Quotations of note: Henrietta Moore on Gimi creation narratives




I cringed reading certain parts of this (see, ‘she makes things grow by magically extending motherhood’ and ‘she internalises them as a woman does a child’), but the narrative itself is super interesting and richly layered. There are elements that remind me of a lot of The Djan’kawu actually – a Yolŋu creation narrative that recounts the exploits of a man and two sisters as foundational ancestral figures for the Dhuwa moiety.


*Please note: this excerpt includes references to sexual coercion.


‘The Gimi of Papua New Guinea exchange sisters in marriage, and these dual ceremonies ideally take place at the same time as the initiation of their adolescent brothers. Before their marriage, the pairs of future sister-in-law are secluded inside the house of the mother of one of them, and, while being deprived of food and sleep, they are taught the songs and incantations necessary for successful gardening and the raising of pigs. The women pile wood onto the fire in the centre of the hut and tell the girls that the heat will make them sweat and remove their menstrual blood. Women’s gardening and pig-rearing songs are related to their myths, and to their ‘Blood’ and ‘Moon’ songs that they sing to bring their periods to a close. During the initial phases of the initiation and the rites of marriage, a girl receives spells and songs from older women. These food spells are secret and shared only between classificatory mothers and daughters, and between the mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law (Gillison, 1993: 155-9).


Production and reproduction are linked in Gimi philosophy because a woman is thought to be able to transform her life-force (auna) into food over time. She sends her auna into plants and animals through a repetitive process of singing, talking, cajoling and caressing. In a sense, she makes things grow by magically extending motherhood into other objects. Through songs and chants, a woman joins her auna with that of the plan or animal, and internalizes them as a woman does a child. But her power to make things grow, to conceive a child, originates in the source of her auna, that is, in her menstrual blood (ibid.: 199-201). Thus a woman’s body and its reproductive potential are imagined in relation to specific sets of social and productive relationships. Continue reading


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The way value inheres: Yolŋu riŋgitj and its relationship to Malay ‘ringgit’


Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Port of Macassar, 1947.

Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Port of Macassar, 1947.


There are many loan words from Malay and other Austronesian languages in the Yolŋu languages of east Arnhem Land (see Evans 1992). These derive from pre-colonial exchange relations between Yolŋu people and seafarers from the port of Macassar (now Ujung Pandang) in Sulawesi. Collectively referred to as ‘Maŋgatharra’ in Yolŋu-matha, these seafarers made the annual voyage to Arnhem to collect trepang and engage in broader exchange relations with Yolŋu people.† A number of Yolŋu people also accompanied Maŋgatharra on return voyages to the Port of Macassar, as evidenced by oral history and art work such as that pictured above.

Among this body of loan words is the Yolŋu-matha term riŋgitj, derived from the Malay term ringgit, meaning ‘jagged’ and originally used to refer to the serrated edges of silver Spanish dollars which circulated widely in the region during the 16th and 17th century. Today, of course, ringgit refers to the national currency of Malaysia. (It was officially adopted as the name of their currency in August 1975.) Continue reading

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Early morning Yirralka-ŋura




Bukmak Yolŋu’yulŋu baḏak ŋorra yukurra,
Everyone is still asleep,



wäwa walala,
all [our] brothers

waku walala,
all [our] children

gutharra walala, gaminyarr walala,
all [our] daughter’s children and son’s children

[avoidance relationship]

ga yapa.
and [our] sister.



Yurru dhuwala ŋarra gutha’ ga warwuyun ŋarra maypal-wu,
But here I am, little sister, thinking and worrying for [fresh] shellfish,

and [place name (where we gather these shellfish)],

ga biray-yun-marraŋala ŋarra yapa-nha.
so I woke up [my] sister,

bäylakaram marrkapmirri yapa ŋarraku.
forgive me, my beloved sister.



Dhuwala biw’yun ŋayi gurtha-nha
She is fanning the fire

ŋawulul’ buṯthun-marama yukurra
making the smoke billow

mindjirri-wu (märi-wu).

for the sandflies (our mother’s mother).



Wakuluŋgu nhinindhina gundarak-ŋura
The mist/fog has settled on the airstrip

ga ŋoy-djulŋithirri ŋarra dhuwala.
and I am here, happy, excited and rejoicing.




