89. One hundred Judges surprised at Yolngu law

In this podcast series, Rev. Dr. Djiniyini Gondarra OAM opens the program by talking to Richard Trudgen about the ongoing battle between Yolngu and Balanda systems of law. It seems that both systems are still very confused and mystified in relation to each other.  Some Balanda suggest that Yolngu law is all made up, and many Yolngu believe that Balanda law is also made up in somebody’s head and that it has no djalkirri (source or foundation).

For a long time now, Yolngu law has never been accepted into the Westminster system of law. Therefore a conflict still exists that causes massive confusion. Dijniyini gives an example of this from his attendance at a conference organised by Charles Darwin University.

“Three of us Yolngu were asked to come and speak about customary law. We produced a paper to explain traditional system of law. There were one hundred judges and other legal people present at this conference from all states and territories across Australia. They were surprised to see the contents of the paper and asked us ‘why haven’t we seen this before?’  ‘Why is the Yolngu system of law not seen alongside the contemporary system of Australian law?’ They could see that this was a rule of law not just made up in our minds. They were also surprised to see the basic elements of law in it and that it was there to produce peace, order and good government, and to be consistent to the source law and assented to by the people.”

Richard and Dijniyini discuss how confusion often seems to be around the confusion of language. Specially at the level of law where language used is very complicated.

In Story No. 2, Dijniyini asks questions about common law and he and Richard discuss different elements of Balanda and Yolngu common law. For example, in Balanda common law, a lawyer in court will refer to a person’s name in the case that the common law is attached to. But Yolngu common law goes back to the original teachers of the law – the creators who created everything and gave the law to the people. The rule of law that everybody is looking for is already there in Yolngu law. “When is this government going to see and recognise it?” Dijniyini asks, “because a rule of law is not possible until this is recognised.”

In Story No. 3, Richard opens with the statement that “before you can have development you need to have a security of tenure and a rule of law.” Dijniyini agrees, “we have true owners of the law. All our citizens in different gurrutu relationships are the owners of the law. This law was established by the creator spirits. Our law is not just inside sacred law but also the outside practiced law. However, Balanda only seem to see the ceremony and dancing. They don’t understand the functions of the law within that ceremony. They don’t see the connections between the circumcision citizen-making ceremony or our Bäpurru funerals and our ŋärra’ Parliamentary law.”

Djiniyini goes on to explain the whole range of issues in relation to Yolngu law: women’s law, men’s law, and how men and women are both under the discipline of Yolngu law. The perception of some younger Yolngu men that they can abuse women is not correct under Yolngu law. Yolngu law is not “the dreaming,” he points out. Richard and Djiniyini discuss how the word ‘dreaming’ actually came from a Balanda anthropologist and does not describe Yolngu law which is the actual and full system of law.

In Story No. 4, Richard asked the question “why is it that some Yolngu leaders don’t follow their Yolngu law anymore?”  Djiniyini tells him that “some Yolngu leaders try to make themselves leaders by breaking into the house through the window.” That means they don’t become true leaders of the people through the appropriate process of law.

“The law speaks to us and tells us how we should be drinking in the law, drinking in the song cycles, sitting under the discipline of law. People should come into leadership through the full process of law, not by just proclaiming themselves to be leaders. Some young people are claiming to be dalkarra djirrikay leaders when they have no right within the law to be. They are not chosen by the people and this is a joke. The law does not authorise that. They are breaking the law of the creator spirits who gave us our law. The dalkarra djirrikay leaders should be proclaimed as leaders through the process of enthronement. This is what the law has been saying to us from the beginning of time.”

Djiniyini makes the point that a lot of young Yolngu people are now following the customs and ideas of Balanda. They think that Balanda are lawless and just “making things up as they go along. A lot of younger Yolngu people are following the same way.”

Djiniyini explains how for many years he could not understand that the Balanda had any real system of law. “I thought for a long time it was just made up in their heads. And then I started to see that Balanda have a system of law that is very different from ours. But I’m still confused why they cannot see that they are breaking our ancient system of law.  Because the Balanda don’t see and recognise our system of law we are heading into complete lawlessness. If our Yolngu political leaders try to discipline young Yolngu lawbreakers then the Balanda police come and arrest us. An act of discipline or applying a sanction in our law means that we break Balanda law.”

“Balanda think we are subjects of Balanda law but they do not realise that we have assented to our first original Australian law. When did we are assent the Balanda law? Where is the peace, law and order and good governance for us in the Balanda law? When the police arrest someone they take them off to jail. What are they learning in jail? Nothing. They come home with more lawlessness than when they went in. Some Yolngu people even get angry with their own family for leaving them in jail.”

Djiniyini states that “we were hoping the Yolngu Nations Assembly would be seen as a diplomatic organisation that is trying to create a place of safety and protection for all. But for some reason it’s been seen as a political organisation. We were hoping that it would be an outside public place where we could talk about true systems of law for our people.

“Only when there is ever a true government who wants to recognise our law, will things change.”



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

  • Story No. 1 One Hundred Judges surprised at Yolŋu law  0:00
  • Story No. 2  Yolŋu common law comes from the creators  10:30
  • Story No. 3  Back to Yolŋu common law                           20:15
  • Story No. 4  Why Yolŋu are lawless now                               31:40