Category Archives: Ethnography

Geertzian moments (or, ‘when ethnographers lose their shit’)


Fieldwork photo (2008)

Returning home from hunting on our Husband’s country, fieldwork (2008)


There are certain moments during fieldwork that anthropologists refer to as ‘Geertzian moments’ or sometimes ‘Geertzian cockfight moments’. These are pivotal moments when something in one’s disposition and social relations shifts dramatically. Often it’s a moment of losing oneself and behaving in a way that one wouldn’t have expected or couldn’t anticipate, and it’s not until afterwards when you pause and reflect that you realise what has just occurred. It is in that moment of reflection that the ethnographer realises they’ve reached some tipping point of enculturation. This tipping point, in turn, changes the way that the ethnographer is perceived and treated. You become less of an outsider and start to be considered and treated more like ‘one of us.’ In this sense, there’s an element of intimacy and trust involved and I suspect this is because so-called ‘Geertzian moments’ are often triggered by some stressor and the ethnographer’s response often leaves them vulnerable or exposed in some way.

To give you a sense of Geertz’s now classic ‘moment’, the following is an excerpt from ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight‘. It begins with Geertz and his wife accompanying their extended family to a cockfight in Bali. Cockfights are illegal in Bali, the police stage a raid, and so it begins . . .


‘On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. About half-way down another fugitive ducked suddenly into a compound-his own, it turned out-and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves . . . .


The next morning the village was a completely different world for us. Not only were we no longer invisible, we were suddenly the center of all attention, the object of a great outpouring of warmth, interest, and, most especially, amusement. Everyone in the village knew we had fled like everyone else. They asked us about it again and again (I must have told the story, small detail by small detail, fifty times by the end of the day), gently, affectionately, but quite insistently teasing us: “Why didn’t you just stand there and tell the police who you were?” “Why didn’t you just say you were only watching and not betting?” “Were you really afraid of those little guns?” As always, kinesthetically minded and, even when fleeing for their lives (or, as happened eight years later, surrendering them), the world’s most poised people, they gleefully mimicked, also over and over again, our graceless style of running and what they claimed were our panic-stricken facial expressions.


But above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply “pulled out our papers” (they knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status, but had instead demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but there is fellowship in that too.) Even the Brahmana priest, an old, grave, half-way-to-Heaven type who because of its associations with the underworld would never be involved, even distantly, in a cockfight, and was difficult to approach even to other Balinese, had us called into his courtyard to ask us about what had happened, chuckling happily at the sheer extraordinariness of it all.’

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Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

Two basic concepts of emotion or affect in Yolŋu-matha


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The key body of concepts comprising the emotion lexicon in Yolŋu-matha describe emotion and affective experience as fundamentally relational, as contingent upon the state of relations between people. If we ‘consider emotional meaning like any other semiotic practice, as a product of signification’ as Fred Myers suggests (1988, p. 591), most Yolŋu concepts associated with emotion and morality signify a particular state or sense of feeling among and between people. Yolŋu place emphasis not on the autonomous individual, nor necessarily even the individual self-in-relation-to-others, but rather, on the state of the relationship between people in any given situation or event.

This is not unique in the ethnographic literature. Emotions, Markus and Kitayama remind us, are typically conceived and experienced relationally, inter-personally, in the many places or cultures in which an interdependent view of the self prevails (Markus & Kitayama 1994 – but see also, for example, Geoffrey White 1994, D’Andrade 2008).

In this post I thought I would attempt to introduce and explain the two most basic terms or concepts associated with emotion or affect in Yolŋu-matha. This material is from Chapter 3 of my thesis.



The most basic concept is the emotion lexicon is ŋayaŋu, which I generally translate as ‘state or sense of feeling.’ As a cultural concept of affect there are a number of things that distinguish ŋayaŋu from the meaning and use of the English term ‘feeling’ and/or ‘feelings’ because ŋayaŋu does not necessarily distinguish between what Anglo-Europeans would normally consider distinct or different ‘senses’ – touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing – nor does it necessarily distinguish between affective and ‘physical’ feeling. Furthermore, while ŋayaŋu is experienced or felt by individuals (associated with the gumurr [‘chest’]) [1] it is always and necessarily relational. Ŋayaŋu refers to the state or sense of feeling among and between people in any given situation or event. The individual experience or sense of ŋayaŋu is considered as or ‘in’ relation to significant others – and contingent upon the state of the relationship between them. This last point is significant as it gives rise to a theory of morality which foregrounds the affective influence that people have on one another in everyday life, as well as how this positively or negatively affects the state of feeling or state of relations among and between people more generally.

As something shared and contingent or mutually interdependent, ŋayaŋu is something that people can do to one another; it is something that people can give and take – something that they can exchange. Any given state or sense of feeling, whether positive, negative, pleasant or hurtful, can be exchanged. A person may give wikama a particular state or sense of feeling such as gora (‘shame, embarrassment, guilt’) to another person or group of people, or märrama (‘take, bring, carry’) it from one place or person to another. Ŋayaŋu can also be wutthun (‘affronted, hit, assaulted’), or djaw’yun-märrama (‘snatched, stolen’), or more positively, ŋama-thirri-yama (‘made good’). Ŋayaŋu implicates both positive and negative capacities of the self and others in interpersonal exchange. To give a sense of the way ŋayaŋu is implicated in everyday talk, the following are excerpts from recorded discussions with yapa and waku.


Ŋayaŋu manymak – nhe yurru lakarama-mirri[2] ŋarra-kala … so you and I have to have the same feeling. Yaka  holding in.  Yaka  keeping  in-nha  anger. If I get anger with you, getting angry with you . . . because you not going to share your feeling with me – feelings-ndja, you must have holding something for me . . . a secret that you not going to share with me, but  ŋarra-kala[3] ŋayaŋu yurru lakarama  yurru that you holding something there for me but nhe yaka yukurra djäl-thirri-ndja lakarama-nha.

(Nice, pleasant, healthy ŋayaŋu – we will tell or talk to one another . . . so you and I have to have the same feeling. Not holding in. Not keeping in anger. If I get anger with you, getting angry with you . . . because you not going to share your feeling with me – feelings, you must have holding something for me . . . a secret that you not going to share with me, but ŋayaŋu will tell that you are holding something there for me but you are not wanting to tell or talk [about it])


If you don’t share your feeling, you have a lot . . . getting a lot of heaviness-ndja and everything is still stuck in your brain  . . . then become a headache nhanŋu, brain tumour nhe yurru märrama because of that, keeping everything in, for yourself, whether it’s good or bad, see?”

(If you don’t share your feeling, you have a lot . . . getting a lot of heaviness and everything is still stuck in your brain . . . then become a headache for that person, and you will get a brain tumour because of that, keeping everything in, for yourself . . . whether it is good or bad . . . see?”)


Consider also the following excerpt taken from a discussion with waku. This particular part of the discussion was prompted by my asking if it makes sense to say ŋoy wikama (‘give’ the seat of emotions). I asked this question because there exist  conventional ways and means of talking about ‘giving’ various states of feeling, and I  wanted to ‘ask around’ ŋoy (‘seat of emotions’) to clarify my understanding about differences between ŋoy and ŋayaŋu in this sense:


“Yaka . . .  “märr läy-yun” ŋayi ŋunhi . . . ŋayi ŋunhi “ŋayaŋu läy-yun” . . . yaka “märr wikama” wo  nhawi . . . “ŋoy wikama.” Ŋunhi-ndja ŋayi ŋunhi “ŋayaŋu wikama-nha” ŋayi ŋunhi ‘doing’ – It is “doing something” . . .  to get back.

(It’s not . . . “ease [collective/ancestral] power” . . . it’s “ease the state or sense of feeling” . . . not ‘ease [collective/ancestral] power,’ or whatchyamacallit . . . “give the seat of the emotions.” What you are referring to is “[to] give the state or sense of feeling” which is “doing” – it is ‘doing something . . . to get back [i.e. mutual or reciprocal exchange].)


[ . . . ]


Ŋayaŋu läpthun-marama is, it is make yourself free . . . lay-yun . . . laytju-irri-nha, mulkurr ga rumbal-nha läy-yun-ndja.”

(To make yourself open, it is to make yourself free . . . to ease or relax . . . becoming pleasant and smooth, [to] ease or relax the head [mind] and body.)


The act of ‘giving something’ as described above, it should be noted, is not differentiated from the act of giving or ‘letting out’ one’s feeling(s) or (‘läpthun-marama ŋayi ŋunhi ŋayaŋu’). They are both associative expressions, which have meaning and significance in contradistinction to ‘holding something in for one another’ or being däl (‘hard, difficult’). Persons or proclivities that are not ‘open’ (‘ŋayaŋu läpthun-marama-mirri’), which do not ‘give’ or ‘let out’ something for one another are considered or felt to dhal-yurra (‘block up, close off’) the possibility for realising or maintaining positive, moral, valuable relations.

