App designed by Indigenous people in WA’s northern Goldfields helps preserve language and culture: ABC

ABC Goldfields / By Giulia Bertoglio

View the story on the ABC website here to see the associated video.

  • In short: The Mamutjitji Story app uses a Western Desert Dreamtime story to teach science. 
  • The app is in English and Ngalia, an Aboriginal language that only has three speakers. 
  • What’s next? The app will help preserve language and traditional knowledge and pass it on to the next generation.

Huddled together, a bunch of primary school students balance iPads on their knees, using one hand to hold them, one to swat away flies.

Warning: This story contains the names and images of Indigenous people who have died.

With its red dust and gold mines, the remote town of Leonora, more than 800 kilometres from Perth, is an unlikely technology hub.

But its only school has been chosen to launch a new app.

“Mamutjitji mamutjitji (monsters, monsters), yantala puu puu (chase and beat them),” the students and Kado Muir sing at the app’s launch in Leonora.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

The Mamutjitji Story app uses a local Dreamtime story about the life cycle of a common desert insect, the antlion, to teach Aboriginal and Western science concepts.

The Mamutjitji Story bilingual app uses a Dreamtime story to explore science concepts.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

60,000 years of innovation

The app’s co-writer, Ngalia man Kado Muir, says new technology is not foreign to Indigenous people.

“Technology and innovation is essentially what Aboriginal people have been doing for 60,000 years,” Mr Muir explained, mentioning fish traps and boomerangs.

portrait of Indigenous man with grey beard
Kado Muir is the co-writer of the Mamutjitji Story app and one of only three speakers of Ngalia. (ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

He hopes the launch of the app, a collaboration between his local Aboriginal business and a Maori company in New Zealand, will inspire other Indigenous people to embrace new technology.

“If you’re in an Indigenous community wherever in the world, don’t be afraid of technology, use technology for your own purposes,” Mr Muir said.

One of those purposes is preserving culture, and language, taking them from remote Western Desert into the digital age.

screenshot of the app showing Aboriginal children fighting fury monsters
The app, in Ngalia and English, teaches about animals’ life cycles using a Dreamtime story where children stand up to monster who are transformed into insects. (ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

Three speakers, many learners

black and white picture of an Aboriginal woman and a white man holding a spear
Kado Muir’s parents in an old paper clipping. (Supplied: Cate Rocchi)

Mr Muir, who co-wrote the bilingual app with his brother Talbot, calls it a ‘family project’, continuing his parents’ work to preserve the Ngalia language by compiling a dictionary.

The three Muir brothers are the only people in  the world who can speak or understand Ngalia.

Their new app captures language and brings it to the next generations in a digital form, with the help of the Mamutjitji monsters. 

Ngalia is at risk of being lost, but it’s a dialect of Mantjiltjintjarra and very similar to Ngaanyatjarra: two Western Desert Aboriginal languages with many thousands of native speakers.

One of them, Ngaanyatjarra elder and educator Daisy Ward, was at the app launch and could not stop smiling.

portrait of Indigenous older lady smiling
Ngaatjatjara elder Daisy Ward says learning their langauge will help children navigate both worlds.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

“This is really important for kids to learn the language, because language is important to Tjukurrpa (the Dreaming),” she said.

“We need that more in schools so that kids could learn living in both worlds.”

Preserving culture, fostering belonging

For the students, the app will continue the trend of western scientific concepts being introduced through an Indigenous lens, including stories and bush trips.

For instance, erosion is introduced through describing the waterhole near the school, and tectonic shifts through the origin stories of the local landscape.

Science teacher Warwick Tullock explains Leonora’s students, nearly 80 per cent of whom are Aboriginal, know the land well.

Aboriginal teacher wearing a cap
Warwick Tullock says appreciating the Aboriginal way of learning helps students to engage.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

“There’s so much knowledge within Aboriginal stories that we can bring to the forefront through technology, through apps,” he said.

Linking curriculum to local knowledge makes it easier for his students to understand, and feel they belong.

“We have to understand the children before we teach,” principal Margaret Butterwood said.

“But we also need to give the children the opportunity to show what they know.”

blonde teacher surrounded by her students
“One of our teaching goals, is always teach for understanding,” Principal Margaret Butterwood says.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

Kado Muir sees his Mamutjitji Story app as a tool to facilitate that communication between cultures, and generations, that makes his community stronger.

Even if people can’t understand Ngalia, he said, they can understand the world its words describe.

“The app is to bring this dream time story into our contemporary experience and understanding,” Mr Muir said.

“So that people now can actually experience what I experienced as a child growing up in the bush.”