Category Archives: Indigenous Australia

A brief descriptive note on types or ‘kinds of relations’ in Yolŋu matha



I was thinking about categories of types of people/relations’ the other day, as in English we have family, friends, colleagues, team-mates etc. etc., and as my brain is oft want to do started thinking of the Yolŋu matha equivalents or comparisons – of ‘categories of types of people and relations.’ I was surprised to realise that there are so few (although more in a sense).

Reproduced below is a list of categories of types of relations in Yolŋu matha. It is probably not exhaustive, but a list of all those that I could think of at the time:



Gurrutu is the ‘main category’ of types of relations, for want of a better description. The term gurrutu is generally translated as ‘kin[ship]’. The Yolŋu kinship system is universalistic or ‘classificatory’, which means that everyone in the Yolŋu social world is and relate to each other as kin. But while it is all encompassing in this sense, there are many different ‘types’ of reciprocal kin relations within it. Continue reading

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Nhulunbuy and the future of a remote township: an open letter to State Capitalism




Dear State Capitalism,

You are sneaky and very shit. I knew this already, of course, but have recently learned it anew in my concern for the future of a certain remote township in north east Arnhem Land. It is everywhere and always implied that the State imposes taxes on citizens so that the government might provide them with services. This is a catchy tune. The Australian constitution certainly implies this – that people pay taxes so that the government can ‘perform all of its functions’, or something to that effect. However, this is not – and has never been – the case. I want to tell you a bit about the history and import of Nhulunbuy.

The historical relationship between Yolŋu people and mining in north east Arnhem Land has been of National significance and formative in terms of the nature of such intercultural engagement, policy and legislation. It was the excision of land from the then Aboriginal Reserve for the purposes of a mining lease and the subsequent Gove Land Rights Case (Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, (1971)), instigated by the Yirrkala Bark Petition, which eventually laid the foundation for the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 (as a result of the Woodward Commission). More specifically, it was the Yolŋu response to the excision and the decisive action taken by Yolŋu people which forged new and innovative intercultural possibilities in their engagement with their ‘supporters’ (predominantly Methodist Missionaries), as well as the Federal Government and the Courts, in their determination to have their system of land tenure and rights over their estate recognised by the State and Federal Governments and the Australian legal system.[1]

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Filed under Current social issues, Indigenous Rights

A fieldnote from home



Charles Blackman


This evening I nearly saw a man drown. I run the same route most afternoons, over the bridge and along the foreshore. This evening I was about to cross over the bridge when I saw something or someone splashing in the water. I stopped. It was a man, only a few metres from the banks of the river, and he was drowning. He kept trying to stand up before falling over, his head going under the water for a longer period of time each time he fell.

As soon as I realised what was going on I ran to the shore. I called out to him but didn’t get any response. His head went under again. I waded in and instinctively grabbed his chin to hold his head above the water. I told him it was going to be okay. I asked him to sit down. The water was shallow enough that I could hold his head above the water while he was sitting. He coughed and spluttered and struggled to reclaim and regulate his breathing. I asked him if he could stand up. He shook his head. Ma (ok, I understand). I told him that I was going to try and help him, to drag him out of the water. Yo (ok, yes, agreed). Standing behind him I hooked my arms under both of his armpits and in quick lift-and-drag motions we slowly edged our way to shore.

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Filed under Current social issues, Indigenous Australia

Moral Misrecognition: Misrecognising the Other as Self in cross-cultural relations


self other small

*A long read


I began my thesis with a puzzlement about an evident margin of misunderstanding – a pattern of cross-cultural misunderstanding – in social exchanges between Yolŋu and Balanda, which I eventually came to describe or refer to as ‘moral misrecognition.’ This initial puzzlement led me to ask a series of basic questions:  How do people consider and critically evaluate the morality and value of everyday social exchanges and social relations? What shared understandings underlie or underwrite local ideas and expectations about what is ab/normal, good/bad and/or un/desirable in everyday life? This, of course, turned into an ethnography of emotion and morality ‘toward a local theory of value and social exchange on the Yolŋu Homelands,’ [1] but in this post I want to briefly (hopefully) give a sense of what ‘moral misrecognition’ looks like.

The idea or concept of moral misrecognition is very loosely based on Lacan’s notion of méconnaissance. I use it in an intercultural or cross-cultural sense, however, to refer to situations in which the Self observes or experiences an exchange or interaction with or between a cultural Other or others and –  failing to recognise or understand the existence of cultural difference – interprets and evaluates their actions ‘as if’ they were the Self. This is a common experience for Yolŋu people and a phenomenon they are acutely aware of for this reason. People or situations of this kind are referred to as being dharaŋan-miriw (lit. ‘lacking or without recognising/understanding [something or someone’]). All this may sound rather abstract but hopefully the following excerpts give a sense of what I mean and what I’m referring to. The first is an excerpt from a John Leavitt paper, the second from a chapter by Markus and Kitayama.


“These were emotions with which I could empathize, especially given the circumstances that my wife and I faced at the time: far from home, in what for us seemed difficult  physical conditions, with each receiving frightening news of the bad health of a parent back home.


At the same time, however, differences emerged between the sadness I carried with me and Ganganath’s udekh-bairag. Because I will discuss the specificity of Ganganath’s imputed experience below, let me cite a different example here. We were walking down a hot, dusty mountain road, coming home from a wedding with three or four other people. One woman had her small daughter along, and the child was hot, tired, grumpy and wanted to be carried. The mother was tired too, had no intention of carrying the girl, and, annoyed by her whining, gave her a smack. The daughter screamed. So far so good: I recognized the opening shots in a battle of wills between parent and child of the kind that one could see at any time in a North American shopping center. What happened next, however, gave me pause: the mother did not get angry; she laughed. She found her daughter’s screaming funny and kept giving her a little whack from time to time, apparently to provoke the tears of rage that she found so amusing.


