An excerpt from the introductory section of my chapter two

A number of my beloved adoptive gurrutu all packed into my (now long-deceased) car

‘The term ‘gurrutu’ refers to ‘kin[-ship]’ and more generally to a ‘relation[-ship].’ Keen rightly notes that a case could be made for avoiding the use of ‘kin’ and ‘kinship’ for the Yolηu category of ‘gurrutu.’ ‘Gurrutu’ contrasts with ‘mulkuru’ (‘stranger’), a person with whom one has no relationship, and thus denotes the existence of a social relationship (1994, p. 79). Keen chooses to retain the term ‘kin’ as well as ‘relation’ and ‘relationship’, however, because the category ‘gurrutu’ does not contrast with other kinds of social relationships such as ‘friends’ or ‘colleagues’, and also because gurrutu relations are based on what Balanda recognise as genealogical relations.


The Yolηu system of gurrutu relations is universalistic in the sense that everyone is considered gurrutu, expected to have the quality of gurrutu, and refer to each other as such with one of twenty-four reciprocal gurrutu terms. Gurrutu relations are reciprocal in the sense that ‘if you are my ηandi I am your waku’, ‘if you are my dhuway I am your galay’, and so on. The dyadic suffix ‘-manydji’ is used with gurrutu terms to denote the interrelationship among and between people as one reciprocal relation. For example, a mother and child may be referred to as ‘waku-manydji’ as well as or ‘ηandi-manydji.’ The suffix ‘-mirriηu’ is added to kin terms to denote one’s ‘own’ kin relation as in ‘ηarraku waku-mirriηu’, ‘my [own] child.’ Generally speaking, however, specifying exclusive relationships in this way is impolite unless used to address the person in question directly.


While all people are potentially kin people distinguish between ‘close’ (galki) and ‘full’ (daηaη) kin as opposed to kin connections that are ‘distant’ (barrku) and people who are ‘a little bit’ (märr-gaηga), or ‘small’ (nyumukuniny) kin. Yolηu assess the quality of relatedness ‘along a dimension of distance (Keen 1994, p. 80).


As with kin categories like ‘uncle’ and ‘grandfather’ in Balanda kinship systems, Yolηu kin categories describe and in many ways define culturally recognized social relations and attendant expectations, responsibilities and obligations. Being and behaving like gurrutu is one of the most basic organising principles in Yolηu social life.


‘Being gurrutu’ is a fact of life for Yolŋu in a similar way that being a socialised, moral person is for Balanda. The fact of being gurrutu is only invoked when social relations are marked by imbalance when it is used to elicit appropriate behaviour or re-balance relations. It would not be uncommon to hear someone privately remark, for example, if someone is behaving inappropriately,


“What is that person, without kin? Or . . . what?” (‘nhä dhuwala yolηu, gurrutu-miriw? Wo. . . nhä?’)


Questioning the nature of a person as gurrutu in this way is among the most severe of social judgments akin to questioning their ‘humanity’. Similar to cases Levi-Strauss notes in which cultural groups consider humanity to cease at the boundary of the group, to be considered ‘without kin’ or ‘lacking the quality of kin’ is to be ‘wakiηu’ (wild, belonging to no one) and ‘rom-miriw’ (without rom). Such a person is often described as wiripu (different, of a different kind) or gäna (different, separate, alone), a condition of suspect intent characteristic of strangers (mulkuru) and sorcerers (galka).’

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Filed under Anthropology, Indigenous Australia, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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