An ethnographic and political note in two parts: the history and strength of the Yolŋu Homelands.


Waku, yapa and gaminyarr (2008)


The history of the Yolŋu Homelands in remote NE Arnhem Land is unique to Australia. There are, generally speaking, three key historical factors that make it so. These historical factors also go some way to explaining – or contextualising, rather – the notable confidence that Yolŋu people have in the integrity and value of their culture and their way of life.

George Rrurrambu from Warumpi Band? Yolŋu. Yothu-Yindi? Yolŋu. Geoffrey Gurrumul, Salt-Water Band, Chooky Dancers, Ten-Canoes – all Yolŋu people. Who sent the Bark-Petition to Parliament House that led to the Land Rights case, which led to the Woodward Commission – the recommendations of which formed the basis for the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976? Yolŋu people. Who set fire to official Government documents to protest scrapping the Permit System? Yolŋu people.

Most recently, this confidence and strength can be seen in way people across the region have come together to form the Yolŋu Nations Assembly – as a collective force to oppose Federal Government policies that seek to undermine their rights and the integrity of their rom (proper manner of doing things, culture, law’).


Part 1. Three historical factors.

First, and most notably is the fact that there was no violent colonial frontier in remote Arnhem Land,[1] nor was there any broad-sweep of dispossession. It is difficult to stress just how unique and significant this is; With few exceptions, Yolŋu people have maintained continuity of residency on – and rights to – their respective Traditional Homelands (their ‘Country’) from pre-colonial times up until the present day. I am not aware of any other region in Australia where this is the case. Their rights to Country, moreover, were recognised and enshrined in law, under the strength of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976, as freehold title held in fee simple.

Secondly, there is much to be said about the comparatively fortunate relationship between Yolŋu people and the Methodist Missionaries who were stationed in the region for some thirty years. The first Methodist Mission in the region was established in 1923 at Milingimbi, but had a localised sphere of influence in the West Arnhem region. The second Mission was established in 1935 at Yirrkala. The Mission Station most relevant to my field-site – to my family’s local history – is that established on nearby Galiwin’ku island (then ‘Elcho Island’) in 1942.[2]

There was a period of some twenty years when my brothers and sisters regularly visited and variously nhina-nha (‘stopped, stayed’) at Elcho Island,[3] in the company of their Mothers, along with other close and extended kin. Some attended the Mission school, others “helped Papa Sheppy” – the Reverend and Superintendent at the time – in the various Mission ‘departments,’ which included sewing, timber milling, fishing, construction, and the like. Notable about all these activities is the fact that Mission Staff (which were only ever few in number) went out of their way to learn the local language,[4] the kinship system, and those aspects of Yolŋu ceremonial life that Yolŋu consider both important and valuable. Not only did they go out of their way to learn about these things but they incorporated them into everyday activities and everyday Mission life. It is clear – in oral histories of family and relevant historical and archival material – that these were relationships characterised by reciprocal cultural exchange. Bala-räli-yun-mirri, as one would say in Yolŋu-matha – they were ongoing relationships characterised by dynamic reciprocity and mutual interdependence.

Thirdly, there is also something to be said about pre-colonial relations between coastal Yolŋu groups and traders from the port of Makassar, Sulawesi – known as Maŋgatharra in Yolŋu-matha. From as early as the 1600s Maŋgatharra made the annual voyage to Arnhem Land, where they were hosted by coastal Yolŋu groups throughout the season of trade.[5] From all accounts these were also relationships of cultural exchange. The local history of these relationships, for example, is encoded or ‘enshrined,’ for want of a better word, in Yolŋu languages – in the many loan words from Makassarese and Malay etc. There are also many ceremonial songs, dances, and material designs which are either derived from, or direct references to these historical relationships with Maŋgatharra. Indeed, these relationships are still commonly invoked as a comparison to present day relationships with Balanda (‘Europeans, white people’). For example, in a recorded conversation with my waku, yapa and ŋandi about their relationship with present day Government, the following came up, just in the course of discussion:


‘Yolŋu had the first economy, first trade before Captain Cook or Matthew Flinders’ time!  [. . . ]  Balanda didn’t give us the clothes! Maŋgatharra gave us galiko (‘calico’) for clothes and other different things [uses] as well [. . . ]”


These historical relations with Maŋgatharra and Methodist Missionaries were valued relationships of sociality, exchange and trade established and maintained across what may otherwise have been boundaries of cultural difference. These aspects of local history have given Yolŋu people a strong sense or vision of themselves in relation to significant cultural others – in social and cultural terms, but also in political and economic terms. They have given people a strong sense of what they know and feel to be proper and right in cross-cultural situations and intercultural relations.

These three historical factors – the fact that there was no major discontinuity of rights and residency; the fortunate relationship with Methodist Missionaries, and; the local history of pre-colonial relations with Maŋgatharra –  go some way to explaining the observable confidence that Yolŋu people have in the integrity and value of their culture – their rom (‘proper manner of doing things, culture, law’) – their relationship to Country and their way of life more generally.

The integrity of the foundation of rom is unquestioned on the Homelands. While I would not describe the region as a ‘stateless society’ – because it implies boundedness and separability – it is definitely true to say that forms and patterns of stateless sociality predominate on the Homelands and throughout the region. The social fabric of the Homelands is not only strong but vibrant, and the ceremonial life of the region – the socio-political processes that comprise it – ensures that it remains so.