This was clearly a different emotional scenario than the one with which I thought I was uncomfortably empathizing, and it implied different meanings: in particular, a set of definitions of children that were not those that I had brought with me.”


– John Leavitt (1996, p. 520).


And an excerpt from Markus and Kitayama, which is not quite so clear cut and which draws the reader into the dilemma of potential moral misrecognition a little more:


“In December 1992, the Japanese royal family announced that Crown Prince Naruhito had chosen Masako Owada, a bright, highly educated, fast-track member of the Foreign Ministry, to become the future Empress. Most Japanese were pleased at the prospect of having such a lively and accomplished Princess as part of their monarchy. But according to American press reports, many Americans, as well as many young Japanese women, could not begin to fathom how such a thoroughly modern, internationalized woman, even if she liked the Prince, could toss away a brilliant career to marry him and disappear into the conservative, humourless, controlling royal family where her life would never be her own again and her primary goal would be to produce a male heir to the throne. As the June marriage approached, it seemed evident, according to analysts on both sides of the Pacific, that Masako Owada felt that it was her “duty” to marry the Prince.


From an American perspective, the decision seemed to reflect forced compliance, self-denigration, and self sacrifice. In giving up her hard-won career, she seemed, in the eyes of many, to be betraying the cause of individual determination, feminism in Japan, and ultimately, herself. The local controversy surrounding this particular social event is unlikely to be remembered for long, but it illustrates a classic problem in the analysis of social behavior and one that is at the heart of this chapter. From many European-American perspectives, the Princess’s decision was “obviously” self-sacrificing and “naturally” accompanied by the emotion of unhappiness at not being able to realize some important defining attribute of the self. However, what is not evident in this analysis is the multi-leveled, dynamic interdependency among socially appropriate behavior, the self, and emotion.


The American understanding of this Japanese behavior is anchored in a particular individualist approach to the self. From a different orientation, one in which the individual is cast not as an independent entity but as one fundamentally interdependent with others, the decision to marry the Prince could be understood differently. It is possible from this other perspective that the Princess may not have felt sacrifice or injury to the self, but rather affirmation of a more connected, obligation-fulfilling, social self. She may indeed have felt content or “good’ as a result of her decision to respond to the desires and expectations of others and marry into the royal family. As is evident in this example and in studies from anthropology and cultural psychology (for recent reviews see Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Moghaddam, Taylor, & Wright, 1993; Shweder, 1991; Shweder & LeVine, 1984; Smith & Bond, 1993; Stigler, Shweder, & Herdt, 1990; Triandis, 1990), what is regarded as positive or negative normative social behaviour can vary dramatically from one cultural group to another.’


–  Markus and Kitayama (1994, pp. 89-90).


After hopefully conveying a sense of what I mean by ‘moral misrecognition’ and what it looks like – this is how I begin my thesis:


‘I begin with a case study to illustrate the potential for what I refer to throughout the thesis as ‘moral misrecognition’ in intercultural relations.[2] The thesis also ends with a discussion of moral misrecognition. I have chosen to bookend the thesis in this way because the subject and focus of the thesis is, in many ways, a response to my experience and observations of this phenomenon;  the thesis is in many ways an account of my own gradual ‘coming to terms’ with, and eventual understanding of ‘what is going on’ in instances of misrecognition in intercultural exchange or cross-cultural relations.

The most significant thing about the findings of this thesis, in my mind, is their potential to promote a better understanding of the Yolŋu ‘side’ of the intercultural,and in this way encourage recognition and understanding of cultural difference – to work against that which leads to moral misrecognition in the first place. In short, I hope to impart some of what I learned (or was taught with much patience) about the potential value of cultural difference. As I have mentioned hereon before, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my  Yolŋu family and the wider Yolŋu community is that difference may be realised as a value as it forms the basis for ongoing relationships characterised by interdependence and reciprocity. Valued difference affords 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’). Without further ado, a case study illustrating the potential for moral misrecognition in intercultural relations:


‘It was the beginning of the wet season when social spacing becomes oppressive and mobility a luxury. The stalwarts of camp, luku-man’ka-mirri yolŋu (‘people whose feet possess the quality of the clay’), which was about ten of us, had been sitting around expectantly from morning ‘till night for ten consecutive days waiting for the mechanics from the local government service provision agency to fly in. The mechanics were expected to fix one of the three cars in camp.


Having a functional car in the wet season affords an invaluable expansion of social space and a degree of food security at a time of the year when both are scarce. They had also agreed to fix the ride-on lawnmower, which would have drastically reduced the time and energy we were spending cutting the grass around camp in order to keep the snakes and mosquitoes at bay. In short, their visit was expected to dramatically increase our quality of life at a time of the year when it’s at its lowest.


Each day of waiting family had called the office a number of times, but for whatever reason there was a general misunderstanding. We sat expectantly and no plane arrived. On the tenth day Wäwa said he was going to rakuny-thirri (‘become dead, “die”’) if he rang again, and asked me to call instead.


I got through to the head mechanic who explained that they were still waiting for a part for our car, and even then, wouldn’t come until they could double up the flight with  other workers to avoid costs. He explained that they’d probably make it out in the next few days on the builders’ plane, that the builders were intending to fly out to fix the diesel-generator shed, which had been damaged in a storm. I thanked him, buoyed by the prospect of mobility, and relayed the story to family outside. However, my excited relief was short lived. Yapa  reacted angrily, insisting she had told the builders not to come.


