Language With Lala

Art by Lala Gutchen
July 4, 2024
July 9, 2024
Last Updated
July 8, 2024
Written by
Lala Gutchen
Written by
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Learn more about language with Lala Gutchen – Meuram woman from Erub Island in the Torres Strait.

Maber (Giant Triton Shell)

The ‘Maber’, giant triton shell, holds a sacred significance for our community of Erub, including our Torres Strait Islands region. It acts as our initial form of communication. 

This shell served as our primary tool for signalling warnings and convening gatherings (Abgerlu). Widely utilised across the Pacific region as the significant ‘Bu Shell’ or ‘Trumpet Shell’, the Maber plays a crucial role for us, embodying various narratives and histories that enrich our cultural heritage and traditions. It is also used within our traditional songs and dances. Maber derives from the eastern islands Meriam Mir and Erubmer word ‘mabu’, meaning, to do/utilise by oneself, and ‘er’ from the word ‘erer,’ meaning, ‘to call out unto’. 

In our Ancestors' time, the Maber is known as ‘Maber Larsorsor’ when it is alive, laying out there on our many reefs, ‘larsorsor’ meaning (shellfish/mollusks). When located, the finder carefully examines that particular shell first to see if it is alive before touching it. He or she then performs a brief chanting of appeasement to the ‘Oboibi’(female sea reefs spirits) before picking up the maber larsorsor, and taking it ashore or on board their canoe. There, the maber larsorsor is hung upside down for the animal to die and exit the shell after a few days. The shell is then thoroughly cleansed with ‘Gurni’ (sea water) only, and dried out. This is done before the ‘Nerer’ or ‘Nerer Neb’ (blowing hole) approximately 2-3 centimetres, is punctured towards the tail end of the shell by a pointy hard basalt rock punch called ‘Apitpar’ or ‘Apitlu.’ Spiritual words and chants ‘Zogo Mer’ a ‘Ikok’ are uttered and sung during these preparations. At the completion of this activity, the traditional shell trumpet is then called ‘Maber.’ The sacred Bu Shell is then tested by blowing the Maber towards the ‘Op’(face) of the Four Major Wind’s directions of the Torres Strait Islander Nation. Maber is now ready to be used for all respective Torres Strait Islanders cultural activities whenever required.

Warab and Uu (The Coconut Tree and Coconut Fruit)

The ‘Uu’, (coconut fruit), holds a critical and important role in the life of Torres Strait Islander survival, as well as all Pacific Islanders. Firstly, the Uu (coconut fruit) is one of the most important food sources for our people who survived on it since time immemorial. Both the Uu and Warab (coconut tree) have many essential uses and are one of the principal factors from which our Torres Strait Islander culture evolved from.

 The ‘Mes’ (coconut husk) and ‘Ulid’ (hardened coconut shell) of the fruit, when dry, provide fire for cooking and many other uses including making headdresses, artworks, dance instruments, kids' toys, and so on. The Kemur (smoke) of the burning coconut husks acts as a repellent for mosquitoes, sandflies and fruit flies, while the ‘Uu-ni’ (coconut juice) and ‘Gab’ or ‘Ageg’ (coconut flesh) offer food and nourishing ‘Sabid’ (coconut-milk) for our cooking and wellbeing. The ‘Mir’(coconut cream) is used as a hair conditioner to groom our tight Melanesia curly hair called ‘Kurid.’ And the ‘Uu id’ (coconut oil) by itself, is also our cooking oil (Zuri), or it can be infused within our ‘Sumes Lukup’ (traditional bush medicines) as an additive, thus aiding in the grooming and healing of our bodies. 

The coconut tree branch parts, ‘Uu tam’ and ‘Uu-lam’, that’s, palm fronds stem and leaves themselves, play a vital role and have many cultural uses such as ‘Lu-Terei em aorare’ (weaving ceremonial decorative items). This includes items such as woven house claddings and wind-break panels, mats, baskets, cultural dance skirts, ceremonial items, and so on, including food wrappings for our various Torres Strait Islander styles of cooking. The older Warab tree trunk also provides durable construction timber materials. Within our cultural framework, the ‘Warab’ (coconut tree) represents our Elders or Ancestors of the land. We, the ‘Nosik’ (descendants), like its fruit, fall, separating ourselves from our Elders, and land on the earth. We sprout up, and start our journey of growth. Progressing through stages from ‘Keris gabgeb’ (new dry coconut), to ‘Waiwai Uu’ (sprouting coconut), to ‘Uu Kus’ (young coconut palm plant), and akin to youth, providing shelter for those younger, then eventually reaching maturity as distinguished as the Elder. ‘Warab’, derives from the word, ‘Waar’, meaning to give signs and directions. ‘Ab’ derives from the word ‘Baba’, meaning and representing, our Great Benevolent, Fatherly Figure. 

In the face of rising sea levels because of climate change, when our coconut trees fall from coastal erosion, it is our Elders falling – a loss of generations echoes with their downfall. 

Buoyant coconut fruits are set adrift across the length and breadth of the Pacific, just like the travels of our Ancestral Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian seafaring people that founded our Homelands in the Pacific long, long ago. The buoyancy of the drifting coconut fruit represents the migratory trading lifestyle of Pacific Islanders across the vastness of our great ocean. 

This parallels our views, and so now, as we can see the ocean's sea levels are accelerated by global greed to surge higher and higher, and eventually, like coconuts descended from our Elders, some of us may find ourselves adrift, compelled to establish new homelands apart from our place of origin where our birthrights rightfully belong to.

