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Mandawuy Yunupingu talks about finding the balance between the land and its peoples

Yunupingu, M. et al, ‘Voices from the Land’, ABC Books, Sydney, 1994

I want to talk about education but first I want to talk about Yothu Yindi. We are a band with a philosophy. Yothu Yindi is the name of a fundamental concept in our Yolngu life. For us Aboriginal people of Arnhemland the name Yothu Yindi conjures up the idea of balance, a harmony we actively work at.

We took the name Yothu Yindi for the band because it is the name of an important relationship in our kinship system. In this kinship system the land and its peoples are divided into two sides – the Yirritja and the Dhuwa. Our life is dedicated to maintaining balance between these. For us, when Yirritja and Dhuwa are working in harmony the land and its peoples are one.

Our kinship system links Aboriginal Australians across most of the Top End of the Northern Territory. It also links in many white Australians who have been willingly adopted. These myriad families make up a mesh of inter-relations between people and land. We take the balance of nature as our inspiration.

Yothu Yindi refers to the child and its mother. But to understand the full importance of Yothu Yindi you need to know a bit more. Dhuwa mothers have Yirritja children and Yirritja mothers have Dhuwa children. Or to see it from the child's point of view, every Dhuwa child has Yirritja mothers and Dhuwa fathers, and every Yirritja child has Dhuwa mothers and Yirritja fathers. Every Yolngu child has responsibilities both to mother's people and places and to father's people and places. Hence every Yolngu person has responsibilities both to Yirritja and to Dhuwa.

In our band Yothu Yindi we have a balance between Yirritja and Dhuwa. But we also have another balance, one between black and white, or Yolngu and Balanda. Amongst the Yirritja members of our band there are both black and white, and among the Dhuwa members of our band there are both black and white.

Keep the notion of balance in mind. A dynamic balance such as we see in nature.

With balance in mind I want to tell you a story about education, my own education and the education that my children are having. Telling you this story tells you how Yothu Yindi the band came about and how it became a contemporary voice for us Yolngu.

My own education was a Yolngu education. It took place with our large family group living in the places on our land that hold special importance for us. With Mum and Dad we went from place to place, and every place had its stories. Some of these were sacred stories that we heard sung in ceremonies. Some were family stories, like Mum's stories of when she was a little girl in this place or that. We knew that my grandad had been here, and his grandad before him did these things, and right back to the ancestors who made the land as they went about doing just the same sorts of things we did in our ordinary life and in our ceremonial life.

Mum and Dad travelled long distances with us kids. Just by going and living in the various places we were respecting those ancestors of ours who made the world. My father followed the seasons in his lands. Sometimes Mum took us over to her places. Like during April when it was starting to get chilly at night we would be inland. We were in covered places where it was sheltered; all those cosy places. We would camp there in the jungle and get honey from beehives in the rocks – rock honey. When the cold snap was coming on, after April into May/June when it is almost going into the dry season, that's when we'd start hanging around there.

Even when we were camped inland we would come down to the beach. There were good spots there. We would get Mum to come and help us collect oysters and get honey – rock honey – and fruit, traditional fruit in season. Just like now, when we go to places to collect fruits, say at Galaru just north of where Nhulunbuy township is, it's a form of homage and recognition for the Djankawu sisters, those ancestral women who did the same thing there in their world-making activity.

Each move was a change of context as far as my education was concerned. Each new place has new concepts associated with it. Each place is connected to other places in deep ways. And I learned about that, both from being in the place and by associating it with the songs and dances of our ceremonies. In this way, the more abstract knowledge of how places are connected was linked with the practical and emotional knowledge of actually living in a place.

My father would teach me to be a man and take me hunting, spear fishing. He taught me all the fish names. And he would tell me off for doing naughty things too.

I remember the night-times best. We would listen to stories at night by the campfire. All the stories had a strong lesson for us kids. They would be stories to get us to stay put by the fire and not wander about. They would get us frightened and get us to sleep much faster.

