Introduction

Some of the first people to appreciate the power and beauty of pearlshell were the coastal Aboriginal groups of the northwest Kimberley coast. Collecting the shell on the king tides, these people have shaped and engraved pearlshell to celebrate country and traditions. People continue to value both guwan (undecorated shell) and riji (engraved shell) in dance and ceremony, and as an important item of exchange.

Trading

Kim Akerman, Anthropologist:

“One of the things about the Kimberly pearlshell, particularly the engraved shell, because they are so distinctive, they were used by a number of people to start to actually construct maps of some of these ancient trade routes. These networks went across the continent. Pearlshell probably covered more than two thirds of Australia, Kimberly pearlshell. Western Queensland. They were recorded at Kalgoorlie. They were recorded along the Trans Line. There are photos of Noongar people from south west of Western Australia, that where pearlshell by different Aboriginal names at various ancient trade routes.”

Paul Sampi Janganbirr, Bardi elder:

Anyja, its like something that was given to you, and you got to give back. That’s Anyja. Give something back. Like Aboriginals don’t have… they probably have boomerangs, or spears or a whole lot of pearlshell. So they give that away, you know. You give something back like steel or whatever. Oh, old, old people did the same thing with, even with probably turtle, or dugong or spears, boomerang. You give it to the man and say, see if I wanted it or not, I give you shell and I take you away. I pay you. I pay for you with the shell and I take you. Both Laws, you know, I mean in both communities, like, different Laws. We all got different sacred stuff. And then we pay with shell or whatever, you know.”

Aubrey Tigan Galiwa, Mayala elder and pearlshell carver:

“Oh, all these is trading men, well, trading before for give him this, give him that. Fellas from Jigalong and all that. Catch all them, in the picture, old, old picture, you know. Jigalong mob. Some, they went around Wyndham way. All around there. Even go inland. Maybe I don’t know as far as where, but around inland.”

Carving shell

Russell ‘Wossy’ Davey Jooda, Pearlshell carver:

“I’m a Bardi man. I started, I did a couple of pearlshells for, a couple of riji for the Bardi dancers. And that was with my dad, then. We sat down together and did a design. I did a design, and he gave me the okay. And then I carved it, and he showed me how to put the ochre on there, and wipe it off. And then, yeah, he was, he sort of gave me the, yeah, gave me the tick to start carving pearlshell for like proper riji, yeah.”

Aubrey Tigan Galiwa, Mayala elder and pearlshell carver:

“Talking to old uncle. He said, ‘I want a riij.’ And he just threw them in the sand, ‘This kind riij, this kind, this kind.’ Look at them. He had no pencil. He don’t believe in pencil. ‘This one. This one proper ram [engraved lines] from Iwany [Sunday Island]. Ram, that hold everybody in one’. Next day we start with chisel and three-corner file, six-inches nail. It took us 2 to 3 weeks. ‘And I want a good one’, he say, ‘And when you finish it, put on the biidamar properly’. Red ochre got some ‘Here uncle’ we say. He know how long it took us. He laughed. ‘Well, from today on, nobody can’t tell you what to do. You clean the shell. You make a riij for use. Then I give them to someone else, to pass him on to his son’. He said, ‘Its done and over now. Finished’. Once its finished you don’t talk about it. ‘You are a proper aamba’. You know, boss. And you got to be the boss. He’d been the boss for his mob. I’ve been boss for my mob. And that’s how we been. You do your riji, you do your carving, anytime, long as from Saltwater. Nobody can stop you. Boogan liyan waningarra juwar I’m telling you to. That’s your Law, your Saltwater Law.

I carve shell for ceremony, for dancing, for our cultural rites. The designs are our history, about the country, about our young people, about old people. If I drop that, we chuck it away, we are lost. You make riji, when you teach anyone, they do that, they keep going you know.”