KASAMA Vol. 20 No. 4 / October-November-December 2006 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Yolngu Font

‘Two-way Learning’: Yolngu clan at Australia’s Top End shows the way

by Deborah Ruiz Wall
An unforgettable visit to Nyinyikay, North East Arnhem Land

Map of Arnhem Land

Visiting Arnhem Land at the top end of Australia would be seen as exotic, an adventure. It conjures images of the film, “Ten Canoes”. Arnhem Land is home to Yol|u people for thousands of years - people who have not lost their traditional culture and language. Not surprising to feel both trepidation and excitement when we met our hosts, Nancy Walmanydji Burarrwanga and the Ganambarrs who live in a family outstation called Nyinyikay, 160 kms from the nearest town, Nhulunbuy, on the Gove Peninsula. Little did we know that during our six-day stay with them, we - six Australian women from the south, would be adopted into their ancient kinship system and given Aboriginal names.

On the 9th of August 2006, Patti Nicholson and I flew from Sydney to Cairns and then to Nhulunbuy to check in at Gove Peninsula Hotel where we were to join the rest of the group: Sue Burnett, Sally-Anne Prado, Mary Rudd, and Philippa Cordwell, and our guides, Robyn and Pablo Heras. A pleasant surprise awaited us. Our Yol\u hosts, Nancy Walmanydji Burarrwanga, her daughter, Balatj Ganambarr with husband, Gary Baker, had come to meet us in town. We had a bowl of hot soup with the others and a yarn. Balatj suggested that we wear long skirts at Nyinyikay. Not only was this practical when sitting on the ground but also modest and an appropriate attire for women. And so we headed for a frock shop in town the next day to buy bright colourful long skirts. We also spent time at the Yirrkala Art Centre before boarding the chartered plane to Nyinyikay.

Upon disembarking from the single engine six seater plane, we immediately noticed the ‘Welcome to Nyinyikay’ red sign by the airstrip and then we walked on the stony reddish earth towards the sheltered ground where we were to pitch our tents. This shelter was facing the ocean and headland. Looking down, we thought the reddish brown ground looked like a cross-hatched painting but was really the criss-crossing trails of hermit crabs’ walkabout. From a distance, we saw two men approaching, carrying an esky full of fish. Pablo Heras and Rone Ganambarr brought us lunch, fresh from their morning catch.

Fish lunch The Ganambarrs are from the {^=iwuy clan. Their father, Mowarra Ganambarr, born around 1917, was a highly respected elder and Law man whose funeral rites and ritual last year lasted for three weeks. A few years before his death, he received an Order of Australia medal for establishing three outstations and adjacent clan lands: Mata Mata, Rorruwuy and Nyinyikay. During World War II, he was enlisted as a member of the Northern Territory Special Unit to patrol the area on foot over three years to watch for Japanese. He said he did this so that Yol\u and Balanda (non-Yol\u people) could live together in peace in his country. He was a noted artist and widely respected in his community. His bark paintings, for example, Mana at Rorruwuy and Thunderman at Bulurruma, depicted his kinship symbols and creation story. He had profound knowledge of his country.

Six days went fast — like having a crash course about a culture thousands of years old. At the same time, we learnt to slow down, relax and adapt to the pace and rhythm of Nyinyikay lifestyle. The first lesson was sitting on the ground for hours while weaving pandanus baskets and having a yarn to get to know one another. We also learnt how to fashion sea shells into necklaces, bracelets and earrings. The process is: they collect miniature shellfish from the beaches, boil and pick them clean with pins. Then they clean and dry the shells thoroughly, pierce each shell with a pin and string them up. But that is not the toughest lesson for us.

The toughest lesson, after we were adopted and given Yol\u names, was understanding how we fitted into the kinship system - what moiety we belong to; who we can marry, if we were available; who is our sister, uncle, grandmother, and so on. Learning the words is one thing, knowing who we are related to is another. I discovered very quickly that what is more important than a person’s name is how we are related to that person. It is the kinship relationship that reveals what responsibility one has to each other.

Cooking wallaby in the ground oven Their cosmology is both simple and complex. The universe of the Yol\u clans of north-east Arnhem Land is divided into two moieties: Dhuwa and Yirritja. Moiety is a type of social structure and in Latin, it means ‘half’. It indicates who one can marry, describes kin relationships and provides a general guide to behaviour. Mowarra Ganambarr, for example, is from Dhuwa while his wife, from Yirritja moiety.

