92. What is Evidence? Part 2: Yolngu Checks and Balances

In this podcast series, Maratja Dhamarrandji continues to question what is evidence from a Balanda law perspective.

This may seem to be a strange question, however, there is so much confusion around this for Yolngu because what is given as evidence in court cases around land ownership issues relating to their estates, is driven by Balanda lawyers. Rather than the knowledge Yolngu have in relation to who they know to be the landowners or the yirralka estate owners. It seems as though only powerful non-traditional leaders are listened to by the courts.

“Evidence from a Yolngu perspective is what we see and what we know. Like we know the names of all the different Bäpurru corporate clan groups, and the dhulmu mulka bathi, title deeds for our estates. We know the surnames that are attached to particular estates. We can see with our own eyes who are the real true landowners. We also have the ḏalkarra djirrikay political leaders who know who owns what. Is this not evidence?” Maratja asks.

Richard acknowledges, “that these are important questions because until Yolngu believe they have security of tenure and landowners feel secure in the ownership of their land, it’s very hard to do business and it’s impossible to move forward.” Everyone is concentrating on who the landowners are, and so nobody is getting into business. Everyone is confused, so it’s vitally important.

“A lot of Yolngu are now thinking these things are not evidence either – like who has the proper Likan, surname, for that country. Who has the dhulmu mulka bathi, the title deeds under traditional law?  Who are the dalkarra djirrikay, the true political leaders, not the ones that make it up themselves, but the ones enthroned by the citizens from the rom waṯaŋu walala. The ones the rom waṯaŋu walala citizens want to represent them politically. The Balanda court won’t listen to those leaders or this evidence either – they will only listen to the false leaders.”

Maratja talks about checks and balances under Yolngu law and how they are worked through in order to determine who are the real landowners for a particular yirralka estate. “The ringgitj alliance tells us, along with the Yothu Yindi and Mari Gutharra different clan groups who will be the real ones to tell the truth in relation to land ownership.”

Richard agrees, “we need to work through the true ḏalkarra djirrikay political leaders who have been given the authority through the enthronement process within their own Yolngu Parliamentary system. They are given authority by the Bäpurru corporate clan group with authority from their own citizens. Those dalkarra djirrikay are given authority to speak on behalf of the people, and also the responsibility to listen to all the people. Is that right?” he asks.

“Yes,” says Maratja.  “It’s a major part of the checks and balances. Dalkarra djirrikay are to check everything and affirm it. This is the other important part – it’s not just the main Bäpurru corporate clan group, it is also the Yothu Yindi, the mother’s people and the mari-gutharra, the mother’s mother’s people who are witnesses. So that’s one, two, three different corporate clan groups who are witnesses to that fact.”

Richard says, “so it only works if all those groups are involved in the consultation. Just like it doesn’t work when an anthropologist comes and sits with one person and listens to one person because they can make up their own story. There are no checks and balances. Only with checks and balances is where the true story can come out. When Yothu Yindi and the Mari-Gutharra are all involved in the conversation.”

“That’s correct,” Maratja says. “And the ringgitj alliances also. Other people who also check the story. Everyone, both men and women, need to check off the information.”

In Story No. 2, Richard and Maratja talk about the meaning of evidence and who the real landowners and estate owners are.

“I get a bit confused,” says Richard, “because it should be easy for you to reveal to the Balanda this particular structure. So there seems to be something else there. There seems be another problem and that problem is you are confused what the Balanda see as real evidence in relation to who the landowners are.”

Richard discusses the problem with the English word ‘landowners’ as many Yolngu don’t understand it clearly. “I see landowners as wäŋa waṯaŋu mala,” he says. Whereas many Yolngu see landowners as the people who the Balanda have decided the landowners are, i.e. missionaries, lawyers, anthropologists, or the Lands Council.

There is confusion amongst Yolngu as to what Balanda are looking for in relation to evidence and what the Balanda will believe. Maratja reiterates the Yolngu checks, balances and protocols, as well as the mägaya rom (peaceful law) in relationship to who are the landowners and who are also the caretakers. Those who are given authority under traditional law for particular legal roles. Not young people, but elders who will be caretakers of the land on a temporary basis, “until the right person becomes mature and is seen as fit to act as a landowner,” Maratja explains.

