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"?
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.