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Jila (snake, living water)

“Snake lives there in the salt and comes from Mandora – inside the salt, and travels underground. Hide him out and goes underneath in the direction of the spring country from Mandora and Bidgydanga, in the direction of the coast. He is underground, same like jila[snake]. You are not allowed to dig that place or come close to the clay pans cause it’s the snake, the snake will eat you. He will come up and you will have to run, he will send the wind to drag you back in his ngurra. You can make a waru[fire] and he will go back into his home. Creek going this side salt on the other. Old line, that rabbit proof fence. This country follows that line, we use to follow that line from Punmu.”  

– Biddy Bunnawarrie

The Western Desert term jila is used interchangeably to describe springs considered to be ‘living’ waters and snakes, both of which play a central role in Martu culture and Jukurrpa (Dreaming).

During the pujiman (traditional, desert dwelling) period, knowledge of water sources was critical for survival, and today Martu Country is still defined in terms of the location of water sources. Of the many permanent springs in Martu Country, very few are ‘living waters’; waters inhabited by jila (powerful ancestral beings). Before they became snakes, these beings were men who made rain, formed the land and introduced cultural practices like ceremonies and ritual songs. Some of the men travelled the desert together, visiting one another, but they all ended their journeys at their chosen spring alone, transformed into a snake. These important springs are named after their jila inhabitant, guarding their waters. 

Some of the jila snakes are known by Martu as quiet and benevolent, others as dangerous and ‘cheeky’. Regardless of the nature of the inhabitant snake, jila sites must be entered respectfully; particular rituals are practiced, such as lighting fires, sweeping the ground with branches, approaching in single file, and calling out to the site’s jila to announce one’s arrival and introduce people who are new to the jila. Those who do not follow these guidelines are in danger of becoming sick, or even being killed.

Name: Biddy Bunawarrie


“Pujiman [bush-dwelling] people they were walking around with nyimparra(hair belts) – old people. They didn’t know nothing about painting. They were walking around with no clothes. I was a kid, a grown kid, I wore a nyimparra and then when we came to the station we made flour bag clothes to wear. We were wearing flour bag clothing on the stations, shorts and little dress and shirts. All the white ones, white bags.”  

Biddy Bunawarrie was born in the bush on Anna Plains cattle station.She recalls walking vast distances of the Western side of the Pilbara between Port Hedland and the desert, an area she refers to as the ‘plains’ (Nyamal Country, around Marble Bar) for most of her young life. Many of the artists residing in this part of the Pilbara recall being transient and moving around with non-Indigenous activist Don McLeod, prior to his establishment of Strelley Station during the 1970s. Biddy talks about following him after people were liberated from stations. “That old man (Don Mcleod) picked you up and cut the rabbit proof fence so we could get out – Don was fighting for black man. The pussycat was a Tjukurrpa and the white people want to kill it but we said you can kill it for nothing. Then it disappeared – no one knows.” Biddy worked as a domestic on Strelley Station and remembers working most of her young adult life before settling in Warralong Community, between Port Hedland and Marble Bar.  

Today Biddy lives in Warralong with her family. Many of the Warralong artists had been on the periphery of the Martu painting movement, but were inspired to try it after watching senior Martu artist May Wokka Chapman, who is also based in the Community. Biddy has developed her own style that depicts the claypans and salt lakes of her ancestral Country. Shepaints spring country near Nimarinya(Salt) clay pans. A jila[snake] lives there under the lakes. Biddy paints the surface of the snake’s [ngurra] Country.

I like painting – I been see my sister painting in Broome. I love to do them and I thought I’d try. So I thought I’d give it a try. We did the painting Hedland and Broome but finished now I just paint in Warralong. Martu mob been learn us for painting. Susie Gilbert is my sister, she is still painting. I love painting! 

© the artist / art centre