This article is about the people. For the language, see Yolŋu languages.
Regions with significant populations
Yolŋu Matha (Dhaŋu-Djaŋu, Nhaŋu, Dhuwal, Ritharŋu, Djinaŋ, Djinba), Australian English, Yolngu Sign Language
Traditional religions, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Australian Aborigines

The Yolngu or Yolŋu (IPA: [ˈjoːlŋʊ]) are an Indigenous Australian people inhabiting north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. Yolngu means "person" in the Yolŋu languages. The term Murngin was formerly used by some anthropologists for the Yolngu.[1][2]

Yolŋu law

The complete system of Yolngu law is known as the Maḏayin. Maḏayin embodies the rights of the owners of the law, or citizens (rom watangu walal) who have the rights and responsibilities for this embodiment of law. Maḏayin includes all the people's law (rom); the instruments and objects that encode and symbolise the law (Maḏayin girri'); oral dictates; names and song cycles; and the holy, restricted places (dhuyu ṉuŋgat wäŋa) that are used in the maintenance, education and development of law.

Yolngu use hollow logs in traditional burial rituals. They are also an important "canvas" for their art, Aboriginal Memorial, NGA

This law covers the ownership of land and waters, the resources on or within these lands and waters. It regulates and controls production and trade and the moral, social and religious law including laws for the conservation and the farming of plants and aquatic life.

Yolŋu believe that living out their life according to Maḏayin is right and civilised. The Maḏayin creates a state of Magaya, which is a state of peace, freedom from hostilities and true justice for all.[3]

Kinship system

Yolŋu groups are connected by a complex kinship system (gurruṯu). This system governs fundamental aspects of Yolŋu life, including responsibilities for ceremony and marriage rules.

Yolŋu life is divided into two moieties: Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each of these is represented by people of a number of different groups, each of which have their own lands, languages, totems and philosophies.

Moiety Clan groups
Yirritja Gumatj, Gupapuyŋu, Wangurri, Ritharrngu, Mangalili, Munyuku, Maḏarrpa,

Warramiri, Dhalwaŋu, Liyalanmirri, Mäḻarra, Gamalaŋga, Gorryindi.

Dhuwa Rirratjiŋu, Gälpu, Golumala, Marrakulu, Marraŋu, Djapu, Ḏatiwuy,

Ŋaymil, Djarrwark, Djambarrpuyŋu.

A Yirritja person must always marry a Dhuwa person and vice versa. If a man or woman is Dhuwa, their mother will be Yirritja.

Kinship relations are also mapped onto the lands owned by the Yolngu through their hereditary estates – so almost everything is either Yirritja or Dhuwa – every fish, stone, river, etc., belongs to one or the other moiety. A few items are wakinŋu (without moiety).

Avoidance relationships

As with nearly all Aboriginal groups, avoidance relationships exist in Yolngu culture between certain relations. The two main avoidance relationships are:

son-in-law – mother-in-law
brother – sister

Brother–sister avoidance called mirriri normally begins after initiation. In avoidance relationships, people don't speak directly or look at one another, and try to avoid being in too close proximity with each other. People are avoided, but respected.


Yolngu speak a dozen dialects of a language group known as Yolngu Matha. English can be anywhere from a third to a tenth language for Yolŋu.

Yolŋu seasons

Yolŋu identify six distinct seasons: Mirdawarr, Dhaarratharramirri, Rarranhdharr, Worlmamirri, Baarra'mirri and Gurnmul or Waltjarnmirri.


Macassan contact

Yolŋu sustained good trade relations with Macassan fishermen for several hundred years. The Macassans respected the land as Yolŋu land; they only ever camped on the beach, and generally avoided contact with Yolŋu women.

They made yearly visits to harvest trepang and pearls, paying Yolŋu in kind with goods such as knives, metal, canoes, tobacco and pipes.