Maratja gives an example of one deceased estate in great detail. He explains how a male landowner gives authority to another clan to be the caretakers until the next landowners are old enough. There’s a group of gutharra from the mari-gutharra relationship who have rights under traditional law to take full control of the land ownership of the particular estate. (Under traditional Yolngu law if the landowners die out, the Gutharra grandchildren two clans across, in the mother’s line, assume all rights to the estate).

Now the dalkarra djirrikay and all the other Rom waṯaŋu walala, citizens of the different Bäpurru corporate lands related to that estate, should give witness to who are the true landowners of the particular estate. Not relying on the desires of different people but on real law.

“There’s lots of confusion here and it’s not good for peace and order or the development of these different Bäpurru corporate clan groups estates,” says Richard.

In Story No. 3, Maratja breaks down the checks and balances of land ownership as per Yolngu law:

  • Who has the dhulmu mulka bathi, title deeds dilly bags?
  • Who has the gamunuŋgu, the traditional paintings that represent that estate traditional crest?
  • Who are the dalkarra djirrikay, enthroned political leaders, to speak for and on behalf of that estate?
  • Who has the manikay song lines for the particular estate?
  • Who are the ringgitj alliances related to that estate? The ringgitj alliances underpin the whole system. They help everybody in relation to checks and balances, making sure that everyone knows who the true landowners are.

“We don’t need any ḻiya-gäna, lawless self-appointed dictators with their ideas – we need these specific checks and balances in place,” says Maratja. “And everyone should confirm this information: the Mari-Gutharra and Yothu-Yindi clan groups. Plus the wana mala, and the ringgitj alliance wana mala.”

The wana mala refers to the ringgitj alliance groups. On the dhulmu mulka bathi, title deeds dilly bags, there are a number of arms attached. These arms, or wäyuk – Acts of law – represent the particular ringgitj Bäpurru corporate clan groups that are in the ringgitj alliance with that particular clan estate. So sometimes they are referred to as wana mala – arm/s.

“Yolngu law is set out for everybody to know, not just one, two, or three people, everyone knows,” says Maratja. “These estates are valuable and are underpinned by the Madayin traditional law. You see? The law covers all this to protect the sovereignty of Yolngu people.  The Great Creator Spirit established the law over the land, country, sea, our estates.  The laws was bakumirriyanhawuy, spoken (by the Great Creator Spirit). This law covers the waters, the cliff faces, the creeks and other things that are the boundary markers of both Dhuwa and Yirritja lands. It doesn’t matter if there is only one and two landowners left; it is still their estate. We should not covet or steal somebody else’s property. This includes all the assets in the water or on the land.”

Richard makes the point that, “Balanda are always talking about how you can’t steal and all that sort of thing and yet we have a situation here where Balanda are supporting the stealing people’s properties and their lands.”

“Usurping their lands,” Maratja agrees.

“It seems to me it’s not because people are bad, but it’s because of this confusion. Many Yolngu are now thinking there is a new way of living in Australia where it’s okay to steal. It’s okay to steal and take other people’s rights because the Balanda say it’s okay,” says Richard.  “Let me say one thing clearly. It’s not okay to steal from other Yolngu. Stealing their assets, property or anything. It is the confusion that is causing this problem. In Yolngu law, under the Land Rights Act, it should be who has the traditional law in their hands. Who has the authority under your Madayin law. They are the true owners and should hold the ownership. So, the Balanda law is saying this, but the day-to-day actions are mixing that all up!”

In Story No. 4, Richard summarises, “I can see and hear from the Yolngu perspective you know who the real landowners and yirralka estate owners and ringgitj alliance owners are. You know the Mari-Gutharra, Yothu-Yindi and the different rom waṯaŋu walala, all the citizens related to that particular estate are.  And you have a process where you can test all that information out. But now you have another group, the Balanda, and Balanda law jumping in the middle. Plus, others like the Lands Council and anthropologists and many other groups. For Yolngu it is hard to know how you can bring with you the mägaya Yolngu rom over into a Balanda controlled situation. And it is made hard by the way Balanda are operating. What do you think?”

“Yes, there are even some Yolngu who are mystified and don’t understand the Yolngu law. When Yolngu or Balanda are like this they have the knowledge wiped from their minds and don’t know who the real owners are. There are lots of pseudo-leaders speaking out instead.” Maratja says.

