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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, Barrupa, Rarrkararrka.


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 explore.


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 people.

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 society.

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 Australians.

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 lifestyle.

If we don't act now, we'll effectively be denying future generations the opportunity to learn from one of world's oldest cultures.