Part 2: a contemporary case study

I was on a panel to discuss the effects of the Northern Territory Intervention some months ago. I was asked for an ‘on the ground’ ethnographic account or perspective on how the Intervention was playing out.

I started my talk with the following case study, which gives a sense of the strength and confidence of people on the Homelands. It also, I hope, gives a sense of ‘what is at stake’ with regard to Government policies that purposefully and systematically undermine the rights of Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory – and the legislative strength of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976. (I have written about successive policies of this kind before hereon.)


August 2008


‘Early yesterday morning we heard the sound of a car engine coming up over the ridge. I was still inside, half asleep with ŋandi. Everyone assumed it was our dhuway driving in from the nearby township, to bring us supplies and shopping. His was the only functional car in the local network of Homelands at the time – and therefore the only car that we expected to be driving in. The car’s name, by the by, was ‘Matjala’.


A chorus of delighted anticipation broke out –


Matjala! Matjala! Dhuway marrkapmirri ŋarali ŋayi yukurra gäma ŋilimurruŋgu! (Matjala! Mataja! Ah beloved husband! He’s bringing us all tobacco!)


By this stage I had wandered outside over to the campfire, to scoop myself a pannikan of tea.


Ŋyäl-yurra! – yaka ŋayi ŋunhi ‘Matjala! Yol ŋayi, yuwalk-dnja?” I said (‘Oh not true! fibs! – it isn’t Matjala. Who is it, truthfully?)


Yuwalk Gutha’ – Matjala-wu rirrakay!” (‘It’s true little sister – it’s the voice/sound of Matjala!’)


We all stood there squinting into the glint of the morning sun, lit orange-and-red on the gravel, pannikans of tea in one hand, lit cigarettes in the other . . . waiting to see who it was.


Two cars appeared. They were military vehicles.


“Aarmy! Army Army”! the kids shouted, loud enough that family down at bottom camp – who hadn’t been following the goings on – could hear.


What the fuck?! I thought . . .  still half asleep.


As the army vehicles pulled in, most of us – including myself – made a quickstep  out of view into the shade of the mango tree near the veranda. But not yapa; she raised her hand and marched calmly toward the vehicles, signaling for them to ‘halt’. And they did – at the edge of the only entrance to camp.


Two Balanda army men got out, one from each vehicle, dressed in army greens. One of them attempted to address yapa politely – using her English name. Not only did she ignore him but she turned her back on them. In an exaggerated, almost comic fashion, yapa leaned back on the bullbar of the front vehicle, propping herself up with her elbow, as if lounging. She was facing towards us, with a *just* discernible grin on her face.


Goo-ood morning!” she chimed in a loud, overly-polite tone of voice.


One of the men replied, but yapa had no intention of engaging them in polite conversation – she was making a point, and making it very clear. At this stage we all started to giggle.


“So-o” ! she continued, still leaning against the bullbar with her back to them, “What is this?? The Emergency Intervention??!”


We didn’t hear the reply – we were too busy giggling and emerging from the shadows to enjoy the moment. One of the men was heard to say something again, but yapa interrupted him in her rather booming voice.


“Well I don’t like surprises! You should ring us up before you drive in! Next time you ring us up first – yaka just driving in! You ring us up first before you drive out here. Now you go and tell your boss.”


And that was that.’


/end of case study/


This is probably not the kind of scene that most people imagine when they think of the Northern Territory Intervention, and in many ways it’s probably the kind of story that the Federal Government doesn’t want you to hear – empowered, confident people who are living and standing strong on their Traditional Homelands – who are part of a strong and healthy integrated network of Communities comprising an entire region – a huge swathe of the Northern Territory – all living happy, healthy lives.


This picture is not consistent with the dystopian fantasies of the Federal Government as pedaled by the mainstream media – dystopian fantasies that have been used as reason and justification for policies like the NT Intervention [ . . . . ] “





Long live the Homelands!

[1] There were, however, a number of violent incidents in the region, which should not be downplayed.

[2] While the Elcho Island Mission was established in 1942 it was not active in earnest until after the end of the war.

[3] after the death of their father.

[4] I should note that there are six mutually intelligible languages included under the umbrella of Yolŋu-matha – divided into twelve different dialects. The Mission unofficially adopted Gupapuyŋu as the lingua franca.

[5] Trade was focused on, but certainly not limited to, trepang. This small industry involved the temporary establishment of productive camps on the mainland and considerable accommodation by local Yolŋu groups, who facilitated and assisted the collection and preparation trepang –  they dived, dredged and collected the trepang, helped to build the smoke houses to cure it, and sailed aboard the praus with their visitors, to known trepang sites along the coast (Macknight, 1976; Berndt, 1954).

They also prepared for these seasons of trade in advance, collecting items they knew to be of value to the visitors (Macknight 1976, Worsley 1955). These included items such things as turtle shells, pearls, and pearl shells (Worsley, 1955). In return, the visitors introduced new items of trade and technology including dugout canoes, masts, pandanus sails, long thin smoking pipes, knives, cloth, axes and other iron products, pottery, new variants of tobacco and alcohol – and the list goes on.

The last recorded visitation was 1907; Maŋgatharra were stopped from visiting the shores of Arnhem Land by the Australian Government – through the creation and enforcement of innumerable rules, regulations, levies, taxes, etcetera.

For more about these trade relations – this is the link to the relevant wiki-entry.




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Filed under Anthropology, Current social issues, Ethnography, Indigenous Rights

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