'An operatic experience'
Yolngu ceremony with its combination of sets, props, painting of the body, dance and singing is likened to an operatic experience by anthropologist Professor Howard Morphy.
The substance of Yolngu ceremonies is the enactment of the events and actions of the ancestral beings who created the land and the re-statement of the laws that they made. This is manifested through the songs, dances, paintings, objects and sequences of action that make up ceremonial performances.
To the Yolngu these are not only means of expression, but also part of the essence of ancestral beings themselves. They provide a connection with the world of the ancestral past.
Each clan possesses a set of songs, paintings and sacred objects that can be referred to collectively as the clan 'madayin' or sacred Law. The clan's sacred Law relates to the action and evidences of the major ancestral beings who created the clan's land.
The Law of each clan is linked to, and overlaps with, the comparable Law of several other clans of the same moiety. This is because the Law refers to the ancestral beings whose journeys always covered the territories of more than one clan.
This is an excerpt from the 2006 Film Australia National Interest Program DVD, Ceremony: The Djungguwan of Northeast Arnhem Land, produced in association with Denise Haslem Productions. It was made in collaboration with Yirrkala Dhanbul Community Association and the Rirratjingu Association.
The Yolngu are the Indigenous Australians who live in the north-east of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
Yolngu people are linked by language and a rich and complex culture. Their social structure is based on clans and moieties.
Clans are extended family groups and they are the foundation of Yolngu social organisation. There are more than 50 Yolngu clans in north-east Arnhem Land. Each clan has its own traditional land or country (their wanga), their own dialect or version of the Yolngu language (the Yolngu Matha) and their own song lines and ceremonies (or bunggul).
Clan membership is patrilineal: a person belongs to the clan of their father.
Beyond the clan, the Yolngu world is divided into two halves, called moieties (the word moiety means half). People, animals, rocks and even winds belong to either the Dhuwa or Yirritja moiety.
North-east Arnhem Land
The Yolngu region covers more than 40,000 square kilometres of Arnhem Land, from Cape Stewart in the west, to the Gove Peninsula in the east, and south as far as the Walker River. The whole of Arnhem Land is Aboriginal land and visitors are required to get a permit before travelling there.
The Gove Peninsula is situated 650 kilometres east of Darwin, on the north-eastern corner of Arnhem Land where the Gulf of Carpentaria meets the Arafura Sea. The landscape is typical of the Top End – red earth, corkscrew palms, stringybarks and speargrass.
The Gove Peninsula has two main settlements: Yirrkala, and the mining township of Nhulunbuy.
The Indigenous township of Yirrkala has a population of 800, including a handful of non-Indigenous administrators, community workers and teachers. The town serves as a resource centre for a further 800 people who live in homeland centres on their own or close relatives' clan land.
The mining town of Nhulunbuy is just 20 kilometres from Yirrkala. It was constructed during the 1970s to service the development of a vast open-cut bauxite mine. Nhulunbuy is now the fourth-largest regional town in the Northern Territory.
A brief history of the Yolngu
The Yolngu have occupied their lands since the earliest of known time. The first recorded contacts between the Yolngu and the world beyond Australia came with the arrival of Macassan traders from Indonesia around the beginning of the 18th century. The Macassans came to collect trepang, or sea slugs, and other oriental luxuries. The Yolngu obtained metal axes, knives, cloth and tobacco from them, adopted many Macassan words, and incorporated the story of the Macassans into their oral and art traditions.
The first recorded contact between the Yolngu and Europeans was in 1803 when Matthew Flinders visited the area.
In the 1880s Arnhem Land was divided into a number of pastoral leases and violence ensued as the Yolngu resisted the occupation of their lands by the newcomers. Yolngu oral history and genealogical records attest to a number of massacres having taken place in the period around the First World War.
The 1930s brought more conflict between Yolngu and outsiders, beginning with the killing of a group of Japanese fishermen at Caledon Bay in 1933. A police investigation resulted in the spearing of a police constable on Woodah Island after a group of women were rounded up and held under guard.
In 1935 government authorities allowed the Methodist Overseas Mission to establish the settlement of Yirrkala in the hope that it would bring peace to the region. In the years following the establishment of the mission station, many Yolngu moved from surrounding areas to live there.
A more traumatic change occurred after vast quantities of bauxite were discovered on Yolngu land on the Gove Peninsula in the 1950s. In 1963, without consulting the original owners, the Commonwealth Government authorised prospecting by a French company, Pechiney. The same year, the Yolngu sent their famous bark petition to Canberra in protest.
In 1966 the mining lease was transferred to a consortium of Swiss and Australian companies operating as Nabalco. In 1968 the Yolngu took the Commonwealth and Nabalco to court in the first land rights case in Australian history: Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd and the Commonwealth of Australia.
