Maintaining Tjukurpa Law and Culture

Moonlight Screening

Cinema in the sandhills
Recently I returned from the Fregon screening of Two Brothers Walking. It was a real celebration, I set out from Adelaide with a goodly quantity of kuka mai (meat and vegetable foods) for the long trip to the APY Lands. I called in to VOR Management in Port Augusta on the way through to get a couple of boxes of wipu, kangaroo tail (the favoured cut of kangaroo for cooking in a ground oven. The plan was to set up in the Visitors centre and have a good feed and the screening over there.

I stopped at Bon Bon rest stop to through out the swag for the night under a super bright moon, a crystal clear sky and freezing temperatures.
I arrived at Fregon the following afternoon and it wasn’t too long before Murray sent the young fella to take me up to the camping grounds. There was a change of plans and we were going to use the Community centre after all. So I set up the projector,screen and PA plugged everything in at the pylon and went to collect a few people who hadn’t turned up yet. When I got back the pace was abuzz, much of the kuka and wipu had been cooked and consumed and it was show time.

I am always amazed at how differently Anangu and Piranpa (whitefella) audiences react to the film, or not so much the film but which parts they react to. There is immeasurable pride for Anangu when we see the inma, particular the opening where we see the magnificent black kalaya (emu), while the reaction for piranpa is amazement. The irony of the statue of Cpt Cook in an astonishingly Nazi salute is not lost on whitfellas, whereas for Anangu is not so much a person as a Myth or a story of mythic proportions. Cook is to the Australian context what the Raj is to India. The shot of abundant wild tomatoes alway bring a roar form Anangu audience whereas piranpa are left wondering “what was that?” People left got out of the cold pretty quickly after the film finishd and we built up the camp fire.

So that part of the story is delivered, a few final touched on the DVD and our marketing efforts will be on promoting that.
Next morning we had a stream of visitors, in between collecting firewood, fetching water and vehicle repairs.
The conversations follow consistent pathways, they are always to do with country, how this country has been under Anangu custodianship since time out of mind, how Tjukurpa is standing up alive and how that is the way the world here on the APY Lands is. The government, and people outside may have their own ideas about this country but “We are here today (on this country)” and that’s the way it is. There is no need for anyone here for Anangu to lay a claim to the country for their “ownership” is axiomatic, self evident and cannot be otherwise. There is always a great sense of both pride and gratitude that these people are here on their country, that is the ultimate.

Over the next few day I went out with Murray to see Tjukurpa, “We re going to see Hawthorne,” he said. The story is of a Hawk that flew in from outside. You have to go back, they said, this is not your country. Before leaving though the hawk laid an egg in a nest, and it is there today like a huge fossilised egg and nest. Also there way something of a mystery solved. I had long wondered about the cutting edge attached to the handle of a miru (spear thrower). It is usually embedded in a large knob of kiti or resin. Well here lying scattered all around were kanti (cutting stones) of many shapes sized and colours. Find one you like and you can use that. I had never seen any evidence of knapping. I hadn’t occurred to me that there would be plenty of kanti just lying around. You can touch them up if you like, Murray said, but it seed mor likely that people would use them as disposables.

We also collected mulga for making digging sticks. Murray showed me how to make a good strong point on a wana for digging tjala and maku. (Honey andy and whitchity grubs) I tell you the finished tied is like a crowbar. I was amused at how animated Anangu became when they saw it. Maybe there is a feed of tjala coming. We also found some of last seasons wanganu seed still standing. That was another bit of research that is important for our next film, where the women want to make a particular type of prised mai, but I mustn’t spill the beans.
And finally we spent the good part of a day look ing for blank from the spear trees. I had seen spears being made before, out of a mulga root, hard and slow work. This is altogether a different item, much quicker to work and make, coming up light springy and lethal.

We have long been looking for ways of using cultural knowledge and skill for enterprise. It has been going for a long time on a fairly small scale. We believe that a good number of the challenges that people living on the lands face can be addressed by various forms of social enterprise and like painting, artefact making, singing dancing and performance is part of that, and that is where much of our current effort is focused.
I am back in Adelaide now, thinking on all the new things I learnt and experience in this quick trip into a Mythic landscape.

Two Brothers Walking - Screenings

Press Release 14/02/2014

Special screening of “Two Brothers Walking” at DocWeek 2014
and Byron Bay Film Festival

Link to Press Release PDF

“Two Brothers Walking” a documentary that began as SA Unions fact finding visit to
Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands will have a special screening sponsored by the SA Film Corporation at DocWeek in Adelaide. It has also made selection for Byron Bay International Film Festival.

As a senior Pitjantjatjara lawman Murray George engages with senior men and women to oversee the maintenance of culture for future generations. He follows time less process of consultation, teaching, overseeing ceremony and cultural practices. John Hartley, Kukj Yalanji Bama from Far North Queensland, calls Murray Kuta, elder brother and together they maintain the connections that keep culture invigorated.