“I told them to stay there and do whatever their work, bits and pieces. They were supposed to fix the diesel shed LAST year! Because they made us wait, so this one [the diesel shed] can just sit here now until June or September!” I was baffled.


“But if you stop the builders then the mechanics can’t come and fix the cars and the lawnmower . . . ”




Not only had we been waiting for the cars and lawnmower, but family had been complaining about the need to have the shed fixed for months. They’d even had me take photos of the damaged shed to send the office in order to press the urgency of the matter, with the wet already upon us. However, when office administration rang the following day to organise the logistics of the builders’ and mechanics’ visit they were told in no uncertain terms not to come, “because the builders were supposed to have done it last year.”


After the call, crestfallen, I joined the rest of family, who, in contrast seemed rather excitable. They posited what they would say and do if the builders attempted to fly out, making general insults and complaints about them, about Balanda (‘European/s, white person/people’) at the Service Provider, and about the Service Provider in general. They speculated as to whether they’d heard the builders in the background during the call, and felt they had reason to suspect they might try and ‘sneak in’. The more they talked about it, the more their sense of defiance increased, until Yapa posited we dhal’-yurra (‘close [up], block [off]’) the airstrip, in case they did try to ‘sneak in.’ It was a perfect idea, a strong one – and within half an hour there was a lawnmower, children’s toys and a number of other stray objects right in the middle of the airstrip.


All the while I sat, frustrated, wondering what the hell type of strategy this was, and how the hell it was going to get the car fixed.’


Ideas and expectations about sociality and sociability entail evaluative, moral understandings about the nature of Self and the relationship between the  Self and Others.  These shared understandings are largely tacit or taken for granted (and largely a product or result of child socialisation), however, there is now a large body of literature detailing considerable cross-cultural variation on these themes. Foreshadowing the themes that run through this thesis, Markus and Kitayama write on the topic thus:


‘The shape of the self (i.e., its various meanings and practices) will . . . determine the nature of “good” feelings and of the social behavior that will promote and foster these good feelings. This means that what is experienced as joyful or happy or as sad or angering depends on the mediating self. Aside from the good affective reactions that accompany sweet tastes or smells, or the bad affective reactions that result from extremely loud sounds, bright lights, or hissing snakes, most “good” or “bad” feelings depend on extensive emotional socialization. Through this process, people come to “have” feelings of the shape and variety that reflect the specific value commitments of their significant social groups. Basic to this argument is the idea that being moral (i.e., proper, right, or appropriate) according to one’s group, feeling good, and being a person are all intimately connected’ (1994, p. 93).


My experience with Yolŋu people suggests that when the actions and interactions of one cultural group are cast exclusively in the terms of another (as often happens in intercultural relations), the significance and value underlying or motivating these social actions or social forms is not only lost or effaced but often misunderstood or misrecognised in an evaluative, moral sense. Non-recognition, in such cases, begets misrecognition. The resulting interpretation may be positive or negative. In the case of the latter, such misunderstandings or instances of misrecognition may be cast as moral judgements in evaluative terms of deviance or disorder.[2]

A marked asymmetry of power relations, such as sometimes occurs between cultural minority groups and the State, make certain people particularly ‘visible’ or vulnerable to ‘reparatory’ or disciplinary measures. These range from the disciplinary gaze of negative cultural or racial stereotypes, to ‘targeted’ forms of governance enacted or imposed by the State. The over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the legal system and in jails can be seen as an unfortunate outcome or exemplar of this phenomenon. As a corrective of sorts this thesis seeks to build upon the work of Frances Morphy (e.g. 2008) and that of Yolŋu people themselves, to ‘make visible’ the underlying socio-moral system in North East Arnhem Land, to present something of the local Yolŋu experience of intercultural relations – morality and value in social relations.’






**Endnote: It should come as no surprise that Balanda behaviour often seems not only incomprehensible but downright asocial and immoral from the Yolŋu point of view. Indeed, there exists a poignant, pointed local critique of Balanda patterns of sociality and the Balanda political and economic system also – the way it is structured, organised and run. The difference, however, is that Yolŋu people acknowledge, recognise and respect this cultural difference and continue – in spite of everything – to hope that they can one day expect the same from Balanda.


[1] In the following chapters of the thesis I outline the local model of social organisation and introduce a key body of terms and concepts associated with affect and morality in Yolŋu-matha. In the middle chapters I analyse a series of ethnographic case studies and observations from various aspects of everyday life. This is done drawing on the terms and concepts introduced in previous chapters. I show that these terms and concepts – and the shared understandings comprising them – not only inform the way people consider and evaluate morality and value in everyday relations, but motivate and shape culturally recognised and culturally recognisable forms of social exchange and patterns of sociality throughout the region. In the final chapter I consider this body of knowledge a model of exchange and theory of value in its own right – comparable to any academic or scholarly model/theory.

[2] In this case, the misunderstanding or ‘misrecognition’ obviously occurs between myself and my Yolŋu family as well as between the service providers and my Yolŋu family.


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

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

Mutiny: Imprisonment, Deaths in Custody and the NT Intervention




This month is the 7th anniversary of Mutiny Zine! Mutiny are an anarchist collective based in Sydney. The zine that they produce explores  ideas about anarchist thought and practice, as well as different avenues of disobedience and resistance. Mutiny are also closely associated with Jura Books, which is well worth a visit if you ever happen to find yourself in Sydney-town.

The following piece – which is based on a previous post hereon –  appears in the latest Issue of Mutiny Zine, # 69. Thank you to the Mutiny crew for the opportunity to share info and stories about Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and institutionalised racism, and congratulations on your 7th anniversary –  keeping a radical project alive for this length of time is no small feat.


