91. 1956/57 Adjustment Movement, No. 2

In this podcast series, Richard Trudgen asks Rev. Dr. Djiniyini Gondarra OAM to go back in time to 1957 when Yolngu people tried to get Balanda to realise that Yolngu had a system of law.

The Yolngu ḏalkarra djirrikay political leaders at that time could see that Balanda were not understanding their public processes of law. They wanted the Balanda to see that there were three levels of governance. And that ceremonies such as those for when someone passed away, cleansing ceremonies, smoking ceremonies, and citizenships circumcision ceremonies, are all public law ceremonies. Not just ceremonies themselves, but ones that come out of the Yolngu system of law. “They are public ceremonies at the makarr-gärma level,” says Djiniyini, “not just customs or traditions.”

There is also the second stage makarr-dhuni semi-public chamber of law systems. In these, there are special Yolngu who “draft up” law, make up the wäyuk arms of law (seen as strings of law attached to the law dilly bags), ready for when the people assent to the law and for the legal Ŋärra’ parliaments.

Yolngu people tried to reveal that there are three important elements within their system of law:

  1. Mägaya; (peace, tranquillity, harmony, completeness, health, peace, prosperity, fullness, perfectness, rest, safety and absence of agitation or trouble, protection for all).
  2. Dhapirrk; consistency of law within the source law.
  3. Wana-ḻupthun [wan – a lup – thun] where the people ascent to the law through a ceremonial process. All go into the water, and put themselves under the water, while the dilly bag wäyuk arms of law are held up over the people.

The ḏalkarra djirrikay political leaders tried to reveal their system of law to the government and to the church. But it seemed that the Balanda couldn’t understand and couldn’t hear it. It was as though they were locked into the history of 1788 where they believed that there were no people here in Australia, or those who were here were just hunter-gatherers and nomads.

Djiniyini goes on to talk about how the Yolngu leaders in these different communities were concerned. They were concerned that the Balanda couldn’t understand that they were treating them much like animals. Both the church and Native Affairs were forcing them to live on other people’s estates.  “You were like refugees forced onto someone else’s land,” Richard says. Djiniyini agrees, “Yes we would come onto somebody else’s land when we came to the mission and welfare stations.”

This created a weakness within the Yolngu law and the corruption of the law started back there on the missions and welfare stations. “We were promised rations, medicine, school and housing. Yet the Yolngu dalkarra djirrikay political leaders could see what was coming,” says Djiniyini.

Only one Balanda also saw what was coming and that was Rev Harold Shepherdson (“Sheppy”). He helped different Yolngu leaders set up their own homelands so they could stay on their own estates. That way they were able to have their own resources and all they needed on their own estates, and not on somebody else’s private estate, as in the missions and welfare settlements.

Djiniyini goes on to discuss the children of the Stolen Generation who were taken away from their families, losing their Yolngu law and culture. The elders were frightened for them as, amongst everything else, they lost their civilised code in Yolngu law. Some of these young people have now grown up with a very aggressive attitude and Balanda say they are a problem. “But it’s not their problem! It’s a Balanda problem for taking them away!”

In Story No. 2, Richard and Djiniyini come back to the two-way confusion that is continually keeping the two different law systems apart — Balanda and Yolngu law. Djiniyini tells the story about how, in 1957, some Yolngu sacred inside law was brought out into the open and revealed to everybody. Thirteen years later, things changed.  At this time both the church and Native Affairs were in conversation. The church asked for another lease for 40 years but the head of Native Affairs Welfare declined because they wanted to move in another direction. They told the church to move out and give authority over to the community council instead.  The Methodist Overseas Mission then established a Commission of Enquiry to find out what Yolngu wanted in relation to their future.

“Yolngu told the Commission of Enquiry that they had their own law and they wanted to control their own future. The church decided that Yolngu wanted self-determination. The church could see that they knew how to run the fishing industry, gardens, sawmill, building houses and all sorts of other industries. They already knew how to do all these things. They wanted to be empowered around their own law. But it seems the government responded by saying it is not about self-determination but self-management; that is what is needed through community councils.  The church was given the role of community development, community advisors, and community workers to help people.

The elders were still hanging on to their village council but the government was not listening to them.  They just took the young people and educated them, turning them into executive officers, chairmen and builders.

Self-management became a failure. It was just a phrase: ‘self-management’, but there was no substance to it. It was still foreign because it didn’t have Yolngu law involved in it.

Djiniyini goes on to explain how so many Balanda things were kept as holy and sacred and away from Yolngu. A lot of knowledge and information remained distant from them. Many of these functions were out of limits so that Yolngu could never really run anything.

“Our people are only called ‘assistance’ and never the real person on the job.  Yolngu are not running anything, and Balanda always blame us. Because we are not able to make a strong foundation of our law at the start of it. The law was brought out into the open for Balanda to see. Those leaders were the initiators for trying to bring the two systems of law together, but nothing happened from it,” says Djiniyini.

The time of self-management became a time when the false Yolngu leaders who ‘climbed into the house through the window’ (i.e., they did not become leaders of the people through the appropriate process of Yolngu law) became the bosses of these communities. Many of them are still in every Yolngu community now. These new leaders have authority given to them by the Balanda, but not by the Yolngu people.  The old leaders in the past had authority through Yolngu law; they were real leaders.”