It is important to note that being ‘open’ is not akin to or the same as ‘being open and honest’ in English. It denotes or describes an observant attentiveness to the state or sense of feeling between people in any given situation or event – and reflects the valued ability to be attentive and sensitive to the interpersonal context –  the knowledge and ability to respond flexibly and adjust to social contingencies.[4]

Being ‘open’ is where ŋayaŋu and dhäkay-ŋäma meet; to be däl (‘hard, difficult’) is to be insensate, which is not to dhäkay-ŋäma.




The verb most closely associated with ŋayaŋu is dhäkay-ŋäma, from dhäkay (‘taste, flavour or feeling’) and the transitive verb ŋäma (‘to experience or feel’). Where ŋayaŋu is the state or sense of feeling, dhäkay-ŋäma is the act of ‘getting a taste, getting a feeling’ of ŋayaŋu among and between people (and or place). People can dhäkay-ŋäma a person, group of people, a social situation or place. They may also dhäkay-ŋäma songs as well as things like food. An alternate but similar expression used interchangeably with dhäkay-ŋäma is dhäkay birkay’yun from dhäkay (‘taste, flavor, feeling’) and the transitive verb birka’yun (‘try, test, taste’). Dhäkay-birkay’-yun is thus something akin to trying or testing the taste, flavor or feeling. Another similar term often used interchangeably is ŋan’ku-ŋäma from ŋan’ku (‘taste, flavour’) and – once again – the transitive verb ŋäma (‘to experience or feel’). These interchangeable expressions are often glossed by English speakers as ‘getting a taste, getting a feeling.’ The following excerpt from a recorded discussion with yapa offers an example of the use of these terms or expressions:


“ . . . ŋuli  ŋali  yurru dhäkay märrama ga birka’yun, dhäkay-ŋäma dhuwala dhäkay: “Ya – dhuwali ŋatha wikaŋa, ŋarra yurru dhäkay-birka’yun!” Taste, like dhäkay, same ŋayi mayali, eh?

(. . . if we get a taste/feeling, that’s dhäkay-ŋäma, that’s dhäkay: “Hey give me that food, I’ll get a taste/feeling!” Taste, like dhäkay, same meaning, see?)


When you go for a taste, have a go for a taste . . . dhäkay-ŋäma ŋayi yurru yolŋu’yulŋu-nha, eh? Yo. Dhäkay-ŋäma it can goes to anything; anything nhe yurru dhäkay-birka’yun.

(When you go for a taste, have a go for a taste . . . Get a taste/feeling of those people, see?  Yo. Dhäkay-ŋäma it can goes to anything; you can get a taste/feeling of anything.)


Me: wäŋa – ?
(Me: [of a] place?)


“Yoo . . . wäŋa ŋunhi ŋilimurru yurru birka’yun mak ŋayi ŋunhi milk’milk-mirri . . . mak milk’milk’-miriw. Eh bitjan, wo wiripu mak ŋayi wäŋa nunhi mari-mirri . . . wo mak  ŋayi laytju, yo, balanyara wiripu-nha ŋayi.”
(Yo, we can get a try/test whether that place, perhaps it has sandflies . . . or perhaps it is without sandflies.  See, thus so.  Or perhaps that place is conflict-ridden . . . or perhaps it is pleasant and smooth, yo, that’s a different [example].)


Consider also the following excerpt from a discussion using the interchangeable expression ŋan’ku-ŋäma:


“ . . . ŋan’ku-ŋäma ŋanya yurru, ŋan’ku-ŋäma ŋayi Yolŋu-nha ŋanya . . . maymak ŋayi ŋayaŋu, wo nhanŋu yätj ŋayaŋu . . . ŋan’ku-ŋänara-mirri ŋali-pi-yu Yolŋu wo whether Yolŋu or Balanda . . .
(. . . get a taste/feeling that person, they will get a taste/feeling [of/for/with] that person . . . [is it] a good state of feeling, or is that a bad state of feeling . . . they themselves will get a taste or feeling [of/for/with one another], whether Yolŋu or Balanda . . . )


. . .  ŋali yurru ŋan’ku-ŋanara-mirri feel one another feelings-ndja litjalaŋu-way because our bodies can tell us something. Dhäkay-ŋäma ŋali yurru eh balanyara . . . yo . . . we can feel our body can tell us something . . . ŋali feel with our own body whether ŋayi manymak Yolŋu or yätj, balanyara.”
(. . . we will get a taste/feeling [of/for one another], feel one another feelings our way because our bodies can tell us something. We will get a taste/feeling thus so . . . yo, we can feel our body can tell us something . . . we feel with our own body whether that person is good or bad, thus so.)



Interestingly, one of the many stereotypes of Balanda is that they are always däl (‘hard, difficult’) and lack the sense, skill or ability to dhäkay-ŋäma (get a taste or feeling). There’s obviously a lot more to say about these ideas and concepts, but perhaps some other time I hope.





[1] There are more idioms based on the word ‘gumurr’ than can be addressed here, however, to give a sense of the way they are used, or what they imply I will briefly introduce a few. The expression ‘gumurr-mirri’, translated literally as ‘having or possessing the quality of a chest’ is an expression meaning ‘to spread out.’ The expression ‘gumurr-yun’, translated literally as ‘to chest’ is an expression meaning ‘to meet’. ‘To meet’ may also be referred to as ‘gumurr-buna’, literally ‘chest-arrive’. The expression ‘gumurr-manydji’, translated literally as ‘reciprocal relationship between chests’, is an expression used to describe or refer to close friends or consociates. The expression ‘gumurr-darrwa’, which translates literally as ‘multiple or many chests’ is used to describe someone of inconsistent loyalties who is irresolute or inconstant in some way. The expression ‘gumurr-djararrk’, literally ‘chest-beloved’ is one of the more common exclamations of affection, sympathy and compassion, meaning something akin to ‘my poor dear one!’ ‘Gumurr-yu-gäma,’ literally ‘to carry by the chest’ is used to describe the act of fare-welling someone, seeing them forth or carrying them onward a way. The final example is the ‘gumurr-yu-märrama,’ translated literally as ‘to take or get by the chest’. This is the expression used to describe the act of adopting a non-Yolŋu person into the Yolŋu kinship system and wider social networks.

[2] lakarama-mirri is difficult to translate directly into English and I am not completely satisfied with this particular translation. The term or expression is from the transitive verb lakarama (‘to talk or tell [of or about]’) and the suffix –mirri which here denotes the reflexive reciprocal form of the verb – to do to one another.

[3] This term or expression – ŋarra-kala  is literally ‘with/at me’ – so this sentence could be more accurately (but awkwardly) translated as: ‘but ŋayaŋu will tell with or at me . . . ’

[4] This is, as the reader will appreciate, quite a different thing to being ‘open and honest’ in English. In fact, being ‘open’ in the sense in which it is used here often entails withholding (or highly regulating the expression of) one’s private inner thoughts and feelings – so as to maintain a state or sense of ŋayaŋu waŋgany (‘one state or sense of feeling)

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An elaboration on the method and process of ethnography (non-anthropologist friendly!)



Clifford Geertz being handsome


What do anthropologists do? This is a very good question. We do lots of things. But ethnography is generally considered the methodology of our discipline. What is ethnography? This is another very good question. It is lots of things. But it usually takes the form of long term participant-observation. Below is one of the better known (and loved) elaborations on the question of ethnography from the late, handsomely wonderful Clifford Geertz. It’s a beautiful read. He just writes so beautifully.


‘In anthropology, or anyway social anthropology, what the practioners do is ethnography. And it is in understanding what ethnography is, or more exactly what doing ethnography is, that a start can be made toward grasping what anthropological analysis amounts to as a form of knowledge. This, it must immediately be said, is not a matter of methods. From one point of view, that of the textbook, doing ethnography is establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking genealogies, mapping fields, keeping a diary, and so on. But it is not these things, techniques and received procedures, that define the enterprise.


What defines it is the kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate venture in, to borrow a notion from Gilbert Ryle, “thick description.”


Ryle’s discussion of “thick description” appears in two recent essays of his (now reprinted in the second volume of his Collected Papers addressed to the general question of what, as he puts it, “Le Penseur” is doing: “Thinking and Reflecting” and “The Thinking of Thoughts.” Consider, he says, two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. In one, this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an l-am-a-camera, “phenomenalistic” observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows. The winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way: (1) deliberately, (2) to someone in particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company. As Ryle points out, the winker has not done two things, contracted his eyelids and winked, while the twitcher has done only one, contracted his eyelids. Contracting your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public code in which so doing counts as a conspiratorial signal is winking. That’s all there is to it: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture, and – voilý! – a gesture.


