111. Balanda influence on Yolŋu law

In this podcast series, Maratja Dhamarrandji tells Richard Trudgen it is the Balanda influence that is leading to law and order problems that are now being experienced in Yolŋu communities. It seems the Balanda approach to Yolŋu law is encouraging Yolŋu to put aside their traditional Madayin law. Yolŋu are now following bad examples of land-grabbing, usurping and taking away of people’s legal rights. Yolŋu see Balanda treat Yolŋu land and property like it’s vacant, belonging to no one, with no history. Through this influence, Balanda are showing Yolŋu a way of lawlessness and anarchy, by not respecting the original security of tenure or giving value to Yolŋu ownership of land or sea.

In the past, missionaries used to teach the Ten Commandments to Yolŋu. Yolŋu accepted this teaching as it was similar to their traditional teachings given to them by the Great Creator. Things such as, ‘don’t covet your neighbour’s goods’ and respecting what belongs to each corporate clan. A lot of confusion started back then, because on Sundays the missionaries were saying “don’t steal, don’t covet goods,” and then on Mondays they would tell Yolŋu to go out onto other people’s clan land and steal timber, fish and other resources. The missionaries were acting out of their own Balanda mindset, not understanding that Yolŋu had a highly developed system of law around land and resource ownership.

This influence from missionaries, government, and even up to the Northern Land Council, has left Yolŋu extremely confused. It is this same influence leading young people to do so many break-and-entries. Balanda think this lawless anarchy comes from Yolŋu culture but, as Maratja says, “there are two sides to every coin.”

Families used to take young Yolŋu offenders out to the islands and teach them discipline and Yolŋu law, but that’s not happening now. Instead, their main influence comes from Balanda, who think Aboriginal people just wander all over the land, never owning anything. They think everyone shares everything with everyone, but Yolŋu have a system of resource and land ownership. They have their gurrutu kinship system, determining which people have rights to and on certain lands. There has always been a very clear system of trade between corporate clan groups, and Balanda still don’t know anything about it.

The government talks about regional authority, “but they’re not talking to the right people, the political leaders, the dalkarra djirrikay,” says Richard. Instead, they just set up another system which leads to more lawlessness and corruption. Despite Balanda not wanting a lack of governance, fairness, or law and order, their actions create bad influences. Some Yolŋu think it’s good when they are recognised as having authority, and they feel good because the government is talking to them, but the government should be talking to the real dalkarra djirrikay. The ones who uphold the original Australian law. Otherwise, this lawlessness will continue.

In the last story of the podcast, Richard tells Maratja about the time his idea about Yolŋu law totally changed. Back in the 1970s, he used to go fishing in the afternoons. One afternoon he tried to give some of his catch to some Yolŋu people. But an old man stopped him. “We dont want your fish,” he said. “Why not?” asked Richard. “I am not a thief,” said the man. Richard stopped, “what do you mean?” he asked. “This is their barramundi,” explained the old man, “it belongs to those people off that land where you got it.”

This concept was completely different to Richard’s thinking in relation to Yolŋu land and law. His Balanda training was that Yolŋu went hunting anywhere they wanted. After that day, Richard spent a lot of time with the old man, and he taught him about respect for people’s land and their assets/ property. The same continual Balanda attitude towards Yolŋu law (mostly confusion) has had a bad influence on Yolŋu. Many Yolŋu are now following that same Balanda way, to the point that the teaching of Yolŋu law, order and respect is now having no real effect on younger Yolŋu people.

Maratja talks about when Balanda come to Yolŋu land, they treat it as nothing, but when Yolŋu go to Katherine or Darwin, they get in trouble for walking on people’s land. They’re supposed to respect those yards and properties. So what does that say to Yolŋu? That there is a double standard – Balanda can go wherever they like. Some Balanda teachers teach Yolŋu children “you’re in a free country!” and Yolŋu interpret that to mean Australia is a lawless country, where you can go where you want, do what you like. Cross-cultural, cross language communication can be dangerous.

This continuous two-way confusion is affecting Yolŋu lifestyle, “people are being disempowered,” says Maratja. “How can we get back to mägaya, the big peace law?”

Due to a lack of resources and time, the transcript of this series has not been finalised. This is done at our own time and cost. Because of the important nature of this subject, we will update this as soon as possible.

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

  • Story No. 1 Balanda influence Yolngu to break the law                                                         00:00
  • Story No. 2 Missionaries spoke one way and acted the other in regard to law              11:50
  • Story No. 3 Balanda creating the lawlessness on Yolngu communities                            20:28
  • Story No. 4 So much confusion around law and land ownership                                        29:50