This is the fifties and early sixties I'm remembering. But, as I grew, our Yolngu world was no longer ours alone. Changes in my family's lifestyle were taking place. Influences outside the family and clan were being felt. Both Yirritja and Dhuwa people were being moved around by white people. Clans were being assembled here and encouraged to leave there. The missionaries had been around all my life. Somehow they started to have more impact on us all.

About this time my fathers and uncles and my older brother were involved with the court challenge to the Government of Australia and NABALCO, the big foreign mining company that wanted our land. The struggle was to find ways of explaining our laws and beliefs to white Australia in an attempt to retain all that is important and sacred in Yolngu life – our land. That struggle to explain our laws and beliefs is what you hear in Yothu Yindi's songs today. In our songs we have found a way to help people hear us today. But back then it wasn't possible.

After my initiation I began to go to school regularly. It was all quite funny to me at the time. But it had its exciting bits. As I see it now I needed this different sort of energy, different learning. But a whole lot went along with it, like having to wear clothes. Sometimes when I had no shorts I'd wear naga. It didn't worry me. The missionaries had their 'young ladies', the Yolngu girls' sewing class, make our uniforms for us.

Sometimes I found aspects of education really good; I learned something new. It was like every day you were looking at things, and then you were challenged. I'd try to match it. I could practically hear my brain working. But sometimes I found the classroom isolated, cut off from everything I knew and loved. I'd sit in that school for five or twenty minutes and then go back home and play to our own rules.

School worked for me. For my type of thinking Western education could fit in. I think my parents had it fixed in their minds, too, that I should be schooled in order to give me a good balanced education.

Learning English just kept me coming back for more. I remember learning lots of bible words. Learning English was a pleasure. I already knew ten or so clan languages and English was a great new challenge. I remember coming back to the family with new English words which I'd try out on them. I distinctly remember showing-off to my sisters by reciting 'The House that Jack Built'.

But looking back now I can see that the teachers probably saw things differently to me. Many of their demands were quite incomprehensible. They weren't just teaching me 'useful things'; they had a theory, an ideology. I see now that it was a curriculum driven by the ideology of assimilation. I marvel at the ways we knew how to resist it. I see now that a lot of what motivated those white teachers was the view that it was only when Yolngu stop being Yolngu that we could become Australians.

But what about schooling now? Have schools stopped being the instrument of assimilation? My children are in school. I became the principal of the school where I once sat at a desk with the other Yolngu kids. Are my kids having a Yolngu education comparable in depth and rigour to what my parents gave me? I would answer a firm yes. But I can only answer yes because for nearly a quarter of a century people, both Yolngu and Balanda, have worked to achieve this. We have transformed the missionary, assimilation ideology into an authentic Yolngu schooling. It took a lot of imagination and struggle.

The changes which we have introduced into our schools did not just happen. Since the early 1970s a large group of people have made it happen. They have had a different vision and have struggled with those whose imaginations are more limited. Yolngu and Balanda who are now old men and women have been involved.

I'm thinking of people like our old Balanda friend Nugget Coombs, who recently spoke at a Melbourne University graduation ceremony at Yirrkala. He recalled his involvement with our community over the past twenty-five years. I'm thinking of people like my relation, Dambalipu, who told Education Department officials we needed schools in the new homelands settlements we were establishing in the 1970s. They just couldn't understand why we wanted to leave the big mission settlements for our traditional homelands. But still we started schools in those homelands with our own people as teachers. The Department officials were puzzled and amazed.

Each of our clans has its own homelands. And in the 1970s we began to establish different life ways in our own homelands, blending old ways and new. Naturally we want our children to be reared at home. But should a child have to miss out on schooling just because the family wants him or her to grow up at home?

In the bureaucratic minds of Department officials schools were associated with being away from all things Aboriginal. Schools in homelands centres upset all their categories. And I know from painful experience that when you upset white people's categories you'd better watch out.

In our struggle we have always had Yolngu concepts to guide us. I'm going to tell you about one of them–the concept of Ngathu. Ngathu is the name of the sacred bread we bake from the flour of the nuts of the cycad palm.

