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ETHNONYMS: Miwuyt, Wulamba (Cultural Bloc), Yolngu, Yuulngu


Identification. Yolngu has generally replaced the term Murngin to refer to the indigenous people of the northeastern part of Arnhem Land in Australia. "Murngin" was the term that the anthropologist Lloyd Warner adopted in the 1930s to identify the region and its culturally similar peoples. Linguists working in the area in the 1960s and 1970s introduced the term "Yolngu language," since yolngu is the word for "Aboriginal human being" in all the dialects. Aboriginal people in the Yolngu-speaking area refer to themselves as yolngu (as well as identifying all Aboriginal Australians as yolngu). Within the Yolngu area are some twenty such language-named, land-owning groups. In addition to the names of Language groups, Yolngu people describe and name themselves in a number of other ways, including the location and features of the land they own or where they live (for example, "beach people" or "river people").

Location. The Yolngu area is roughly triangular and is located between 11° and 15° S and 134° and 137° E. The northern and eastern "sides" are coastal and the third "side" runs inland southeast from Cape Stewart on the north to south of Rose River on the east. Northeastern Arnhem Land is monsoonal, with northwest winds bringing rain from about December until April or May.

Demography. The Aboriginal population within the Yolngu area is estimated at 3,500; the population is largely in developing towns and settlements that were formerly Protestant missions.

linguistic Affiliation. Yolngu languages are classified as Pama-Nyungan along with others covering seven-eighths of Australia, but they are isolated geographically from other Pama-Nyungan languages. Yolngu speakers classify their Languages according to their pronominal systems into some nine groups, and each group is labeled by their shared demonstrative "this/here." Two of the largest groups, in terms of number of named languages, also classify their speakers by moiety: dhuwal languages are all Dhuwa moiety, and dhuwala Languages are all Yirratja moiety. Since the 1970s and the Development of adult education and bilingual education programs, a substantial amount of written material is being produced in the Yolngu languages.

>History and Cultural Relations

In Western Arnhem Land, an area to the west of the Yolngu, archaeologists have excavated several living sites more than 30,000 years old and one that may be more than 50,000 years old. It is likely that the Yolngu have been in northeastern Arnhem Land for a comparable period of time. Yolngu had only sporadic contacts with non-Aboriginal people until European occupation of the Northern Territory was under way in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, except for regular visits by Macassans, traders from the Celebes, who gathered bêche-de-mer annually from the late seventeenth Century until 1907. Yolngu assisted the Macassans in gathering and processing the bêche-de-mer, and they obtained from them iron tools, cloth, tobacco, and the techniques of dugout-canoe construction. In the nineteenth century, explorers and prospectors began to make their way overland; around the coast government customs boats patrolled. The Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, created in 1931, includes the Yolngu area. Hostilities involving Japanese bêche-de-mer collectors and a police expedition in 1932 led to the establishment of a mission station on the Gove Peninsula to serve as a buffer between the Yolngu and the increasingly frequent incursions of non-Aborigines into the area. Other missions had been established earlier, two on the north coast and one on the south coast. Each of these missions became centers of gradually increasing Yolngu population. During World War II some Yolngu were killed in Japanese air attacks, some served in an Australian unit in Dutch New Guinea, and many become acquainted with Europeans. After the war, increasing numbers of missionaries and government personnel were based in the Yolngu settlements, and efforts to implement the federal policy of assimilation were intensified. Although gradually accepting Christianity, Yolngu generally resisted complete assimilation into the dominant British-derived society. Federal governments espousing multiculturalism and favorably disposed to some degree of Aboriginal self-determination enacted land-rights legislation in 1976 (which made the Arnhem Land Reserve an inalienable freehold, also called "Aboriginal Land") and began to support a widespread decentralization movement as Yolngu started to move back to their traditional lands. Settlements established there, although increasing in number and intended to be permanent, remain attached to the larger towns (formerly missions) and are serviced by them. Yolngu people are committed to the development of economic independence, although it must be based to some extent on mining on their land, to which in principle they object. They are also committed to the Development of a bicultural society at a rate of change under their control.