That, however, is just the beginning. Suppose, he continues, there is a third boy, who, “to give malicious amusement to his cronies,” parodies the first boy’s wink, as amateurish, clumsy, obvious, and so on. He, of course, does this in the same way the second boy winked and the first twitched: by contracting his right eyelids. Only this boy is neither winking nor twitching, he is parodying someone else’s, as he takes it, laughable, attempt at winking. Here, too, a socially established code exists (he will “wink” laboriously, over-obviously, perhaps adding a grimace – the usual artifices of the clown); and so also does a message. Only now it is not conspiracy but ridicule that is in the air. If the others think he is actually winking, his whole project misfires as completely, though with somewhat different results, as if they think he is twitching. One can go further: uncertain of his mimicking abilities, the would-be satirist may practice at home before the mirror, in which case he is not twitching, winking, or parodying, but rehearsing; though so far as what a camera, a radical behaviorist, or a believer in protocol sentences would record: he is just rapidly contracting his right eyelids like all the others. Complexities are possible, if not practically without end, at least logically so.


The original winker might, for example, actually have been fake-winking, say, to mislead outsiders into imagining there was a conspiracy afoot when there in fact was not, in which case our descriptions of what the parodist is parodying and the rehearser is rehearsing of course shift accordingly. But the point is that between what Ryle calls the “thin description” of what the rehearser (parodist, winker, twitcher . . . ) is doing (“rapidly contracting his right eyelids”) and the “thick description” of what he is doing (“practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion”) lies the object of ethnography: a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, rehearsals of parodies are produced, perceived, and interpreted, and without which they would not (not even the zero-form twitches, which, as a cultural category, are as much non-winks as winks are non-twitches) in fact exist, no matter what anyone did or didn’t do with his eyelids.
Like so many of the little stories Oxford philosophers like to makeup for themselves, all this winking, fake-winking, burlesque-fake-winking, rehearsed-burlesque-fake-winking, may seem a bit artificial. In way of adding a more empirical note, let me give, deliberately unpreceded by any prior explanatory comment at all, a not untypical excerpt from my own field journal to demonstrate that, however evened off for didactic purposes, Ryle’s example presents an image only too exact of the sort of piled-up structures of inference and implication through which an ethnographer is continually trying to pick his way:


“The French (the informant said) had only just arrived. They set up twenty or so small forts between here, the town, and the Marmusha area up in the middle of the mountains, placing them on promontories so they could survey the countryside. But for all this they couldn’t guarantee safety, especially at night, so although the mezrag (trade-pact-system) was supposed to be legally abolished it in fact continued as before.


One night, when Cohen (who speaks fluent Berber) was up there (at Marmusha) two other Jews who were traders to a neighboring tribe came by to purchase some goods from him. Some Berbers – from yet another neighboring tribe – tried to break into Cohen’s place, but he fired his rifle in the air. (Traditionally, Jews were not allowed to carry weapons; but at this period things were so unsettled many did so anyway.) This attracted the attention of the French and the marauders fled. The next night, however, they came back, and one of them disguised as a woman who knocked on the door with some sort of a story. Cohen was suspicious and didn’t want to let “her” in, but the other Jews said: “oh, it’s all right, it’s only a woman.” So they opened the door and the whole lot came pouring in. They killed the two visiting Jews, but Cohen managed to barricade himself in an adjoining room. He heard the robbers planning to burn him alive in the shop after they removed his goods, and so he opened the door and – laying about him wildly with a club – managed to escape through a window.


He went up to the fort (then) to have his wounds dressed, and complained to the local commandant, one Captain Dumari, saying he wanted his “ar-ie”, four or five times the value of the merchandise stolen from him. The robbers were from a tribe which had not yet submitted to French authority and were in open rebellion against it, and he wanted authorization to go with his mezrag-holder, the Marmusha tribal sheikh, to collect the indemnity that, under traditional rules, he had coming to him. Captain Dumari couldn’t officially give him permission to do this – because of the French prohibition of the mezrag relationship – but he gave him verbal authorization saying, “If you get killed, it’s your problem.”


So the sheikh, the Jew, and a small company of armed Marmushans went off ten or fifteen kilometers up into the rebellious area, where there were of course no French, and, sneaking up, captured the thief-tribe’s shepherd and stole its herds. The other tribe soon came riding out on horses after them armed with rifles and ready to attack. But when they saw who the “sheep thieves” were, they thought better of it and said, “all right, we’ll talk.” They couldn’t really deny what had happened – that some of their men had robbed Cohen and killed the two visitors – and they weren’t prepared to start the serious feud with the Marmusha, a scuffle with the invading party would bring on. So the two groups talked, and talked, and talked, there on the plain amid the thousands of sheep, and decided finally on five-hundred-sheep damage. The two armed Berber groups then lined up on their horse at opposite ends of the plain with the sheep herded between them, and Cohen, in his black gown, pillbox hat, and flapping slippers, went out alone among the sheep, picking out, one by one and at his own good speed, the best ones for his payment.


So Cohen got his sheep and drove them back to Marmusha. The French, up in their fort, heard them coming from some distance (“Ba, ba, ba” said Cohen, happily, recalling the image) and said, ”What the hell is that?” Cohen said “That is my ‘ar’.” The French couldn’t believe he had actually done what he said he had done, and accused him of being a spy for the rebellious Berbers, put him in prison, and took his sheep. In the town, his family, not having heard from him in so long a time, thought he was dead. But after a while the French released him and he came back home, but without his sheep. He then went to the Colonel in the town, the Frenchman in charge of the whole region, to complain. But the Colonel said, “I can’t do anything about the matter. It’s not my problem.”


Quoted raw, a note in a bottle, this passage conveys, as any similar one similarly presented would do, a fair sense of how much goes into ethnographic description of even the most elemental sort – how extraordinarily “thick” it is. In finished anthropological writings, including those collected here, this fact – that what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to–is obscured because most of what we need to comprehend a particular event, ritual, custom, idea, or whatever is insinuated as background information before the thing itself is directly examined. (Even to reveal that this little drama took place in the highlands of central Morocco in 1912 – and was recounted there in 1968 – is to determine much of our understanding of it. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, and it is in any case inevitable. But it does lead to a view of anthropological research as rather more of an observational and rather less of an interpretive activity than it really is.


Right down at the factual base, the hard rock, insofar as there is any, of the whole enterprise, we are already explicating: and worse, explicating explications. Winks upon winks upon winks. Analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification – what Ryle called established codes, a somewhat misleading expression, for it makes the enterprise sound too much like that of the cipher clerk when it is much more like that of the literary critic – and determining their social ground and import. Here, in our text, such sorting would begin with distinguishing the three unlike frames of interpretation ingredient in the situation, Jewish, Berber, and French, and would then move on to show how (and why) at that time, in that place, their co-presence produced a situation in which systematic misunderstanding reduced traditional form to social farce. What tripped Cohen up, and with him the whole, ancient pattern of social and economic relationships within which he functioned, was a confusion of tongues.’



– Clifford Geertz (1972) from his wonderful essay, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.




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Quotations of note: Arundhati Roy (on writing)





‘Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. I’m beginning to believe that vanity makes them think so. That it’s actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world. Stories reveal themselves to us. The public narrative, the private narrative — they colonize us. They commission us. They insist on being told. Fiction and non-fiction are only different techniques of story telling. For reasons I do not fully understand, fiction dances out of me. Non-fiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.’




The full text can be found here.

Incidentally, Arundhati Roy is also (as I have learned only recently) a seriously impressive ethnographer. The featured image was taken while she was doing research for what became her recent book, ‘Walking with The Comrades.’ You can read an excerpt from this book here or alternatively listen to Arundhati read the excerpt herself – which I highly recommend – featured as a podcast (#11), here.




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Difference, distance, respect and equality: an interview in Yolŋu matha and English.




There is something to be said of the (near universal?) tension between difference, sameness and equality – and questions of which takes precedent over or subsumes the other (as Dumont well recognised). Here I cover these types of themes in conversation with my close Yolŋu sisters (both 50+ years of age) and my older Mum (of indeterminate age – sorry ŋändi!). I am not sure how much I need preface this excerpt other than to say that it’s an excerpt of a longer discussion, which is itself one of a series of discussions that I recorded with my close kin toward the end of my stay in camp in 2008.

For a domestic audience it might be of interest to note the ‘closing the gap’ part of the discussion some way through. The ‘gap’ in this case – from the Yolŋu point of view – is a ‘gap’ in understanding, a margin of misunderstanding or misrecognition born largely of the inability or refusal of Balanda (‘whitefellas, Europeans’) to recognise, understand and respect Yolŋu people and that which makes them Yolŋu (incl. their history, culture, language and way of being in the world). Just as interesting is how simple and practical the suggested measures are for ‘closing’ this perceived gap and the respect for cultural difference that such measures require or entail.

I can’t say I didn’t cry translating this. I’ve included it the final chapter of my thesis. I think it is particularly special.

