Image of Martu Elder Thelma Judson

Inside the Martulu-Palyalu partnership with a Martu Elder

Picture of Thelma Judson, Martu Elder
Thelma Judson

Martu Elder from the Parnngurr Community

The Martu people (pronounced ‘Mardoo’) from the Western Desert region of Western Australia are the traditional custodians of vast stretches of the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts, as well as the Karlamilyi (Rudall River) area. Their land spans 13.6 million hectares, which is twice the size of Tasmania.

The way in which Martu manage and demonstrate their strong connection to the land is central to their culture and a great example of the success that comes with self-determination. For Martu, healthy lands begin with yaninpa ngurraku (going to country), continues with ngarraku ninti (knowledge of country) and completes with kanyirninpa ngurrara (holding/caring for country).

About the Martulu-Palyalu Partnership

BHP’s partnership with Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ), the Martu organisation, provides social, cultural and environmental programs to conserve and protect Martu culture, land and heritage. It has generated significant employment opportunities for Martu, primarily through a ranger program. BHP also supports the Martumili artists group, based in the East Pilbara Arts Centre in Newman, Western Australia.

The Martulu-Palyalu Partnership is one of BHP’s longest-running community partnerships. For this Prospects update, we asked Martu Elder Thelma Judson what this partnership has meant to her. KJ language officer Garry Earl-Spurr undertook the interview on our behalf, and Thelma’s responses were translated by Martu ranger Derrick Butt. With special thanks to Zan King, General Manager, KJ, for facilitating this interview, and of course to Thelma, for agreeing to participate so frankly.

Prospects: The Martu established KJ in 2005 to look after their land and BHP has been a partner with you for over 10 years. How have you seen this program grow in that time and what does the program mean to you and your family?

Thelma: Yes, it's really good. KJ has grown. When it started, it was just small. We were working for it, me and my Aunty, when it was very small, and now KJ has grown. Now they've travelled all over the place – all of the rangers – all around our country and the world. Everyone gets along at KJ. We are working together. Even with Martumili. BHP helps both organisations.

We're all living well here. It's work for everybody, you know – for all the young people, for all the young Martu. All the boys are working, boys and girls – everybody!

When they grow up, these kids can work in KJ. As long as there's work and opportunities for them there, they're already staying in front through KJ. They will live well (Kurranyiwanajanu). All of these stories have gone ahead of them, and the future generations are following alongside the stories of the ancestors. Yes, it's good, we're happy.

What are the things you are most proud of that this program has delivered?

I'm proud of my homelands and being able to look after it.

What does it mean for the younger members of the Martu? Have you seen a change in them?

They've become good and in good health, all of these young people. Because we have the old people there in the front. The elders. We're talking to them, telling them all of their stories. You know, where you all come from. All of those stories. They have it in their heads now – they're holding onto and looking after all of these stories from their grandparents and from their ancestors.

They're listening and understanding as well now – the young people. They are all learning and becoming knowledgeable. They remember all of those sacred water places, and to dig them out and clean them, and to learn more about them as you work and maintain their health. Everything – it's all really good.

What are some of the things you’ve been directly involved in as part of the program, and what can you tell us about what you did as part of this work?

I've worked as a ranger. I help teach the younger generation the stories and how to look after the land. We go on Kalyuku Ninti trips where we go and visit the places of our ancestors. We look after the land through burning and looking after the animals. It is important work.

How important is it to you that Martu culture and traditions are maintained?

They need to keep looking after them forever, this is the job for all of them. When we've become too old, they will keep going. The young people will keep holding onto and looking after it – they'll take on that role.

The young people will take it on. They will keep on holding onto and seeing – checking on the wellbeing of – their homelands. We will show them these places, their homelands that they belong to, and they will keep on seeing and checking on them forever. All of the sacred water places, you know. And then they will keep on going to them afterwards. To those places where all of those grandparents – grandfathers and grandmothers, the ancestors of theirs – were coming from. They will go back to their own places that they're connected to. It's good. KJ is right – it's good. KJ is working, as long as we are in the community.

How has the land changed in this time?

The country has become healthy again because Martu are all going and checking on it. The land isn’t healthy when Martu are not on it.

What else would you like to achieve through the program?

They need to keep on living right there (jiirtuka). All of these stories that have come ahead of them – that have already been passed down from their ancestors – rangers need to keep living in that place (jiingkangulyu) and the young people need to still abide and persist there. They need to record our stories for when we are no longer here.

They need to keep being determined and hard working – it's ongoing work they're doing. They need to keep working steadfastly as rangers, looking after all of this as one. Rangers and BHP are working, and artists – they need to keep working together as one.

The program is working well. There are rangers, leadership and our cultural programs. They are all important. We all work together and it is making the younger generation strong. Strong in mind and heart. They will be able to continue looking after our lands.

I would like to see more and more young people working and being involved in KJ. I would like to see BHP keep working with KJ.

If you were to look forward 20 years, what would you like to see?

Those who follow us a long time in the future, having abided, will be growing up, and they will be working right there with KJ. They will be strong in culture, strong in language, and knowledgeable about the country and how to look after it. People living in communities. More housing for our communities to help families live in community. Everyone will keep on living with a good spirit, health and vitality.

Similar programs to this elsewhere have not been as successful, why do you think yours works so well?

It's good because it belongs to all of us Martu, it belongs to all of the people. It is our organisation. It does what we want and need to do. It listens to Martu and grows with us. We try new programs and keep growing. KJ listens to Martu. It comes from Martu. We grow up our young people and teach them how to learn about companies so we know how to understand the mainstream world. The young ones are growing to be strong in both worlds.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We want KJ and the artists to keep working as one, and BHP to keep funding KJ, and for the artists here in the shire, it's really good. We’re passing this message on to the younger people, and they need to pass it on again to future generations.


Thelma Judson was born in the Percival Lakes region in Western Australia. As a child, she and her three siblings stayed close to the major water sources while her parents went out hunting. Thelma’s family was eventually convinced by Martu trackers to move into Jigalong Mission, and were among the last Martu people to leave the desert. Thelma and her family relocated to Parnngurr Community during the ‘Return to Country’ movement. Today, Thelma and her husband and children live between Newman, Port Hedland, and Parnngurr Community. Thelma is a member of the Martumili artists group and the Parnngurr ranger team.

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