So how do I fit in? The name I was given is Ganguri, (wild yam) and I belong to the Dhuwa moiety. Mowarra Ganambarr, father of the family, is my brother and Walmanydji Burarrwanga, his wife, is my galay (sister-in-law). My brother’s children, some of whom I have met – Balatj, Gawura and Rone are my g^thu (that is, the children of my brother). The focus in calling each other not by name but by one’s relationship to the family kinship system is so that one knows one’s place, role and obligation to each other. Extending this to nature, one knows one’s relationship to the immediate environment. And so I find my g^thu, Balatj telling us how she knows when the tide is coming in or when it is going out while her mother Walmanydji during a walk in the bush, indicated to us which bush plant they use for eye drops. They certainly know how to read nature in a way that is baffling for outsiders.

Dance Moiety is often associated with special emblems or totem. For Mowarra Ganambarr, it is Mana, the shark, the Ancestral being that created their homeland. Each of the moieties descends from different Creation Ancestors and owns distinct lands. “That Mana, he is me and I am him,” he was quoted as saying (from taped statement at Yirrkala). Knowing one’s place in the world, internalizing the creation of the sea and the landscape into one’s identity and being - traditional culture imbibes all these naturally.

Many of the Ganambarr family are artists such as Larrtjanga Ganambarr (born 1932), Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr (1959), Mavis Warrngilna Ganambarr (1966) and Ngongu Ganambarr (1967). In a way, they seem to live their art and craft. Little wonder that the subject of their art is often about their kinship, their sacred Law and objects. There is no separation between their art and identity.

Their dances are movements found in their natural environment – sting rays, sharks, sway of branches. They are short, focused, graceful and rhythmical. Not so easy for me to emulate. I find their movements meditative and flowing. Learning their dance is like learning to disappear in the dance, to be one with nature itself. Their calm disposition, their patience as teachers, their humour and accepting nature are impressive traits and a contrast for city people like us who are often caught up in a whirlpool of activities.

We are now part of ‘the family’. It all started when Robyn and Pablo Heras were adopted into the clan ten years ago. With a small party which included Aboriginal people, they visited North East Arnhem Land. A subsequent visit to different outstations included Nyinyikay. Soon they developed a close relationship with the Ganambarrs at Nyinyikay. The rest is history. They now visit the family every year during the dry season.

Teaching Aware of globalization and development outside Nyinyikay Outstation, the family wants the next generation to be able to choose and pick what is best for their community. But they do not want to lose their language and tradition in the process. They see the answer to this dilemma in ‘two way learning’ - a combined Australian/European and Yol\u approach to education.

‘Two way learning’ evolved from a bi-lingual education program that resulted from the Australian Federal Government’s policy shift from assimilation to integration in the early 1970s. The idea was to maintain distinct cultural practices within the framework of Australian multicultural society. Hence, the education department gave support to programs that taught children partly in their own language. As a result by the 1980s, Yirrkala school had a number of tertiary trained Indigenous teachers. Mandawuy Yunupingu became the first Aboriginal principal in Australia at Yirrkala School in 1990. He introduced the first bi-cultural curriculum in an Australian school and founded the internationally acclaimed band Yothu Yindi in 1986. With ‘two way learning’, however, being taught in Yol\u language is just one aspect of it. ‘Two way learning’ means the curriculum itself incorporates Yol\u knowledge, (1) enabling both teachers and pupils to have the opportunity to compare the similarities and differences between Western and Yol\u systems of knowledge. This provides a broader cultural context for learning and problem solving.

Ganguri and her completed basket Our visit has relevance to this novel approach. It marks the beginning of an indigenous-run cultural education program - a type of tourism that allows non-indigenous visitors to live with the family and experience Yol\u life. Whilst we were there, the family showed us which sea shells are edible, which plants they use as bush medicine, how they prepare pandanus leaves before they can be used for weaving baskets. With Yol\u knowledge, life and nature are inter-twined.

At a deeper level, their bark paintings are not just art for art’s sake. The Saltwater paintings which were exhibited at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney were used as a medium for transmitting Yol\u knowledge - their kinship, clan boundaries, marine landscape, animals, trees, Ancestral spirits - a worldview that is interconnected, interrelated and holistic. In fact, Yol\u used paintings in their land rights case. The bark petition was indeed critical in their struggle and successful campaign for land rights vested in traditional owners and their descendants. When in 1997, they discovered that the Northern Territory Land Rights Act did not give them rights over the sea, they produced a series of bark paintings to show ancestral rom (Law) associated with the clans along the full length of their sea coast.

