Yolngu Life – a Brief Overview
Yolngu are Indigenous Australian people living in north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. Yolngu literally means ‘person’ in the language spoken by the people.
Yolngu culture is among the oldest living cultures on earth, stretching back more than 40,000 years. It is still strongly maintained due to their relatively late contact with Europeans.
Arnhem Land is an area of 97,000 km² in the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory, Australia. The region was named by Matthew Flinders after the Dutch ship Arnhem which explored the coast in 1623. Declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931, it remains one of the largest Aboriginal Reserves in Australia and is perhaps best known for its remoteness, its art, and the strong continuing traditions of its Indigenous people. Northeast Arnhem Land is home to the indigenous Yolngu people, one of the largest Indigenous groups in Australia, and one of the few groups who have succeeded in maintaining a vigorous traditional indigenous culture.
About 5000 Yolngu live in North East Arnhem Land, mostly in the old mission centres of Milingimbi, Ramangining, Galiwin’ku, Gapuwiyak and Yirrkala, but many also choose to live in small homeland communities.
Yolngu sustained good trade relations with Macassan fishermen for several hundred years.
The Macassan respected the land as Yolngu land; they only ever camped on the beach, and generally avoided contact with Yolngu women. They made yearly visits to harvest trepang and pearls, paying Yolngu in kind with goods such as knives, metal, canoes, tobacco and pipes. In 1906, the South Australian Government did not renew the Macassan’s permit to harvest trepang. This loss of trade caused some disruption to the Yolngu way of life, particularly since they did not know why the Macassan had stopped coming. Yolngu had well established trade routes within Australia, extending to Central Australian clans and other Aboriginal countries. (For example, they did not make boomerangs, but obtained these via trade from Central Australia.)
The complete system of Yolngu Law is the Madayin – a word for which there is no simple English equivalent. Madayin embodies the rights of the owners of the law, or citizens (rom watangu walal) who have the rights and responsibilities for this embodiment of law.
Madayin includes all the people’s law (rom); the instruments and objects that encode and symbolise the law (Madayin girri’); oral dictates; names and song cycles and the holy, restricted places (dhuyu nunggat wa:nga) that are used in the maintenance, education and development of law.
This law covers the ownership of land and waters, the resources on or within these lands and waters. It regulates and controls production and trade, the moral, social and religious law including laws for the conservation and the farming of fauna, flora and aquatic life. Yolngu believe that if they live out their life according to Madayin, it is a right and civilised way to live.
The Madayin creates the state of Magaya, which is a state of peace, freedom from hostilities and true justice for all.
There are many ceremonies and reasons for ceremonies in Yolngu society. All are concerned with acting out the stories and laws of the ancestral past. Great ancestral spirits arranged the earth by creating people, animals, plants and birds and made rules and the law to ensure their survival. Men and women have different roles in ceremonies and these roles vary from language group to language group. In many areas men are given the role of guardians of a special spiritual site where a ceremony was performed. Women are the guardians of a special knowledge and therefore hold great religious and spiritual power within the language group.
Roles in ceremonies will vary considerably depending on the reasons why the ceremony is being held. Some ceremonies are for men only, others only for women, and both men and women have their own spiritual and sacred objects. Sometimes this is talked about as men’s business and women’s business. Neither men nor women possess greater spiritual needs than the other, they coexist in different ways to ensure that sacred elements of the ancestral past will be practised and passed on.
Ceremonies and rituals take on many different forms. Some are very private and involve people only in that language group. Sometimes they involve the creation of special and sacred objects, drawings in the sand or earth (sand painting), moulding and carving of spirit figures in clay or wood, bark paintings, specific body designs and special songs and dances.
