Mandawuy Yunupingu on Aboriginality and Culture
Reconciling With Aboriginality and Culture
Introduction in Yolngu Matha
I'm speaking today as a representative of my community, the Yolngu peoples
of north-east Arnhem Land. My tribe is the Gumatj people, one of sixteen
in the Yolngu society. My name is Mandawuy Djarrtjuntjun Yunupingu.
Mandawuy means 'from clay'.
Djarrtjuntjun means 'roots of the paperbark tree that still
burn and throw off heat after a fire has died down'.
Yunupingu depicts a solid rock that, having travelled from freshwater,
stands in salty waters, its base deep in the earth.
I am Gudjuk the fire kite.
Our formal identity, as Aboriginal people of this country,
is Maralitja. We are known as Maralitja, Dhukulul, Garatjinya, Ngunbungunbu,
I've been asked today to address the issue of reconciling
Aboriginality and Culture. At first I read that as Aboriginality and Cuisine,
and thought perhaps Pauline Hanson was setting the agenda... Which, after
a fashion, she is.
Let us recognise and appreciate that we are each individuals born into
different families, different cultures, different environments, and that
culture is imparted through love and affection. It is not colour of skin
that defines our identity but the culture into which we were born.
In my introduction, spoken in my father's language, I talked
of my particular law and the basis of our philosophy. Like the name of
my band, the system of relationships which Yolngu people practice is known
as Yothu Yindi. Yothu Yindi translates as child and mother. It's the belief
system our culture is driven by, the ultimate source from which we draw
our power as a society. In the bush we share with other clans the secret
knowledge that establishes our title to land. This maintains the intricate
relationships that we share with one another. Our Aboriginality is expressed
by the fact that we practice these social and spiritual ways of living
through the arts of music, dance and painting.
From generation to generation this knowledge has been passed down through
ceremony and story and art. It's the law that we have lived by since time
began. And, through this process, our identity is at one with mother earth.
This complex ceremonial activity, often lasting for weeks at a time, is
practised by thousands of people in the bush on a day-to-day basis. Such
ceremonies are often conducted in secret, out of the public view, in languages
few of those who share our land have taken the opportunity to learn and
It's only in recent years that text-book appraisals of Aboriginal
culture have not been written in the past tense. That artworks from our
cultures haven't simply been relegated to tea towels and beer coasters.
That our music, dance, painting and sculpture have been hailed in the
international arena. Through Mabo and the Wik decision, the Balanda system
has finally recognised the Aboriginal law that has always been so strong.
It's a momentous time in our history, with two legitimate legal systems
seemingly at loggerheads over land title and other issues covered by our
traditional law. It's time for this nation to look into its past and set
the agenda for the future.
For our part, through our Yolngu conciliation process, we believe it's
now time for us to forgive - but never to forget - the wrongs of the Balanda
ways since colonisation. Which brings us to the path of reconciliation
and the building of bridges between the cultures that share this land.
We believe that conciliation will be achievable only through recognition
and celebration of the fundamental cultural differences co-existing within
this country. The secret lies in integration, not assimilation.
The problem we face today is still the power game played by the dominant
culture. It takes the form of the institutionalised racism still practised
in the fields of sport, education, health, media, justice etc etc.
While acknowledging that some inroads have been made in
recent years through such cross-cultural pursuits as sport and music and
related fields where Aboriginal people are winning recognition for their
efforts, there's still a long way to go. Certainly, persistent allegations
of racism on the sporting field are disturbing, so it is pleasing to see
organisations like the Australian Football League embarking on campaigns
to educate their players. It's a start, at least.
As Aboriginals we are slowly starting to decolonise the minds of our own
We recognise that the balance will be found in the context of an Aboriginal
Australian way of life, in which our traditional way of life is maintained
within the contemporary Australian way of life.
These are processes we're involved in as individual and
collective communities throughout Australia.
As Aboriginal Australians we take pride in - and draw dignity from - our
past. We've shown our desire to share the more public aspects of our culture
through the development of such things as eco-tourism enterprises, utilising
our knowledge and skills to expanding our economic bases.