A few final methodological notes: all the questions are my own (i.e. where there is a question asked, it is me asking it). The first question follows on from an earlier point of discussion in this same recorded conversation. I have chosen not to distinguish between the voices of two older sisters and my ŋändi for a number of reasons (not least among which is the fact that they were each talking over and on top of each other throughout the discussion). Oh, and it’s a bit long.



Q:  “Balanda ga Yolŋu barrkuwatj. Manymak, yurru nhä ŋayi wiripu, what’s the difference between Balanda ga Yolŋu? Nhä, wo nhaltjan ŋayi wiripu?” (‘Balanda and Yolŋu are different, separate. Okay, but how are they different, what’s the difference between Balanda and Yolŋu? How, in what way are they different?’)


Ŋayaŋu. Ga mulkurr

(‘Feeling. And thinking [lit. head]’)



Q:  “Nhaltjan, nhäwi, nhaltjan ŋayi mulkurr wiripu?” (‘How, umm, in what way is [their] thinking different?’)


Ŋanapurru, ŋanapurruŋ-gu Yolŋu-wu birka’yunaraŋanapurru yukurra birka’-yun ŋanapurruŋ-gu way. Nhäma ŋanapurru yukurra dhukarr, nhaltjan ŋayi manymak. Mäwaya ŋayi yäku dhukarr – manymak – wiripu yäku ŋayi mäwaya. Dhukarr-nha ŋunhi ŋanapurru yukurra nhäma ŋunhi ŋayi yurru yaka ŋunhi mari-mirri-yirri.

(‘Us, we think the Yolŋu way – we are [always] thinking our way. We are [always] looking for the good/healthy way [of doing things] – peaceable is a different name for that way [of doing things] – the other term is “peaceable.” This way [of doing things] that we are [always] looking [for], is so as not to create trouble or conflict’


Ŋunhi ŋayi ŋuli ŋunhi ŋäpaki-wu-ndja dhukarr menguma ŋanapurruŋ-gu-ndja, Yolŋu-wu. Ŋunhi ŋayi ŋuli walala ŋunhi – ŋäpaki-ndja walala milkuma ŋanapurruŋ-gu – mulkuru dhukarr . . . nhanŋu-way ŋäpaki-way-nha rom. Ga yaka-nha ŋayi lakarama-ndja ŋunhi, dhunupa-kuma ŋanapurruŋ-gu.”

(The Balanda way [of doing things] [purposefully] disregards us and our Yolŋu way [of doing things]. The Balanda way [of doing things] – that they show towards us – is [that of a] stranger . . . that is their [Balanda] law, their manner of doing things. And it is not telling towards us [i.e. we are never forewarned, informed or told about it], it does not straighten things out with [or between] us.’)



Q:  “Ga culture, nhaltjan ŋayi different-ndja?” (‘And culture, in what way is that different?’)


Barrkuwatj ŋilimurruŋ-gu rom-ndja. Dhiyali wiripu-ndja ŋayi yukurru, nhäwi, wiripu . . . Wiripu-dhi liŋgu ŋanapurru Yolŋu-wu rom wiripu, ga Balanda-wu wiripu. Yaka ŋilimurruŋ-gu rom waŋgany-ŋura. Barrkuwatj. Ŋamuma-nha-[y]irri yukurra.

(‘Our law, manner of doing things is different, separate. This is what makes us different . . . Yolŋu law and manner doing things is different, and Balanda law and manner doing things is different. Our [respective] laws are not ‘at one.’ Different, separate. Not recognising or understanding [one another]’)


Napuŋga’-ŋura-nha ŋamunha-mirri-nha. Balanyara bitjan Balanda ga Yolŋu ga napuŋga’-ŋura ŋayi there’s a big gap. Dhiyali ŋayi yaka-ndja understanding each other, recognising with making bayŋu manymak communication, between Yolŋu ga Balanda. Unless there’s a Balanda more respectable ga understandable to listen Yolŋu voice – to accept the word. Balanyara ga otherwise ŋunhi walala ŋunhi Balanda-wu djäma, they just, self controlled. They leading us.”

(‘In the middle, in between [that’s where we are] not recognising [one another].) It’s such like, Balanda and Yolŋu – and in the middle, in between – there’ a big gap. This is where [we are not] understanding each other, recognising – [there’s] no good communication between Yolŋu and Balanda. Unless there’s a Balanda who is respectful and is willing to [try and] understand, to listen to Yolŋu voices and accept their word [i.e expressed opinion or point of view]. Thus so, otherwise those Balanda and their work [the way they do things], they’re just, self controlled. They’re [just] leading us.’)



Q:  “Bitjan bili balanya liŋgu baman’?” (‘[Was it] the same before, a long time ago?’)


Bayŋu. Manymak ŋäthili, bili walala marrtij-nha ŋunhi ŋanapurruŋgu ‘missionaries’ mulkurr-briya-mirri ŋäpaki walala. They from the Uniting Church, ga they were so close with Yolŋu people, working together, rrambaŋi with Yolŋu. Ga teaching Yolŋu in a proper way, ga treating Yolŋu equally-nhayaka treating separate. Balanya[ra] bitjan now it is happening. Mid 80s-dhu ŋayi change-ndja everything. Become more complicated-nha Yolŋu-wu.”

(‘No. It was good before, because the missionaries that came were prayerful Balanda [ext. ‘of one mind’]. They were from the Uniting Church, they were so close with Yolŋu people, working together, together, level, ‘at one’ with Yolŋu. Teaching Yolŋu in a proper way, treating Yolŋu completely equally – not treating [us] separate. Such like is happening now. Mid-80s, everything changed. Became more complicated for Yolŋu [people].’)



Q:  “Ga can you give me a picture – tell me what it was like back then, when it was manymak?” (‘And can you give me a picture – tell me what it was like back then, when it was good?’)


“Picture-nha manymak mirithirri, balanyara bitjan, old people Yolŋu’yulŋu djäma yukurra ŋäpaki-walala yaka-nha yukurra warku’-yurru-nha Yolŋu-nha. Dhäruk ŋunhi in a gentle way, yaka rough, ga supporting. Balanya ŋäpaki dhiyaŋubala ŋayi happening it’s different.

(‘The picture was really good, for this reason, the old people worked with [those] Balanda, and they never [sought to] deride or demean Yolŋu [people]. They spoke [and addressed people] in a gentle way, not rough, and supporting, such  like [were] those Balanda. [But] now it’s happening different.’)



Q:  “Ga nhäwu ŋayi ‘gap’ yukurra djiŋgar-yun?” (‘And why is that gap still there [between Yolŋu and Balanda]’)?


“Yolŋu, we come from a different background, we have a different culture. We can’t identify ourself in the middle of that gap, ‘we are Balanda’ or either Balanda will identify themselves that they are Yolŋu. No. Absolutely we are different. Balanyara, that’s where Balanda ga Yolŋu-ndja are getting confusion.”

(Yolŋu, we come from a different background, we have a different culture. We can’t identify ourself in the middle of that gap that “we are Balanda,” or either Balanda will identify themselves that they are Yolŋu. No. Absolutely we are different. Thus, that’s where Balanda and Yolŋu are getting confusion’)



Q:  Ga nhaltjan ŋilimurru yurru dhal’yurra ŋayi gap-nha?” (‘And how will we close that gap [of misunderstanding/misrecognition]?’)


Dhal’yurra ŋilimurru yurru by bringing Yolŋu ga Balanda together. Marrtji manda yurru waŋgany manapan-mirri, ga nhina ga talk about something. Because there’s a lot of Balanda living in [Yolŋu] communities now . . . that they never even been through the orientation. That’s where Balanda are getting self-controlled . . . ”

(‘We will close it by bringing Yolŋu and Balanda together. Those two should come together and join [in as] one, and sit and talk about something. Because there’s a lot of Balanda living in community now . . . that they have never even been through [cultural] orientation. That’s where Balanda are getting self-controlled.’)



Q:  “Is that why you’ve said before that orientation is really important?” (‘Is that why you’ve said before that orientation is really important?)


Yomärr walala yurru marŋgi-thirri Balanda walala ŋanapurruŋ-gu rom-gu. ‘Orientation.’ Ga buthurru wetjun ŋayi yurru ŋanapurruŋ-gu dhäruk-ku. Ga bulnha-nha ŋayi rom yurru gäma nhanŋu Balanda-wu rom bulnha – slowly, take time. Yaka rushing in ga rough treating-ndja.”

(Yes. [Those] Balanda should learn about our law/proper manner of doing things. ‘Orientation. And they should listen [lit. gift their ears] to our language, our message [i.e. what we have to say].’ And carry their Balanda law or way of doing things slowly, gently, taking time. Not [just] rushing in and treating [people] roughly’)



Q:  “So that’s why nhuma always mention that Balanda should go through orientation?” (‘So that’s why you [plural] always mention that Balanda should go through orientation?)






