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Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Yolngu cosmology and identity in brief
Peter R. Lister

The role of this brief article is to clarify and discuss some terms and to dispel some of the myths and fallacies about the Yolngu world present in recent and popular print. There has been much written about Yolngu and their world and much written about Aboriginal people in Australia generally. There is a common perception that beliefs held by any particular Aboriginal group are pan-Australian. This is often not the case, and even amongst single cultural blocs there is much diversity in mythological and spiritual belief. The Yolngu are no exception. While the work of some writers has been rigorous in this regard (see Suggested Reading below) it still appears that Yolngu perceptions of cosmos are more complex than this. In my following comments, I too need to generalize. The reasons being that I am not privy to deeper and specific knowledge; that I am not in a position to speak for others about their cultural beliefs; and that there are things that should remain only within the Yolngu realm.

So it should be kept in mind that this article is also of a general nature and it should be realized that what is held to be the truth by Yolngu in one part of eastern Arnhem Land is not necessarily the case in another part of that same cultural/linguistic region. Even Yolngu debate the finer points of such matters.

Yolngu see the world quite differently to us in that our reality consists of the tangible and physical dimensions of our lives. Yolngu sometimes describe this as the “outside”, and that which is visible. The “inside” is that which is hidden from view and which is also a reality for Yolngu. Knowledge of this inside aspect to existence is vital to Yolngu and often far more important than the outside dimension. Yolngu also believe in the existence of spirits, the souls of the deceased and the actions of malevolent spirits in bringing about sickness and death and of beneficial spirits to heal.

Yolngu believe they come from a hidden world within the depths of the clan waters. This is a place within the clan’s estate, a waterhole or river, from which all members of their clan arise and to which (for many clans) they return. They exist there before they are born and as such have identity before they come “outside” where they are manifest in a physical form.

It appears that all things in the Yolngu cosmos have these inner and outer realities and this duality of form. All things in the Yolngu world are not necessarily as they appear “outside”. Sometimes things look nothing like we expect when they are outside, and things can morph (djambi) as they move from one of these dimensions to another. As an example some fish and planets are one and the same!! The Sun changes into the Barracuda when it sets in the sea (enters the inside), and then reverts again before it comes outside (rises). The Moon and the Trevally, the same. Because of this, some objects that are apparently inanimate move about or act as though they are human or animal in form; eg: a canoe may be sleeping or standing when described in a story or song. It’s difficult for us to grasp this trait, that a canoe can be sleeping, and this may be because we perceive time in a different way to Yolngu.

The belief that the inner dimensions of things are their true identity is manifest in the physical change that can be seen by all of us when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Yolngu see the butterfly as the inner, hidden reality within the caterpillar that at some stage will morph and emerge into the outside world. The inner essence of both is the same, they just appear differently to our eyes at different times. There are of course many insects that undergo such remarkable transformations; phenomena that are still not fully understood. Incredible aquatic carnivores that mature into airborne hunters, flesh-eating maggots that become nectar-feeding flies. (Interestingly, Barramundi, a northern Australian fish species, are all born females and some differentiate into males at maturity).

And so this incomprehensibly different perception of time is possibly where confusion arises about the ‘dreaming’ or ‘dreamtime’. These terms inadequately describe the way in which traditional Aboriginal people understand and relate to their ancestral past and present. It would take an entire essay, rather than a single word, to convey something of the essence of the complex concepts involved.

Yolngu perceive time on a different scale to us; a continuum where the past, present and future doesn’t exist as we know it. The “Dreaming” is the distant ancestral past, the present and the future, another dimension that is hidden from the mundane everyday, is of the “inside”. It is this way because Yolngu do not believe that the inner reality of things change; that this dimension is always the same (the caterpillar and the butterfly again), and so by extension (for us), no change means there is no time. Maybe it is the scale/quality of time that appears to be different though? Certainly Yolngu use a range of terms equivalent to the ‘distant past’, ‘yesterday’, ‘now’, ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘sometime in the future’, so it is much more complex than we are yet able to understand.