In Story No. 3, Richard and Djiniyini talk about how Yolngu law has been here since the foundation of human existence. The failure occurred from 1957 (when a major adjustment happened and Yolngu leaders tried to get Balanda to recognise their law) up to the 1970s when self-management was attempted. When Yolngu failed in many of these jobs, they were not supported.

“Balanda wanted Yolngu to do things in the Balanda way, but the Yolngu did not understand the Balanda way,” Richard acknowledges. “Yes,”  Djiniyini agrees, “and we had to follow the Balanda government law. But Yolngu didn’t know the Balanda law. Today we still don’t understand Balanda law. We are still very confused in the areas of housing, health, education, business and economics. Many Yolngu pretend that they understand Balanda law, but they don’t.”

Richard notes that, “just like Balanda think Yolngu are like children, some Yolngu think Balanda ways have childish ways too. I think the confusion today is worse than what it was in the 1970s. Everyone is confused everywhere.”

“Self-management failed,” says Djiniyini, “and then in the time of the intervention Yolngu were looking for some sort of help from the Federal government to control the two systems of law. But they went ahead saying that Yolngu leaders are no good. The government came and took over everything and the community councils that they established. It wasn’t Yolngu law. The Yolngu had established village councils — run by the true traditional dalkarra djirrikay political leaders — but they didn’t recognise that. And then they put the Shire in place. The Shire didn’t have any new assets they just took over everything from the People’s community councils, buildings, vehicles everything.”

Richard asks, “what picture did that give to Yolngu again about Balanda law?”

“That the Balanda and their law are just thieves; they broke every point of our law. They are people with no meaning or sense of meaning in relation to law,” says Djiniyini.

“And then they wonder why Yolngu children are now doing break-and-entry and all this lawless stuff,” says Richard.

“Yes,” says Djiniyini, “Yolngu children are real anarchists now, with no discipline or idea of discipline. Like the Balanda law says, we live in a dry area, with no alcohol, but the Balanda are not controlling the dry area. They are just letting people bring alcohol in and out whenever they want to. There is no law to stop the alcohol. If the ḏalkarra djirrikay political leaders apply strong law against the young people, the Balanda will come and arrest them.”

“And the children know that,” Richard says, “that’s why they are threatening their parents to report them if they touch them!”

“There is lawlessness everywhere, especially in relation to husbands and wives too,” Djiniyini agrees. “Under Yolngu law, women should be protected. It’s the greatest lie ever that women are assaulted under our law. Women are given special holy names and they should be treated that way because they are the bearers of the children. The mothers of the people.

There needs to be a rule of law that comes back again to protect everybody.”

In Story No. 4, Djiniyini states that, “Yolngu don’t know the foundational information in relation to Balanda law. Our Yolngu law goes right back to the law that was given to them by the creators. And behind them was the mimay’ the undefinable, unseen and unknown spirit of the universe that put the law into their minds to tell them which Bäpurru corporate clan group belongs to each estate and this is their law. They also created the alliances and the songlines and the title deeds paintings and gave them to the people.

Yolngu have different system of law, just like there is a separate mace (or symbol of authority) for Australia, England, Fiji, New Guinea, New Zealand – they all have a separate mace to represent the land and their place. But the source of all those different governments is the same.”

“And Yolngu have the same thing that represents different estates, and that’s been in place for thousands of years,” says Richard.

Djiniyini and Richard go on to talk about the role of the Magna Carta in British law. The Magna Carta brought the law back into the hands of the people.

“But Yolngu law is still in your hands, the hands of the people,” Richard points out. Djiniyini agrees, “It was never taken off them. From the beginning of time our democratic law has always been in the hands of the people.”

Djiniyini then names all the different relationship roles of the “rom waṯaŋu walala”. Rom – law, waṯaŋu- denotes ownership, walala – they [3 or more]; the extended citizens of a yirralka estate.

“Even though the missionaries tried to set up little bosses, and they did it all over Australia – they made King Billy, King Joe and so on – your law has always been in the hands of your citizens and it’s still in the citizens’ hands today. How can we get Balanda to see that the real law and order is already in the Yolngu citizens’ hands? It’s a law that’s being there for many thousand years; 40, 50 or 60,000 years!”

Djiniyini then asks Richard questions about land ownership in relation to a farm in Western Australia where a Balanda farmer proclaimed his own kingdom. They talk about how Yolngu are now very dependent on government money, and Djiniyini also asks questions about the Lands Council existing as a body that controls everything.

“Yolngu need to learn the real law about land rights,” says Richard. “Not the dictatorship type law that the missionaries tried to start, or the Welfare Act tried to start. That’s the ridiculous dictatorship type law. Go back to the real law and learn the real law about Balanda now. Start to build up your own separate businesses,” says Richard, and Djiniyini agrees. That’s where the real authority and power is.



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

  • Story No. 1 Welfare Policy Mission Stations, 0:00
  • Story No. 2 Self Management Fails,  12:10
  • Story No. 3 Big Changers between 1957 & 1070’s,  21:45
  • Story No. 4 Yolngu law still in Yolngu citizens hands,  32:45