Q:  “And is that happening at this time?” (‘And is that happening at this time?’)


“Bayŋu. Bayŋu-nha. Happening ŋayi yukurra bawalamirri community-ŋura. Ŋunhi Balanda balanyara-yi rom ŋunhi yaka yukurra marrtji-nha – orientation-kurru, ŋayi ŋunhi nhäwi-ndja – djäl gänaŋu-mirri ŋayi – djäl gänaŋumirri, ‘self controlled’ ŋayi yäku. Bayŋu-nha company. Balanyara bitjan that person, he or she’s just sitting in their own little world, thinking only their way, but not accepting our way of thinking.

(‘No, not at all. It’s all over the place in communities [now]’ [i.e. ‘whatever goes’]. If Balanda don’t come with that particular law, proper manner of doing things – come through [cultural] orientation, they whatdoyoucallit – they have the quality of wanting to be alone, separate – “wanting or desiring to be alone, separate” – another name for that is ‘self controlled. Never [making/keeping] company. That person is such like, he or she is just sitting in their own little world, thinking only their way, but not accepting our way of thinking.’)



Q:  “Ga how does that make nhuma, nhäwi, how does that make Yolŋu feel when Balanda are like that?” (‘And how does that make you [plural], whatdoyoucallit, how does that make Yolŋu feel when Balanda are like that?’)


“Yolŋu-nha feel, yaka-nha manymak. Bili ŋayi ŋunhi Balanda ŋunhi taking over everything-nha, balanyara.”

(‘Yolŋu feel, really not very good. Because those Balanda just take over, control everything, such like.’)



Q:  “Nhaltjan Balanda yurru marŋgi-thirri Yolŋu-wu rom-gu?” (‘How can Balanda learn about the Yolŋu law, or proper manner of doing things?’)


Marŋgi-thirri-nha ŋayi yurru, ŋayi yurru marŋgi-kuma walala ŋäpaki ŋayi yurru riŋimap, as soon as ŋayi ŋunhi ŋäpaki ŋuruŋi-yi nhäma ŋunhi advertising for something [a job] ŋayi yurru märrama djorra ga ŋayi yurru riŋimap, ga lakaranha-mirri “ŋarra djäl-thirri ŋarra yurru märrama dhuwali djäma.”

(‘They can learn, those Balanda can be taught if as soon as they ring up, if that Balanda responds to a job advertisement [to work in a Yolŋu community], they get that paper/notice and ring up, and tell us ‘I would like to take this job/do this work.’’)


Manymak, ŋayi yurru Yolŋu-yu . . . Yolŋu, ga waŋgany Balanda ga nhämunha . . . three or four Yolŋu . . . nhäwi-nha walala, ŋunhi-nha nhina ga waŋa-nha-yirra, reports ga backgrounds ga everything märrama, getting information, background – nhä nhanŋu djäma whether that person is eligible, whether he is really the right person to do that job. Balanyara. Not just by misleading that person, put it into the office and then that person will become a boss – ŋunhi-ndja word ‘orientation-miriw.’

(‘Ok, and then Yolŋu should . . . Yolŋu and [that] one Balanda, and how many . . . three or four Yolŋu people . . . whattdoyoucallit they, should sit and talk about, their experience/qualifications, background and get all that information, background, what that person’s work is whether that person is eligible, whether they are really the right person to do that job. Such like. Not leading that person the improper/wrong way, [simply] placing them in the office and giving them authority – that is what we call ‘without or lacking orientation.’)


And if that Balanda, as soon as that Balanda, we agree with that Balanda to have that job in our community, each an individual Balandas will have their cultural awareness teaching ŋayi yurru marŋgi-thirri ŋanapurruŋ-gu how we feel and how we think.”

(‘And if that Balanda, as soon as that Balanda, we agree with that Balanda to have that job in our community, each an individual Balandas will have their cultural awareness teaching.’)



Q:  “Ga nhäwi, example nhe yurru gurrupan, like waŋgany Balanda milkuma respect-nha Yolŋu-wu? Nhaltjan Balanda showing respect to Yolŋu people?” (‘And whatdoyoucallit, can you give an example of, like one Balanda [who] shows respect to Yolŋu? How Balanda show respect to Yolŋu people?)


Ŋäpaki?? [cynical tone] Yol-nha ŋarra yurru lakaraŋa-ndja? . . . ŋäpaki-ndja ŋarra yurru lakarama-ndja . . . ŋäpaki ŋunhi ŋunha warkthun-nha mid 80s-dhu – from 70s to mid 80s – balanyara ŋäpaki ŋhäku nhina-nha Marthakal-ŋura, yurru ŋayi ŋunhi yukurra djäma-nha yaka nhanokiŋ-gala mulkurr-yu. Eh, yuwalk gutha . . . yaka nhanokiŋ-gala mulkurr-yu. Yolŋu-way ŋayi yukurra buthuru-wetjun-nha. Nhanŋu djörra djäma wukirri, ga working ga thinking Yolŋu-wu marrtjinha, yaka nhanŋu. He’s there to do the paperwork yaka ŋayi wukirri the way that he wants to do things or run the admin, yaka.

(‘Balanda? Which Balanda can I tell you of? . . . the Balanda I can tell you about . . . those Balanda who worked in the mid 80s – from the 70s to the mid 80s – those Balanda were at Marthakal why? Not simply for their own purposes with their own way of thinking. It’s true little sister . . . [they weren’t just there] with their own way of thinking [lit. with their own head]. They listened [lit. gifted their ears] like Yolŋu people/the Yolŋu way. They came to do their writing, and work and thinking for Yolŋu people [i.e. with Yolŋu people in mind], not [just] for them[selves]. He’s there to do the paperwork not just writing the way that he wants to do things or run the admin, no.’)


Balanyara bitjan ŋilimurruŋ-gu gurruŋ-miriŋu ŋilimurruŋ-gu. Ŋilimurruŋgala waku-miriŋu märraŋala Balanda-nha, ga his heart[1], he had a heart towards the Yolŋu people. Märrtji-nha ŋayi ŋuli, spend a week djäma together, Yolŋu-wala. Not just sitting back in the swivel chair doing nothing. Spending time ga talking, ŋunhi ŋayi manymak-ndja, towards Yolŋu-wu. Join in with Yolŋu people. Ŋunhi ŋayi manymak ŋäpaki. Everything yukurra djäma-nha ŋayi laytju-nha running Marthakal.[2] Yaka yukurra Yolŋu-wu walala malŋthuŋ-maram-nha hard time, like now it’s happening.

(‘Such like, our gurruŋ, [the way he was] for us. Our waku adopted that Balanda, and his heart, he had a heart towards the Yolŋu people. He would come and spend a week working together, with Yolŋu. Not just sitting back in the swivel chair doing nothing. Spending time and talking, that is [what is] good/healthy, towards/for Yolŋu. Join in with Yolŋu people. That is [what was good about those] Balanda. Running everything and doing all the work in a good/smooth/nice [way at] Marthakal. They weren’t giving Yolŋu people a hard time, like is happening now.’)


Everythings change. Place is getting professional-nha. There are a lot of Balanda there . . . before ŋanapurruŋ-gu bayŋu daŋaŋ Balanda, we used to have nhämunha’, three or four ŋäpaki.”

(‘Everything is change/changing. The place is getting professional. There are a lot of Balanda there . . . before there weren’t heaps of Balanda, we used to have . . . how many . . . three or four Balanda.’)



Q:  “Ga wiripu question, nhaltjan Yolŋu märrama confidence to stand up with Balanda-nha?” (‘A different question, how can Yolŋu get the confidence to stand up with Balanda?’ [NB: this was a follow up question from a previous discussion.])


Ŋarra yukurra nhäma, there’s not many people that have that confidence, bayŋu-nha. Unless ŋayi Yolŋu strong in leadership. Strong in leadership bäyma ŋunha stand in Yolŋu foundation. See everything from there. Yolŋu-wala foundation, ga ŋayi yurru nhäma towards the Balanda foundation.

(‘I am seeing that there’s not many people that have that confidence, none/nothing. Unless that Yolŋu person is strong in leadership. Strong in leadership, to stand in the Yolŋu foundation [even when over there].[3] See everything from there – from the Yolŋu foundation – and look to[wards] the Balanda foundation [from there].’)


Ŋunhi ŋayi Yolŋu marŋgi how to do that ŋunhi yukurra dharaŋan nhäma dhukarr ŋayi ŋunhi Yolŋu become a person that – ŋayi yurru waŋa, ŋäpaki-nha ŋupan. Waŋa ŋayi bitjan confidence nhanŋu, mulka-nha, mulka ŋayi yukurra mulka nhanŋu ŋayi yurru waŋa nhanŋu. Bunha ŋayi yurru ŋäpaki-wu ga waŋa nhano-kala. Wo ŋayi yurru waŋa in public or balanya bitjan place in Darwin or Canberra wo wanha-mala ŋayi yurru marrtji. Yolŋu ŋayi yurru identifying her or himself that they a speaker for their own people, Yolŋu-wu – ‘for my own kind – that I can talk. Bitjan ŋayi yurru.”