Yolngu groups are connected by a complex kinship system (gurrurtu). This system governs fundamental aspects of Yolngu life, including responsibilities for ceremony and marriage rules. Yolngu life is divided into two moieties: Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each of these is represented by people of a number of different groups, each of which have their own lands, languages, totems and philosophies.
|Yirritja||Gumatj, Gupapuyngu, Wangurri, Ritharrngu, Mangalili,
Munyuku, Madarrpa, Warramiri, Dhalwangu, Liyalanmirri.
|Dhuwa||Dhuwa Rirratjingu, Galpu, Djambarrpuyngu, Golumala, Marrakulu, Marrangu, Djapu, Datiwuy, Ngaymil, Djarrwark.|
A Yirritja person must always marry a Dhuwa person and vice versa. If a man or woman is Dhuwa, their mother will be Yirritja. Kinship relations are also mapped onto the lands owned by the Yolngu through their hereditary estates, so everything is either Yirritja or Dhuwa, every fish, stone, river, etc, belongs to one or the other moiety.
As with nearly all Aboriginal groups, avoidance relationships exist in Yolngu culture between certain relations. The two main avoidance relationships are:
- son-in-law, mother-in-law
- brother, sister
Brother-sister avoidance called mirriri normally begins after initiation. In avoidance relationships, people don’t speak directly or look at one another, and try to avoid being in too close proximity with each other. People are avoided, but respected.
Yolngu Food Groups
The food groups and their Yolngu names are:
|Murnyaŋ’ (plant or vegetable food) Alternative names: Dhäkadatj;
|Gonyil (meat, shellfish, eggs)
Alternative names: Matha-yal, Merrpal’Mathabira, Ŋänarr-yal
|1. Borum – fruits||1. Warrakan’ – land animals and birds|
|2. Guku – bee products||2. Miyapunu – marine mammals|
|3. Ŋatha – root foods||3. Maranydjalk – rays and sharks|
|4. Manutji Ŋatha – seeds||4. Guya – fish|
|5. Mudhuŋay – cycad foodstuffs||5. Maypal – shellfish, crabs|
|6. Mapu – eggs|
The old people would talk about the need to eat from both murŋyan’ and gonyil food groups and the need to supplement their diet with gapu (fresh water). While this balance was maintained, the people knew they were eating correctly. When the men would come back from the magpie goose hunt, they would be craving murnyaŋ foods after having eaten so much meat and eggs. While the women, children and old people back in the camps would be looking forward to gonyil, Magpie goose meat and eggs, after eating so much murnyaŋ’.
Yolngu Matha is comprised of twelve different dialects, each with its own Yolngu name. While there is extensive variation between these dialects, there is generally common mutual intelligibility, hence the umbrella group of Yolngu Matha. The linguistic situation is very complicated, since each of the 25 or so clans also has a named language variety. English can be anywhere from a third to a tenth language for Yolngu.
I want to explain to you what yothu yindi really means. You have probably heard of the rock band Yothu Yindi. Yothu yindi is really a relationship term. The relationship holds for people, land and all that we see about us, for things such as animals, plants, wind, water and many more.
Yothu means ‘child’ or ‘baby’ and Yindi means ‘big’ but in the expression yothu yind, yindi refers particularly to the mother. This expression always involved two things in a relationship to each other. So if I am someone’s or something’s yothu, they are my yindi. I am in the Datiwuy clan. For the Datiwuy clan the Wangurri clan can be the child (yothu) or the mother (nandi) (and vice versa). This relationship is shown to us by the mingling of the waters from two rivers coming out from the Wangurri and Datiwuy lands.