Imprisonment, Deaths in Custody and the NT Intervention






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On the evening of January 4th, Kwementyaye joined a large group of friends in the vicinity of Flynn Oval, which is approximately 5kms from the centre of town in Alice Springs.

Constable Gareth Evans began walking towards the group, wanting “to see if they had any information about an alleged fight at the shops.” [i] When he was half way across the oval, however, one of the young women in the group shouted out to the others and they all began to disperse. Constable Evans called for back-up on his radio and began to pursue the group on foot. He jumped a fence and began to jog after a smaller breakaway group of five or six. At the back of that group was Kwementyaye, “and when he got close to a large iron gate beside the school, he slipped on the bitumen or dirt and fell.” When Kwementyaye got up, he had a cut above his left eye, described as a “laceration above his eyes that had burst. There was fresh blood around the cut but it wasn’t gushing or dripping down his face.”

After this initial “fall” Kwementyaye got to his feet and allegedly started swearing. Constable Evans then allegedly gave him a direction to “take a step back” which Kwementyaye allegedly ignored. Constable Evans then “pushed him in the chest with an open left hand, causing him to stumble and fall into the gate, before falling forward.” Kwementyaye was then secured on the ground using a three point hold position, which involves placing one knee on the side of his shoulder and securing his right hand behind his back. Keep in mind that Kwementyaye was not even suspected of having committed a crime. He was taken into Protective Custody because he was deemed too intoxicated to look after himself.

Upon arrival Kwementyaye was placed in an observation cell with two other men. Approximately thirty minutes later he was ordered to come out from the cell to join four or five other detainees who were being processed in reception. On the way into the corridor towards reception, Kwementyaye swayed slightly, turned back and grabbed the door handle, appearing then to lean in to get his shirt that was left on a bench. Constable Evans noticed that Kwementyaye wasn’t following behind the others and “he took him by his wrist to escort him to reception. While Kwementyaye was being escorted his legs went out from under him and he fell forward onto the floor.”

Kwementyaye was then dragged by Constable Evans into the reception area where he was left sprawled out on the floor. A number of other detainees were being processed around him. Kwementyaye lay on the floor for several minutes before Constable Evans “took a pen and applied pressure to his fingernail to see if he would respond to a pain stimulus, a technique he learnt while working as a security officer at a Hospital.” CCTV footage shows that Constable Evans left Kwementyaye lying face down on the ground as he walked away.


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At one stage Kwementyaye was clearly emotionally distressed and can be seen on the CCTV footage to be sobbing and groaning. He was incapable of taking his own shoes off and he lay on the floor barely moving while another detainee took them off for him at the request of police. The CCTV shows Kwementyaye lying on the floor for several minutes while several officers walk around him, concerning themselves with the other things. As he lay there, police were joined by Sergeant William McDonell, who was performing the role of Watch House Commander. He appeared untroubled by Kwementyaye’s state, in spite of observing a smear of blood on the reception floor caused by a laceration above Kwementyaye’s right eye. Sergeant McDonnell merely cleaned up the blood smear, asked who Kwementyaye was and ordered him to get up. Kwementyaye did not respond, but Sen Sgt McDonnell was then distracted by another detainee and he left the area.

After repeated commands from Constable Evans to get up, Kwementyaye managed with some difficulty to lift his weight up onto the bench seat, but he was obviously unsteady and lacked control of his faculties. Soon after he sat down on the bench, he got up and leant against the wall. “He was then sat back down, firmly but fairly by Constable Evans.” Kwementyaye stood up again, but this time, “instead of firmly guiding him again or giving him a stern verbal direction, Constable Evans pushed him hard with an open hand and sent him sprawling backwards into the wall.”

After the push, Kwementyaye “looked upset and picked up a blue plastic property box that was between him and another prisoner. He did so in a drunken manner, and the plastic box was easily taken from him by an older man seated beside him who was being processed as a protective custody.” Constable Evans looked relatively unperturbed and motioned for Kwementyaye to put the box down. Kwementyaye stood up with a clenched fist, although his arm and fist stayed down by his side. In response, Constable Evans “grabbed him by the arm and slung him towards the reception counter with undue vigour, causing Kwementyaye to hit his arm and head on that surface.”


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Kwementyaye was then spread out on the ground and searched by Constable Evans, assisted by Constable Blansjaar and Constable Grey. It is apparent from the CCTV footage that where his head was positioned, a small pool of blood formed from the leaking wound above his eye brow. Kwementyaye was then carried face down to Cell 9 by the three officers, with one on each arm and one picking up his legs. Prison officer Parker hurriedly threw a mattress into the cell on an awkward angle which stretched diagonally across the two concrete slabs in the room, and Kwementyaye was placed faced down at the same angle without anyone moving the mattress into a more comfortable position.

When Kwementyaye was carried along the corridor, blood from the head wound fell in droplets on the floor. That drew the attention of four or five sober prisoners in cell 16 who saw the blood and called out to the officers, telling them that the man they saw should be taken to hospital. After being placed on his mattress Kwementyaye was left alone in Cell 9. What happened next was captured on CCTV. Seconds after being placed on the mattress, he rolled onto his back and hit his head on the concrete bench. A minute later he attempted to stand up but fell hard onto the bench, hitting his head again. At 10.14pm, he attempted to sit up but fell and landed face down with his head and chest on the bench and the rest of his body on the floor.

