Skip To Main Content
ZIS Alumni greet each other at a ZISMeets event
Always looking forward, always learning
ZIS Alumni at an ZIS Meets Event
Always looking forward, always learning
Two ZIS Alumni performing at an event
Always looking forward, always learning
My Working Day - Garry Earl Spurr, Class of 2009

When it comes to my average day, there really isn’t one! But when your “office” is the vast deserts of Western Australia, perhaps that’s not too surprising.

Garry Earl Spurr, Class of 2009

If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be in… international development. “I’ve always been interested in human rights and thought about getting into global community development, but going overseas wouldn’t feel right when there are issues that need attention right in my own backyard.”


When it comes to my average day, there really isn’t one! But when your “office” is the vast deserts of Western Australia, perhaps that’s not too surprising.

I work with the indigenous people of Martu country, where around 2,000 people are custodians of 13.6 million hectares of desert – almost threeand- a-half times the size of Switzerland. Our organisation, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ), helps establish and develop Martu communities, people who were among the last of Australia’s indigenous people to make contact with the European world, with many living a completely traditional desert life as recently as the 1960s.

Most of my work is focused on the preservation and celebration of the Martu language, within which is encoded a wealth of cultural, spiritual and ecological knowledge. So, on any given day I might be at a conference with indigenous groups from all over Australia, having planning meetings within the organisation, or going to work with elders who are keen to pass on their knowledge of country, community and culture to future generations.

In a mainstream setting, the Martu are operating within a foreign culture and in a foreign language – they are dependent on benevolent kardiya (white people) to help them get by. When we head out into Martu country, the dynamic completely shifts, and that’s where you can have a really good conversation. When I meet indigenous people who’ve never seen a white person speak their language before, I’m often greeted by wide eyes and amusement!

Our approach is that this is a living language rather than something that needs to be preserved and documented. Martu have passed down amazingly detailed knowledge for millennia through song, hand signs, painting, different speech styles – everything but the written word. So, we need to be sensitive to that and not undermine those traditions.

There is a danger you can plan too much, but if you’re overly gung-ho you could also cause harm, so striking the right balance is an active and reflective process that requires being humble and willing to try new things. KJ’s ranger team at Kunawarritji held an awesome language camp this year, which involved family members across all generations passing on stories. It was beautiful to see some of the elders surrounded by grandchildren, their eyes twinkling.

The experience of being immersed in the culture changes people, and initiatives led by the community are a lot more likely to work than top-down solutions. The challenges Martu people have faced in the 50 years since they came out of the desert are hard to imagine but to watch these communities and witness their strength is inspiring.


Voices Magazine - Spring 2020 Edition


Social Media