The Yolŋu folklore (the Djanggawul myths) has preserved accounts of the Baijini people, who appear to be distinct from the Macassans. The Baijini have been variously interpreted by modern researchers as a different group of (presumably, Southeast Asian) visitors to Australia who may have visited Arnhem Land before the Macassans,[4] as a mythological reflection of the experiences of some Yolŋu people who have travelled to Sulawesi with the Macassans and came back,[5] or, in more fringe views, even as visitors from China.[6]

In 1906, the South Australian Government did not renew the Macassans' permit to harvest trepang. This loss of trade caused some disruption to the Yolŋu way of life, particularly since they did not know why the Macassan had stopped coming.

Yolŋu had well established trade routes within Australia, extending to Central Australian clans and other Aboriginal countries. (For example, they did not make boomerangs, but obtained these via trade from Central Australia.[7] This contact was maintained through use of message sticks, as well as mailmen – with some men walking several hundred kilometres in their work to send messages and relay orders between tribes and countries.

European contact

Yolŋu had known about Europeans prior to the arrival of British in Australia through their contact with Macassan traders, which probably began around the sixteenth century. Their word for European, Balanda, is derived from "Hollander" (Dutch person).

Nineteenth century

In the late nineteenth century, white Australians began to open up Arnhem Land for cattle grazing. A series of battles between Yolŋu and Balanda occurred at this time. Yolngu were arguably more warrior-like than other Indigenous Australians because they had had to defend their northern shoreline for many hundreds – if not thousands – of years.

There was also a series of massacres. (See List of massacres of indigenous Australians).

At Florida Station, around 1885 Yolngu were fed poisoned horse-meat after they killed and ate cattle (under their law, Madayin, it was their land and they had a right to eat animals on their land). Many people died as a result of that incident.

Around 1895 some Yolngu took a small amount of barbed wire from a huge roll to build fishing spears. Men, women and children were chased by mounted police and men on horseback from the Eastern and African Cold Storage Company and shot.

Twentieth century

The first mission to Yolngu country was set up at Milingimbi Island in 1922. The island is the traditional home of the Yan-nhangu people and the largest of the Crocodile Islands. 1932 some Japanese trepangers were speared by Yolŋu men after their mothers had been allegedly raped by the Japanese. The Japanese did not show the same respect to the Yolŋu that the Macassan had shown. This came to be known as the Caledon Bay crisis. Several Yolŋu were imprisoned in Fannie Bay Gaol in present-day Darwin.

The Australian government feared this would create bad international relations (this was prior to World War II). There were calls in some quarters to "teach the blacks a lesson", i.e. to send out shooting parties to hunt down and shoot men, women and children; something that happened several times in nineteenth-century Australia (see Coniston massacre, Myall Creek massacre, Gippsland massacres).

However, Donald Thomson, a young anthropologist, was able to avert this by going to live with the Yolŋu and ascertaining the facts of the case (the prisoners were released as a result of a legal oversight).

Thomson lived with the Yolŋu for several years and made some photographic and written records of their way of life at that time. These have become important historical documents for both Yolŋu and European Australians.

In 1935, as a result of this publicity, a Methodist mission opened in Arnhem Land.

In 1941, during World War II, Donald Thomson persuaded the Australian Army to establish a Special Reconnaissance Unit (NTSRU) of Yolŋu men to help repel Japanese raids on Australia's northern coastline (this was top secret at the time). Yolŋu made contact with Australian and US servicemen, although Thomson was keen to prevent this (it is believed this is where petrol sniffing began for Aboriginal Australians). Thomson relates how the soldiers would often try to obtain Yolŋu spears as mementos. These spears were vital to Yolŋu livelihood, and took several days to make and forge.

More recently, Yolngu have seen the imposition of large mines on their tribal lands at Nhulunbuy.

Yolngu in politics

Since the 1960s Yolngu leaders have been conspicuous in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights.

