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Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson, Cooee mittigar: A story on Darug songlines (#BookReview)

January 16, 2021

Recently, on a bit of a whim, I bought two books from the Indigenous Australian publishing company, Magabala Books. They were the younger readers-young adult novel, Black Cockatoo (my review), which had been shortlisted for a few awards, and this picture book, Cooee mittigar, which had just won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction. It is described on the Awards website as “introducing children and adults-alike to Darug ‘Nura’ (Country) and language”. So, a book for children and adults. I’m in …

The book tells the story of the seasons*, as understood or experienced by Sydney’s Darug people, through the eyes of the black swan, Mulgo. It is a perfect example of the generosity of Indigenous Australians. Despite being dispossessed of their country, despite being repeatedly discounted as having anything important to contribute, despite being overlooked or specifically excepted by policy-makers, they come back again and again, willing to share their knowledge – and, particularly, their language – when there’s a real risk that it too might be taken from them. They seem to understand, when so many don’t, that it’s only by sharing and communicating with each other our values and belief systems that we can mature as a nation.

And so, we have this beautiful hardback, written and illustrated by two Darug women, Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson. Like many recent books I’ve read by Indigenous Australian writers, it incorporates Indigenous – Darug here, of course – language into the story. The technique they use is, in two-page spreads, to tell the story using English and Darug words, immmediately followed (on the same spread) by a glossary for the Darug words used. So, for example, we have:

In the time of yuruka and burara
Elders tell us not to hunt the buru.

yuruku – hot
burara – dry
buru – kangaroo

The glossary words are presented in slightly smaller but still clear text. The illustrations for the page, as you’d expect in a picture book, help convey the meaning. This spread, for example, is dominated by hot-dry looking yellows and tans, with two kangaroos lazing in the grass.

But now, let’s go back to the beginning. The book starts with a welcome: “Warami mittigar. Welcome friend. … Cooee mittigar. Come here friend.” We are then introduced to our guide, the afore-mentioned black swan, Mulgo, who tells us that she will teach us “about Darug life” – and off we go, starting, logically, with an introduction to Biami (dreaming ancestor spirit) and the idea of Darug dreaming and the songlines which tell the story of “Nura” or country. From here, we move through the seasons, starting when the “the darrabura [day] grows long and the weather warms up”. Each step of the way, we are told what to look for, what might be happening, what we can do, with respect to country and the natural environment, such as:

During dagara, gulgadya will bloom –
ready to be turned into spears.

dagara – frost
gulgadya – grasstree

The story ends with the gentle request to “tread softly on our lands”.

The language flows simply – though, as a non-indigenous reader, I’m sure it would take me a few readings to feel comfortable enough with the words to make it sound good aloud. Leanne Mulgo Watson’s illustrations draw mostly from greens, blues and yellows, but with touches of other hues. They are gorgeously evocative of the text, making them a delight for all readers, but they also provide good opportunities for actively engaging younger readers (and listeners).

At the end of the book is a complete glossary of the Darug words used throughout, with a simple pronunciation guide, which is a feature I’ve missed in other books. So, for example, there’s “warami – wara me – hello”. There is also a one-page description of Darug Country, and another page providing brief bios of Seymour and Watson.

Cooee mittigar concludes with a statement of its creators’ intentions, which are “to share Darug language and culture and show that the Darug people are still strong on Country”. They also “hope that Cooee mittigar will contribute to the continuation of stories and culture”. I’d be surprised if they haven’t achieved this, but I hope that in publishing this post I will have made my contribution to supporting their goals.

Challenge logo

Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson (illus.)
Cooee mittigar: A story on Darug songlines
Broome: Magabala Books, 2019
48pp.
ISBN: 9781925936865

* As many Australians know, Indigenous Australians do not see the year through “our” four-season calendar, but through different seasons depending on the country.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2021 09:57

    I bought this one for my granddaughter. It’s such a beautiful book.

    • January 16, 2021 10:45

      Oh I’m so glad someone else has bought and also like it Denise. Thanks for letting me know.

  2. January 16, 2021 12:28

    You were certainly vindicated in your choice, ST – it sounds absolutely marvellous !

    • January 16, 2021 12:32

      I’m really glad it’s come across that way, M-R, because it is! I’ve achieved what I wanted to do.

  3. January 16, 2021 14:12

    The book sounds wonderful.

    The sharing of culture like this is one if the great part s of the human experience.

    The use if Darug with the English equivalence

    vv

  4. January 16, 2021 14:56

    Oh, I wish we had something like this for Victoria!

    • January 16, 2021 14:59

      Yes, agree Lisa – for all Indigenous nations I think!

      • January 17, 2021 13:39

        Yes, and the seasons are a great way to start, along with knowledge of bush foods.
        I’d love to learn Bunerong, but lessons are not available to non-Indigenous people.

        • January 17, 2021 15:05

          Yes, agree, seasons and food are great places to start. Plus of course animals, birds, and insects!

  5. January 16, 2021 15:52

    Beautiful review Sue. You have done this book justice indeed!
    I loved this book, for all the things it didn’t say, but you did, and hope that every preschool and school in the country has it on their shelves now.

    • January 16, 2021 15:54

      Haha Brona … I hope I didn’t say too much! Seriously though thanks. I’m really glad you liked it too. I hope its win helps it get good sales.

  6. January 17, 2021 19:06

    I had thought the Sydney Harbour people were Eora. I looked it up and the Eora were coastal and the Darug were inland, but shared a common language.
    In Melbourne the famous Buckley acted as an interpreter but I wonder if anyone wrote down what he knew (Daisy Bates was employed by the state government to do that job in Perth)..

    • January 17, 2021 19:18

      Yes, thanks Bill. I checked that too. The Darug include the Hawkesbury River and inland of there as part of their country.

      Let’s hope they did! It’s clear that every little bit of language, wherever it is documented is critical for many Indigenous nations. I remember Kim Scott talking about that re the project he is involved in.

  7. buriedinprint permalink
    January 20, 2021 07:42

    “They seem to understand, when so many don’t, that it’s only by sharing and communicating with each other our values and belief systems that we can mature as a nation.”

    Nicely put.

  8. Meg permalink
    January 23, 2021 16:30

    Hi Sue I borrowed from my library both Cooee Mittigar and Black Cockattos. Well presented books that children and adults would enjoy. I then borrowed Yorro Yorro: Aboriginal Creation and the Renewal of Nature by David Mowaljarlai, a Ngarinyin Elder, and Jutta Malnic. It is a fascinating and informative read with great photos. I would not have picked it up at the library if I had not read the two above books you blogged. So thanks.

    • January 23, 2021 22:05

      Thanks Meg. It’s wonderful that you checked these books out (and found another too). The more of us aware of these books and can talk about them, the better, eh?

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