Bagiz (Giant Clam)

‘Bagiz’ (ancient giant clam shell) is the guardian of our reefs. They are the largest of all the ‘Mi Lar Sorsor kargiz’ (clam oyster species). They serve as colossal natural seawater filters upon our numerous reefs, respectfully performing their role akin to the Ancestors and Elders of our ‘Gur Nener’ (sea Country). Bagiz, in collaboration with its smaller kindred counterparts, diligently filters the water, contributing to the ocean's purity. Bagiz derives from the Erub Mer word ‘Baag’ meaning ‘cheeks’, because of the massive blubber on the clam oyster’s mouth section. ‘Giz’, means to hold the origins of, and the biggest cheeks of blubber of all the clam species (Mi Kargiz) within our Sea Country.

Our Elders have instructed us that Bagiz Clams including their giant shells should not be disturbed nor taken by people for consumption and their ‘Miskor’ (large clam shells) for showcases. Elders warned that utilising them for personal gain by harvesting their muscles is inherently wrong, equating it to consuming one's own Ancestors and Elders. Safeguarding all Bagiz by community people and local rangers is of utmost importance as they stand as the protective guardians and caretakers of the reefs. Without them, green algae would start to appear on the reefs, causing the choking of smaller lifeforms thus commencing the reef’s deterioration. This mishap will eventually lead to lifelessness and becoming an ‘Eud Nor’ (a dead reef). It is the ‘Mab’(duty) of every Torres Strait Islander to acknowledge and protect these enchanting creatures from harm’s way, as Bagiz not only purify the seawater but also provide shelter for small marine life forms to cling to. Upon their natural demise on the reefs, Bagiz pair of giant shells transform into habitats for various diminutive sea creatures that partake in vital ecological roles within the ocean. When diving amidst the reef, while marvelling at surrounding vibrant coral species, encountering an ancient giant clam such as Bagiz prompts a pause, a moment of reverence. Our intrinsic instinct compels us to halt and acknowledge the venerable Ancestors of our many reefs. Prior to our presence in this environment, it is paramount to recognise that these sacred creatures existed and inhabited these waters long before our arrival.

Urmemeg (Crown of Thorn Starfish)

The ‘Urmemeg,’ (crown of thorn starfish), plays a vital role in the ecosystem of our ‘Norr’ (reefs) in the Torres Strait since time immemorial. Urmemeg preys on ‘Weswes’ (living corals), creating space for the ‘Nazir’ (trochus shells), to inhabit the coral reefs as well. Nazir thrives on ‘Taiwa’ (dead coral beds), consuming ‘Paager’ (fungus) that grows upon ‘Eud Weswes’ (dead corals). Later, juvenile Nazir serves as a significant food source for various marine animals like ‘Baug’ (hawksbill turtles), ‘Irir’ (large parrotfish) and ‘Ab’ (Maori wrasse fish). However, the crown of thorn starfish is currently posing ‘Atkoir’ (threats) to the reefs by rapidly increasing in numbers and consuming more and more hard and stony coral polyps. This is because we, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, have neglected our ‘Tonarkar’ (cultural) and ‘Mab-dorge’ (obligatory duties) to care for this marine wonder – our numerous coral reefs. We have been constantly collecting ‘Maber’ (giant triton snail), and other marine resources from the coral reefs for the sake of money or personal exhibits. We have done this indiscriminately knowing that the giant triton snails were and still are, one of the principal natural predators of the crown of thorns starfish on our many reefs.  

It is better late than never, for communities and schools to educate families and their children regarding the basic marine biology of our sea Country. This information must include the Urmemeg’s importance to other sea creatures and the risks it poses today to the reefs, including our human activities reliant on the reef ecosystem for our wellbeing also.

The Kingdom of Nesting Seabirds and Nesting Green Turtles

In the Torres Straits, ‘Gurkar Ebur’ are the seabirds, including terns, sooty terns, noddies and various others, that cohabit the ‘Wekaur’ (sand cays) for their nesting seasons alongside creatures like the ‘Oger Nam’ (nesting green turtles). Each respective species maintains their own territory on the sandbank, with the birds perching on one side and the ‘Nam’ (sea turtles) crawling up and down on the other side, in their annual nesting season time. When the sea level rose dramatically due to the acceleration of climate change, the turtles faced grave danger during nesting season. Despite their size and weight, which could easily dominate the sea birds’ space for nesting, the turtles respect the boundaries of their ‘Lublub Tebud’ (avian companions) and refrain from invading, even though the birds appear small and vulnerable in comparison.

As the sea level rises rapidly, the turtles are left with increasingly limited nesting grounds, often driven to lower areas, where their nested eggs will continue to be unhatched because of inundation by seawater. Despite the threat to their own survival, the turtles remained faithful to their deeply ingrained beliefs and values, continuing to honour the presence of the seabirds from time immemorial, no matter the circumstances. 

This loyalty and mutual respect between the turtles and seabirds endures through the ages, forming a profound connection that withstands any challenge.

However, the encroachment of human greed disrupts this delicate balance of nature. As humans exploit resources and alter the environment for their own gain, the animals are left bewildered and displaced by its disruption. The turtles, accustomed to laying their eggs ‘Meg Toto ge’ (above highwater mark) in specific rooted locations passed down through generations, are now finding themselves disoriented as the rising sea exceeds their traditional nesting site’s appropriate elevations on the sand cay beaches. The once-clear boundaries between the safe height of all our sand cays and the sea become blurred, forcing the animals into a bewildering cycle of adaptation and uncertainty.

In the face of these challenges, it is crucial for us as stewards of the planet to recognise the connection of all living beings and creatures alike, and strive to protect and preserve ours, as well as their environment and habitats. Only through understanding and cooperation, we can hope to safeguard the delicate balance of our natural world for generations to come.

In respect to a time that I witnessed this sorrowful occurrence on my Tribal sea-country, ‘Merad Kaur’ (Underdown (Cay) Islet, 2021).

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