Common Yolngu Words/Terms
|Come here||Go marrtjina!|
|Food (not meat)||Ngatha|
|Give it here! Thankyou||Ga|
|Home, house, land||wäŋa or Bala’|
|House – European style||Bala’|
|How are they?||Nhamirri walala?|
|How are you two?||Nhamirri manda?|
|How are you?||Nhamirri nhe?|
|Law, custom, culture||Rom|
|Needle like points of pandanus||Gorrurru|
|Non-indigenous person||Balanda or Ngäpaki|
|Not good||Yaka manymak|
|Okay. Do it!||Ma|
|Place eggs buried||Molu|
|Plant, bush medicine,||Butjiriŋu|
|Red root dye||Yirrinŋuning|
|Rotten cheese fruit||Burukbili|
|See you later||Nhäma yalala|
|See you tomorrow||Nhäma godarr’|
|Sisters of creator myth||Wäwilak|
|Son / daughter||Waku|
|Sunrise, early morning||Munhakumirri|
|Turtle egg||Miyapuna Mapu’|
|What for? Why?||Nhäku|
|Yes, later on||Yo! Yalala bay’|
Yolngu Matha Language Courses are available through Charles Darwin University learnline.cdu.edu.au/yolngustudies
Yolngu identify six seasons. Europeans currently living in the Top End identify two, the Wet and the Dry. (Arguably, the build-up period between dry and wet is coming to be identified as a distinct third season.) The six Yolngu seasons, and their characteristics, are:
|Mirdawarr||Late March and April||End of wet season with scattered showers. Wind in south-east quarter but air still hot & humid.||Vegetable foods becoming plentiful. Fish numerous. People generally sedentary & living in big camps. Nomadic movement restricted by floodwaters. Long rank grass & mosquitoes. Macassar traders used to depart at this time with south-east winds. Goose-hunting expeditions into swamps. Fishing, especially large-scale communal fishing operations and drives where floodwaters receding; including basket traps in weirs, nets and the gurl in use only in the valley of the Glyde River.|
|Dhaarratharramirri||Late April to August South-east or dry season||Wind in east and south-east||People nomadic; big wet-season camps breaking up. Systematic burning of all extensive grassed areas, communal drives for kangaroo, bandicoots, ’goanna’. Fishing still important, with nets, grass barriers, in shallow waters on plains & salt pans. August to November (inclusive) is the most important period for ceremonial activities.|
|Rarranhdharr||September and October Hot dry season||Hot periods towards close of dry (southeast) season. Wind chiefly north-east, lightning frequent and first thunder heard. Stringy bark in flower.||Nomadic activities lessen after burning of grass. Poisoning of fish in waters now concentrated by evaporation. Fish spearing continues in estuarine & coastal waters. Important ceremonial time.|
|Worlmamirri||Late October, November and December||The ’nose of the wet season’, with or bringing thunder – late October. Period of maximum heat and humidity immediately before the rain season, characterised by violent thunder storms of increasing frequency.||Nomadic activities much restricted. People generally in camps near permanent water.|
|Baarramirri||Late December and January||Short season with wind in north-west; breaking of the wet.Also called munydjutjmirri from the fruit of munydjutj. Two kinds of north-west wind recognised: (i) Baarra yindi, the big, or gurrkamirri (male), baarra; (ii) Baarra nyukukurniny, the small, or dhuykun (female), baarra. The first refers to the more boisterous north-west gales, the second to the gentler breezes from the north-west||Macassar fleets used to arrive with north-west winds (baarra) and disperse to regular sites for trepang fishing. People concentrated in wet season camps leading almost sedentary life. Inland travel restricted by floods and dense growth of rank grass.|
|Gurnmul or Waltjarnmirri||January, February and March||Wet season proper. Two phases, the first, girritjarra is again subdivided into three.||People concentrated in camps. Inland travel restricted by floods.|
Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yolngu April 2007.
Yolngu Seasonal Calendar
Fibrecraft (Gunga Djäma)
The age old practice of weaving bags, baskets and mats from the leaves of the pandanus and the bark of the kurrajong continues today. Making these things is very labour intensive. Gathering the materials can be quite exhausting. The spikey pandanus leaves are sometimes difficult to harvest, followed by the careful task of flaying the leaves before hanging them to dry. The dyes used are from the bulbs, roots or bark of various woodland plants. Once the material is collected, trimmed, dried and dyed the weaving begins. This is almost always done by women in groups. Men have been known to weave ceremonial or sacred objects but these are not for sale.
Wood Sculptures (Dharpa)
Yolngu artists create sculptures decorated with painted or incised designs. Pieces are available from small decorative objects made from soft woods to larger works in hardwood based on sacred ceremonial objects.