Tjukurpa," Murray says, "is always here. It is part of the country." Pitjantjatjara people have kept it standing up alive since the beginning. Now is the time to remind everyone that it is still here and that it has never gone away.

Murray, John and the people they meet are unapologetic that the world’s oldest culture claim its rightful place amongst the ingenuity and diversity of human enterprise and continue for future generations.

Since the
Bringing Them Home report and the subsequent bridge walks people ask what can they do in response. Murray says, “Tjukurpa, (known by different names in all Australian languages) belongs to everyone. Not just black people but white people too. They might not know it but if they want, we can teach them about it.”

Murray’s generation grew up with control over their lives and their country. Like his peers, he is bilingual and bi-literate. Identity and the future for Aboriginal people should be built on strong traditional culture as well as the good things that come from the Western European world. He calls for both cultures to coexist on a level footing, then everyone can benefit from both cultures.

Murray and John talk have similar defining experiences but coming from different directions. Murray grew up with the strength of culture around him and is now looking to the future to maintain the culture that is part of him. John grew up away from his country and has been on a quest to reconnect with his traditional roots and pave a way for others to do the same. Two Brothers Walking is about spiritual people in spiritual country.

Two Brothers Walking is grateful to the film’s generous sponsors which include SA Unions and affiliates, Office of the Arts and private philanthropists.

The documentary will screen:
Byron Bay International Film Festival on the 2nd March 2014
DocWeek Adelaide 6th March 2014following traditional Inma (song/dance), also a Q & A, Refreshments and a tour of Adelaide Studios.

Address enquiries to:
or to:
David Salomon
M: 04 3223 6332


Film Festival Campaign

Conversation at Pukitja

So often people go into Aboriginal communities to talk, not to listen. Most fly in, fly out, usually within a couple of hours. But when representatives from South Australian unions along with John Hartley as cultural intermediary and film-maker David Salomon sat down with senior people at Pukatja in the APY Lands in 2009, they were there to listen. That's unusual. You hear people referred to as "pina pati", that means, blocked ears, implying that they're either deaf or won't listen. 

On our arrival, Murray George and senior people had consulted broadly. They had a well formulated plan to discuss and were puzzled why people hadn't shown interest earlier. The model for administering their country was arrived at Anangu way, with important decisions held over until consensus had been reached.

Conditions on APY Lands had been deteriorating for 30 years. That's not to say that nothing good had happened, but resources to uphold and maintain law and culture were very limited. In a sad reflection of the days of the Aboriginal protector, recent amendments to the APY Lands legislation gave all final decisions to the minister. 

We approached various unions, organisations and individual philanthropists to support a documentary which would highlight that Tjukurpa is still alive in Australia. The APY lands is one of few remaining places where the full body of Tjukurpa is a continuing way of life. The documentary would not be a political debate, but a demonstration to the world that Tjukurpa is alive and on going. Stories from senior men and women would be recorded for future generations. Donations enabled Murray, John and David to travel to communities and call for a cultural response to troubles in communities everywhere. Murray was well known and we got a warm reception. Where he wasn't, people soon overcame their suspicion that we might be spying for the government and offered their support.

 Our sponsors were fantastic. We visited Kuku Yalanji Bubu, John's Family country in Far North Queensland, and kinfolk he hadn't met before. When everything came together at the Laura Dance Festival we met the last remaining fluent speaker of the Kuku Thaypan language, Dr Tommy George Senior. The old man's vision for culture and traditional world-view be maintained for future generations gave birth to the festival over 30 years ago. Anangu Pitjantjatjara presented him a painting and inma (song/dance) called Manta Nganampa during the opening of the Festival, "This, our country, is reverberating with life force. Colours and patterns are moving in excitement." Rainbow Serpent, Wanampi or Kurriyala brings life and the spirit of regeneration to the whole country.

 Now we are preparing to distribute the film as widely as we can. The South Australian Film Corporation In partnership with Australian International Documentary Conference are sponsoring a screening during DocWeek. It will make its World Premiere at Byron Bay International Film Festival around the same time. 
 This could not happen without the generosity of our supporters. We want to thank you sincerely. You have helped us begin something of great value, and we put out a call for everyone to join with Anangu tjuta, Yalanji bama and all Australians in supporting this social enterprise to keep the world's oldest culture standing up alive.

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'Dreamtime' and 'The Dreaming' – an introduction

By Christine Nicholls, Flinders University

Republished by permission from “The Conversation”

In 2002, Jeannie Herbert Nungarrayi, formerly a Warlpiri teacher at the Lajamanu School in the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory, where I worked for many years first as a linguist and then as school principal, explained the central Warlpiri concept of the Jukurrpa in the following terms:

To get an insight into us – [the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert] – it is necessary to understand something about our major religious belief, the Jukurrpa. The Jukurrpa is an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment.