Population of the four major Yolngu towns (called "townships") ranges from approximately 1,000 to 2,000, including the permanent or semipermanent residents of the outstations or homeland centers serviced from the towns. The towns reflect their origins as missions, with a central area containing administration buildings and usually a church, as well as substantial well-constructed houses. Nearby, sometimes in the center and radiating away from the center, are the houses of the Yolngu people. This housing was at first of traditional shelter design, seasonally appropriate; subsequently, it was made of bush timber and corrugated iron; later, framed corrugated iron on cement slab was used. Increasingly houses have been built closer to standard Australian outback design, and still more recently they are of cement-block construction. At homeland centers, construction remains predominantly of bush timber or corrugated iron, with earth or sand floors, although some "kit houses" are now being erected. The largest center in the Yolngu area is the mining town at Nhulunbuy, with an estimated population of 3,500; fewer than 50 are Yolngu. In the other centers, non-Aboriginal residents are about 8 percent of the population and are mostly employees of the Yolngu towns and organizations.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Yolngu economy was based exclusively on hunting and gathering until the establishment of the missions and the gradual introduction of market goods. Hunting and gathering remain important for Yolngu both in terms of subsistence (especially at the homeland centers) and of identity, even though motor vehicles, aluminum boats with outboard engines, guns, and other introduced objects have replaced indigenous tools. Small amounts of cash were introduced in the 1940s and 1950s; in 1969 federal training grants began to provide Limited wages, and social service benefits were generally being paid. Standard wages were in place by the mid-1970s, but Social services remain the major source of cash income for Yolngu and unemployment (in European-Australian terms) remains at over 50 percent. Most employment is provided by government agencies in administrative and service jobs. Yolngu on the Gove Peninsula have established business enterprises mainly related to contract work for the mining company.

Industrial Arts. For a few men and women in each Yolngu town or outstation the production of arts and craftsbark paintings, carvings (chiefly but not exclusively made by men), woven net bags and baskets (exclusively produced by women) is a significant source of income, but it is not nearly sufficient to preclude the need for social-security support.

Trade. Yolngu traditionally had trading partners who Exchanged scarce commodities such as highly prized stone, ochres, and other objects of ritual value; trading relationships were important both socially and economically, and the network of trade, although attenuated, remains.

Division of Labor. In the past, women regularly gathered and processed vegetable foods as well as provided substantial amounts of protein (shellfish at coastal sites, small animals such as goannas and snakes at inland sites), while men provided less regularly taken but highly prized large animals (turtles, dugongs, and fish at coastal sites, and kangaroos, wallabies, emus, opossums, bandicoots, and echidnas at inland sites). This division of labor still exists, although women as well as men now line fish and men continue to use the spear and spear thrower for fishing. The division of labor in wage and salary jobs tends to follow the Euro-Australian pattern.

Land Tenure. Land is owned by language-named dans; the parcels comprising a clan's estate may not all be contiguous, and ideally they include both coastal and inland areas. Individuals inherit ownership rights in the clan estate from their father and responsibilities for and use rights in their mother's estate. They may also have subsidiary rights in an area where they were conceived (where their father found their spirit before it entered their mother) and also where they were born. In addition, individuals have interests in and responsibilities for their mother's mother's estate, including the potential right of inheritance should there be no males in their mother's mother's clan. Federal legislation in 1976 Formally recognized Yolngu title along with the Aboriginal title of all Aboriginal reserve lands.


Kin Groups and Descent. The main corporate kin groups are patrilineal clans that own land and the ritual objects and ceremonies that validate their title. In the case of large clans, this function may be assumed by subclan or lineage groups. Kinship provides the primary medium of social identity in the Yolngu social domain; each person is reckoned as kin to every other person, and kin links may thus be traced through Several different relatives. Matrilineally defined relationships establish rights and duties complementary to those of patrilineal descent but not corporate landowning groups.

Kinship Terminology. Yolngu use some twenty-four kin terms (as well as some optional extras) to distinguish lineal and collateral, marriageable and nonmarriageable relatives; the analysis of their system of kin classification continues to provide fertile ground for anthropological debate.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygynous marriages, formerly regarded as most desirable, are increasingly rare. Moiety and clan exogamy are observed, and within these parameters, families arrange Marriages: ideally a young man is assigned a mother-in-law who is his mother's mother's brother's daughter (most likely and most desirably a classificatory relative in this category). Marriages in the past and to a large extent today maintain or extend alliances between lineages. A young man performs bride-service. Divorce was not formerly institutionalized, but Permanent separation of spouses was not uncommon.