From 1969 to 1971 the Gove land rights case (as it was known) was heard, the Yolngu challenging the mining company and seeking legal recognition of their ownership of the land. The case was unsuccessful, but paved the way for later land rights legislation, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, and the historic Mabo decision, recognising the pre-existence of Native Title for the first time in 1992.
The opening of the Nabalco mine brought mining royalties but also many negative influences associated with the proximity of the new mining town of Nhulunbuy, including the destructive effects of alcohol.
In the 1970s a new government policy of self-determination helped Yolngu to begin to move back to and control their own clan lands. The homeland, or outstation movement, made it possible for Yolngu to move away from the pressures of life at Yirrkala and the nearby mining town.
The functions of ceremony
Until the coming of Yirrkala mission, Yolngu society was non-literate. Their culture, incorporating knowledge and Law that made it possible to live sustainably for thousands of years, was passed on through clan names, designs, song cycles and ritual. Yolngu still pass on their sacred knowledge by these means, binding their ancient past to their living present.
The Yolngu have many kinds of ceremony: initiation ceremonies, funerals, cleansing ceremonies and so on. All are concerned with connecting to, and harnessing the power of, the ancestral domain to achieve a desired outcome. In the case of the Djungguwan, the aim is to bring young boys into the Law, identifying them with clansmen of previous generations and with their ancestral origins.
The Djungguwan is a ceremony of the Rirratjingu and the Marrakulu clans. It is a ceremony of transition, teaching and remembering. It is an initiation ceremony that aims to teach young boys about discipline, Law and respect for the traditions of their people. Through song, dance and art, a narrative is told about two ancestral beings, the Wawilak Sisters, as they journey through country creating each tribe and clan and giving them their Law.
The Djungguwan is also sometimes used as a circumcision ceremony, linked to ideas and images of fertility and growth.
No two performances of the Djungguwan are the same – each is a unique creation – but they do all share a common core and each reflects the same principles and ideas.
Ceremony: The Djungguwan of North-east Arnhem Land DVD background
In the late 1960s and early 1970s a huge open-cut bauxite mine was developed on the Gove Peninsula, on the doorstep of the mission settlement of Yirrkala. Film Australia asked Ian Dunlop to make a film documenting the effects of the mine on the Aboriginal community. The Yirrkala Film Project was born.
Yolngu quickly came to recognise the importance of the film project as a means of recording their culture for future generations and on several occasions asked Ian to film their ceremonies, including a major Djungguwan ceremony that took place on Marrakulu clan land at Gurka'wuy, some 100 kilometres south of Yirrkala, in 1976.
In December 2002 Rirratjingu clan leaders called a meeting with filmmakers Trevor Graham and Denise Haslem who were in Yirrkala at that time filming for Film Australia. They were concerned about negative media coverage of Yolngu culture. Rirratjingu clan leaders were in the process of organising the first Djungguwan to be held since the one Ian Dunlop had filmed in 1976. They decided that this ceremony should also be filmed.
They asked specifically that all three filmed versions of the Djungguwan be used to show the history and complexity of Yolngu ceremony and how ceremony relates to land, Law, people and politics. They felt that the resulting DVD would be, as Rirratjingu clan elder Wanyubi Marika said, 'a powerful thing to help build self-esteem and establish a basis for a positive future'. They hoped that it that would be accessible both to future generations of Yolngu and to all Australians.
Speaking to the future
Since the 1960s, film and video have become increasingly important for preserving Yolngu ceremony and Law. While the richness of the culture has stimulated filmmakers and anthropologists, the Yolngu themselves have been instrumental in organising the making of various film and video programs. Clan elder Roy Dadaynga Marika made his intentions very clear to Ian Dunlop in 1970 when he said:
This is our chance to record our history for our children, for our children and our grandchildren. We should do this while we are still alive. Before we die we should make a true picture – our own Yolngu picture that will teach our children our dances and Law and everything, our singing – our own Yolngu culture.
Pain For This Land, Film Australia (1970)
And, as Marrakulu clan Elder Dundiwuy Wanambi says at the end of Djungguwan at Gurka'wuy, 'This is a history for new generation and new generation...'
In 2002 Wanyubi Marika was concerned about the many young men who were drinking in the community, and the number of alcohol-related deaths. Wanyubi wanted to use the Djungguwan as a ceremony to instil discipline and respect for traditional Law in those who participated. He also wanted to record the ceremony to 'speak to the future' just as his fathers had done all those years ago in the Djungguwan at Gurka'wuy.
The 2002 Djungguwan was performed in honour of those fathers and recorded in the documentary Djungguwan - Speaking to the Future.