Soon after Kwementyaye was placed into Cell 9, Prison officer Parker began a series of brief but regular checks, which involved her standing in the corridor and looking in to confirm that he was breathing. Prisoners in Cell 16 were watching from their vantage point and, once again, expressed their concern that Kwementyaye needed immediate medical care. In her own words, this was Prison officer Parker’s response: “I just turned around and I might have been out of line when I said it but I just turned and said, ‘Well, youse all carry on like this when youse are drunk,’ and you know, ‘And when youse are sober you just want to be nice to us,’ then I – I think I’ve walked off.

At around 11pm the evening Watch House shift changed over to the overnight shift.

Over the next two hours, the two officers on duty rarely left their desks; only three cell checks were done by Constables O’Keefe and Kershaw. In evidence they admitted being distracted from their duties ‘by various things, including an iphone, an ipod and the internet.’ The officers also failed to respond to the distress calls made by prisoners in Cell 16, who could see and hear that Kwementyaye was in trouble.


* * *




* * *


At 11.44pm, prisoner Warren McDonald activated the call button in his cell. It is clear from CCTV footage that he and other prisoners were looking across to Kwementyaye in Cell 9. The Coroner writes that, “it is likely that the prisoners in Cell 16 were seeing Kwementyaye in the last moments he was alive and at the last opportunity police had to save his life. I heard from Warren and Kyle McDonald and from Mr Impu that they could hear distressing noises from Cell 9, described by the men as coughing, gasping and choking. A review of CCTV footage shows that the last movement of Kwementyaye’s body was a very slight twitching of his limbs, at 11.42pm, just two minutes before the call button was activated.”

The call rang three times over several minutes. Constable O’Keefe answered the call a few minutes later, however, he hung up the receiver, “because when he glanced up at the CCTV screen in front of him and could see that the prisoners in cell 16 were seated back on their mattresses.”

The prisoners gave evidence that they also tried to get the attention of police on more than one occasion, by calling out. The report notes that, Officer Kershaw had “shut the door between the corridor and reception area, in order to block out the noise of a prisoner who was at the end of the row of cells where Kwementyaye was housed.”

When Sen. Sgt Barram returned to the Watch House at 1.30am, he commenced a round of cell checks and at 1.41 am, he noticed that Kwementyaye had not moved from the position he had last seen him in at 11pm. The Watch House Commander moved straight to Cell 9, entered it and found that Kwementyaye was not breathing. He yelled for an ambulance to be called and commenced CPR, but his body was cold. According to the Coroner’s report, “he had probably passed away around two hours earlier.”

In October 2012 Deputy Chief Minister Robyn Lambley ruled out taking disciplinary action against any of the Police officers involved. This is the story of so many Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. All the facts and figures in the world cannot account for this level of institutionalised racism. There is nothing post- about colonialism in Australia.

* * *













[i] All in-line quotations taken from the Coroner’s Report:

[ii] Chris Cunneen (2011)

[iii] Jon Altman & Melinda Hinkson (2012)

[iv] Bureau of Statistics (2011)



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More exclusion please: Gove Land Rights (1971) and Justice Blackburn’s ruling against Yolŋu claimants


Private Property


The Gove Land Rights case – Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, (1971) 17 FLR 141 – was the first litigation on Native Title in Australia. Justice Blackburn ruled against the Yolngu claimants on a number of issues, rejecting the doctrine of Aboriginal Title in favor of terra nullius. His ruling says a great deal about the Balanda (white people, European) concept of ‘private property’ and the social relations that comprise it.


‘I think that property, in its many forms, generally implies the right to use or enjoy, the right to exclude others, and the right to alienate. I do not say that all these rights must co-exist before there can be a proprietary interest, or deny that each of them may be subject to qualifications. But by this standard I do not think that I can characterize the relationship of the clan to the land as proprietary.


It makes little sense to say that the clan has the right to use or enjoy the land. Its members have a right, and so do members of other clans, to use and enjoy the land of their own clan and other land also. The greatest extent to which it is true that the clan as such has the right to use and enjoy the clan territory is that the clan may, in a sense in which other clans may not (save with permission or under special rules), perform ritual ceremonies on the land. That the clan has a duty to the land-to care for it-is another matter. This is not without parallels in our law, which sometimes imposes duties of such a kind on a proprietor. But this resemblance is not, or at any rate is only in a very slight degree, an indication of a proprietary interest.


The clan’s right to exclude others is not apparent: indeed it is denied by the existence of the claims of the plaintiffs represented by Daymbalipu. Again, the greatest extent to which this right can be said to exist is in the realm of ritual. But it was never suggested that ritual rules ever excluded members of other clans completely from clan territory; the exclusion was only from sites. The right to alienate is expressly repudiated by the plaintiffs in their statement of claim.


In my opinion, therefore, there is so little resemblance between property, as our law, or what I know of any other law, understands that term, and the claims of the plaintiffs for their clans, that I must hold that these claims are not in the nature of proprietary interests.


That disposes of the question in general terms, but it is proper also to consider the applicability of the Lands Acquisition Act 1955-1966. That Act does not define “property” but defines ” interest,” in relation to land, as “(a) a legal or equitable estate or interest in the land; or (b) a right, power or privilege over, or in connexion with, the land” (s. 5 (1)). The earlier Act had substantially the same definition, applied to “land,” with the inclusion of the word “easement.”


The Solicitor-General submitted shortly (the point, in his submission, did not require extensive argument) that the Act does not apply to any interest other than one already known to the law of property at the time when the Act was passed.  It therefore could not protect the plaintiffs’ interests. I do not think I need decide the theoretical question whether a proprietary interest of a new kind which was created, or held to exist, after the passing of the Act, would be protected by it. Mr. Woodward submitted that the words “right, power, or privilege over, or in connexion with, the land” were wide enough to cover “communal native title” which was shown by the evidence to be vested in the Rirratjingu and the Gumatj in respect of the land attributed to their respective clans. With respect, I think this is begging the question. It amounts to saying that whenever aboriginal natives are found in occupation of land under a system which does not recognize private property in land, that is “communal native title,” and that that alone is sufficient to attract the protection of the words “right, power, or privilege over, or in connexion with, the land” in the Act.’