It was so special to be back with my family in camp. The audio in that clip could be louder. Apologies. Just turn it up. Please note also that the kinship terminology is translated as per female ego – waku for instance, is actually ‘woman’s child, sister’s child’ (as opposed to gathu, man’s child, brother’s child’).



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Notes Toward a Critique of Autonomy: A talk from the Sydney Anarchist Bookfair


Below is a talk I gave at the Sydney Anarchist Bookfair earlier this month, Notes Toward a Critique of Autonomy. It’s ‘notes toward’ because it is not a polished synthesis/analysis, but more in the spirit of throwing ideas out there.

Thanks to the organisers of the bookfair, including Jura Bookshop and Black Rose Anarchist Library, for having me. It was such a fantastic event, full of interesting and challenging ideas.





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Sexy Hot Damn Anthropology: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism




It’s true that I often get excited by anthropological theory, but it’s rare that I am this excited and impressed. If you haven’t yet come across ‘Gens: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism’ by Laura Bear, Karen Ho, Anna Tsing and Sylvia Yanagisako, then I highly recommend it.

Gens here refers to ‘a collective with feminist ancestry for the study of capitalist inequality.’ The manifesto is published in Cultural Anthropology as part of their Generating Capitalism series. The manifesto begins as per below: Continue reading


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A brief descriptive note on types or ‘kinds of relations’ in Yolŋu matha



I was thinking about categories of types of people/relations’ the other day, as in English we have family, friends, colleagues, team-mates etc. etc., and as my brain is oft want to do started thinking of the Yolŋu matha equivalents or comparisons – of ‘categories of types of people and relations.’ I was surprised to realise that there are so few (although more in a sense).

Reproduced below is a list of categories of types of relations in Yolŋu matha. It is probably not exhaustive, but a list of all those that I could think of at the time:



Gurrutu is the ‘main category’ of types of relations, for want of a better description. The term gurrutu is generally translated as ‘kin[ship]’. The Yolŋu kinship system is universalistic or ‘classificatory’, which means that everyone in the Yolŋu social world is and relate to each other as kin. But while it is all encompassing in this sense, there are many different ‘types’ of reciprocal kin relations within it. Continue reading

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On violence, reality, and the parameters of social existence: A comment on Graeber’s essay.




I’ve been reading David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy lately. Slowly I should say – I’ve been reading it slowly. I’ve only just finished the second essay, ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination,’ which I found particularly ‘great for thought’. The ideas in the essay are great to ‘think through other thoughts with,’ if that makes sense. I guess that’s theory, huh. Anyway, this is a comment on one of the key theoretical contrasts that Graeber draws between the political ontology of the right and the political ontology of the left vis-à-vis’ reality and the parameters of social existence. I want to cast a gender[ed] light on it. Continue reading


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Dhuŋgur’-yun-nha: a short poem and comment on stuff


Yes, I know I'm always on about social order as affect. This is an image from the British Museum.

Yes, I know I’m always on about social order as affect. This is an image from the British Museum.


Today I was reflecting on the fact that I don’t write poetry as often as I used to, and when I do it tends to ‘come out’ half in English, half in Yolŋu-matha. This makes it quite a different task to write-up and share – to make it sound right in translation (or at least do justice to the way that it sounds in my head). This is true of even short and comparatively ‘literal’ pieces. And as with any translation work it is difficult to know how much contextual information the reader needs to understand it as you’d like them to.

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about all this because a) there quite a few little poems in my notebook that I’ve neglected over the last many few months, and; b) it’s almost time for me to start writing a serious post-doctoral project proposal and the project that I have in mind is a collaborative project (with my Yolŋu family), collecting, collating, translating – and hopefully publishing – a contemporary, bilingual volume of Yolŋu song-poetry.

Yurru more on that later; for now I thought I should start by revisiting my own little neglected pieces, of which the following is one. (This was the shortest and most simple to translate.)


