Realising difference as a value in economic, social and cultural exchange





‘Batumbil and I drove food out to Rrorruwuy yesterday to visit Yethun. It was wonderful to see her. Unfortunately she has a terrible flu and little gaminyarr has a few boils. Nevertheless, they seemed happy and relaxed. Yapa Yethun offered us fresh guku (native bee honey mixed with pollen and fine wood shavings), and a tin can full of beautiful shells to make necklaces. She and the other ladies had collected them from the white sand beach near Rrorru. The four of us sat and had tea and guku and chatted. After a few hours Batumbil decided we should return to finish of one of the bark paintings we’ve been working on. Yapa gave me her bankcard to ŋayathama (‘carry, hold’). I told her that I would drop a load of food off after our next shopping trip (field notebook # 4,  p. 46).


Every Homeland community has access to certain resources and food-stuffs that others do not. Family in Camp, for example, have comparatively easy access to plenty of gunga (‘Pandanus[1]’), which is used for weaving, man’ka (‘white clay’), which is used for painting and also a mineral supplement and also mewana  – a reed-like plant used for basket weaving.[2] When visiting kin at nearby communities or expecting a visit people will often harvest or collect one or more of these resources and prepare them in some way if necessary.


Which resources and how much depends on seasonal availability and – as one would expect – on perceived need or desire. Neighbouring and nearby communities, in turn, regularly provide family with resources they would not otherwise have access to. Indeed, it would be unusual for us to visit another Homeland Community – or be visited by kin from another – and not give, take, exchange and share resources of some kind. The quality of such relationships is often described as bala-räliyun-mirri (‘reciprocating one another, mutually giving and taking [one another]’). This is a key evaluative, moral concept and a quality important to social interactions of all kinds as well as material exchange.


One of the many important things I have learned from my adoptive Yolŋu family, is the importance of difference in economic, social and cultural exchange.

In an economic sense, as in the excerpt above (from Ch 6), we see that variable or differential access to resources can be realised as a value in exchange, as it forms the basis for ongoing relationships characterised by interdependence and reciprocity – an ongoing state of exchange. Valued difference affords an opportunity to ‘carry and hold’ one another (gäma, ŋayathama), to ‘help and assist one other’ (guŋgay’yun-mirri), to ‘care for and look after one another’ (djäka-mirri) – all of which are important aspects of what it is and means to be gurrutu-mirri (‘to have kin, to have the quality of kinship for one another’).

‘Economic imbalance,’ writes Marshall Sahlins, ‘is the key to deployment of generosity, of generalised reciprocity, as a starting mechanism of rank or leadership. A gift that is not yet requited in the first place “creates something between people”: it engenders continuity in the relation, solidarity – at least until the obligation to reciprocate is discharged’ (1974). These types or forms of exchange should not be attributed to an ethic of generosity, however, for they are unmarked and unremarkable forms of exchange characteristic of the normative ideal state relations, in which balance and equilibrium are realised.

Methodist Missionaries (who were stationed in NE Arnhem Land from the early 1940s to the late 1970s) are considered something of a moral exemplar in the local history of intercultural relations with Balanda (‘White people, Europeans’). This is, in large part, because they recognised and understood the importance of reciprocal cultural and linguistic exchange – realising difference as a value in cultural and linguistic exchange. Not only did they learn the local language (or dialects thereof), but they took the time to learn other aspects of Yolŋu culture and practice that Yolŋu people themselves designated as important for them to learn – in the interest of the relationship that they shared. Mission staff then made a concerted effort to incorporate these now shared aspects of language, belief and practice into the daily round and the daily running of the Mission Station. As yapa Yethun remarks in the following recorded discussion about Yolŋu-Mission relations at the time (only very roughly translated):


“Yolŋu adopted a lot of Balanda people at that time. Yo and they knew and understood about bäpurru (‘patri-filial social groups’). True. And they knew and understood what it meant to have kin, to have the quality of kinship. They knew and understood all of this for Yolŋu people. Indeed, it was such like, “Yapa’mandji” (‘dyadic kinship term referring to the relationship between sisters’) – yo, we used to [be able] to address each other thus so!