Waanga (w^\a) literally means ‘home’ or ‘country’; the clan estate over which the clan hunts and gathers and in which they usually reside, but as with many words in the Yolngu lexicon it can mean several other things. (Even in English, ‘home’ has several meanings; a place where someone lives; a place where someone was born or raised; a point of origin as in a game, to name a few). Within this clan country is the ancestral home for those clan members and the place from which their very essence arose; not always the place in which someone is conceived. This place, often a sacred waterhole, is the place from which all things within that clan’s country arose and where an individual existed before coming “outside”, being born. It contains the souls of the unborn and the souls of deceased clan members. All things of import to that clan reside there. Their past/ancestry, their future, and also the powerful objects (rangga - ra\ga) left there by their ancestors while they lived there or as they travelled through that tract of country. These objects are the physical remnants of those ancestors and contain the very essence of them. Sometimes they are referred to as ngaraka (\araka), literally their “bone”. They may or may not bear any physical resemblance to the ancestor, but inside, they are one and the same, an actual piece of them. People and country are therefore inseparable. They have the same identity and people relate to country, literally, as they do to actual relatives (gurrurtu - gurru=u). They will refer to country as their ‘mother’ or ‘mother’s mother’ because they have kinship ties to individuals from that country in that same relationship. Kinship maps directly on to country.While these sacred objects (rangga - ra\ga) are hidden they are “inside” and they are brought “outside” for ceremonies, bringing with them this inherent power (ganydjarr), knowledge (stories, designs etc) and identity for revelation to attendees and at the same time bringing the past to the present.

The term, “songline” was popularised by the writer Bruce Chatwin to describe a set of songs/stories that recount the actions of ancestral beings as they journeyed across the landscape in the ancestral past. Often referred to in the past by anthropologists as 'song cycles' but now exploited and exaggerated by the New Age movement (and even professional social ecology/humanities types) to create a fallacious notion that these "dreaming tracks" are continuous lines crossing the entire continent (possibly confused with past Aboriginal trade routes), this somewhat disrespectful idea does not take into account diversity amongst Aboriginal cultures within Australia and their need to retain and assert individual group identity.

The actions of certain ancestors and their travels are recounted in various Yolngu stories and songs and there are instances where these events do indeed cross clan estates or even the entire northeastern corner of Arnhem Land (several hundred kilometres), such as the Djang'kawu (Dja\’kawu) and Waagilak (W^gilag), but they do have a beginning and an end. They do not continue on into the desert and into completely different cultural blocs (unrelated linguistic and cultural units). Yolngu sometimes remark that they do not know what happens beyond those points and don’t seem to be concerned about their fate.

Yolngu life is about learning the real meaning of ones’ identity, their cosmos and their place within it and amassing the clans’ knowledge. Attendance at ceremonies reveals aspects of a person’s identity and so this will go on until they draw their final breath and return to the inside, aided on their journey by the performance of song and dance to which they are related.

During a ceremony, peoples’ obligations are determined by their kinship relationships, which as already mentioned above, is the same as the way they relate to each other’s clan ancestry. Ceremony also allows groups to affirm connections and ties to other kin/groups (as with the Djang'kawu (Dja\’kawu) and Waagilak (W^gilag) mentioned above) and also to assert differences that demonstrate group identity. Things that are in common and shared by groups are strengthened and at the same time, things that mark groups as being different and provide for rights to particular sites, or governance/control/maintenance of songs/myth, are asserted. The travels of ancestors like the Djang'kawu (Dja\’kawu) and Waagilak (W^gilag), for example, tie all Dhuwa clans together, but the origins of Yirritja languages, clan estates and clan identities etc are held with Yirritja ancestors. Same people, same culture, different beliefs.

