Ethnographic notes on the Yolŋu cultural self


'Gurtha' by Gulumbu Yunupiŋu (2009)

‘Gurtha’ by Gulumbu Yunupiŋu (2009)


I thought to share a few notes from the second chapter of my thesis. I hope they make sense out of context. Forewith:


In the Yolŋu case, the cultural self, as a social person and a moral and political actor, is defined as fundamentally interdependent. Self-understanding is anchored or embedded in place, both socially and spatially —- socially as part of the collective body of the bäpurru (‘patrifilial social body/group’),[1] and spatially relative to a person’s luku wäŋa (‘foot[print]/anchor place’), rumbal wäŋa (‘body/trunk place’) or dhuyu wäŋa (‘secret/sacred place).[2] (These are actual geographic sites, which are the focus of residential and therefore social life on each Homeland Community.) These self-understandings are imbued with affective and motivational force; they entail moral propositions about the normal, proper state of relations and the normal, proper ‘right’ course of action for a person like one’s self. This is the motivational and directive force of rom (‘law, proper/right manner of doing things’).

The body of terms and concepts that comprise the emotion lexicon in Yolŋu-matha, describe emotion and affective experience as fundamentally relational —- as contingent upon the state of relations among and between people. These term and concepts foreground ŋayaŋu (‘[the] state or sense of feeling [among and between people]’) as of primary social, moral and political concern.

Ŋayaŋu waŋgany (‘one state or sense of feeling’) denotes a state of equilibrium in interpersonal relations, and a state of balance in material exchange. Ŋayaŋu waŋgany is the basic reference point for a normal, healthy state of social relations —- it both describes and denotes a state of social order. It is a normative ideal and primary value, which is central to the Yolŋu social system.

Ŋayaŋu waŋgany and associated concepts describe normal, positive and otherwise desirable relations as those in which people are more or less ‘open’, ‘close’, ‘level’ and ‘together’ or mutually interdependent. These are typically ongoing relationships characterised by mutual interdependence and dynamic reciprocity. Negative, disruptive and otherwise undesirable states of relations are typically those in which people are more or less distant, ‘closed [off],’ ‘hard [chested],’ differentiated, distinct and alone. These types or ‘kinds’ of relations are those that are foreclosed in some important sense. They are those which typically ŋayaŋu wutthun (‘affront/assault the state or sense of feeling [among and between people]’). According to this local model of sociality, morality and value are cast between ‘more or less open’ and ‘more or less closed [off]’ states or kinds of relations.

The body of terms and concepts comprising the emotion lexicon plays an important role in shaping culturally recognised and recognisable forms of interpersonal exchange and patterns of sociality more broadly. One especially significant way in which this manifests is as a broad and basic moral understanding that indirect is straight (dhunupa) and direct is crooked (djarrpi) —- indirect social actions (including speech acts) leave open the state of relations and in doing so accommodate ŋayaŋu waŋgany (‘one state or sense of feeling’), whereas direct interactions delimit opportunity to accommodate and therefore maintain or realise ŋayaŋu waŋgany.

There is a general expectation, for example, that one’s actions are – or should be – contingent upon and to a large extent organised by the state of feeling (ŋayaŋu) or state of relations with others as it serves to maintain the normative ideal, ŋayaŋu waŋgany. There is a pervasive (moral) expectation that a person will or should withhold coming forward with their private, inner thoughts and feelings as it serves to maintain or realise the normative ideal state of relations, ŋayaŋu waŋgany. This creates a strong cultural bias toward indirect speech acts and gives rise to what Ian Keen describes as a ‘pervasive obliquity in social interaction’ (1994, p. 290). Consensus may, in this case, be established despite evident underlying differences of opinion because consensus is that of ŋayaŋu —- establishing an agreeable state or sense of feeling in the context of (or in spite of) whatever else may be at issue or of concern.//



[1] Within the regional network of gurrutu (‘kin[ship]’) relations.

[2]Contemporary Homeland Communities, Frances Morphy notes, are almost without exception, located right next to (or very near), the luku wäŋa for the associated bäpurru Country (Frances Morphy **). Luku wäŋa (‘foot[print]/anchor places’) are the most salient and significant form of political differentiation in the Yolŋu social world. Rudder quotes a man named Djalaŋgi explaining the nature of these sites or places. The term yirralka, here, refers to ‘Homeland, place of birth, place where I pertain to/originate from’): ‘“Homeland is called yirralka. Identity comes from there. Yirralka tells you that you are Yolŋu. Without it you can’t be Yolŋu. Manikay (madayin song patterns) at yirralka is special and helps you know what you are”’ (1993, p. 194). I suggest these site-complexes are best understood as the socio-centric and ego-centric foot[print]/anchor of self-understanding.



1 Comment

Filed under Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

One response to “Ethnographic notes on the Yolŋu cultural self

  1. This is a general type/ology, of course.

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