On a day


like today,


when one word


mak yurru




(set everything)


warpam –





I noted this poem down only a few weeks ago. It was hot and dry and I was sitting on the back step with a cup of tea. I’m not sure exactly why it came to mind but the following may offer some context or sense:

The idea of setting one’s surrounding environment alight is not as one might expect on the Homelands (which is the immediate association or context for my use of term dhuŋgur’-yun). Rather than the ‘arsonist’ or ‘firebug’ type connotations people have a responsibility to manage their Country with fire. It is not only a responsibility, in fact, but a loving and nurturing act in many ways; not to do so is neglectful and ‘not looking after Country’ if that makes more sense. One of my favourite, early memories of foot-walking Country was with my close, older sister. We were walking back from our Mother’s Country at dusk and as we walked she started to set the tall, dry grass on fire on one side of the track (with a lighter from her skirt pocket.) I was not only nervous but a bit terrified. She laughed at my balanda (white person, European) concern and handed me a lighter. “Dhuŋgur’-yun-nha!” (set [it] alight!) she said, pointing to the grass on the other side of the track. “Yuwalk!?” (Truly?! [or more like ‘Are you fucking serious!?’ in this case]). She laughed and instructed me to ‘get on with it’. By the time the sun had set we were leading a huge corridor of fire, burning in our wake. I kept turning back to check on it nervously and yapa kept catching my eye with a knowing and amused smile.

This responsibility to set Country alight is in dramatic contrast to the [human] social environment, ‘words,’ and ŋayaŋu (state or sense of feeling [among and between people]). People are hyper-aware of the power of words and are very careful with how they use or deploy them. It is the norm and etiquette to speak in an indirect manner as possible, for example, to avoid excluding or upsetting others or ‘putting them on the spot’ (for want of a better description) – such that Ian Keen refers to a ‘pervasive obliquity’ in Yolŋu languages and language use.

In closing, I should also note that there are idioms or expressions in Yolŋu-matha that bring these two things together – such as ŋoydhuŋgur’-yun (literally ‘seat of emotions-set alight’), which is the transitive verb ‘to make someone angry, irate’. Perhaps I was thinking about the importance of being careful with words? Dhuŋa ŋarra (I don’t know).




Ahh-men anyway, and happy new yearra-whatever.





this is not a literal or ‘direct’ translation. Warpam, for example, means ‘everything, all’ but I’ve placed the translation of the term elsewhere because this structure or flow is more ‘true’ to the original.



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A pluralistic approach to the anthropology of morality: Yolŋu reverse role-play

‘The array of distinct assumptions about issues regarding moral variability, the nature of the moral domain, and how individual freedom factors into moral action can all result in the study of different theoretical ideas that end up being cast as if they were the same topic.’

– Cassaniti & Hickman 2014:252.


I read Cassaniti and Hickman’s New Directions in the Anthropology of Morality the other day and really enjoyed it. The authors put forward some great points, chief among which is their argument for a pluralistic approach to moral variation – one which seeks to ‘reconcile humanity’s propensity toward moral realism with overwhelming ethnographic evidence of moral variability’ (253). I also found merit in the argument for better defining the moral domain – figuring out what counts as moral, ‘what kinds of thing are uniquely moral in each ethnographic setting’ (257) and identifying domains of experience that are ‘morally saturated’ in each ethnographic context (with an understanding that domains of experience that become heavily moralised will necessarily vary cross-culturally). The points I found most interesting and compelling, however, were also those that I found myself critically mulling over days later.

This is all well and good, I found myself thinking, but Yolŋu people have been advocating for a pluralistic approach to morality and law since balanda (white people, Europeans) would listen.’† When is anthropology going to start taking Indigenous theories seriously instead of subjecting them to their own analyses and theorising about them? (I’m sure it’s not just Yolŋu people who have been advocating for such an approach or stance.) Beyond advocacy, in fact, Yolŋu have been doggedly persistent in their attempt to educate balanda about the necessity of such a stance – not only how it is possible, but why it is both necessary and just. And they continue to do so in good humour despite our blunt, closed ears. The video below is but one example of this. Continue reading

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Government Time, Mission Time, and the nature and violence of alienation


Proud to feature in the first issue of the new Upswell Magazine with an archival/ethnographic piece on alienation – GOVERNMENT TIME, MISSION TIME, AND THE NATURE AND VIOLENCE OF ALIENATION.



Congratulations to the Upswell collective and best wishes for the future of the project. x




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