Domestic Unit. A man and his wife or wives, who are often sisters, and their children eat and sleep together, whether living in houses in towns, or in houses or shelters at homeland centers. Brothers with their wives and children frequently live in close proximity. Women in such a hearth group or household forage together, and brothers often hunt together.

Inheritance. Joint rights in land inhere in the patrilineal group into which each person is bom; in the same way, ownership of a language is inherited. A lineage is a potential Inheritor of land belonging to the patrilineal group of a real or classificatory mother's mother, should there be no males remaining in that group. Movable property is disposed of through exchange. Formerly a deceased person's personal property was destroyed, but now if such property is valuable it is ritually purified and distributed to relatives on the basis of their attachment to the deceased.

Socialization. Infants are almost always in physical contact with caretakers, children are not physically punished or threatened by adults, and infants and very young children are never overtly denied whatever they wish. Yolngu are proponents of bicultural education ("two-way education") and some are gaining university degrees and designing their own school curricula as well as administering and teaching in their schools.

Sociopolitical Organization

From the point of view of the Australian government, the Yolngu are citizens of Australia, although the entitlements of citizenship have been acquired piecemeal. As citizens they are subject to the administration of both Australian Commonwealth and Northern Territory law. Special status exists in terms of the legislative provisions defining "Aboriginal land" and in limited recognition of some aspects of customary law. Yolngu towns receive financial support for their infrastructure maintenance and development from federal funding authorities and/or from the Northern Territory, depending on the legislation under which they are incorporated.

Social Organization. Yolngu society is based on principles of descent and the categories and groups within it are related through the idiom of kinship. In addition, the factors of age (both absolute and relative), birth order, and gender all influence the organization of social groups. Thus, through the operation of pervasive dualism, the universe is divided into two mutually exclusive but complementary name moieties, Dhuwa and Yirritja, and each individual is by birth a member of the moiety of his or her father. Each language-named clan is either of the Dhuwa or the Yirritja moiety; clans of the same moiety are linked through a shared myth while clans of the opposite moiety, through lineages within them, are linked by marriage alliances. Clans or particular lineages of alternate generation defined by matrifiliation are closely linkedor mergedthrough shared interests in land and ritual performance. Yolngu place a high value on personal autonomy and individual achievement.

Political Organization. Leadership roles in Yolngu society are defined by seniority, which is determined by birth order. The oldest man in a sibling set exercises (or should exercise) primary authority over his brothers and sisters and their Families. The oldest man in a clan should be its head, with his next-younger brother "second" to him. The expectation that the oldest man in a clan will be its head mitigates the strict ranking of lineages, and in practice if the first son of the first son is still regarded as too young to assume the headship, a younger brother of a deceased head will usually assume the headship. Here exist the grounds of competition for the headship. The rule of seniority operates with respect to both men and women; except that in public men usually exercise authority, birth order is more salient than gender in Yolngu Political process. Leaders should be skilled orators, and have the obligation to "look after" all the people who acknowledge their position as leader. To be implemented, a decision must represent a consensus; until a consensus is reached, no decision has been made. These principles of authority and decision making still govern Yolngu political life, even though elected councils are responsible for administering the towns. Yolngu are increasingly active in Northern Territory politics, both through the activities of the Northern Land Council and interaction with elected officials of the territory government. A Yolngu man is currently serving as an elected Member of the Northern Territory Assembly.

Social Control. One of the chief responsibilities of a Yolngu leader is to manage the procedures of dispute settlement. When a member of his clan requests his help to gain satisfaction for some grievance, he may intervene personally to attempt to bring about a resolution; he may convene family meetings or clan moots to ensure the involvement of all those whose concurrence in the matter in dispute and the appropriate outcome is necessary for settlement. People may call attention to a grievance by a public and very loud announcement; if they also threaten physical assault, certain kin should immediately respond: a sister and/or brother-in-law to provide physical restraint, and a lineage leader or clan head to urge calmness and to undertake to arrange satisfaction for the grievance.