Paintings on Bark (Nuwayak)
After the wet season deluge, gadayka, the stringybark tree, is stripped of its bark which is then cured by fire, weighted and left to dry. Ochres and earth pigments in red, yellow, black and white are obtained from well known deposits. A brush made of human hair is made. Then the age-old miny’tji, or sacred designs, belonging to each particular artist and their clan are produced using a meticulous layering of individual strokes to produce a cross hatched pattern readable by those with knowledge as belonging to a particular estate, clan, state of water, moiety and place. The elders have resisted a shift to painting the sacred title deeds of their country on canvas or board using acrylic, opting instead to continue the use of nuwayak, or sheets of bark.
While didjeridus can be made from many materials in many ways, yidaki are usually made from trunks of living eucalyptus trees, although very rarely, a suitable branch may be found. The trees are hollowed out by termites commonly known as “white ants”. In Yolngu country, Gadayka, or Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetradonta), is used most of the time, but sometimes Gungurru’, Darwin Woollybutt (Eucalyptus miniata) or one of two bloodwoods, Badawili (Corymbia ferruginea) and Dhumulu’ (Corymbia polycarpa) are also used.
The selection of the right tree is probably the finest art of yidaki making. It is not as easy to find a good yidaki as you might expect. There are many factors involved that only those who have worked on yidaki for many years come to understand. While many people debate the pros and cons of different types of instruments made with different methods around the world, it is sure that there is no didjeridu quite like one provided by nature. This information was provided by Buku Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre For more information about Yolngu art and craft please refer to the centres website at www.yirrkala.com.
East Arnhem History
The first remembered non-Aboriginal people to experience East Arnhem were traders from Macassar. From at least several hundred years before the arrival of Europeans, Macassan boats would arrive at the East Arnhem coast on the monsoon winds. Here they would camp for several months, harvesting and drying trepang (beche de mer), interspersed with trading and partying with the locals – who called themselves Yolngu. From the Macassans, Yolngu gained steel for their spearheads, skills for building canoes, knowledge of a wider world and many new words. Today, clusters of huge tamarind trees fringing the East Arnhem coastline, and shards of broken pottery in the sand, show where the Macassans camped.
Christian missionaries made the first long-term settlements in the region, starting at Roper River in 1908, then to the strip of sandfly-infested mud and grass which makes up the island of Milingimbi, in 1916. After Milingimbi came Galiwin’ku mission in 1922, and then Yirrkala in 1934. For decades, the only substantial non-Aboriginal activity in the region took place at these coastal mission stations. The missionaries cut wood, built houses, grew vegetables, preached, translated the Bible and put Aboriginal children into clothes and schools. Today, many Aboriginal people credit the mission era with giving them English literacy and numeracy, and individuals such as ‘Bapa Sheppy’ (Father Shepherdson, from Elcho Island) are remembered with affection.
Probably the first European to really engage with Aboriginal people over the whole of the region was Donald Thomson. An anthropologist from Melbourne University, Thomson was originally sent by the Commonwealth Government to negotiate settlement of an explosive legal situation. Yolngu had fatally speared Japanese fishermen at Caledon Bay in 1933, and followed it up by spearing a policeman sent in to investigate. Thomson landed at Roper Bar in 1935 and in an epic journey walked north, hoping to meet Yolngu leaders and negotiate the surrender of the ‘murderers’. He subsequently walked over Central Arnhem Land, in the area of the Arafura Swamp, recording anthropological and photographic data.
World War 2
In the pre-War period, Aboriginal people from East Arnhem Land had encountered Macassan traders, white missionaries, Japanese pearlers, policemen on horses and the odd adventurer. World War 2 was to add American and Australian servicemen to this list, as Drimmie Head (near today’s community of Gunyangara, or Ski Beach) became a base for flying boat airplanes. After the War, life on the missions continued. Thomson’s report to the Commonwealth Government had recommended that Arnhem Land be an Aboriginal reserve, and this came about in 1949. To the West, some buffalo shooters intruded occasionally. In the south, the odd ‘frontier misfit’ ventured up from such watering holes as Borroloola. But, overall, Arnhem Land was a quiet place. Aboriginal people were still in control of most of it. This was all to change in the 1960s and early 70s.
