In Dieri country we can often see an animal that is called in Dieri warrukathi and in English ’emu’. Its scientific name is Dromaius novaehollandiae.
The emu is a special animal for a number of reasons:
- in English we call the emu a ‘bird’, but in Dieri it is not considered to be a paya, because it cannot fly. Only birds like karrawara ‘eaglehawk’ (see this previous post) or thindrithindri ‘willy wagtail’ are considered to be paya in Dieri
- there is a special word ngarru for ’emu feathers’ which is different from kutya the term for feathers of all other birds
Traditionally, ngarru were used to make a special kind of shoes called maltharra that were worn by thidnanipa the men on a revenge expedition, which is called pinya in Dieri. Such an expedition would be organised when someone had committed a major crime, or someone died of unknown causes and people suspected foul play by some other group. The emu feather shoes would not leave a track so the identity of the thidnanipa would remain unknown.
- emus can run fast so we can use the verb mindri-rna ‘to run’ when talking about how the emu moves.
- warrukathi is used to refer to a constellation in the sky. It is defined by dark clouds visible against the Milky Way background rather than by stars (the way that Europeans define their constellations). The warrukathi manganthara ’emu head’ is the very dark Coalsack nebula, next to the Southern Cross (the stars that are also found on the Australian flag), and the body and legs are other dark clouds trailing out along the Milky Way to the star called Scorpius.
- the term warrukathi milki ’emu eyes’ is used to describe what are called Australites in English, a kind of small meteor (or tektite) that is usually round and black in colour.
Europeans found out about warrukathi milki in 1857, when the explorer Thomas Mitchell gave to the famous naturalist Charles Darwin a mysteriously shaped piece of natural black glass. Darwin thought that warrukathi milki must have come from a volcano because they look similar to volcanic glass but he was wrong because they actually come from space.
So, next time you see a warrukathi remember all these new words:
kutya ‘feather of a paya bird that can fly’
maltharra ‘shoes made of emu feathers’
ngarru ’emu feather’
paya ‘bird that can fly’
pinya ‘revenge expedition’
thidnanipa ‘man on a pinya revenge expedition’
warrukathi milki ‘Australite, small meteor’