Yakanarra Song Book provides a glimpse into the life of an isolated Indigenous community

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According to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), in remote parts of Australia, only one in ten Indigenous students meet national minimum standards for reading and writing.

But he wants to reverse these figures, and as part of the Native Literacy Day They Have launched four books depicting stories from over 15 remote communities, providing insight into their lives.

One of these books is the Yakanarra Song Book, illustrating life in the remote community of Western Australia.

In collaboration with well-known author and illustrator Ms. Lester, the book was written and illustrated by community school students and Yakanarra alumni.

What makes this book so special is that it is made up of songs in both English and the traditional language.

Ms. Lester, author and illustrator, worked with the community to produce the book.(

ABC News: Laura Brierley Newton

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She said she was excited to work with communities to help them publish language books.

“I think for the children it’s very difficult… to learn to read in a language that is not your mother tongue,” Ms. Lester said.

“But if you can learn to read in your own language, that will be much better.”

She said the book will also give white middle-class Australian children a glimpse into life in the Yakanarra community, as well as learning a few Indigenous words.

A watercolor drawing of an eagle flying towards the sun
A drawing of an eagle from the Yakanarra Song Book.(

ABC News: Laura Brierley Newton

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Ms. Lester described Yakanarra as a “beautiful little isolated community” located 60 kilometers southwest of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of WA.

“It’s a very beautiful country, a wild desert, a huge sky,” she said.

Elders’ mission to save the language

Ms Lester had already helped produce a number of books with the community when she heard about songs created by Elders in the 1980s and 1990s.

Two elders, Mary Purnjurr Vanbee and Jessie Wamarla Moora, had worked with the community to create the songs in the main Walmajarri language, to ensure that the children kept their language.

A watercolor drawing of a crocodile next to a tree
A drawing of a crocodile from the Yakanarra Song Book.(

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“Because they were being taught in English at school and feared losing their language,” Ms Lester said.

Ms. Lester and musician Chris Aitken recorded some of the songs, and Ms. Lester then worked with the students to illustrate each song in the book.

“When they got down to work, they created these beautiful, fresh, vibrant watercolors that illustrated the book,” she said.

Yakanarra Elders Mary Vanbee and Jessie Moora stand at Circular Quay
Elders Yakanarra Mary Vanbee [R] and Jessie Moore.(

ABC News: Laura Brierley Newton

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Yakanarra’s eldest Ms Vanbee helped translate the book and said the songs covered topics such as where animals sleep, what they eat, as well as swimming and fishing songs.

Ms Vanbee, Ms Moora and students from Yakanarra School came from their community to perform songs from the book on the Sydney Opera House stage.

Aboriginal Literacy Foundation Ambassadors Josh Pyke and Aitken performed alongside the students.

Students stand on stage at the Opera House singing with a man on the guitar
Yakanarra students sing songs from the Yakanarra Song Book at the Opera with Josh Pyke.(

ABC News: Laura Brierley Newton

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“Learning English helps to open doors”

Karen Williams, executive director of the ILF, said their vision is to give every child living in remote communities the same opportunities and access to literacy resources.

Elder Mary Vanbee and Yakanarra students Zarlia Vanbee, Keenan Vanbee and Ella Jubadah stand at Circular Quay
Mary Vanbee and Yakanarra Students Zarlia Vanbee [L], Keenan Vanbee, Ella Jubadah.(

ABC News: Laura Brierley Newton

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She said the current statistics for Indigenous literacy levels are appalling, with little change in the numbers over the past 10 years.

“If anyone looks at the NAPLAN results of the past 10 years, it is appalling that a wealthy country like Australia has such shocking statistics,” she said.

“We’re not saying English should be the most important part of their education, they should learn to read and write in their own language.

“But they have to learn to communicate effectively in English in order to continue their education and find a job – so that they can read a medical script, or their medicine bottle, just to participate in the world around us.”

Students sing on stage in front of a screen with a drawing of a crocodile and a tree and a song in Walmajarri
Yakanarra students and alumni sing on the Opera stage in front of a page from the Yakanarra Song Book


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