The philosophy behind it is holistic – the Jukurrpa provides for a total, integrated way of life. It is important to understand that, for Warlpiri and other Aboriginal people living in remote Aboriginal settlements, The Dreaming isn’t something that has been consigned to the past but is a lived daily reality. We, the Warlpiri people, believe in the Jukurrpa to this day.

In this succinct statement Nungarrayi touched on the subtlety, complexity and all-encompassing, non-finite nature of the Jukurrpa.

The concept is mostly known in grossly inadequate English translation as “The Dreamtime” or “The Dreaming”. The Jukurrpa can be mapped onto micro-environments in specific tracts of land that Aboriginal people call “country”.

As a religion grounded in the land itself, it incorporates creation and other land-based narratives, social processes including kinship regulations, morality and ethics. This complex concept informs people’s economic, cognitive, affective and spiritual lives.


The Dreaming embraces time past, present and future, a substantively different concept from populist characterisations portraying it as “timeless” or having taken place at the so-called “dawn of time”. Unfortunately, even in mainstream Australia today, when and where we should know better, schmaltzy, quasi-New Age notions of “The Dreaming” frequently still hold sway.

The Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner conveyed the idea more accurately in his germinal 1956 essay The Dreaming, in which he coined the term “everywhen”:

“One cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen” wrote Stanner, adding that The Dreaming “ … has … an unchallengeable sacred authority".

Stanner went on to observe that: “We [non-Indigenous Australians] shall not understand The Dreaming fully except as a complex of meanings” (my emphasis).

Alma Nungarrayi Granites, Yanjirlpirri or Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa (Star or Seven Sisters Dreaming), 2011, acrylic on canvas, 91x76 cm. Warlukurlangu – Artists of Yuendumu

It isn’t possible here to offer more than an introductory glimpse into that constellation of meanings, any more than it would be to convey anything approaching a comprehensive understanding of other world religions in a brief article.

Words in Aboriginal languages for and about the concept of “The Dreaming”

B.C. (“Before Cook&rdquoWinking there were approximately 250 separate Aboriginal languages in what is now called Australia, with about 600-800 dialects.

It’s apposite and relevant to map Australia’s considerable geographical and environmental diversity onto this high level of linguistic and cultural diversity. Therefore it won’t be surprising to learn that there is no universal, pan-Aboriginal word to represent the constellation of beliefs comprising Aboriginal religion across mainland Australia and parts of the Torres Strait.

Unfortunately, since colonisation, this multiplicity of semantically rich, metaphysical word-concepts framing the epistemological, cosmological and ontological frameworks unique to Australian Aboriginal people’s systems of religious belief have been uniformly debased and dumbed-down – by being universally rendered as “Dreaming” in English – or, worse still, “Dreamtime”.

Neither passes muster as a viable translation, despite the fact there’s an element or strand in Aboriginal religion that does relate to dreams and dreaming.

As Maggie Fletcher (now visual art curator at the Adelaide Festival Centre) wrote in a 2003 Master’s thesis – for which I was the principal supervisor – “Dreaming” Interpretation and Representation:

… an entire epistemology has been reduced to a single English word.

Not only that, words from many different languages have been squished into a couple of sleep-related English words – words that come with significantly different connotations – or baggage – in comparison with the originals.

Peggy Rockman Napaljarri, Warlpiri, 2010, Mukaki Jukurrpa (‘Bush Plum Dreaming&rsquoWinking, acrylic on canvas, 39x125 cm. Warnayaka Art Centre, Lajamanu

As noted earlier, the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert describe their complex of religious beliefs as the Jukurrpa.

Further south-east, the Arrerntic peoples call the word-concept the Altyerrenge or Altyerr (in earlier orthography spelled Altjira and Alcheringa and in other ways, too).

The Kija people of the East Kimberley use the term Ngarrankarni (sometimes spelled Ngarrarngkarni); while the Ngarinyin people (previously spelled Ungarinjin, inter alia) people speak of the Ungud (or Wungud).

“Dreaming” is called Manguny in Martu Wangka, a Western Desert language spoken in the Pilbara region of Western Australia; and some North-East Arnhem Landers refer to the same core concept as Wongar – to name but a handful.

Satellite terminology for understanding “The Dreaming”

As with other world religions such as Christianity and Judaism, there is an extensive, closely affiliated ancillary vocabulary complementing the central Indigenous term – that is, accompanying each specific Aboriginal language group’s name for their religion.

In the case of the Christian religion, word-concepts such as Holy Trinity; Advent; Ascension; Covenant; Pentecost; apostle; baptism and so forth, ideas with which many readers will be familiar, are also germane to coming to a deeper understanding of that religion.