The Ganambarr family hope that one day, they will be able to set up a Homeland School for their children in Nyinyikay. They believe that a Homeland School will provide a solid foundation for maintaining their culture and tradition, and with ‘two-way learning’, the pupils will be prepared to have further education in town, if they show promise. Ironic as it may seem, our visit is intended to help preserve that tradition. We are now spreading the word: Nyinyikay will offer small-scale indigenous tourism with a difference - where visitors will receive a meaningful cultural education through experiencing life with the Ganambarr family. Through this venture, the family’s dream of establishing a Homeland School may be within reach. All these activities will help Balanda understand Yol\u culture. For me, this kind of cultural sharing shows how privileged we are to be associated with one of the oldest surviving cultures in the world.

Ganguri and her completed basket

Historical Notes

  • Hundreds of years before European colonization, the Macassans traded with Yol\u people collecting trepang (sea cucumber) and pearl shells in Yol\u country. The Macassans came from Makassar in Sulawesi (formerly Celebes). They taught Yol\u people how to make dug-out canoes, work iron, and various ways to harpoon dugong and turtles. The trepang was dried, taken back to what is now called Indonesia, then traded to China where they were considered a prized ingredient in Chinese cuisine. This industry is estimated to have begun between 1400–1600.
  • The Macassans were known in Arnhem Land as Mangatharra.(2) The Asian visitors called Yol\u country Marege, the place of wild people. Marege refers to the Top End Coastline and islands. (Before Indonesia and Australia came into being.)
  • Husein Daeng Ranka from Kampung Maluku in Makassar was the last of all the Macassan captains to visit the Yol\u. He arrived on the Bunga Ejaya in the 1906-07 season to say farewell to his Aboriginal family.
  • Mowarra Ganambarr, born around 1917, remembered as a young boy meeting three of the last Macassan fishermen from Indonesia. (The Age, 17/6/2000)
  • Yol\u resistance: Yol\u clans inland massacred by cattlemen and police expeditions; early record of Yol\u killing visitors to their shores in the early 1930s; crew of a Japanese pearling lugger killed in 1933 in Caledon Bay; Constable McColl speared to death on Woodah Island.
  • Mission Station established by anthropologist Donald Thomson at Yirrkala; Methodist church, first permanent local colonists on Yol\u land (1934).
  • Two vertical panels comprising of blocks of cultural/spiritual designs were the Yol\u people’s way of sharing their perspective with the Christian church. The two panels were done by various artists under supervision within their communities. One panel was produced by members of the Dhuwa moiety; the other by the Yirritja moiety. The installation of these two panels at the church altar demonstrated the initial success of Yol\u–Christian interfaith dialogue. These panels are now permanently housed at the Yirrkala Art Centre.
  • Mowarra Ganambarr’s first public works were drawings and paintings for anthropologists, R.M. and C.H. Berndt in 1947. These earliest works by Ganambarr and others became the precursor for an internationally recognized art movement - the bark paintings.
  • In 1962, Members of Parliament, Gordon Bryant and Kim Beazley Sr, visited Yirrkala and became aware of concerns over the activities of the mining company. The two panels of paintings at Yirrkala demonstrated Yol\u entitlement to place. Yol\u used paintings in their land rights case.
  • The late 1960s saw miners’ interest in developing the massive bauxite resource on Yol\u land. Two major clans fought against the proposals. Other clans like Mowarra Ganambarr’s {^=iwuy clan decided to leave the Yirrkala settlement for their traditional country. The mass relocation became known as the ‘Homeland Movement’. Mowarra Ganambarr created three homeland centres: Mata Mata, Rorruwuy and Nyinyikay.
  • Mowarra Ganambarr was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 2000 at age 83 for building the outstations in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2000, it was noted that he had 35 children, 101 grandchildren and 94 great-grandchildren.
  • Mowarra Ganambarr’s work was part of the collection of the famous Saltwater Exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney on September 6, 2000.


Further Reading:

Deborah Ruiz Wall web site:

Deborah Ruiz Wall - biographical entry:

DEBORAH RUIZ WALL is a regular contributor to the pages of “Kasama”. A search of the SPAN web site will bring up many articles written by and about her.