During the creation of a painting (or other ‘art’ object), an artist may make an effort to impart aesthetics to a work to increase its’ value (in the commercial market) or to reflect the inherent beauty present in the natural world, but it is far more important to depict the correct subject and design as each artwork is a manifestation of their clan estate, another outside version of the inner reality and also one facet of the physical representation of the artists’ own identity. While an artist may impart some changes to a work that identifies them as the painter, the subject matter and design are fairly rigid. Paintings, and designs within paintings, encode title deeds to clan country and depict facets of the inner reality in a metaphorical manner. There are many layers of meaning in each painting/design (miny’tji) of which we can only usually be privy to the lesser meanings. While a subject within a painting may be obvious as a particular animal or bird and bear that animal or birds’ name, it will always hold another meaning to the artist and to the artists’ clan (or others with knowledge of that clan’s country, or a particular relationship to the artists’ country). While people may speak of a subject as being their “totem”, this is an expression we’ve used which they’ve adopted, thinking that we understand the relationship of that species to them. The word totem is derived from a Native American (Ojibway) word and appears to describe something used as an emblem for a clan, group or family unit. Some western definitions of the term include ‘worship’ but this is an incorrect interpretation. For Yolngu the relationship is not a totemic one in which an organism is worshiped (revered/idolised as a god), but one where the individual is related to the animal or bird as if they were actual kin. They have both arisen from the same country. They have both come outside and manifest as different forms, but inside they are the same!! This can only be described as worship in that there is a degree of adoration and/or devotion towards this object/organism.

For Yolngu, to paint subject matter and designs that belong to someone else is to paint an aspect of anothers’ identity. This is not allowed unless there is some special dispensation by the owners of the design to allow for this (such as their clan dying out). Such a decision cannot be made by an individual because these things belong to all members of the clan or group. Paintings and designs, like language, manikay (clan song), clapstick patterns and rangga (ra\ga) are owned by the individuals and groups to which that painting/design, language, object, belong. People must paint their own designs and subject matter as an expression of themselves and their group origins. Paintings were, on occasion, executed upon bark prior to white contact, but mostly they were (and still are) used as body designs in ceremony. Because they are an aspect of identity they are painted upon the chest for initiations, and in the past on the body of the deceased and the hollow log coffin. These days, hollow log coffins are no longer used for interment because of Australian law, and so the design is often painted upon the coffin lid prior to burial. Hollow log coffins are still made and painted for the arts industry.

Common to many Yolngu paintings is cross-hatching (rarrk). This is one of several patterns that denote aspects of the inside. Cross-hatching imbues a painting with a shimmering quality (bir’yun). It can do weird things to our eyes and when it does this is known to be an outside manifestation of the inside power of the design. It is a traditional painting technique used in western and eastern Arnhem Land and Groote Eylandt, not beyond the Top End of the Northern Territory.

Yolngu recognise individual’s talents as a part of a person’s identity and value everyones role in the community, regardless of whom they are. Everyone has a role to play in both everyday and ceremonial life. There is a philosophy that underpins Yolngu understandings of ecology and interaction and can be seen in models in nature where many individuals contribute to an outcome that is greater than anything a single individual can achieve. For example, a few species of native bee are social insects that build a hive of several thousand individuals that each has a role to play and they work together for a common goal. Each bee fulfils its’ role and without performing the tasks of another individual of another caste. In addition, the hive produces unique substances unknown outside of the hive, honey and wax, which can only be produced by such cooperation. Yolngu see such activities as an expression of model interactions and a balance in relationships and life.

Peter R. Lister
March 2004


Some Suggested Reading

Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre (1999) Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country. Catalogue of exhibition. Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre / Jennifer Isaacs Publishing. ISBN 0 646 377027

Keen, I (1994) Knowledge and Secrecy in an Aboriginal Religion: Yolngu of North-East Arnhem Land, Oxford Uni. Press. ISBN 0 19 550752 5.

Morphy, H (1991) Ancestral Connections, Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0 226 53865 6, ISBN 0 226 53866 4.

Rudder, J (1999) The Natural World of the “Yolngu” the Aboriginal People of North East Arnhem Land., Restoration House (publishers). ISBN 0 86942 100 X.

Copyright 2002-2006 J.H. Burrows and Peter Lister