On Groote Eylandt, a large amount of manganese was confirmed in the early 1960s, on land over which the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had some say. Through this leverage, the CMS was eventually able to negotiate a financial return to Aboriginal people from the mining project. But on the mainland, on the Gove Peninsula, the situation was more controversial. The first thing Yolngu noticed was strange white men walking around the Gove Peninsula ceremonially putting painted sticks in the ground. It turned out the men were mapping minerals to mine. In fact, the Gove Peninsula had been shown to hold one of the world’s largest deposits of high-grade bauxite, just lying on the ground. So started the most intense period of non-Aboriginal activity in the region.
The mission headquarters in Melbourne agreed to the Commonwealth Government allowing a mining company to explore for bauxite at Gove – but they had not discussed the issue with either the Yolngu or the local mission station at Yirrkala.
The local missionary at Yirrkala protested about this. Yolngu protested about this. Leaders of all the Yolngu clans signed a Bark Petition in 1963 and sent it to the Commonwealth Parliament in Canberra, protesting “that the procedures for the excision of this land and the fate of the people on it were never explained to them beforehand, and were kept secret from them” … and … “that the people of this area fear their needs and interest will be completely ignored as they have been ignored in the past…”
The Gove land rights case Milirrpum and others v Nabalco
Politicians visited Gove, Parliamentary committees of inquiry were held, and many promises were made. In the end, Yolngu took their own action, launching a case in the Supreme Court to assert their rights to control development on their ancestral land.
Day after day, Yolngu leaders got up in court and painstakingly set out a complex system of spiritual beliefs, social practices and ethical values – all based on characteristics of land use and ownership. To their dismay, Judge Blackburn handed down a judgement disallowing their claim and upholding the legal right of the mining company to proceed unencumbered by the concerns of Aboriginal people. Yolngu were not to be parties to the legal agreement governing the mine operation or the township, and this remains the situation today.
Nhulunbuy was built in the 1970s, transforming the region with a sudden influx of 4000 non-Aboriginal people, supermarkets, ovals, shops – and a hotel. Once again Yolngu leaders took the matter to court, challenging the right of the newly-built Walkabout Hotel to sell alcohol. Again, they lost the case. Yolngu leaders were devastated. They saw young Yolngu were learning to drink, drunken violence was entering Yirrkala, more people were becoming addicted to the tobacco and processed sugary food now available from supermarkets, and their sacred places on the mining lease were now under the bulldozers.
The loss of what became known as the Gove Land Rights case caused national political disquiet. To Yolngu and their supporters, it was clearly an injustice. Indirectly, it lead to the creation of the Woodward Land Rights Commission which, after long consultations, recommended the creation of an Act of Parliament to protect the traditional rights of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
But Yolngu could not wait for this. All over Arnhem Land they voted with their feet, walking out of the missions to settle back on their own clan land in small family groups. The centralisation which had begun with the mission stations started to reverse, and the Aboriginal homelands movement was borne. Today, these small homeland centres persist right around the region. Often the homeland centres do not have the services and facilities of the large ex-missions – but Yolngu assert they have the great advantage of being on their own country, of supporting physical and spiritual health. Aboriginal leaders know, however, that their children need skills which will equip them to survive in the non-Aboriginal world and they want to strike a balance between access to modern facilities and maintenance of traditional culture.
Eventually, Woodward’s proposed Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976 (the LRA) came into force. Under the LRA, all of Arnhem Land was immediately designated Aboriginal-owned land, with landowners having the right to say yes or no to land-use and development projects. Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land did now control their land – except the mining leases at Gove, which were specifically excluded from the provisions of the LRA. Those communities closest to Nhulunbuy, such as Yirrkala and Gunyangara, were greatly affected by the mine and the town. But at the homeland centres there was respite from the pressures of western influence, and over the years functional communities developed and flourished.
The Region Today
This history has determined the character of the region today. Today, the mining town of Nhulunbuy is an enclave of western/European culture surrounded by vast tracts of Aboriginal-owned land and Aboriginal communities. It is the character of different forms of land tenure which, more than anything, determines the social character of the region.
