Tag Archives: Yolngu

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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The way value inheres: Yolŋu riŋgitj and its relationship to Malay ‘ringgit’

 

Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Port of Macassar, 1947.

Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Port of Macassar, 1947.

 

There are many loan words from Malay and other Austronesian languages in the Yolŋu languages of east Arnhem Land (see Evans 1992). These derive from pre-colonial exchange relations between Yolŋu people and seafarers from the port of Macassar (now Ujung Pandang) in Sulawesi. Collectively referred to as ‘Maŋgatharra’ in Yolŋu-matha, these seafarers made the annual voyage to Arnhem to collect trepang and engage in broader exchange relations with Yolŋu people.† A number of Yolŋu people also accompanied Maŋgatharra on return voyages to the Port of Macassar, as evidenced by oral history and art work such as that pictured above.

Among this body of loan words is the Yolŋu-matha term riŋgitj, derived from the Malay term ringgit, meaning ‘jagged’ and originally used to refer to the serrated edges of silver Spanish dollars which circulated widely in the region during the 16th and 17th century. Today, of course, ringgit refers to the national currency of Malaysia. (It was officially adopted as the name of their currency in August 1975.) Continue reading

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Dhuŋgur’-yun-nha: a short poem and comment on stuff

 

Yes, I know I'm always on about social order as affect. This is an image from the British Museum.

Yes, I know I’m always on about social order as affect. This is an image from the British Museum.

 

Today I was reflecting on the fact that I don’t write poetry as often as I used to, and when I do it tends to ‘come out’ half in English, half in Yolŋu-matha. This makes it quite a different task to write-up and share – to make it sound right in translation (or at least do justice to the way that it sounds in my head). This is true of even short and comparatively ‘literal’ pieces. And as with any translation work it is difficult to know how much contextual information the reader needs to understand it as you’d like them to.

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about all this because a) there quite a few little poems in my notebook that I’ve neglected over the last many few months, and; b) it’s almost time for me to start writing a serious post-doctoral project proposal and the project that I have in mind is a collaborative project (with my Yolŋu family), collecting, collating, translating – and hopefully publishing – a contemporary, bilingual volume of Yolŋu song-poetry.

Yurru more on that later; for now I thought I should start by revisiting my own little neglected pieces, of which the following is one. (This was the shortest and most simple to translate.)

 

On a day

 

like today,

 

when one word

 

mak yurru

(could)

 

dhuŋgur’-yun,

(set everything)

 

warpam –

 

nha.

(alight)

 

I noted this poem down only a few weeks ago. It was hot and dry and I was sitting on the back step with a cup of tea. I’m not sure exactly why it came to mind but the following may offer some context or sense:

The idea of setting one’s surrounding environment alight is not as one might expect on the Homelands (which is the immediate association or context for my use of term dhuŋgur’-yun). Rather than the ‘arsonist’ or ‘firebug’ type connotations people have a responsibility to manage their Country with fire. It is not only a responsibility, in fact, but a loving and nurturing act in many ways; not to do so is neglectful and ‘not looking after Country’ if that makes more sense. One of my favourite, early memories of foot-walking Country was with my close, older sister. We were walking back from our Mother’s Country at dusk and as we walked she started to set the tall, dry grass on fire on one side of the track (with a lighter from her skirt pocket.) I was not only nervous but a bit terrified. She laughed at my balanda (white person, European) concern and handed me a lighter. “Dhuŋgur’-yun-nha!” (set [it] alight!) she said, pointing to the grass on the other side of the track. “Yuwalk!?” (Truly?! [or more like ‘Are you fucking serious!?’ in this case]). She laughed and instructed me to ‘get on with it’. By the time the sun had set we were leading a huge corridor of fire, burning in our wake. I kept turning back to check on it nervously and yapa kept catching my eye with a knowing and amused smile.

