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May 11, 2006

Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

The 'family' concept and Yolngu/Balanda relations
Peter Lister

So what is it when Yolngu (Yol\u) say, "You're our son" or, "You call me mother" or "See that Balanda over there, he's my brother"?

Often non-Aboriginal visitors are "adopted" into the Yolngu world and the perceptions of the parties involved can be very different. Balanda (non-Yolngu) seem to regard this position as one of acceptance within the group far beyond Yolngu intent. They can believe they are now a part of the Yolngu cosmos and on par with Yolngu themselves; and at a superficial level they might well be. Their obligations towards Yolngu "kin" are often real in material terms but the role played by Balanda should not be taken literally as the position is essentially "classificatory". So what is really taking place in this process?

Yolngu exist in a world quite unlike our own with a very different kinship structure to western society. Our relatives are our immediate, actual and extended blood relatives and marital relatives. We describe these family members by kin terms; about thirty of them, such as mother, daughter, cousin, nephew, grandfather, stepsister. We speak to and of them by personal names and some of these kin terms, depending upon how "close" or "distant" we are related and to whom we may be speaking.

On the other hand, Yolngu use about seventy similar terms and rarely use personal names when speaking to or of someone. Individual Yolngu have many personal names, including a Christian name which is used more commonly in everyday interaction just as we might. Using such a name allows some freedom from protocol and etiquette. It reduces the risks of being impolite and is still respectful without using more formal means of address. Balanda have found it easier to learn and address Yolngu by their Christian names rather than their Yolngu names even when their Yolngu name is known, and so this works well for both cultural groups. It is common for the use of personal Yolngu names to be regarded as disrespectful or impolite. There are of course exceptions to this. For us Balanda, such use demonstrates affection or closeness in relationships.

When Yolngu visit relatives, actual or classificatory, the usual Yolngu kinship protocols apply. If the position of the visitor within the kinship structure is unknown, then once it is ascertained, normal interactions can take place because everyone understands their relationship to the visitor and so immediately knows how to behave correctly. Nobody is insulted or offended. Mutual respect and understanding results as no real interruption has occurred. Quite a different situation arises when Balanda enter the Yolngu world.

Balanda live in many Yolngu communities and despite this often have little personal contact with Yolngu. They may live in separate parts of the community and have little contact with Yolngu outside of those in their immediate workplace. Much of what they need comes from outside of the community which lessens their contact with Yolngu at the shop or clinic or art centres or school. There is often little interaction between Balanda and Yolngu neighbours, even if their children play together. As such Yolngu often don't understand what Balanda need and how they expect to be treated. Yolngu do not understand the way we live with any depth, their only impression comes from watching how we interact with other Balanda and by what they see in the media. They understand that many of us are rude and lack politeness and etiquette towards each other. As a result Yolngu believe they have difficulty ensuring that our needs are met when we visit them. They can feel uneasy about ensuring our comfort.

This can be overcome by treating the situation as they would if the visitor were another Yolngu. By "adopting' Balanda into families, Yolngu feel comfortable about how to behave towards them and how to communicate on a daily basis. Even though they know little about each other it codifies behaviour within the community. There is an immediate protocol set which will dictate their behaviour towards them and the visitor is no longer an outsider. At the same time, the outsider feels accepted and barriers and unease for all are broken. This action also allows for the opening of dialogue and understanding for both parties and the opportunity for Yolngu to do some serious "bridge-building" while at the same time learning more about the Balanda world and improving their English.

Our own western social and familial fabric is often less than ideal, the kin structure broken and dysfunctional. We seem to readily build strong relationships with people who express love and compassion openly outside of our own family so it's easy for us to be overwhelmed by the generosity and acceptance afforded by Yolngu. This is reinforced by our "adoption" into a Yolngu family and the use of close kin terms to which we quickly become familiar. Our eagerness to be accepted into any group in our society (for that's usually how we determine our identity) is no different when it comes to such human relations.

That's not to say there is no love or affection involved. I myself can no more be Yolngu than I can be Chinese or Swedish. I was born in this country (Australia) but that does not make me any more Yolngu than any other non-Yolngu. Nor does visiting and staying with a Yolngu family (with whom I often feel a deeper rapport than I do with my own actual family), speaking Yolngu matha (language) or attending ceremony, as I have occasion to do. One can study another culture for an entire lifetime outside of that into which one is born, yet will never be of that foreign culture. This is equally true of the Yolngu world. One must be born Yolngu, to be of it. Yolngu children are born with an identity that they have prior to conception. This is not something that can be learned nor experienced to the degree to which Yolngu live it. Balanda can learn much about Yolngu and their cosmos and even think like Yolngu but they can never become Yolngu. Being Yolngu is about birthright, like being born of royalty.

As already mentioned, our position and role in western society usually defines our identity. Our work and our education and our earning capacity determine where and how we live and the labels we attach to ourselves that define who we are. Our identity is very much what we do. Our family history and heritage also determine who we are.

Yolngu identity is also about family history and heritage, but even more, it is about the land from which one arises. All aspects of the Yolngu cosmos are inseparable. Each clan, a linguistic unit of common actual kin, is associated with a tract of land, the clan estate of which all clan members belong. Identity of an individual (and the group to which they belong) is expressed through language and the arts such as dance, song and designs that relate to this same tract of land. There is, in effect, a copyright on the ownership and use of these languages, designs, rhythms and movements held by the clan members. Only Yolngu of that clan and estate hold the rights to use these designs, to perform particular dances and songs, to play particular didjeridu rhythms or clapstick patterns or even to use the language of their group. To breach these copyrights is to broach another's identity. Rare exceptions can be made to kin in particular relationships or as a part of traditional trade and exchange.

For Yolngu, a painting or body design is analagous to a flag, a tartan, a logo or corporate brand for us. It represents all of those with a common identity; it's about membership of a particular group. It reinforces commonalities between closely related groups and at the same time asserts differences with more distant groups. Song and music similarly, is like an anthem for a group. Yolngu can ascertain membership of a particular group by observing the dances or songs performed, or by the paintings executed, by an individual. Such Yolngu arts at one level depict clan estate and can act like a title deed to that country. Only group, company, club or institution members have the rights to use our logos or name within the parameters we set for our culture, and so it is for Yolngu.

To copy or teach such designs or rhythms is to break Yolngu law and to show a lack of understanding and respect for these things, their rightful custodians and the role they play in Yolngu cosmology. Yolngu do not do this and neither should we. Yolngu teach us aspects of their culture and law to raise our awareness and understanding and to build stronger relations. That does not give us rights of ownership or permission to use that knowledge. So we must remember that Yolngu art, music, dance and language is unlike our art, music, dance and language. It is their very essence manifest in physical form and a measure of who they are and their place in their world.

Peter R Lister
November 2003



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