Land covered by the mining lease on the Gove Peninsula is broadly under the control of the private companies holding the leases. Residents of Nhulunbuy have ready access to all modern shopping, recreational, education and communication facilities, all in the midst of one of Australia’s most beautiful natural landscapes. Outside the mining lease – on ‘Aboriginal land’ – the predominant governance structures are those put in the place by the Land Rights Act. Under the LRA, land is owned by a series of Aboriginal Land Trusts, which take instructions from a Land Council.
The Land Councils, in turn, take instructions from those local Aboriginal people recognised under traditional law and kinship structures as having responsibility for particular tracts of land. This Aboriginal land is effectively private land: Outsiders wishing to enter it must have permission from the landowners. Prospective commercial developers must seek the permission of landowners and negotiate financial and other arrangements acceptable to all parties.
The landowners’ representatives for these purposes is the Northern Land Council for all the rest of Arnhem Land. Aboriginal land under the Land Rights Act is inalienable. It cannot be sold, in recognition that it is there to benefit future generations as well as the current one. Aboriginal land can, however, be leased – and there are many leases throughout the region, for such purposes as community stores, tourist ventures, and utilisation of natural resources. These have been negotiated with the permission of traditional landowners, through the Land Councils.
Aboriginal landowners on the Gove Peninsula have made specific provision for non-Aboriginal people to access sections of their land for recreational purposes. A land management organisation owned and run by Aboriginal people, Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation, has been established in Nhulunbuy for this purpose. Dhimurru is empowered to issue written ‘recreation permits’ for a number of specific sites (particular beaches and rivers) near Nhulunbuy. In this way, residents of Nhulunbuy are able to take advantage of the region’s natural beauty without disturbing Aboriginal communities.
In the larger communities (Galiwin’ku, Yirrkala, Milingimbi, Angurugu, Numbulwar and Ngukurr), local government structures have been established – with elected community councils – under the auspices of the NT’s Local Government Act. These take responsibility for the day to day issues of community management and operate concurrently with the governance structures set up under Land Rights Act.
The predominantly non-Aboriginal population of Nhulunbuy is relatively homogenous:
- It is a young population (the median age in the 2001 Census was 33 years);
- It is a relatively high-income population (the median income for people 15 years and over in the 2001 Census was $700-$799 per week); and
- It is a fully-employed population (the unemployment rate in the 20021 Census was 2.5%).
The equivalent ‘average’ data for the predominantly non-Aboriginal population outside Nhulunbuy is:
- It is an even younger population (the median age in the 2001 Census was 22 years);
- It is a relatively low-income population (the mean income for people aged 15 years and over in the 2001 Census was $160-$199);
- It is an underemployed population (the unemployment rate in the 2001 Census was 6.3%; in East Arnhem a significant section of the workforce is not in the official labour force, and the Community Development Employment Program is widespread)
But average figures such as these can mask the fact that there are huge differences between Aboriginal communities. Outside the two big mining towns, on Aboriginal land, the situation is quite varied. On the one hand there are the relatively large ex-missions such as Galiwin’ku, Yirrkala, Milingimbi, Angurugu, Numbulwar and Ngukurr.
Social life in these larger communities is often beset with problems, a legacy of the centralisation of nomadic peoples which took place when the missions were established. On the other hand, there are many decentralised and small homeland centres scattered across the region – perhaps a hundred or so – where individual family or clan groups live on their traditional country in small estates. This area has the highest concentrations of homelands in Australia.
Commercial development in the region is dominated by the mines at Alyangula and Nhulunbuy. The scale of these ventures dwarfs other commercial initiatives elsewhere in the region. However, in all the region’s communities – even the small homeland centres – there are numerous economic activities happening. These range from local people managing community stores, to joint harvesting of marine resources, to major cultural festivals, to small-scale tourist ventures. These are all facilitated by the lease and licence provisions of the Land Rights Act.
Balancing two worlds
They key issue for many Aboriginal people in the region is developing the appropriate balance between the western and Aboriginal worlds. In many places, particularly the homeland centres, culture remains very strong, and Aboriginal children are raised with knowledge of kinship, law and ceremony. They are being brought up as proud Aboriginal people operating in both the western world and their semi-traditional world. They believe they can gain these skills without sacrificing their Aboriginal heritage – that they can indeed have it ‘both ways’.