Aboriginal people shouldn't be in the lowest socio-economic bracket when
such riches have been harvested from our land.
Through Native Title we now have the bargaining power to negotiate with
the vested interests. This presents us with the opportunity to reap the
benefits of mineral resources and other uses of the land, such that we
can develop our own economic bases, allowing us to contribute to the wider
community in our own style. For example, negotiation under Native Title
has lead to the exploitation of the Century Zinc deposits in Queensland
to the benefit of all.
Under these circumstances we face the future with a view of unity forthcoming.
We look forward to a time when knowledge will be shared and celebrated
so we can learn from one another for the benefit of our homeland Australia.
Sadly, this vision is being blurred at present.
Let us recognise as a nation that Aboriginal culture has been under attack
for the past 209 years. That the Prime Minister's ten-point plan is yet
another example of that erosion of our basic rights. Our black leaders
are fighting hard for us in the political arena. These people identify
themselves as fighters for basic human rights. It's through their understanding
of traditional law that they can find parallels with the Western introduced
law, precipitating greater scopefor co-existence. Their fight is to stabilise
the nation, to bring about peace and harmony in our homeland.
Despite much of the feel-good rhetoric we've heard since 1988 - talk of
treaties and compacts - overall perceptions, and conditions under which
Aboriginal people live, have changed little. Health problems are still
chronic, education standards poor, living conditions often atrocious.
Until there's a fair dinkum shift towards better understanding of Aboriginal
people and their unique culture, we're not going to move forward. Those
in the corridors of power - be they parliaments, corporations or schools
- need to recognise Aboriginal culture and accept it as an intrinsic element
of our national identity. They also need to acknowledge the aspirations
of Aboriginal people.
In the Northern Territory, over ninety Aboriginal communities are classified
as Dry. That is, the people of those communities have voted to ban alcohol
from their environment. In many cases it's been the women of these communities
who've fought for the ban in order to give their children a better start
in life. NT Chief Minister Shane Stone, in an effort to halt a seasonal
drift toward major centres, wants to overthrow that will of the people
by imposing a Wet canteen on each community. While such measures are being
contemplated, our future looks grim. The shift in attitude toward how
we deal with each other can best be achieved on a national level through
education in Aboriginal studies and exposure to aspects of our culture
on an on-going basis in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Australians
can fulfil the dream of living in a truly great and just multicultural
As I tour the country - and indeed the world - with Yothu Yindi, I recognise
that people in the cities want to explore our Yolngu culture. In response
to that, my community is in the process of developing a cultural institute
in conjunction with various tertiary institutions across the country.
Yothu Yindi and the Northern Land Council are presently
trying to put together a national youth tour featuring indigenous acts
as part of our on-going commitment to the reconciliation process. We regard
this as an opportunity to deliver the truth for the next generation of
Some people came here as convicts, others as refugees, others to exploit
the bountiful resources of this continent. Many of our friends have grown
up here. But in that process many of us were dispossessed. In many parts
of the country we were defeated, our languages lost, our culture compromised,
but even the dispossessed take pride in their past.
Today we welcome people from abroad coming to settle here, trusting that
they acknowledge and respect the indigenous culture of this country. These
people help in contributing to the Australian economy and offer much from
the fruits of many cultures, for which we are all the richer.
In the year 2000 the world's attention will, for a time, be focussed on
Australia. Much has been made of a proposed campaign to draw an international
spotlight onto the plight of Australia's indigenous people. Politicians,
aware of the ramifications of such a desperate ploy, argue that we should
keep our internal affairs in-house. Okay, let's do that : but let's do
it actively. We need, as a nation now, to deal with matters affecting
the basic human rights of our people.
For it would be a shameful folly for Australians to take pride in the
successes of our indigenous sports stars when their people are suffering
in Third World conditions.
So let us pursue the course of reconciliation on the streets and the playing
fields. Let us start in our own neighbourhoods and branch out, such that
we might all share in the wealth of our people and our multi-cultural
If we don't act now, we'll effectively be denying future generations the
opportunity to learn from one of world's oldest cultures.