(‘If that Yolŋu person knows how to do that, they will recognise/understand the way forward, and they will become a person that, – they can speak [to], stand up and engage with Balanda. They will [be able to] speak with confidence, that will be their confidence/self-assuredness/steadiness that [will allow or enable them to] speak. They will [be able to] meet and speak with those Balanda, or speak in public, at a place like Darwin or Canberra or wherever it is they go. That person will identify her or himself that they are a speaker for their own people, for Yolŋu people – ‘for my own kind – that I can talk.’ They’ll do such like.’)



Q:  “Ga nhaltjan, how can Balanda help Yolŋu to get that confidence?” (‘And in what way, how can Balanda help Yolŋu to get that confidence?’)


“By nhina manda yurru, sitting ga talking about. Sorting out together. Sorting out the way together. Nhäku walala ŋayi ŋäpaki djäl-thirri. Bitjan ŋayi ŋunhi preparation together djäma, preparation-ndja. Rrambaŋi. Yo. So ŋanapurruŋ-gu ŋäpaki dhuwala marrtji-nha slowly nhäma ŋayi marrtji, nhaltjan ŋanapurru yukurra yuwalk djäl-thirri . . . . This is what Yolŋu want to see here, working together, if you have the heart towards the people – Yolŋu people. Do that and show us that respect.”

(‘By [those two] sitting, sitting and talking about. Sorting out together. Sorting out the way together, what it is that those Balanda want. Such like, preparation [and decision making] work together, preparation. Together, level. Yo. So Balanda should proceed slowly, looking to see [recognise/understand] what it is that we truly want or desire. This is what Yolŋu want to see here, working together, if you have the heart towards the people – Yolŋu people. Do that and show that respect.’)



Q:  “Wiripu nhäwi, dhäwu, like adopting – like when Yolŋu adopt Balanda, how do Yolŋu decide yol wo nhätha walala yurru adopt ŋayi ŋunhi Balanda-nha?” (‘A different, whatdoyoucallit, story, like adopting – like when Yolŋu adopt Balanda, how do Yolŋu decide who or when they will adopt that Balanda person?’)


Bitjan yurru if ŋanapurru adopting-gu djäl-thirri ŋäpaki-wu ŋanapurru yurru waŋa-nha ŋanya first-nha, ŋanapurru yurru waŋa bitjan, checking her or him first whether he or she’s adopted with another family. And if you alone, then we can just make our own choice to adopt you.

(‘We will do such like, if we want to adopt a Balanda person we will speak to that person first, we will ask, checking with her or him first [to see] whether he or she’s adopted by/with another family. And if you alone [i.e. if you haven’t been adopted by/to another family], then we can just make our own choice to adopt you.’)



Q:  “And what does that mean for Yolŋu when they adopt someone? What do they expect from that Balanda?” (‘And what does that mean for Yolŋu when they adopt someone? What do they expect from that Balanda?’)


Balanyara bitjan nhe – you my sister, I adopted you. And to me, I feel you so close to me, balanyara bitjan waŋgany-nha ŋandi ga waŋgany bäpa. I don’t have to worry about your skin – it doesn’t matter. I’m feeling that you my own real yapa. Closing ŋayi gap-nha, liŋgun-nha – you and me, we closing the gap. There’s no more gap in between.”

(‘Such like, you – you my sister, I adopted you. And to me, I feel you so close to me, like [we have] one mother and one father. I don’t have to worry about your skin – it doesn’t matter. I’m feeling that you my own real sister. Closing the gap, finished – you are me, we closing the gap. There’s no more gap in between.’)



Q:  “And does that always happen when Yolŋu adopt Balanda?” (‘And does that always happen when Yolŋu adopt Balanda?’)


Yaka. Sometimes the things are going wrong, dhiyaŋcum – reason-dhu: If I adopted you, and you work in the office. In the office you not my yapa [‘sister’], eh. I won’t treated you like as my yapa. I’ll treated you outside at home you’re my yapa. Because you there to work. So that’s where some Balanda and Yolŋu are getting a bit of confusion. You there to work. . . yo.”

(‘No. Sometimes the things are going wrong, for this – [forthcoming] – reason: If I adopted you, and you work in the office. In the office you are not my sister, eh. I won’t treat you like as my sister. I’ll treat you [like that only] outside at home you’re my yapa. Because you there to work. So that’s where some Balanda and Yolŋu are getting a bit of confusion. You are there to work . . . yo.’)



Q:  “Ŋathili when you used to work at Galiwinku – or other Yolŋu – do you know of a story where Yolŋu adopted a Balanda and it wasn’t manymak, or where something didn’t go very well?” (‘Before, when you used to work at Galiwin’ku – or other Yolŋu [did] – do you know of a story where Yolŋu adopted a Balanda and it wasn’t good, or where something didn’t go very well?’)


Balanya bitjan if that Balanda adopted to Yolŋu family, this is Yolŋu getting bit, getting crazy, because what they do – I don’t humbug you for money – but once you adopted to Yolŋu family they family will keep on going, going to asking asking asking, rrupiya rrupiya rrupiya wo for ŋatha. Ga that’s where Balanda, because that Balanda comes from a different background, it’s not matching with Yolŋu culture. Or not suiting to that person. Not suitable. Dharaŋan-nha-miriw balanyara rom. Thinking “where all their money gone?” “Why they always coming back to me, asking for rrupiya ga ŋatha?” Balanyara confusion Balanda-ndja getting. Different culture ga different background.”

(‘[Yes] such like, if that Balanda adopted to Yolŋu family, this is Yolŋu getting bit, getting crazy, because what they do – I don’t humbug you for money – but once you adopted to Yolŋu family they family will keep on going, going to asking asking asking, money, money, money or for food. And that’s where Balanda, because that Balanda person comes from a different background, it’s not matching with Yolŋu culture. Or not suiting to that person. Not suitable. [But] that is lacking in understanding, thinking “where has all their money gone?” “Why are they always coming back to me, asking for money and food?” Thus so, confusion Balanda are getting. Different culture and different background.’)



Q:  Ga nhäwi, adoption-nha, nhäwu ŋayi important to Yolŋu people, nhäwu ŋayi important?” (‘And umm, adoption, why is it important to Yolŋu people, why is it important?’)


Nhäku ŋayi important-ndja? Bili wiripu Yolŋu ŋanapurru liŋgu wiripu ŋanapurru Yolŋu that we feel the same. Because we all human being, balanyara. Equal-nha balanyara. Bitjan ŋanapurru ŋunhi adopted-ndja like when you have to go out or you’re travelling on your own and you meet a different Yolŋu people, ga those Yolŋu always come with a question: who adopted you?” Ga once you explained that person’s name, ga those people will say “we related to you too!” Gurrutuyindi-nha gurrutu! Märr walala bukmak-dhu feel good about. Eh, feel good about.”

(‘Why is it important? Because we are different people, we are already different, so [it is important that] we feel the same. Because we are all human beings, thus so. Equal, such like. So when we adopt, like when we you have to go out or you’re travelling on your own and you meet different Yolŋu people, and those Yolŋu people always come with a question: “who adopted you?” And once you explain that person’s name those people will say “we are related to you too!” Kinship – a lot of family/kinship! And then everyone will feel good about [because of that]. Feel good about.’)



Q:  “Ga ŋuli Balanda ga Yolŋu nhina together balanyara one place like Galiwin’ku, yurru bayŋu adopting, is it easier or harder-nha?” (‘And if those Balanda and Yolŋu sit together, like in one place, like at Galiwin’ku, but there is no adopting, is it easier or harder?’)


“Hard-nha. Each one of them, like Yolŋu – ya, ŋayi ŋunhi Balanda, Balanda mak ŋayi feel strange to itself  – feel strange ŋayi ŋunhi bitjarra, thinking “I’m on my own” “I’m in my own world” bili no-one adopted that person into their family, Yolŋu family-lili ga ŋayi ŋunhi feel lonely. Feeling emptiness around him.

(‘Hard. Each one of them, like Yolŋu – ya and those Balanda, Balanda perhaps they feel strange to itself – feel strange because of that, thinking “I’m on my own” “I’m in my own world” because no one has adopted that person into their family, into Yolŋu family, and they feel lonely. Feeling emptiness around them.’)


Dhuwali ŋayi big picture-nha. Learning about cross-cultural, learning ŋayi yurru, training ŋayi yurru. Balanda needs cross-cultural training, so that person will learn about our culture, our language, our feeling. Because we Yolŋu people, we feel people. We feeling people whether that Yolŋu or Balanda is manymak or not. Dhäkay-ŋäma ŋanapurruŋ-li rumbal-yu ŋanapurruŋgala our feeling ŋuli lakarama dhäkay-ŋäma ŋanapurru lakarama-mirri dhäwu-mirri ŋanapurru-li rumbal.