This responsibility to set Country alight is in dramatic contrast to the [human] social environment, ‘words,’ and ŋayaŋu (state or sense of feeling [among and between people]). People are hyper-aware of the power of words and are very careful with how they use or deploy them. It is the norm and etiquette to speak in an indirect manner as possible, for example, to avoid excluding or upsetting others or ‘putting them on the spot’ (for want of a better description) – such that Ian Keen refers to a ‘pervasive obliquity’ in Yolŋu languages and language use.

In closing, I should also note that there are idioms or expressions in Yolŋu-matha that bring these two things together – such as ŋoydhuŋgur’-yun (literally ‘seat of emotions-set alight’), which is the transitive verb ‘to make someone angry, irate’. Perhaps I was thinking about the importance of being careful with words? Dhuŋa ŋarra (I don’t know).

 

 

 

Ahh-men anyway, and happy new yearra-whatever.

 

 

 

________

this is not a literal or ‘direct’ translation. Warpam, for example, means ‘everything, all’ but I’ve placed the translation of the term elsewhere because this structure or flow is more ‘true’ to the original.

 

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A pluralistic approach to the anthropology of morality: Yolŋu reverse role-play

‘The array of distinct assumptions about issues regarding moral variability, the nature of the moral domain, and how individual freedom factors into moral action can all result in the study of different theoretical ideas that end up being cast as if they were the same topic.’

– Cassaniti & Hickman 2014:252.

 

I read Cassaniti and Hickman’s New Directions in the Anthropology of Morality the other day and really enjoyed it. The authors put forward some great points, chief among which is their argument for a pluralistic approach to moral variation – one which seeks to ‘reconcile humanity’s propensity toward moral realism with overwhelming ethnographic evidence of moral variability’ (253). I also found merit in the argument for better defining the moral domain – figuring out what counts as moral, ‘what kinds of thing are uniquely moral in each ethnographic setting’ (257) and identifying domains of experience that are ‘morally saturated’ in each ethnographic context (with an understanding that domains of experience that become heavily moralised will necessarily vary cross-culturally). The points I found most interesting and compelling, however, were also those that I found myself critically mulling over days later.

This is all well and good, I found myself thinking, but Yolŋu people have been advocating for a pluralistic approach to morality and law since balanda (white people, Europeans) would listen.’† When is anthropology going to start taking Indigenous theories seriously instead of subjecting them to their own analyses and theorising about them? (I’m sure it’s not just Yolŋu people who have been advocating for such an approach or stance.) Beyond advocacy, in fact, Yolŋu have been doggedly persistent in their attempt to educate balanda about the necessity of such a stance – not only how it is possible, but why it is both necessary and just. And they continue to do so in good humour despite our blunt, closed ears. The video below is but one example of this. Continue reading

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

 

IMG_2123

 

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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No cheek is an island: Body parts in Yolŋu-matha

 

YMmedical-anotomical-vintage-diagram-illustration-17616617

 

One of the things I love about living in Darwin (Northern Territory) is being surrounded by so many different languages on a daily basis. I’ve noticed over the past week, for example, that Kriol and Yolŋu-matha seem to be spoken almost as much as English on the buses. (It would be amazing to do an ethnography of the buses up here actually.) But with re-immersion has come self-consciousness about my own spoken Yolŋu-matha skills. I have been out of practice for so long! All this is to say that I’ve been doing some good old fashioned language practice, and along the way thought to share a few body parts. Continue reading

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Two basic concepts of emotion or affect in Yolŋu-matha

 

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 10.43.29 AM

 

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.

 

Ŋayaŋu

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.

 

 

Dhäkay

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

 

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*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 . . . ”

 

Silence.

 

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.

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

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

 

3424CBatimbil

 

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?)

 

“Yo.”

