100. Yolngu Democratic System of Law

The following are some notes taken from the full conversation between Rev. Dr. Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and Richard Trudgen. They are not the full conversation.

Djiniyini opens the program by explaining how in the last Northern Territory election, the two Yolngu candidates for north-east and southern Arnhem Land stood on a platform of Yolngu law first.  He asks Richard, “What do Balanda (people in Western, mainstream society) think, and what does the Balanda Parliament do in relation to customary law? How do you interpret customs and then interpret the law? What do you think as a Balanda man yourself, Richard, and what do Balanda in general think?”

Djiniyini and Richard discuss how the term ‘customary law’ is used for Indigenous law all around the world. Balanda believes that Indigenous law comes from habits from their customs and they don’t see that there is a whole system of law that has a ŋärra’ or Parliament, or dalkarra djirrikay, political leaders, or different chambers of law. “They do not see your maker-gärma public gatherings of the citizens, makarr-dhuni semi-public legal chambers and the ŋärra’ Parliament.  And that you wana-ḻupthun, assent to the law in a ceremonial process.  Lots of Balanda think that Yolngu rom (law) is not very sophisticated, so it must be childish.” Richard says.

“Is that true? Is this how they see it?” Djiniyini laughs.

“Yes, because when Balanda came to Australia they were thinking they were sophisticated and that Yolngu people here were ignorant. They thought Yolngu were lawless, and that your law had no foundation to it.  Some Balanda thought that Aboriginal people’s brain size was smaller than European brains. And a lot of Yolngu even follow this idea today. But the Aboriginal brain is as big as the European brain and sometimes even bigger.”

Djiniyini goes on to say, “So excuse me for using a foolish way of thinking, but you’re saying that Balanda see us as having no foundation of law, do not assert to the law, no seats of government, no political leaders? That we are just nomads, primitive, hunter-gatherers, pagans who have no knowledge of the great Creator, and we just worship rocks and trees or animals?”

Richard says, “That’s where all that naming comes from; Balanda see your culture and law in that way. They name Yolngu culture this way and they see your law as ‘customary law’, just as customs.  They also say that Aboriginal law is a ‘rule of elders’.”

“They say Aboriginal original law is a rule of elders, like djirrikay dalkarra or political leaders?” asks Djiniyini.

“They’re saying it is a rule of elders who give themselves the authority to rule,” says Richard.

Djiniyini asks, “So they are saying it is like the dilak elders, they carry the law and they can just make up the law? So, they’re not expressing it as Aboriginal law as a rule of man, but a rule of one particular dilak elder?”

“They are saying it is a rule of dilak elders, yes,” agrees Richard, “they don’t see that you all assent to the law as a group of citizens, rom watangu walala and that you all hold the authority of the law in your hands as a group.”

In Story No.2, Djiniyini summarises that, “Balanda see our law as a rule of dilak elders, and they don’t see that we have ŋärra’ parliaments or makarr-dhuni semi-public legal chambers or makarr-gärma public gatherings of the citizens. It’s only dilak elders that work away at the law.” He asks, “How is it that they see it this way?”

Richard responds, “They think that it’s just when you become an dilak elder you take over the law.”

“So from the learning initiation stage of ‘moda’, you move through all the different learning stages until you become a dilak elder,” says Djiniyini.

“Balanda don’t even see all those different stages like moda and the stages of learning. They just see as you grow older from a young person to an old person then you have the right to take over the law or to be the law. You’re old enough now to have the authority of the law,” says Richard.

“So they see our law as authoritarian type law?” asks Djiniyini.

“Yes,” says Richard, “they also don’t see all your wäyuk, acts of law, or your dhulmu mulka bathi and your gamunuŋgu painting title deeds. They don’t see or recognise these things.”

“Because our inside ŋärra’ parliament law is something we don’t talk about. Only the men know this law,” says Djiniyini.

Richard responds by saying, “In the past, the Balanda parliament was the same. It only came out into the public in the last one to two hundred years.”

“I was surprised when you said that a long time ago, England was ruled not by the parliament, but by separate landlords,” says Djiniyini.

“Yes it was ruled by separate yirralka estates,” says Richard.

“That was a shock to me that in the past the English had a similar law to us. When did they change it?” asks Djiniyini.

Richard says, “Well, I’m not a historian but I know the Kings came over from Germany and usurped the authority of the separate yirralka estates. And that’s when they took the ownership of all the forests and everything into their own hands. They said ‘everything belongs to us’. Because they had lots of authority. And they also had soldiers. So they usurped the authority of the people and oppressed them for many hundreds of years. Until the Magna Carta brought the authority of the parliament back into the hands of the separate yirralka estates. Then the King became more like a puppet. Or more like an executive Djuŋgaya. The people then got to vote under Queen Victoria’s reign. So the law came back into the people’s hands.”

Richard continues, “But as I see it, your original Australian law went back way before the Kings of England. Before the Saxons and the Normans came and asserted their authority over the people, and created this authoritarian-dictatorship rule. Your law is way back there with what they call the Celts, the original Bäpurru corporate clan groups of England. The Celtic law in the past was in England and also in Europe, where they had separate yirralka estates and the law was in their own hands.”