In 1963, provoked by a unilateral government decision to excise a part of their land for a bauxite mine, Yolngu at Yirrkala sent to the Australian House of Representatives a petition on bark. The bark petition attracted national and international attention and now hangs in Parliament House, Canberra as a testament to the Yolngu role in the birth of the land rights movement.

When the politicians demonstrated they would not change their minds, the Yolngu of Yirrkala took their grievances to the courts in 1971, in the case of Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, the Gove land rights case. Yolngu lost the case because Australian courts were still bound to follow the terra nullius principle, which did not allow for the recognition of any "prior rights" to land to Indigenous people at the time of colonisation. However, the Judge did acknowledge the claimants' ritual and economic use of the land and that they had an established system of law, paving the way for future Aboriginal Land Rights in Australia.

The song "Treaty", by Yothu Yindi, which became an international hit in 1989, demonstrates the dedication of Yolngu to the cause of reconciliation, land rights and a desire for broader recognition of their culture and Law.

Yolngu arts

Yolngu artists and performers have been at the forefront of global recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. Yolngu traditional dancers and musicians have performed widely throughout the world and have had a profound influence on contemporary performance troupes such as Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Yolngu visual art

Prior to the emergence of the Western Desert art movement, the most well-known Aboriginal art was the Yolngu style of fine cross-hatching paintings on bark.

Artists, such as David Malangi Daymirringu, are renowned for their work. Malangi's work featured on the original Australian dollar note. The Australian government used this artwork without his approval, or even knowledge, but made attempts to remunerate Malangi at a later date.

The hollow logs (larrakitj) used in Arnhem Land burial practices serve an important spiritual purpose and are also important canvases for Yolngu art (see image at top of this article), as is the yidaki or didgeridoo (see below).

Yolngu are also weavers. They weave dyed pandanus leaves into baskets. Necklaces are also made from beads made of seeds, fish vertebrae or shells.

Colours are often important in determining where artwork comes from and which clan or family group created it. Some designs are the insignia of particular families and clans.

Yolngu music

Yothu Yindi, the band, is Australia's most successful and widely recognised contemporary indigenous music group.

Arnhem Land is the home of the yidaki, which Europeans have named the didgeridoo.

Yolngu are both players and craftsmen of the yidaki. It can only be played by certain men, and traditionally there are strict protocols around its use.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is a famous Yolngu singer.

Prominent Yolngu

Films about Yolngu

Garma festival

Every year, Yolngu come together to celebrate their culture at the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures. Non-Yolngu are welcome to attend the festival and learn about Yolngu traditions and Law. The Yothu Yindi Foundation oversees this festival.

Yolngu ethnographic studies

A Deakin University study investigated Aboriginal knowledge systems in reaction to what the authors regarded as Western ethnocentrism in science studies. They argue that Yolngu culture is a system of knowledge different in many ways from that of Western culture, and may be broadly described as viewing the world as a related whole rather than as a collection of objects. Singing the Land, Signing the Land, by Watson and Chambers, explores the relationship between Yolngu and Western knowledge by using the Yolngu idea of ganma, which metaphorically describes two streams, one coming from the land (Yolngu knowledge) and one from the sea (Western knowledge) engulfing each other so that "the forces of the streams combine and lead to deeper understanding and truth."

See also


  1. Roy Willis, Signifying Animals: Human Meaning in the Natural World (Psychology Press, 1994: ISBN 0415095557), p. 80.
  2. Richard B. Lee and Richard Heywood Daly, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers (Cambridge University Press, 1999: ISBN 052157109X), p. 367.
  3. "Raypirri lyarra'r~ur Romyurr Magayakurr Madayin Law." (PDF). Various elders?. Retrieved 5 September 2007.
  4. Berndt 2005, p. 55
  5. Swain 1993, p. 170
  6. Needham, Joseph (1971), Science and civilisation in China, 4, Cambridge University Press, p. 538, ISBN 0521070600
  7. Peterson, Nicholas, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, Melbourne University Press ISBN 0-522-85063-4


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