“Balanda tend to follow people with a high profile,” Richard points out. “Yes,” says Maratja, “like I can speak English so sometimes people will tend to follow what I say. I can get put up on a pedestal where I can tell Balanda whatever I want to. Not knowing that I have a responsibility to the Mari-Gutharra, and the Yothu-Yindi checks and balances that are there in the Yolngu law to verify what is being said.  The elders tell the full information in our chambers of law and in the yindjibirr-ŋur –public arena – where all the citizens hear the information. This public group becomes a smaller group of political representatives from the Yothu-Yindi and Mari-Gutharra groups inside our Ŋärra’ parliament to debate according to the gurrutu, family kinship system, even for issues of succession. That determines who will be the wanga watangu landowners. When these landowners are determined, everybody has to tick the box according to Yolngu traditional law.”

Maratja believes, “the law should speak out. I heard the saying ‘no one is above the law’. Everybody should be under the law. It doesn’t matter if it’s Balanda law, or Yolngu law. We need to learn to submit to the law. But the Balanda law doesn’t know the ins and outs of the legitimacy of Yolngu law and where the authority exists.”


Glossary of Yolngu terms

Rom waṯaŋu walala: Rom- Law, waṯaŋu- denotes ownership, walala- they (3 or more). The extended citizens of a yirralka estate. The larger group of interconnecting tribes and clans that have a right under Madayin law to monitor, protect and to discipline or pass judgement on offenders if necessary. And to support the wäŋa waṯaŋu- landowners, yirralka waṯaŋu- estate owners in decisions over their property and estates.

Mägaya: peace, tranquillity, harmony, completeness, health, prosperity, fullness, perfectness, rest, safety and absence of agitation or trouble; protection for all.

Mägaya rom: the Law that creates a state of mägaya

luku-nirrpanawuy: Appointed one. Somebody who is appointed to a position of authority to be responsible for some legal situation. They can be a caretaker, a djuŋgaya Mari or any other legal position.

gamunuŋgu ga mu nuŋ gu:  General term for painting. However the special painting for the estate is the painting of the luku-dhulaŋ title deeds. Like the luku-dhulaŋ title deeds dilly bag that represents the title deeds of the estate.

Yothu-Yindi:Yothu” literally means “child” and “Yindi” literally means “big”; but the literal meaning of the two words is an inadequate rendering of the compound word, which has a much larger meaning.  The mother-child relationship between clans is very important, and it is to this that the Yothu and Yindi designation refers.  In this case the Yothu are the people born into the clan that the mother marries into.  This will be a clan of the moiety opposite to her own.  If the mother is Yirritja, her children will be born into a Dhuwa clan, the clan of her husband.

Yindi here refers to the mother’s clan and the mother’s mother’s clan.  Its members are called the yindi pulu – the big people in one’s life.  A person will work for their mother’s people all their life.

In the event of a dispute, business negotiations or a gathering, like a funeral, the Yothu child group is delegated to carry out certain duties, to represent, and manage the Yindi mother’s clan’s affairs. Those Yothu Child clan members who are specifically delegated as a representative or manager are called Djuŋgaya.  The head Djuŋgaya Manager of every clan and tribe is the appropriate contact in traditional law for most legal and business issues.

Märi: Yolngu relational term given to a person’s mother’s mother (grandmother on the person’s mother’s side), and all their siblings, male and female.  Whole clans, too, can be known as Märi clans.  This is determined by family lineage through the maternal line.  The Märi clan has a role to play in the protection of their Gutharra clan in that they act like the senior legal counsel in relation to any legal issue a grandchild gutharra might experience. (see Gutharra).

Gutharra: the relational term for a grandchild through the maternal line.  When a clan is called Gutharra it has representative and executive responsibilities for its Märi clan.  There are a number of different legal responsibilities for the Gutharra.

If their clan members need an escort a gutharra will usually accompany them. On their deathbed the gutharra will look after their physical needs.

It is those in special Gutharra relationships who inherit the estates of deceased clans.


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

  • Story No. 1 All the different witnesses to Land ownership  00:00
  • Story No. 2  Yolngu evidence for land ownership                    09:25
  • Story No. 3  Yolngu Law Checked and Balance                         20:25
  • Story No. 4  Everyone is under the law                                       29:30