Federal Law Report, Milirrpum and other v. Nabalco Pty. Ltd and the Commonwealth of Australia (1971, pp. 272-273)







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Congratulations to Traditional Owners of Koongarra, Kakadu.


Jeffrey Lee

Jeffrey Lee


Jeffrey Lee and Traditional Owners of Koongarra and surrounds have shown such integrity and strength in their collective struggle to protect their Country. Congratulations and much respect – Koongarra and Djok lands set to be protected as part of Kakadu National Park. The following statements are from Jeff Lee and Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation.


Statement by Djok Senior Traditional Owner, Jeffrey Lee AM, 6 February 2013

‘This is a great day for me, my country and my culture. My mind is at peace now that I know that there will be no mining at Koongarra and that Djok lands will be protected forever in Kakadu National Park. My mothers and grandmothers who taught me about the plants and animals, my uncles and aunties who shared their knowledge, to all the elders and my creation ancestors – I give my humble respect for standing here today.

I have said no to uranium mining at Koongarra because I believe that the land and my cultural beliefs are more important than mining and money. Money comes and goes, but the land is always here, it always stays if we look after it and it will look after us. So many people have helped me along the way. Firstly, I want to thank the Minister for the Environment, Tony Burke, for his determination to see this finally done. I also want to thank the Mirarr people and especially the senior traditional owner, Yvonne Margarula, and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation. They have stood by me and showed me that Aboriginal people can say no. I hope that one day Kakadu National Park will be truly complete with the Mirarr lands at Ranger and Jabiluka included in the national park.

There are too many people to thank. Special thanks to my family Stephen, Jacqui & Mai Katona; Dave Lindner, Ian Conroy, Tony Heenan & my Kakadu friends; Gareth Lewis, Richard Ledgar, Rian Rombouts; Dave Sweeney and Justin O’Brien, Clare and Darcy Henderson, Peter Garrett, Trish Crossin, Peter Wellings, Chris Haynes, Peter Cochrane, Clare Martin, the Northern Land Council, The Greens, The Australian Democrats, the NT Environment Centre and Larry and Gabrielle O’Loughlin. I also thank those people in the early days from the 1970s who also offered their support. I thank the journalists and film makers who took the time to listen to my story and then told it so that others could hear.

To all the Aboriginal people from Australia and Indigenous peoples from overseas that have supported me and to all those that go on to fight for your own rights – I thank you. All the people that have written to me from across Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, Italy and other parts of the world – thank you. To all the people who I have not met and who I know are out there helping others to stand up and say no, I thank you because you have always been there. I sincerely thank the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for respecting the values of my country and culture and to the Australian and Northern Territory governments for supporting the inclusion of the Koongarra area into Kakadu National Park.

This has been a very long and difficult struggle for me. I have gone through a lot of trouble and heartache and waited a long time to see this day. However, the fact that I am here today proves that if you are true to your culture and to your land one day you will win.’



Media Statement from Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation: Koongarra Set For Permanent Protection (6 February 2013)

Mirarr Traditional Aboriginal Owners today welcomed Environment Minister Tony Burke’s introduction of a bill which clears the way for the incorporation of the Koongarra area into Kakadu National Park. This move recognises the long held Aboriginal aspiration to protect this unique area from the threat of uranium mining.

The introduction of the Completion of Kakadu National Park (Koongarra Project Area Repeal) Bill was also welcomed by the Djok Senior Traditional Owner of the Koongarra area, Jeffrey Lee AM. Mr Lee was in the Federal Parliament to witness the introduction of the bill, accompanied by a delegation representing the Mirarr. Jeffrey Lee was awarded the Order of Australia in 2012 in recognition of his work to protect his country and gift it to the nation. He has firmly opposed uranium mining on his country on the grounds of the deep cultural significance of Koongarra to its Traditional Owners and concerns about the dangers of uranium.

In his long struggle to protect his country Mr Lee has drawn inspiration from Yvonne Margarula, the Senior Traditional Owner of the neighbouring Mirarr people. Since the 1990s Yvonne Margarula has led the Mirarr opposition to the proposed Jabiluka mine, north of Koongarra and the existing Ranger uranium mine also on Mirarr land. Ms Margarula spearheaded the international campaign against mining at Jabiluka. Her resolve and leadership guided the campaign and prompted a special UNESCO mission, resolutions in the European Parliament and US Congress and several Australian parliamentary inquiries. In the late 1990s Ms Margarula won several prestigious international awards in recognition of her work to protect her country.

In 2001, the Rio Tinto majority owned mining company Energy Resources of Australia acknowledged the opposition of the Mirarr traditional owners and agreed to halt work at Jabiluka. Ms Margarula said, “Traditional Owners must be allowed to make their own decisions about development on their country. Jeffrey has been speaking out to protect his country and we support him. He has always said no to mining at Koongarra and we support him when he says he wants to see that country put into the National Park. We want to see the same protection for Mirarr country.”

The Mirarr people have this month executed a renegotiated agreement for the existing Ranger mine, which was imposed on them in 1978. This agreement, along with provisions of the federal Atomic Energy Act, provides for the Ranger area to also be included into Kakadu National Park as the mine is rehabilitated. The executive officer of Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, Justin O’Brien, said, “This action by the government is to be applauded, although the name of the bill incorrectly implies that this completes the national park. There is further work to be done and we still look forward to the day when all of Kakadu is included in the National Park and adequately protected from unwanted industrial development.”