Some years ago we were searching for ways of coming up with a Yolngu curriculum for our schools. We needed something to expand our imaginations. Something which would lead us to do things in proper ways. We wanted to create a Yolngu curriculum which our community would feel was theirs. Two elders who were working with us, my older sister Gulumbu and her husband Djamika, told us to remember the process of ngathu. It could help us find the ways to do things which would produce a sustaining 'bread' for children, matched to their differing needs as learners.

The making of ngathu begins in particular cycad groves. Only particular groups of people may harvest the nuts and prepare the bread. Others are represented in the process through their relations with those actually doing the work. Ngathu is sacred because it contains something of the spirit of the ancestors left in the place where the cycad trees grow. People's work and our established ways of doing things and respect and judgement are also baked into the ngathu.

After collecting the big yellow and red nuts they are carried to a place for processing; not just any place. And the nuts are shelled. The kernels are sorted into three or four piles depending on size and colour. These will each make bread of a different type. Mixed with wood ash from a particular type of tree, the flesh is baked in the sun for two days.

The next stage must also occur in a particular place. In their special woven bags the kernels must be immersed in a pool with clear running water for some days. This process washes away the poison–cyanide–which is in the flesh. How long are they left? This depends on the nuts, the ash, the flow of water through the pool, the weather. It's a particular degree of hardness in the flesh that the women are testing for when they check. Of course, the older and more experienced women are those whose opinions are most respected in this matter.

The nuts are ground with two stones. Each category of nuts must be ground separately. Different groups of people will receive each type of bread depending on their particular relations with the cycad grove from which the collections were made. The dough is wrapped in thick sheets of paper bark and secured with bark string. The packages are placed in the hot ashes. The cooked bread will keep for many weeks. When I was young there were ceremonies with many, many people from all around who were fed throughout the ceremony on this bread.

I am telling you this because I think the ngathu analogy can serve as an inspiration for the work ahead of all of us as Australians. Work we need to do as we begin to think and talk about reconciliation between black and white Australians, and becoming a republic.

How is a curriculum, or for that matter an agreement over reconciliation, or the constitution of a new republic, like a loaf of ngathu bread?

Often we Yolngu talk of natural processes or of the ordinary everyday practices as fundamental to Yolngu life. But you should not think that this means that it is only practical things that matter in Aboriginal life. We are talking about natural processes but meaning at another level.

We gather all the nuts from a particular place. We seek the focussed but varied opinions and views of people about schooling. Ideas must be put into relation with each other and sorted. The sub-categories and different sorts of issues should be separated so that things can go on in an orderly way. And then when the mix is ready it must be left for a while. How long? The time will depend on the conditions. Who will know when it is ready to act on? When will the flesh be ready for grinding? When all the bad blood of disagreement has leached away. We must accept the verdict of those we trust as experienced and who are in the right position and place to decide.

The sacred cycad nuts are represented in the form of the ngathu. It is presented in ritual ways to those whose various interests are embedded in the bread. Remembering the preparation of ngathu reminds us that there are right and wrong ways. Hurry, and the poison will remain in the bread. There are ways of proceeding that, structurally, ensure that the interests of all are recognised and respected.

Now another story which has helped us and inspired us is Ganma. When I think of Ganma I see the 'tri symbol'. I guess you could call it a triangle but it's not the angles which are important, it's the points and how they express for Yolngu the idea of knowledge. It's the linkages, and how they are made, that are important.

Also, talk of Ganma brings another image to my mind. A deep pool of brackish water, fresh water and salt water mixed. The pool is a balance between two different natural patterns, the pattern of the tidal flow, salt water moving in through the mangrove channels, and the pattern of the fresh water streams varying in their flow across the wet and dry seasons. Often when I describe this vision to Balanda, non Aboriginal people, they wrinkle up their noses. For Balanda, brackish water is distasteful. But for us the sight and smell of brackish water expresses a profound foundation of useful knowledge – balance. For Yolngu Aboriginal people brackish water is a source of inspiration.

