Tag 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

Head + ghost + dog = blunt ears: a curious language note




One of my few PhD fieldwork regrets is that I didn’t take the time to learn Yolŋu sign language. I had the great fortune of having a beer conversation with two long term researchers in this area last night, Dany Adone and Bentley James. Adone and Maypilama (2013) define Yolŋu sign language as  both an alternate and primary sign language. It is used on a daily basis on the Homelands, as a way to talk to each other from a distance (when out of hearing range), as a way to communicate when out hunting (when you want to be quiet for obvious reasons), and as a means to communicate things you just don’t want others to hear. Children also often use it just because. My little gaminyarr, for example, tells the most hilarious stories in sign-language, made all the more funny on account of her overly exaggerated manner of signing.

Anyway, the other day Bentley shared with me the hand-sign for the idiom buthuru-dumuk, and I found it a little big bit more than curious. Buthuru-dumuk (literally ‘ears-blunt’), is a Yolŋu-matha idiom used to refer to people who behave in an unthinking or unfeeling manner (and who upset or affront others as a result). It has connotations of being insensate, ignorant and unaware. The hand-sign for buthuru-dumuk, however, is comprised of three separate hand-signs: the sign for liya (head), the sign for mokuy (ghost, evil spirit) and the sign for watu (dog). Head + ghost/evil spirit + dog = buthuru dhumuk. How could one not find this impossibly curious?

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Filed under Incidental

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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Filed under Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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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Filed under Ethnography, Incidental, Posts of an unqualified kind

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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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

Theorising ‘value’ makes me frustrate in the head









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A critical note: ‘Marriage’ and its applicability in ethnographic description




This is an updated version of an older post, revived for students in my tutorials today.


There are infinite possible kinds or forms of long term intimate relations, or at least as many as there are possible combinations of persons alive at any given moment. It is unsurprising then, as feminist studies of kinship remind us, that there exists a great deal of diversity when it comes to socially recognised forms of intimate long-term relations. And yet pick up any ethnography, turn to the index, and there you will find the term marriage duly noted in between those things that come before and after. (Birth and death or maq– and mas-.) Flick back through to the relevant page and there you find an ethnographic description of marriage practices and marriage relations in the society or region in question.

In using these terms unproblematically anthropologists risk unwittingly translating over or effacing whatever it is that might be different, unique or idiosyncratic about socially recognised forms of intimate, long-term relations in the culture or region in question. Moreover, such habits of methodology unwittingly reproduce dominant norms[1] when it comes to understandings and expectations of what is ‘normal, proper and right’ in intimate relations. (“You mean they don’t have marriage!?!? *imagination goes wild*)


What is marriage?

Marriage relations are contractual relations (i.e. alienated relations) between two persons recognised, conferred and regulated by the Church and/or State. The relationship between husband and wife is first and foremost an exclusive status recognised, conferred and regulated by the Church and/or State (i.e. the personal relationship existed before and outside the institution of ‘marriage,’ it did not come into existence as a result of it.) In conferring this exclusive status the centralised authority also confers certain exclusive rights to persons involved who agree, by way or means of a binding contract, to accept certain obligations in turn.

There are further defining characteristics of ‘marriage’ which include: the ceremonial ‘signing’ of said binding contract;[2] the fact that the contract can only be terminated by the Church and/or State (i.e. a married couple cannot just ‘declare’ themselves no longer married), and crucially –  the fact that the exclusive rights conferred upon persons involved include rights and interests to persons and property, which significantly affects (if not determines) socio-economic patterns of succession/inheritance (i.e. the intergenerational transmission of socio-economic rights and interests to persons and property).


This doesn’t really sound like an ahistorical, cross-culturally neutral concept or institution, does it? So why do anthropologists so often employ it as if it were? A number or combination of reasons I think, chief among which is the difficulty in describing terms and concepts that do not have direct equivalents in the language in which the anthropologist is writing. Writing ethnographic descriptions of culturally recognised forms of anything, is a lot more difficult and involved than drawing on familiar terms and concepts from one’s own language and culture. Thick description takes forever! [3]

From Schneider and Strathern to Keen and Morphy, many anthropologists have written about and proposed ways and means to avoid translating over social and cultural difference. The most recent I have come across and enjoyed is the Introduction in Howard Morphy’s ethnography Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories (2008), where he writes, in part thus:


‘The development of a meta-vocabulary for anthropology, consisting of categories that are applicable cross-culturally, can be justified on a number of different bases. The pragmatic justification is that the meta-vocabulary is simply a formalisation of something that anthropologists do anyway. An anthropologist brings certain concepts with her or him into the field and uses them as an aid to analysing the data gathered from that society. The concept is then re-defined in terms of the categories and concepts of that society: so that gender in Melanesia, for example, is differently constructed or conceptualised than it is at a particular time and place in European history (see Strathern 1988).


It is better that anthropologists apply these terms in a considered way that reflects , even challenges the sense in which they are understood within the discipline than that they should apply them unreflexively and without definition.


A more theoretical answer is that the meta-vocabulary that anthropologists construct is indeed an acknowledgement of the existence of cultural categories that have general relevance. Not all cross-cultural categories are going to be universal; some may apply regionally or temporally. . . . To be valid in the sense in which I am using it, however it [the cross-cultural category] needs to be interrogated in the contexts where it is applied and to make sense to the people whose categories are under scrutiny. In practice such testing of the proposed category will proceed through ethnographic research . . . ‘ (2008, pp. 5-6).


In closing, a final note from Howard Morphy:


‘It is quite possible that as a result of investigation the anthropologist concludes that no such phenomenon exists in the society concerned, though it is more than likely that something will have some relationship to the phenomenon marked by the cross-cultural category. Of course it is precisely this mismatch that can result in a revision of the category itself’ (2008, p. 6).



#Occupy your own tools of analysis






[1] Assumed/dominant norms in the anthropologist’s culture or context (is what I mean here).

[2] As a cultural ceremony or ‘ritual’ most weddings follow Victor Turner’s three phases of ritual down to a tea: separation, transition/liminality and reintegration/incorporation.

[3] For non-anthropologists, ‘thick description’ is a term coined by Clifford Geertz. See the relevant wiki-entry, here.


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