Conflict. In the past, blood revenge (payback) prevailed; it was incumbent on certain kinsmen of a deceased person to avenge his or her death. Since deaths were rarely attributed to a "natural" cause, at almost any time people were planning a revenge expedition or were fearful of being subjected to one. It has frequently been said that the only sources of conflict among Yolngu (or Aborigines in general) were women and corpses. Yolngu deny this; rather, they say that serious disputes concern interests in land. The makarrata, which has been described as a "peace-making" ceremony, or as a "trial by ordeal," is ritualized revenge. A successful outcome is signaled by blood flowing from a wound inflicted in the thigh of a principal offender and is accepted as balancing accounts, at least during the time required for the performance of the Ceremony. A custom referred to as mirrirri relates to special kinds of avoidance behavior expected between brothers and sisters regarding a reference to a woman's sexualitya reference which, if made in the hearing of her brother, causes him to attack that sister or any other woman he calls sister. Nowadays, while a man might not attack his sister or "sisters" with a spear, people are still very circumspect about any reference to a woman's sexuality in the presence of her brother.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs center on the myths that tell the travels and activities of spirit beings "in the Beginning." The earth was much as it is now, but the acts of the spirit beings at that distant time in the past set the patterns of proper behavior for the Yolngu who would follow, and left signs of their presence in the land. "Wangarr" refers both to spirit being and distant time past; it is comparable to what has been called "the Dreaming" or "the Dreamtime" in other accounts of Aboriginal religion. The spirit beings named plants and animals in the language of the people on whom they bestowed the land and performed ceremonies that Present-day owners of the land should perform. They transformed parts of the landscape during their journey. At what would be a clan's most important sacred site, they left a part of themselves; in some cases they stayed and "are always there." For the Yolngu, Wangarr continue to exist and to manifest themselves in both the seen and the unseen world. For individuals, the most important ones are those of their father's and their mother's clans. Healers (marrnggitj ) have spirit familiars, often referred to as their "spirit children," who assist them in their curing practices. Since the arrival of the missions, all Yolngu have some knowledge of Christianity and to a varying extent have become active church members.

Religious Practitioners. Since all Yolngu are expected to participate in religious ritualand most doall are practitioners. All men sing the ritual songs and at some time do the appropriate dances; all women perform the women's dances that are required for the enactment of some phases of Ceremony. Traditional ritual specialists are men who commit to memory a large corpus of sacred names (sometimes called "power names")names of clan lands, sites, spirit beings, and their appurtenancesand who intone them in the manner of invocations at certain junctures in ritual performance. Some Yolngu men have been ordained as ministers in the Uniting Church (the successor of the original mission Methodist church); for most Yolngu it is important that their Christianity has been Aboriginalized. Some of the ritual of Yolngu ceremony and its sacred objects have been incorporated in the iconography of the Yolngu Christian churches.

Ceremonies. The major ceremonies of the Yolngu focus on death; their mortuary rituals are an elaborate and Important part of their culture, although they have undergone Certain changes since the advent of the missions. The initial phases of induction into ritual adult manhood were often conducted at this time too, when ritual paraphernalia had been renewed and all the appropriate relatives were gathered. Marriage arrangements, trade, and other negotiations were also conducted during the time of ceremonies, which tended to be at the end of the dry season. Rituals at which the clans' most sacred ritual objects are freshly decorated, displayed, and their meanings explained are the most restricted of all: these ceremonies are directed by the oldest men; only mature men who have demonstrated their worthiness are admitted; and the meanings are imparted incrementally. These objects are of the greatest importance to Yolngu, their significance indicated by their having been called "title deeds" to land.

Arts. Performance of ritual is judged by canons of aesthetics which make it a form of art as well as religious practice; Individual dancers, singers, and drone pipe players are noted and praised for their performance style. Men learn to paint the figures and designs that represent or symbolize their clan's and their mother's clan's heritage, both ritually on bodies on religious occasions and at present on sheets of prepared bark as commercial fine art. Women have also produced Commercial fine art since the 1970s. In the houses of Yolngu living in towns, bark paintings and carvings are displayed for the aesthetic pleasure they give as well as for their religious meaning.

Medicine. Yolngu may now avail themselves of Western medicine and also call on the services of a marrnggitj for diagnosis and/or treatment, especially if the cause of illness is suspected to be sorcery or inadvertent entry into a spiritually dangerous place. Yolngu have in addition a large pharmacopoeia based mainly on indigenous plants, the knowledge and use of which most people have some familiarity with.

Death and Afterlife. At the time of death, the soul, or its malign aspect, remains about the place of death and is a threat to close family members. One objective of the purificatory rites performed to "free" both survivors and material objects associated with the deceased, including houses, is protection from the malignity of the soul. During the extended course of the mortuary ritual, the soul is guided to some particular area or site on its own clan land, usually a place where, along with other souls of its clan, it awaits reincarnation.


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