In each of the sources of flowing water there is ebb and flow. The deep pool of brackish water is a complex dynamic balance. In the same ways, balance of Yolngu life is achieved through ebb and flow of competing interests, through our elaborate kinship system. And I feel that in the same ways balance between black and white in Australia can be achieved.

Ganma is a metaphor. We are talking about natural processes but meaning at another level. Ganma is social theory. It is our traditional profound and detailed model of how what Europeans call 'society' works.

Of course Europeans have society and nature as quite different and opposed things. But for us, society and nature are not separate. We have Yirritja and Dhuwa, and these categories contain elements which are both natural and social. Also, of course, they have elements which Europeans call supernatural or metaphysical.

Now this is the place for me to sum things up.

Like many people of my age all over the world I see that my children's lives are different to my life as a child. My children are in Yolngu schools taught by Yolngu teachers.

Like me, my wife Yalmay is a teacher. We are both trained in the Balanda sense, but we are also guided by Yolngu elders. We are gradually making our schools into Yolngu institutions.

It seems to us that the most important thing is language. Our children study their clan languages in school. They learn to understand the deep meanings and to read and write in their mother's and father's languages. We also think that the study of English language is important for our children. It holds a significant place in our curriculum. But it is placed within a curriculum of multiple balances. Balances that our children must learn if they are going to be active Aboriginal members of our contemporary Australia.

Mathematics is important too. In fact we have spent a lot of time and words developing a maths curriculum for our kids, a genuine Aboriginal mathematics. We have called this a Ganma Maths Curriculum and it is in the process of being officially recognised as an approved course of study in mathematics. It enables our children to work intellectually with the balances they must achieve in their lives.

Yolngu education is a balanced, active process. We have come a long way since I was a child. And Yothu Yindi, the band, came directly out of that struggle to find our Yolngu voice in the contemporary world.

Balance between different points of view is possible. That's what our Yolngu life is all about. Balancing difference between Yirritja and Dhuwa, between women and men and so on. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians can value and protect their differences while still finding ways to work at balance.

Governments and institutions need to see and to find ways of working with different knowledges. Part of this is beginning to see European-type knowledge as just one sort of knowledge among many. The land rights legislation and now the High Court ruling in the Mabo case have begun this.

Some white Australians are beginning to accept that European and Aboriginal ways of knowing have different logics. Non-Aboriginal people need to take time and make the effort to understand the logic of Aboriginal knowledge.

Active participation of Aboriginal peoples will renew Australian life during the twenty-first century. But it will need Aboriginal people who are strong and balanced, rooted in their families and their land. This will depend on Aboriginal people being educated as balanced contemporary Aboriginal Australians, something which will only happen when this education is inspired by their land.

In concluding, I remind you that we're living in fluid times, trying to discover in more profound ways what it is to be Australian. I think the vast majority of Australians would agree that Aboriginal Australians have a special contribution to make to that. But there seems to be a problem. I think most non-Aboriginal Australians accept that there is a deep intellectual strength to Aboriginal knowledge. but they seem to think of it as a mystery. I hope we are less of a mystery now. I have tried to help you see something of the ways that the concepts through which Aboriginal life is guided come from the processes of the land.

Your parents and grandparents saw us as utterly mysterious and incomprehensible. For you lot we had to be different and inferior, otherwise your lot could not have treated us the way they did. They refused to see us as civilised people who owned land. Your lot wanted us to be just a blur on the land, like a smudge on paper that could be rubbed out. That was an important part of your colonising us.

I am saying that it is time for those attitudes to be left behind. It is time you understood us as we are. The time has come.

Together in the twenty-first century we can construct a unique way of life here, inspired by the traditions of Aboriginal Australia and of Europe and Asia. Land rights for Aboriginal Australians are in the best interests of all Australians. Land rights must respect the contributions made by those people who have immigrated here over the past two hundred years, as well as recognising the place of those who have always belonged to this land. That's what the Yothu Yindi balance means.

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