So the Balanda are very confused about customary law, what it really is. They are extremely confused about it and they think and follow the descriptors that have put on it themselves.

Djiniyini and Richard talk more about how Balanda look at customary law through their own understanding of it, so they don’t understand all the different tracks of Yolngu law. They don’t see everything in it because they don’t understand the language.

“I’m still learning your language in the law,” Richard says.

Djiniyini talks about all the different languages he speaks and that he can understand languages in east Arnhem Land but not in central and western Arnhem Land.

“Well it’s the same problem,” Richard points out. “The Balanda have applied names to your law and that has stuck in their brains. And when you come along and say that ŋärra’ is the word for a parliament, they say, no that can’t be.”

Djiniyini says, “It could be that their minds were affected by the fact Balanda built permanent buildings where you sleep and Yolngu only had ga’thuwudu, temporary shelters. Maybe this is what was in their minds when they came here in 1788 and they could not find a ‘civilised’ community with permanent buildings. So they said ‘Let’s make a new England here. Where there will be a city or town in a modernised industrialised situation. We will build it with our own law because the people here don’t have a system of law.’”

“Yes,” agrees Richard, “That’s what they are thinking now. And that is where it is at. And that’s why even the government now doesn’t want to talk to your political leaders, your dalkarra djirrikay. They want to talk to new Yolngu people. Because they don’t understand there is already a democratic system of law, for the rom watangu walala citizens, with the law in their hands in the past that is still that way today.”

In Story No.3 Richard states that he has been trying to understand Yolngu rom, law, for over 40 years.

“It seems to me the confusion that Balanda have in relation to Yolngu law is really intense. Yet I can see your rom, law, is in the hands of all Yolngu people, and there is no form of dictatorship.”

“Yes,” says Djiniyini, “it’s in the hands of all our people, or the rom waṯaŋu walala. And who are the rom watangu walala? You Balanda say the rom watangu walala are all the citizens.”

“Yes, we say ‘in the hands of the citizens, all of the citizens’,” says Richard.

“And we say the rom watangu mala is all our relatives, both close relatives and relatives a long way away,” says Djiniyini.

“It covers all your relatives, not just in your clan, but in a number of other clans also?” asks Richard.

“Yes, that’s correct.”

Djiniyini goes on to explain a different system of maalk (skin system) that ties people together across a number of clans. All of these people have got common skin names across different Bäpurru corporate clans and are all related. (Djiniyini’s skin name is Gamarraŋ). These related people make up the rom watangu walala, or the owners of the Yolngu law system that occurs at the makarr-gärma public gatherings of the citizens, the makarr-dhuni semi-public legal chambers, and ŋärra’ parliament. “We have not got a law of dictatorship. It’s not a law where one dilak elder has the law in their hands,” says Djiniyini. “They all have the law in their hands, the mari-gutharra grandparents to grandchildren, the sisters and all other related groups. They all have their own Madayin, wäwunngu, legal systems of law, in their own hands.”

Djiniyini continues, “A few months ago all the Yirritja people from different Bäpurru corporate clan groups went down to Nhumbulwar (in south-east Arnhem Land) to assent to the law. they came from all over Arnhem Land, from east to west to central, all went down to Nhumbulwar. I saw there that everybody went into the water to assent to the law (all were under the same system of law). That’s the way of our law.”

“Just the other day I was thinking about this,” says Richard. “I was surprised because your law is the original democratic law, but Balanda think that democracy only started 600 years before Christ. 2600 years ago they think it started. But Aboriginal people in Australia and Yolngu in north-east Arnhem Land and Bininj people in Western Arnhem land and the people to the south of Arnhem land, they have been practising democratic law, or original Australian law, for maybe 40 or maybe 60,000 years. Balanda think that they invented democratic law.”

“That’s not correct,” says Djiniyini. “We have been looking for the foundation of Balanda law. Where did your law start? Who gave you your law? That’s what we’ve been asking for a long time: where does your law come from?”

“Well,” thinks Richard, “Balanda would say it came out of the 10 Commandments or something like that. But you’re saying your law goes way back before that. Back to the creation time?”

“Yes, way back. We were practising 10 Commandments law way before Balanda. Before the light or Christian teachings came to Arnhem Land. And the (original) light came to every Aboriginal group of people across Australia no matter who you were.”

Djiniyini names all the different Aboriginal people groups across Australia. “Wherever they were,” he says, “they were all practising the way of law that was democratic: the mägaya law, or the law of the big peace. We assented to the law that was consistent with the source. We were practising this from the beginning of time.”

“So you were practising the law that was consistent to the foundation law given to you by the creating agents?” asks Richard.

“And the Waṉa Lupthun law,” agrees Djiniyini.

“And the assenting law (Waṉa Lupthun law) for all the citizens. You are practising that for thousands and thousands of years,” says Richard.

“This is the true story,” agrees Djiniyini, “anthropologists didn’t understand this.”