These statements can be found on The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation website.


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Laying it down, impressing it in place: the separation and/or authority of morality and ‘law’


Repatriated image from The Mulka Project

Repatriated image from The Mulka Project.


Yolŋu people share a well articulated local theory of morality and value, comprised of local shared understandings, of local terms and concepts. This local theory is not radically marked by the distinction between ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ social fields and social relations. The foundation of rom (‘proper manner of doing things, custom, law’) is that of both morality and law.


Moral: mid-14c., ‘pertaining to character or temperament’ (good or bad), from Old French moral (14c.) and directly from Latin moralis ‘proper behavior of a person in society,’ literally, ‘pertaining to manners,’ coined by Cicero (‘De Fato,’ II.i) to translate Greek ethikos (see ethics) from Latin mos (gen. moris) ‘one’s disposition’ – in plural, ‘mores, customs, manners, morals,’ of uncertain origin.


Law: Old English lagu (plural laga, comb. form lah-) ‘law, ordinance, rule, regulation; district governed by the same laws,’ from Old Norse *lagu ‘law,’ collective plural of lag ‘layer, measure, stroke,’ literally ‘something laid down or fixed,’ from Proto Germanic. *lagan ‘put, lay’ (see lay). (Replaced Old English æ and gesetnes, which had the same sense development as law. Cf. also statute, from Latin statuere; German Gesetz ‘law,’ from Old High German gisatzida; Lithuanian istatymas, from istatyti ‘set up, establish.’)


Lay (verb): Old English lecgan ‘to place on the ground (or other surface),’ also ‘put down (often by striking),’ from Proto Germanic. *lagjanan (cf. Old Saxon leggian, Old Norse leggja, Old Frisian ledza, Middle Dutch legghan, Dutch leggen, Old High German lecken, German legen, Gothic lagjan ‘to lay, put, place’).


When people talk of the ‘proper manner of doing things’ they talk of ‘following’ [in] the footprints of previous generations of their respective family groups, lineages, and ancestors. When people talk of the specifics of rom (‘proper manner of doing things, custom, law’) they refer to particular ancestral footprints, which were ‘put down, laid down,’ impressed or ‘imprinted’ in place.

The more important, focused points of rom are those that are ‘pierced into place.’ These many and various aspects of rom are collectively reenacted and thus reinforced every time a ceremony takes place as people – literally and performatively – reenact and/or retrace these footprints, tracks, trajectories and traces. The mali’ (‘image, picture, impression’) –  the stylised impression or ‘design’ of such footprints – are collective forms of title to Country and other forms of property to which the imprint refers/from whence it derives (see suffix -buy/-puy/-wuy). Relevant terms or expressions include:


Luku, ‘foot, footprint, anchor, root [of a tree].’


Nheeran is a transitive verb that refers to the act (or action) of ‘placing, emplacing, putting down.’ It carries a sense of ‘impress, imprint.’


Nhirrpan also refers to ‘placing, emplacing, putting down,’ but has a sense of ‘piercing’ – as in with a spear – into the ground, in place, in, or ‘as’ the foundation of rom.


I generally think of morals as evaluative shared (i.e. cultural) understandings about normal, good, ‘proper,’ right behaviour – shared understandings and expectations about how one should be treated and how one should treat others. Morals become laws when they are not only shared but enforced in some way – when they are ‘laid down’ or ’emplaced’, so to speak.

It makes sense that there exists a strong socio-spatial dimension to concepts of morality in the absence of centralised authority, given the fact that the further the socio-spatial distance, the more difficult it is to enforce one’s ideas about how one should be treated and how one should treat others.

As for the separation of morality and law, as I remarked in a previous post, this takes a special kind of fetish and a special kind of tyranny – the fetish of djorra (‘paper’) and the tyranny of centralised authority.
















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A brief history of recent Government attacks: Remote Indigenous Homelands, NT.



I thought to reiterate this recent history, to offer context to the previous two posts. This is a story about the remote Indigenous Homelands and how successive governments have tried to shut them down.



A brief history of recent Government attacks on the remote Indigenous Homelands of the Northern Territory (NT), Australia [1]


1) Withdrawing, rescinding and withholding  . . . economic opportunities

In 2007 then Liberal Government announced it was abolishing the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP). The CDEP provided people with opportunities for gainful employment on country, for people to both live and work on their traditional Homelands.

Altman and Gray (2005) point out that the CDEP performed five main roles in remote and very remote areas of Australia: first, it provided flexible employment opportunities, often in contexts where there are no, or limited, mainstream employment opportunities, particularly for Indigenous people; second, it provided income security and the opportunity to earn additional income from employment and enterprise; third, it provided an opportunity for education and training; fourth it can assist participants to move into mainstream (unsubsidised) employment; and finally, it acted as an instrument for economic and community development.

With the abolition of CDEP people were denied the opportunity to live and work in gainful employment on Country.


2) Withdrawing, rescinding and withholding . . . social and political representation

In 2004 the Federal Government (again, under Howard) abolished the only elected Indigenous political body in Australia, The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

ATSIC (1990–2005) was the government body that formally involved Indigenous people in processes of government. There were a number of additional Indigenous (led and run) programs and organisations that fell under the umbrella of ATSIC. The agency was ‘dismantled’ by the Howard Liberal Government in 2004 based on allegations of corruption.