(‘This is the big picture. Learning about cross-cultural, learning and training. Balanda need cross-cultural training, so that person will learn about our culture, our language, our feeling. Because we Yolŋu people, we feel people. We feel people whether that Yolŋu or Balanda is good or not. We feel with our bodies, our feeling, they tell us something, our feelings tells us a story about [that person], through our bodies.’)



Q:  “Ga dhuwala nhäwi ŋonuŋ ŋayi question, nhäwi yindi question – big picture-nhanhä nhumalaŋ-gu hope ga dream ga vision for the future for Yolŋu ga Balanda? (‘And this here is a heavy question, a big question – big picture: what is your [plural] hope and dream and vision for the future for Yolŋu and Balanda?’)


“Hope ga dream ga vision for the future? Yolŋu-wu ga Balanda-wu? To see Yolŋu ga Balanda treated equally-nha. Working ga sharing together. Balanda yurru märrtji, sit down with us to have something that we eat, Balanda will have that too. So that Balanda will learn something . . . I want to see my brothers and sisters to come, and sit, and share. Paddling [as in a canoe] the same way. I don’t want to see my brothers and sisters paddling opposite. I want to see us paddling together, same way. Ga same direction. Yaka gäna’gäna. Yo.”

(‘Hope and dream and vision for the future? For Yolŋu and Balanda? To see Yolŋu and Balanda treated equally. Working and sharing together. Balanda should come, sit down with us to have something that we eat, Balanda will have that too. So that Balanda will learn something . . . I want to see my brothers and sisters to come, and sit, and share. Paddling [as in a canoe] the same way. I don’t want to see my brothers and sisters paddling opposite. I want to see us paddling together, same way. And same direction. Not separately, one by one. Yo.’)





[1] “Heart” is often an English gloss for ŋayaŋu in this context, which refers to ‘state or sense of feeling’ associated with the chest.

[2] Marthakal is the name of the local Government Service Provision agency at Galiwin’ku Island.

[3] ‘Foundation’ is often used as a synonym for rom – law, culture, way of life, way of doing things, custom, history, tradition.



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Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Indigenous Rights, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

An excerpt from my fieldnotes (2008): ‘Welfare quarantining’ and the feeling on the ground.


Fieldwork photo (2008)

Fieldwork photo (2008)


The following excerpt is taken from my field notes (2008). They are notes on a rather tense meeting between senior Yolŋu people and government representatives when ‘welfare quarantining’ [4] was first introduced in Arnhem Land. I have noted major edits or omissions with ellipses.


Fieldnotes, Friday 8th February 2008


Yesterday was the day of the mala-leader [1] meeting at Galiwin’ku Island. The plane flew in at 9am to pick up yapa, wäwa, wiripu wäwa and myself. The pilot apologised for the delay and explained that we were doing a ‘round trip’ – we had to stop at Doinji and Marparu before Galiwin’ku yet. Yapa wasn’t impressed, given we already running late, and teased the pilot accordingly, “I don’t usually do the round trip . . . I always go straight there – I don’t want to go straight to the hospital – I should tell dhuway to start digging my grave right now!” The pilot wasn’t quite sure if this was banter or complaint. He looked a little flustered and reassured her it wouldn’t take long.


It was lovely to fly over Country that I haven’t seen before. As we flew away from camp yapa began pointing out this and that – where the flag-song travels following the contours of Country, where she got that big scar on her forearm down there near the point on the rocks, pointing out and naming different features of the broader landform – the backbone Country, the open Country where there’s dharrwa gatapunga, dharrwa, dharrwa (‘heaps of buffalo, heaps and heaps’).


We arrived at Marthakal [2] when everyone was taking a break for morning tea. Yolŋu’yulŋu (‘Yolŋu people [plural]’) were milling about in the walkway between buildings. Yapa rolled a cigarette, chatting and introducing me to gurrutu (‘kin’) I hadn’t met yet. After about ten minutes we made our way into the meeting room, where we took up seats arranged in a semi-circle facing a desk at the front of the room. Yapa sat on the floor in front next to Kathy (the strong Warramiri woman), and Jane who was also wonderfully articulate and outspoken. All the women were seated on one side together and all the men on another side, just as is. The government or Centrelink [3] Representatives (three women and one man) were sitting together at the desk at the front of the room, along with Richard the Balanda (‘white person, European’) CEO of Marthakal, the Yolŋu Chairman of Marthakal (whose name escapes me), and gathu David, the Manager.


We were given a sheet of paper with the agenda, as well as an official Centrelink ‘information sheet’ explaining a little about the new welfare quarantining measures. The Centrelink Reps introduced themselves – they were asked where they were from, if they had children, and how long they had been working in Aboriginal communities for. (This is fairly standard request in these intercultural ‘meeting’ contexts.)


One of the Centrelink Reps began to deliver an introductory talk about the new welfare quarantining measures. Galay, a senior Yolŋu man and long term cultural broker, stood near the front of the room and translated as he spoke. He was not long into his introductory talk when one of the mala-leaders requested a moment of pause for questions or comments thus far. Dhumungur, Galay’s son, was the first to speak up: “I’m going to speak in my language” he said, though his English is impeccable. Galay translated as he spoke:


“This is going to be a hard question for you, not as a Centrelink worker but as a person – Andie – as Andie – do you think these are fair or unfair? How do you feel, as a person?”


‘Andie’ exhaled in one deep breath and stood up: “You’ve asked me a really hard question . . . [exhale] . . . just before I say anything, I want to say that I’m doing a job, and what happens is that one person tells another person what to do, and they have to do it – that’s what’s happening here today okay. But you’re asking me personally . . .  well, I think there’s some good and some bad parts to this policy, but if the stories in The Little Children are Sacred [6] report are true . . . if this can help [voice quivering] . . . ” He seemed about to burst into tears. He resumed his seat and took a few deep breathes. All the mala-leader representatives felt immediately worrying and sorry for him, gumurr-djararrk.


For my part I have to admit that I was more skeptical. I wasn’t sure whether he was feeling emotional because he had to be the one to explain these new discriminatory, punitive policy measures – or if it was something to do with the actual content of The Little Children are Sacred Report. Either way, this set the parameters for the meeting. The Centrelink Representatives were there to deliver a message. They were ‘just doing their job.’


The rest of the meeting ran thus: The Centrelink Reps explained some key piece of information about the new welfare quarantining policy, galay would then translate it into Yolŋu-matha, and then the floor was open to comments and questions.


For the most part the Centrelink explanations were over-simplified and condescending. The Centrelink Reps drew two columns on the white board. $500 was written on top as TOTAL pay, with $250 written at the top of each column. In one column was listed:











At the top of the other column was written YOUR MONEY. When explaining this, the Centrelink Reps repeatedly said: “We don’t want to know about that money – that is your money to spend however you want.” In order to use the “Centrelink half,” however, “you have to ring Centrelink and talk to them about what you want to spend it on” they explained.


Yapa spoke up, gently out of turn: “We just in the deep shits. That’s where we are . . . . What about all the people who don’t speak English? This is one example that I am giving to you, about why this is putting us in the deep shits.”


One of the Centrelink Reps replied: “We’re not going to lie to you – it’s going to be a lot of work. If you ring up Centrelink and say you want $100 sent to the shop and then you change your mind, you’ll have to ring them back and say ‘stop that money, I want to spend it somewhere else.’ It’s going to be a lot of work.”


One of the mala-leader women began to explain that they had been actively dealing with issues of alcohol and gambling for a long time, and had long-running community based programmes to do so. “We know this is a big issue for us,” she said, “but we need to work together.”


The Centrelink Rep acknowledged that this was indeed the case, before saying (rather out of nowhere): “I hear this from a lot of people – that they feel caught between two worlds.”


Dhumungur interrupted: “Actually we feel dominated by the white people and the white world. And what’s the reason for all this? From that report about child abuse? Whose children?? And can you tell us then, when will you know – when will you think you know – if those children are safe?”


Many of the following comments, concerns and queries from the mala-leaders followed in a similar fashion. One of the Centrelink Reps interjected and suggested that we “try and focus on the smaller issues – like how this quarantining is going to work.” It seemed to me, however, that the mala-leaders knew these measures were a fait accompli (and that they would therefore learn about them in time), so they were taking this opportunity foreground and appeal to the larger issues – the perceived injustice of these policy measures. Further comments from mala-leaders that I noted at this point included:


“Are we like an elephant or monkey – ‘look can we teach them to read and write and talk?’ Is that what we are like for this government??”


“When this Intervention started, myself and other Yolŋu people – we felt like a concrete block had fallen on us. That is what it felt like when that John Howard and Mal Brough introduced that thing. And since then, we feel that concrete block on top of us.”