“That’s the trouble,” Richard agrees, “anthropologists didn’t even understand this! And this is part of the problem. Anthropologists have come and studied the people, but there have been no legal people. No lawyers or barristers have studied your law.”

Djiniyini goes on to talk about anthropologists and their role in misunderstandings of Yolngu law. He discusses how Donald Thomson was a good anthropologist and heard clearly from the people themselves.

“ And why was he good,” asked Richard, “because he concentrated on language and was able to hear what the people were saying.”

In Story No.4 Richard reiterates that he can see Yolngu law as the original democratic system of law. “This is what Balanda call the democratic system. And that the name ‘democratic’ means the rule of the people, for the people, by the people.”

“Yes,” agrees Djiniyini, “the democratic system is like the people have in their hands the foundation of the law. This foundation law belongs to and is owned by, all of them.  The owners of the law open up (initiate) the different systems of law. They are the ones who open up our ŋärra’ parliaments. It belongs to the people, for the people, by the people. This is the meaning of democratic.”

Djiniyini continues, “So through our system, it’s all these different groups of combined people who have authority in rights of law. They all have the authority in the different chambers of law, from makarr-gärma public gatherings of the citizens. It’s at the dhuni, the semi-public legal chamber where they organize all sorts of legal processes and procedures, and where they also organise the ŋärra’ Parliament.  It’s at the ŋärra’ Parliament where they authorise the setting up of the riyawarra (the public legal and teaching ground around a small forked tree for the Ngärra’ parliament) where the enthronement for the ḏalkarra djirrikay political leaders are invested or enthroned. ‘Riyawarra’ means a special small tree where the djirrikay political leaders (not just elders dilak) will have bestowed upon them their leadership role.”

“This is before they go into the water (to assent to the law) as a whole group,” Djiniyini says. “Not only the dalkarra djirrikay leader will assent to the law by going into the water and submerging themselves below the surface, but all the people will Wana-ḻupthun, assent to the law by going together into the water. As if to say yes, he is the dalkarra djirrikay political leader. You see?”

Djiniyini and Richard work through the meaning of the word ‘democratic’. Richard translates it as ‘the people’s government’ and Richard says, “So that clearly fits into your rom watangu walala (law owners they are) as the ones who control this.  You said before that people train all their life; you are learning all your life?”

“Yes,” explains Djiniyini, “we train all our life to be raypirri, (discipline of mind, body and soul). Men and women train to be fully disciplined. You see, at some of our ceremonies or funerals, they are not just a ceremony where we are mucking around, it is all training of the young people so they’re ready for the higher levels of law later on. One day some of them will be invested in that level of law.”

Richard asks, “So the training continues all their life and sometimes that person could be 50 or 60 years old before they become a dalkarra djirrikay political leader?”

“Yeah, you’re right there,” says Djiniyini. “It took me a long time. In the Balanda eyes, I was a leader but I was still training in the Yolngu way to learn everything.”

“But you became a leader on the Balanda side very easily?” Richard asks.

“Real easy!” says Djiniyini. “I became the moderator, the president and then I became a doctor really quickly.”

“But when it came to you becoming a dalkarra djirrikay political leader, it took you right up until your 60s and 70s?” asks Richard.

“Yeah, I was into my 70s. So it is not a short learning program where we just get a certificate,” says Djiniyini.

“And it’s not a joke. It’s really hard work.” Richard points out. “You know Gamarraŋ (Djiniyi skin name), many people across Australia don’t know this story. They don’t know that you have got your universities, you’ve got your campuses, you’ve got your training systems, and that’s been there for 40,000 years. They not hearing any of that.”

“Yes,” says Djiniyini, “Balanda are bringing their education in on top of our systems that have already been existing every day, every minute, every second. Our training is holistic, and it’s not just about ceremonies, it is also about how people can provide food and care for their families that is part of the training.”

“People should be learning the original Australian law system that you have had for 40 or 60,000 years,” says Richard.

“Imitation, sitting and watching, and following is our way of learning our law. We learned by watching, we don’t ask a lot of questions. I watched my father every step. So one day you will become a dalkarra djirrikay political leader or a goŋ-gärmirr, female political leader,” says Djiniyini. “And the people give you that authority. It is not you, you don’t claim yourself as being a leader without people giving you the authority.  You can’t just jump through the window.”

“If you claim yourself as a dalkarra djirrikay political leader, then you are just a dictator,” agrees Richard. “We need to talk about this because I think a lot of young people are thinking at the moment that they are following the Balanda way.  And they are thinking that the Balanda way is a ḻiya-gäna, lawless dictatorship way. When really, Balanda are talking about ‘democracy’, the rule of the people for the people, by the people. Which is exactly like your Yolngu system of law.”



There are 4 Stories in this podcast. Please see the time stamps below –

  • Story No. 1 Rule of law, not Elders                                                                 0:00
  • Story No. 2 Balanda Name Yolngu Culture and Law in their Way       10:35
  • Story No. 3 Yolngu Law the Original Democratic System                      21:00
  • Story No. 4 Yolngu Democratic Law                                                             32:45