The second point to note under this heading is the fact that the government has reduced sixty-two (62) Municipal and Community Government Councils in the NT to sixteen (16) over the last four years. Eight of these are new ‘super’ Shires, which each serve (i.e. allegedly represent) an unmanageable number of townships and remote communities and, furthermore, include large areas of land not previously administered by Local Government.

It is now widely acknowledged that the previous, smaller remote-based councils and resource agencies played a crucial intermediary role between remote communities and government.


3) Withdrawing, rescinding and withholding . . . basic services

In May 2009 then NT Minister for Indigenous Policy announced the Working Futures Policy which saw the introduction of a Hub and Spoke model of service provision in remote areas.

The ‘hub’ aspect of this model was the preferential focus on large, centralized communities and townships such as Yuendumu, Borroloola and Maningrida. The government hand-picked and declared twenty of these centralised communities Northern Territory Growth Towns, which were from then on to function as ‘hub centres’ for surrounding areas and the many and diverse smaller Homeland Communities throughout the region.

There was no mention at the time that many of these Growth Towns were already (and still are) experiencing social problems associated with chronic housing shortages and overcrowding. Many families are still living in tents, for example, on the fringes of these so called Growth Towns.

The ‘spoke’ aspect of this model was the withdrawal of basic service provision to smaller Homeland Communities. Many Homeland schools, for example, were shut down and medical provision rolled right back. These services that were withdrawn or rescinded are basic services that every Australian citizen is entitled to; they are basic services that every (other) Australian citizen is able to take for granted. Crucially, at this time the government also announced that it would ‘not build any new houses on outstations and homelands.’


4) Withdrawing, rescinding and withholding . . .  basic civil rights

In 2007 the NT Intervention into remote Indigenous communities shocked even the most cynical of government critics. Legislatively known as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007, the NT Intervention was allegedly a response by the Federal government to the Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, and the subsequent Little Children are Sacred report.

It is now widely acknowledged that this report did and does not contain any information nor any recommendations that support or justify the measures included in the NT Intervention. Indeed, lawyer Rex Wild QC who co-authored the report has since spoken out against the Intervention on a number of occasions calling for it to be dismantled.

In order to ensure that the ‘emergency response’ was not in breach of current legislation and law the Federal Government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act (see ‘Clause 132 of the first Bill that states that provisions are classified as ‘special measures’ under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and therefore exempt from Part II of the Act).

The NT Intervention’s main logistical operation, Operation Outreach, was enacted or carried out by the military – by a force of 600 soldiers and detachments from the Australian Defense Force (including NORFORCE). This deployment was, in effect, a military sortie that saw the military convoys deployed into small, remote Indigenous communities. This, despite the fact that they were situated on private property owned and held as inalienable freehold title in fee simple absolute, by Traditional owners.

To the widespread and sweeping measures that comprised this intervention. The following measures were introduced by the Federal government as part of the NT Intervention:


Introduction of widespread alcohol restrictions on NT Indigenous land, even though the majority of Aboriginal communities are already ‘dry.’


Introduction of welfare reforms now known as welfare quarantining, which dictates when, where and how people can spend their money.


The imposition of compulsory ‘health checks’ – mandatory anal and vaginal examination – for all Indigenous children regardless of their and their parent’s wishes.


The forceful acquisition of townships from Traditional Owners, through non-negotiable five-year leases, with the prospect of permanent loss of communal customary title. This required undermining aspects of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976.


Increased policing levels in Indigenous communities.


Enforced on the ground clean up and repair of communities with the military, police, and (involuntary) local Indigenous work-forces, ‘marshalled’ through work-for-the-dole. These ‘local work-forces’ had their welfare payments made conditional on such activities.


The imposition of market based rent on land, which was up until last week Indigenous land which require Indigenous people to pay the government market based rents for living on land that the government compulsorily acquired.


Banning the possession of X-rated pornography and introducing audits of all publicly funded computers to identify illegal material.


Abolishing the permit system (a central pillar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976) for common areas, road corridors and airstrips for prescribed communities on Indigenous land.


Introduction or imposition of government installed managers in all Prescribed Communities.


The current Gillard Labor Government has continued with these policies under the rubric of Stronger Futures.




Long live the Homelands.

[1] There are approximately 60,000 Indigenous people that live in the NT, comprising approximately 1/3 of the NT population. There are more than 100 Indigenous languages and dialects spoken in the NT, with many people speaking English as their third or fourth language.

Indigenous Traditional Owners today own approximately 50% of land in the NT. There are ~560 Homeland communities on this Indigenous estate. While they are remote these communities are anything but isolated – they are interconnected and interwoven by kinship networks and socio-political ceremonial ties that crosscut the many culturally distinctive regions in the NT.

Some of these Homeland communities have existed and been maintained through continuity of occupation, residence and patterns of mobility since pre-colonial times. This is true of the Homeland community where I lived throughout the course of my fieldwork. These are among the only Indigenous people who have not yet been dispossessed of their country – who have never – not yet ever – been moved off their country for any period of time since contact.

Many other communities were established as part of the ‘Homelands Movement’ in the 1970s by traditional owners who had previously been ‘shepherded’ coerced or ‘herded’ into centralised government settlements and mission stations. In the 1970s there was a shift in public opinion and government policy toward ‘Self Determination’ and ‘Land Rights.’ People were then free to return to their country, which they did in large numbers and with great haste.

This decentralised migration became known as the ‘Homelands Movement.’ People cleared their land by hand, cleared roads and airstrips and built their own shelters etc; these people were trailblazers who endured a great deal of hardship in order to reestablish their lives and families back on their respective countries.

Living on the Homelands allows people to maintain their socio-religious, political and economic connections to country, to maintain their respective traditional languages, customs and culture and, most importantly, to raise their families and future generations on country in the same way.



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