


The Artists of Ampilatwatja community was established in 1999 near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Art from Ampilatwatja is exhibited around Australia and the world.

Paitning by Lilly Morton Kemarre showing brightly colored flowers and small bushes used in bush medicine
My Country Antarrengeny
Lilly Morton Kemarre

Lilly has painted her country, Antarrengeny. The brightly coloured flowers and small bushes are bush medicine and are still used within the community. Lilly’s landscapes beautifully communicate the rich knowledge she possesses of both medicinal plants and country, the heart of her culture.

As a young girl, Lilly lived traditionally off of the land with her family and Alyawarra people. In Lilly’s lifetime, she has experienced and borne witness to the irreversible changes to country and way of life that had been unaltered for thousands of years.

Painting titled View of Country showing layered landscape of Alyawarr, Central Australia
View of Country
Rosie Ngwarraye Ross

This painting shows the layered landscape of Alyawarr, Central Australia. Knowing your country is an important part of living in a remote community like Ampilatwatja. Knowing when and where to go hunting and gathering, knowing where there is ‘soakage’ (where you can dig for water), travelling with family for ceremonies, and maintaining a connection with the land.

“This is my country, my view of country.”

Painting titled Title of Piece done by Colleen depecting her Grandfathers country and the bush medicines and plants that grow there
Florence Biennale 2017 entry
Colleen Ngwarraye Morton

Colleen’s paintings often depict her Grandfather’s country where her family have hunted for many years. As a child she was taught about the bush medicines and plants that grew there and how to gather them. The elders would teach the importance of looking after country and that the sacred ancestral spirits watch over and protect the animals and plants. The layers of Colleen’s paintings are as detailed and complex as the stories she paints.

Colleen is one of the original artists in the Utopian batik movement in the 1980’s and has been successfully painting ever since.

Painting titled My Country and Bush Medicine Plants by Julieanne Ngwarraye Morton showing landscape changes during the seasons in the year
My Country and Bush Medicine Plants
Julieanne Ngwarraye Morton

“My Mother, Lilly Kemarre, taught me to paint. Julieanne’s painting’s are inspired by her Mother’s stories of the old days, walking and living on their land, and also of her own experience of life in Alyawarra country.

“The landscape changes during the different seasons in the year. I paint the dried flowers and bushes from last season as well as the new plants that come after the rain. These plants have special meanings and uses for us. I have been taught how to read the country, and now I teach my children these skills.”

A painting titled Antarrengeny by Edi Kemarre Holmes depicting Antarrengeny "when there has been no rain and the land shimmers like jewels"
Edie Kemarre Holmes

Antarrengeny is Edie’s country and also her Father’s. In this painting Edie depicts Antarrengeny, “when there has been no rain and the land shimmers like jewels. It is the open flat country, after a bushfire, when only the young grasses and the trees are growing and where there is good hunting.”

Edie has a strong connection to Antarrengeny. She gave birth to two of her daughters ‘out bush’ on this land. It is her country and she loves it dearly.

A painting titled My Mothers Country by Daisy Kemarre Holmes of Kngwarraye country where bush medicine and traditional bush foods are found.
My Mother’s Country
Daisy Kemarre Holmes

Daisy has painted her Mother’s country, “Kngwarraye” country. Kngwarraye is one of the four main skin names of Ampilatwatja.

Bush medicine, goanna and many other traditional bush foods are found here. This is where Daisy’s traditional laws lie. Daisy paints her country to keep her culture strong.

Artists of Ampilatwatja

The Artists of Ampilatwatja talking about their country and bush medicine plants.

Arrow pointing to the right
Icon to close the video modal

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains images, voices and names of people who have passed away.

I Understand