“If they are worried about Yolŋu people learning about saving their money why don’t they bring the education program that we had here at Galiwin’ku, that Money Business[7] that we had – instead of just cutting our money in two. We were happy running that Money Business here – learning for our own people about the money. We are not stupid.”


“See those three ‘g’s on the board there? Grog, gunja and gambling – they not a Yolŋu disease, they are a Balanda disease. And on the Homelands we stopped them long long time ago. They a Balanda disease in the towns ga cities.”


“Many of us have certificates – ‘diplomas’ – I was the first Yolŋu to get a diploma in horticulture. But those bits of paper – that you Balanda always tell us that we need – well, then they stay in the Balanda cupboard. We work, and we have those certificates – those qualifications – so why aren’t we on the Salaries like you Balanda? We work just the same, but we just get that CDEP – that sit-down money. Is your Balanda paper more powerful that you get those salaries for doing the same work, and we just get sit-down money?”


Notable among the last of the comments was the beautiful ‘kind of parable’ from Kathy (one of the mala-leader women). She spoke in Yolŋu-matha, and galay translated into English.


“This is a kind of parable. There are two people. They are different and have separate lives. One knows his destiny, the other is travelling. The traveller says to the other, follow me. And he says ‘no’ this is my home and my people and I have to stay here where I belong. But the other person says you have to come with me. That man says, if I go with you, you will be my eye. I will have to go with blind faith.” She paused for galay to translate, before continuing: “You have to understand that that is the position we’re in. We can’t have anything except blind faith if you make us come along with you. But there is no trust here.”


As with all meetings of this kind that I have attended, there wasn’t enough time to hear everyone’s concerns. The sense of frustration was palpable. The meeting was supposed to close for lunch, but it went on and over into lunch-time because the comments and concerns from mala-leaders kept coming. At some point, noticing that the Centrelink Reps were making a move to ‘pack up,’ Jane (one of the mala-leader women) asked, nay implored them to write down the concerns and questions that were being voiced: “Write it down and take it back with you to the government. Take these two big words back with you on that paper – ‘fairness’ and ‘human rights!’ We are Australian citizens! We should all get the fair treatment, black or white! Write those words down!”


Others echoed her call, urging the Centrelink Reps to make a record of what was being said. They didn’t, of course, I doubt they were prepared enough to do anything of the kind. They did, however, repeat Jane’s concerns aloud, demonstrating that they would remember (i.e. they needn’t write it down because they would remember). Jane was still talking when the lunch was brought in in two boxes. People wanted to be heard out. Balanda Richard (the CEO) attempted to draw things to a close, explaining that the Centrelink Reps would be available to sit down with people individually after the meeting. His attempt to quell concerns had little affect. People continued to share their comments and concerns, politely but firmly, in turn. This continued for about ten minutes before one of the Centrelink Reps declared “Lunchtime!!!!”


The meeting was over.


People milled around to get drink and food. The Centrelink Reps hung around for a little while longer too. Yapa B grabbed two sets of sandwiches and we were about to make an exit when one of the Centrelink Reps approached to say: “We hear that Homelands find it hard and we are going to do everything we can – ”


“Yo, manymak (‘good’), that’s ok . . . ” said yapa. I interrupted, though I knew it might be speaking out of place:


“One of the many problems is the fact that one single shopping trip costs more than $700 for people living on the Homelands, so if you quarantine their money they won’t be able to pool their money to pay for a flight let alone collectively buy food. And – ”


“Yes I’ve heard about that, and Centrelink might have to speak to the airlines to arrange that, even $10 be deducted from people’s pay each week to put towards a plane.”


I explained that this wouldn’t be nearly enough, but she was clearly intent on saying ‘yes, I’m listening carefully to your concerns and I’m really interested’ in any or as many ways as possible with an understanding tone. And we were running late – we had to rush off to catch our plane home. Waku David was waiting for us, engine idling. We all clambered into the back of the Troopy and waku drove us down to the hangar. There was a storm rolling in. . . . The flight home rough (and terrifying for me, not for anyone else). After dipping and rising and swerving around the darkest and most dense of the cloud clusters, the engine finally eased and we started to descend. As we glided down gently onto the gravel strip I spotted little gaminyarr running parallel to us over near the houses, racing us up to Top Camp. Balanda dhuway was waiting for us under the mango tree on the mat with Bäru, waving as we taxied to a stop.


We began to relay stories from the meeting and the day:


Balanda waŋanha waŋanha waŋanha true!” (The Balanda talked and talked and talked true!’)


It seemed that yapa, wäwa and wiripu wäwa were still really angry and frustrated. And then I realised – not only had they been denied time and platform to voice their respective concerns and ask questions – but the regular mala-leader meeting had been totally eclipsed by the Centrelink agenda. And now I recall, of course, that they had collectively requested that a number of issues be listed on the agenda some weeks ago – issues crucial to our capacity to maintain essential equipment and basic infrastructure (e.g. the plumbing!). Now I realise that the meeting must have been doubly frustrating and upsetting for them . . . on top of the horrible Centrelink policy stuff. An overflowing toilet for another few weeks it is . . .




[1] The term mala refers to group or collectivity. In an intercultural context ‘Mala-Leaders meetings’ are attended by a delegate or representative from each bäpurru (‘clan’) in the relevant region. This arrangement between Yolŋu people and representatives of Balanda institutions – and the associated intercultural decision making process and structure – was established by Yolŋu people in dialogue with a few individual Missionaries of the Methodist Overseas Mission in the early 1940s.

[2] Marthakal is the name of the local Government Service Provision Agency at Galiwin’ku Island)

[3] ‘Centrelink’ was, until very recently, the name of the social welfare branch of government.

[4] Welfare Quarantining was one of many policy measures comprising the Northern Territory Intervention into Aboriginal Communities (2007). See the latter half of this post.

[6] This is the report that was the alleged catalyst – reason and justification for the Intervention. It is now widely acknowledged that this was used as something of a Trojan Horse to fast-track the cluster of policies comprising the Intervention.

[7] Money Business is a program run by Mission Australia, it ‘provides individuals and families with money-management information and support. Money Business builds self-reliance and improves individual, family and community wellbeing. It also provides people with the skills and information to make better decisions and reduce the risk of getting into greater debt.’

*this may need further editing, and yes, I realise it is rather long*


Filed under Current social issues, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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

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.



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Field notebook excerpt: a day of particular import




The image above is from one of my field notebooks. It’s a poem I scrawled on a Frida Kahlo sticky-note while flying in a little Cessna, from camp to a nearby mining town, on the day Kevin Rudd said “sorry.” That was five years ago today. I still have very mixed feelings on the subject. (Aboriginal children are still being taken from their families at an alarming rate – still – in Australia, today.)



‘The plane turns on a wing,

aroun’ to the east,

over and away

from the mangroves.


The sound of the engine straining

(we’re still climbing),

and today

there is mist below,

above the open green plain,

between rivers.


I can see neither buffalo

nor crocodile.

But I search,

and feel

excitedly sad.


This is


“sorry” day.








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But then I found myself describing them with words they would not use, and could not tell the way the drummers held the line




I have always enjoyed Michael Jackson‘s ethnography. Paths toward a clearing: Radical empiricism and ethnographic enquiry (1989) is perhaps his best known work. This week I finally found time to borrow some of his poetry from the library. It is beautiful, and really quite brilliant.

I have chosen to share the following poem for obvious reasons. It is taken from Jackson’s 1989 collection, Duty Free: Selected poems 1965–1988, John McIndoe, New Zealand, pp. 14 – 15.  If I could share the whole volume I would – it is a really beautiful collection.




Even now they file at first light

through the elephant grass, along

the red path to their farms, leaving

me behind. I used to follow them

and ask if I could hoe or weed,

stack unburned branches beyond

the outer fence. They used to

laugh outright, though some said I

could try my hand, knowing it would

provide for more amusement later

when I tried to keep in line.

At last I gave up going. I passed

the day learning new words from

women. At dusk the men returned

and granted me an hour or two of

conversation. ‘Ask what you want

and we will tell you what we know,’

they said. And so I queried them

on this and that, and learned about

their farms that way, and what they did

among the trees along the ridge

at harvesting (a sacrifice to keep

the spirits off), and for a year

my work went well. But then I found

myself describing them with words

they would not use, and could not tell

the way the drummers held the line

that moved, hoeing and chanting,

down the further slope, or how

the pitch of women’s voices flowed

across the valley as they closed

the earth. These gestures are

like rain. The crops will grow

out of these acts. There is no

book in it, no facts, no line

that leads to some result;

but it holds good like any truth

and I have learned to write as

they might sow, scything the grain

against the downhill wind. We

do not make it grow, we point the way.

In this I go along with them.






Aye, it’s beautiful.








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