Together. Yo, Yolŋuyulŋu (‘Yolŋu people [plural/collective]’) carried and picked them up, “adopted” them, and they helped and assisted us – Yolŋu people.  And they learned and understood many different aspects of our Yolŋu rom (‘law, proper manner of doing things’). “What is your bäpurru? What is your mälk (‘subsection, skin -name’)?”- they used to talk like this.


That is what Mission-Time Balanda were like. Yolŋu people become knowledgeable for their Balanda rom (‘law, proper manner of doing things’) . . . and Balanda people became knowledgeable for our Yolŋu rom (‘law, proper manner of doing things’). Such like  – bala-räli’yun-mirri (‘reciprocating one another, mutually giving and taking [one another]’). Yo. They were good people. They had the quality of kinship for us.’


This state or sense of ‘sharedness’ – of interdependence and reciprocity – lent significance and value to their respective experience of relations at the time. Nowhere is this more evident, from the Mission perspective, than in the following account of the ordination of Rev. Harold Shepherdson written by Anne Wells (wife of a former Missionary at the time). This recollection immediately brought to my mind John Wesley’s now famous words, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”


‘Then to Elcho, and its small timber church and the unforgettable Synod when the District Engineer was ordained into the ministry on his own place, among his yulnu (sic). Elcho’s small church was packed to overflowing, with groups of faces at doors and windows looking in from the outside. The children were as usual seated on pandanus mats at the right of the pulpit and down the central aisle. The ministers not actually taking part in the ceremony were sitting with the ordinand’s wife to the left of the pulpit. The rest of us, white and dark, were seated in the body of the church. The beautiful atmosphere of the whole service was most impressive. Even the tiny children were quiet all through.


My husband [Rev. Edgar Wells], as senior minister in the District, gave the ordination charge, which is always a moving and inspiring address even when surrounded by the ritual and ceremony of a large city church. Here, in this lonely outpost of the tropics, it was something more.


The Chairman of the District of that period, dignified in the academic gown, conducted the service. The moment of the laying on of hands was the loveliest and most dramatic part of the whole, as with the sunburnt hands of the few white ministers were mingled the parchment ones of a Chinese minister and the dark-brown ones of a Fijian. I had a feeling that John Wesley would very much have like to be present. The Spirit of God was almost visibly there in the golden hush of that small, brave church, and one felt that angels’ wings were very close.


At the end of the service the newly ordained minister and his wife walked with quietly happy faces out into the sunlight and the waiting crowd of their charges. A group of senior native men were at the doorway to greet them, and with unstudied courtesy called him ‘Bapa’ [kinship term for ‘father’] for the first time. Before that, for many years as the District Engineer he had always been ‘Wawa’, meaning ‘elder brother’ (Wells 1963, pp. 219-220).


‘If bigotry can be defined by its resistance to argument,’ writes Howard Morphy,’by its failure to see the other point of view, by its antipathy to choice, then the Methodist Church in Arnhem Land provides a poor example. Indeed the case is not so much an illustration of bigotry as of its opposite, which must involve tolerance and respect but may also include doubt and uncertainty’ (2005, p. 42).

Needless to say, the present day Government has alot to learn about morality and value in intercultural – cross-cultural? – any relations really.





[1] Pandanus yirrkalaensis

[2] Cyperus conicus, C. javanicus




Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

2 responses to “Realising difference as a value in economic, social and cultural exchange

  1. Balanda may be another borrowing from Indonesia. Belanda is Bahasa for Dutch person and often by extent all white people.

    • Yes, is most certainly is 🙂 There is a great paper on loan words in ‘Top End Languages’ by Nic Evans:

      Evans, N 1992, ‘Macassan loanwords in top end languages’ (in) Australian Journal of Linguistics, Vol. 12, Issue 1., pp. 45 – 91.

      Super interesting!

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