(‘Yes’)

 

 

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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“When I’m sitting with a man and he’s dying”

 

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The moral imperative – the obligation and responsibility – to ‘carry and hold one another’ is culturally elaborated on many levels of Yolŋu socio-political life. Hence, for example, the title of this clip from my wäwa’s funeral. In the following, taken from John Rudder’s PhD thesis, we get a sense of what it means to carry someone with song as they are dying. I super love this quotation, I think it’s particularly special. (Please note, however, that the translations are not my own.)

 

“When I’m sitting with a man and he’s dying, the first thing I do [when he’s losing wind and suffering], is sing wata (‘wind’), burrmalala (‘cyclone’). With that song I’m trying to bring that wind, that breath back to him.

 

If he loses and passes away and lies back on his elbow (‘likan ŋayi dipthun’) like a broken branch, I sing mayku (‘barrukala dharpa [paperbark tree]’). Instead of saying “he’s gone,” I sing the song that says “he is resting in peace” and in that song mention the names of the places and announce with my spirit where his spirit has gone. My mind and my feelings are madayin-ŋura (‘in or at the madayin [sacra, sacred property of the group]’).

 

Next I sing ‘guku,’ my spirit turning into guku (‘honey, honeybee’) and flying. The song tells me where he’s started and then his journey as guku. Then sing mokuy (‘waŋarr [ancestral form] named Murayana’). Same thing. He looks for sugar-bag and goes on journey [like the waŋarr looking for the hive]. Murayana combines to guku (‘honey, honeybee’) and wata (‘wind’), ŋayi li wandirri, mokuy dhupuma (‘walking along looking upwards’) for sugar-bag.

 

After mokuy, singing about märr (‘a man’s deepest desires and feelings, likened to a string’) but singing about the string called Yaliyali and Rätja. That string from Djarrakpi links Martjanba, and beŋur (‘from there to’) Cape Shield. The words of the song are: Märr-ndja ŋarra weyinŋumirriy, nhakuna Rätja budutthun (‘my innermost desires belong stretched out long like the string Rätja’); Yaliyali (Maŋgalili), Gulunhuma (‘Maŋgalili, string names for Maŋgalili clan’); Marrtji (‘it goes’) ŋurruwalma, Gandaŋuwala, Gurilkawala, (names of channel between Elcho Island and Matjaka); wiripundya (‘other ones’) Rrimbitja, Garrtjulula, Dhamburrthamburr, Malaŋarri [places on the Wessel Islands]; Gamalwala, Wulaŋaniwala [places around Cape Shields].

 

Special names for the places linked to the dead person, like the long string Yaliyali that links these places. It is a Guwak (‘bird species’) that links his name. Marrŋu (‘possum’) also climbs along that rope. By singing the song it’s like praying how much we love that mokuy (‘dead person’). Our love is long like the long string. It doesn’t help the mokuy (‘dead person’), it helps our beliefs. We perform in a special way, making buŋgul (‘ceremony’) and manikay (‘song’) so we feel comfort instead of hard feelings or jealousy. He or she is dead without ceremony. It’s like the body being there turns that place into a ŋara (‘sacred shelter’) place.

 

The first five songs to start are burrmalala (‘cyclone’), dharpa, mayku (‘paperbark tree’), guku (‘honey bee’), mokuy (‘dead person’) and Rätja (‘particular ceremonial string’). Dharpa, mayku and guku, birrkuda tells the dead person that he’s already object-thirri (‘becoming a sacred object’). Those songs also indicate and tell people that the person is dead. I’m sitting close to him and I’m the only one who knows yet. I get the clap-sticks and sing those five songs.

 

Those five songs also form like a map-section for the mokuy (‘dead person’) to follow, which and where we announce his journey to our special place. For us that song ‘Djärr’ (‘dhupuma ŋayi mokuy’) walking along looking upward he will – the dead one – he’s looking at the honey hole. For me that honey hold is djiwarr (‘heaven, sky above’). It’s called Djärr. I come from Burrumŋur.”

 

 

– John Rudder quoting Djangirrawuy (1993, pp. 60-61).

 

 

 

 

 

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