So it is with Aboriginal religious belief. The Warlpiri religion, the Jukurrpa, has a host of word-concepts that are important adjuncts to the core concept. Included among these is kuruwarri, defined in the Warlpiri dictionary as:

visible pattern, mark or design associated with creative Dreamtime (Jukurrpa) spiritual forces: the mark may be attributed to these forces, or it may symbolise and represent them and events associated with them; mark, design, artwork, drawing, painting, pattern.

Pirlirrpa is defined as “the spirit, the soul, the person’s essence”, and is believed to reside in the kidneys; yiwiringgi is a person’s Conception Dreaming, defined in the Warlpiri dictionary as an individual’s:

life-force or spirit which is localised in some natural formation and which may determine the spiritual nature of a person from conception and the relation of that person to the life-force.

Or, in lay terms, closely related to the place where the mother believes she conceived the child. As Warlpiri man Harry Nelson Jakamarra – also in the Warlpiri dictionary – further elucidates, a child’s Conception Dreaming derives from the location where the mother believes her child to have been conceived:

… Kurdu kujaka yangka palka-jarri, wita, ngapa kuruwarrirla marda yangka wiringka, ngula kalu ngarrirni kurdu yalumpuju Ngapa-jukurrpa. Yalumpu ngapangka kuruwarrirla kurdu palka-jarrija.

(“When a baby is conceived, it might be in an important Rain Dreaming place, then they call that child Rain Dreaming. The child came into being in that Rain Dreaming site&rdquoWinking.

Another key word in relation to the Jukurrpa, kurruwalpa has been defined by the Polish-French anthropologist Barbara Glowczewski as:

the spirit-child which, returning to the site where it had entered its mother, waits to be reincarnated into another child-to-be-born.

There are numerous other associated word-concepts too, all relating to the central idea of the Jukurrpa, some of which are too sacred or gender-specific to reveal.

Molly Tasman Napurrurla, Warlpiri, 2003, Marrkirdi Jukurrpa, (‘Wild Bush Plum Dreaming&rsquoWinking, on Magnani Pescia paper, image size 490x320 mm. Warnayaka Arts Centre Lajamanu, and Aboriginal Art Prints Network, Oxford Street, Sydney

A challenge for all Australians

Also akin to mainstream world religions, while these geographically and doctrinally diverse Indigenous Australian religious concepts do have a level of commonality – as is demonstrably the case with different denominations and branches of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and so forth – these Aboriginal religions cannot be regarded as monolithic entities.

Analogous with Christianity, in which there are doctrinal differences affecting the beliefs and practices of those who adhere to Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox or Coptic branches of Christianity, Indigenous regional and cultural differences need to be taken into account in order to develop a real understanding of the religion known in English as “The Dreaming”.

But what differentiates Aboriginal religion from other religions is its continuity with local landscapes or what Indigenous artist Brian Martin has described as “countryscapes”.

Linda Namiyal Bopirri, 1990, Yolngu Matha (Durrurna clan, Dhuwa moiety), Oyster (‘Oyster Dreaming’, ‘Wayanaka&rsquoWinking Bank, Ochre on Bark, 64x95cm. © the artist's estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd; Burkhardt-Felder Collection, Switzerland.

Dreamings, founded upon the actions of Dreaming Ancestors, Creator Beings believed responsible for bringing-into-being localised geographical features, land forms such as waterholes and springs, differ across the length and breadth of Australia. (For obvious reasons, there’s no Oyster, Stingray, Shark, Octopus, Squid or Saltwater Crocodile Dreaming in Central Australia).

The universal translation of these terms as “Dreaming” needs to be questioned. If Australia is to grow as a nation, to make right the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, it’s time to start using the original terminology from Indigenous languages, to learn how to pronounce the words, and to talk about the Manguy, Jukurrpa, or Ngarrankarni, in place of the catch-all “Dreaming”.

It’s a more difficult path, but could also teach the rest of us a thing or two about Indigenous cultural, linguistic and religious diversity.

This article is the first of a series on “Dreamtime” and “The Dreaming”.

Christine Nicholls does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Comparing languages reveals things we didn't know we didn't know.

I love to listen to ABC radio documentaries while driving, especially NPR summer series, and yesterday I was not disappointed on hearing part of Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive. It got me reflecting on how Murray, John and I went about making Two brothers Walking.

We made the documentary with very little. We had sponsorship for travel and accommodation and some funding for post production and launch. I approached various funding bodies early on but since we were working along cultural lines I was confident though not certain that we would complete a film for a general audience. We intended to film significant cultural material so final approval would be up to the people responsible for that Tjukurpa. I knew the my Anangu friends looked at the world wasn’t the same as my english speaking western way, and I suspected there were things I didn’t know that weren’t even on my radar.

When we were shooting at Nyapari, one of the Toyota’s tyres had a slow leak. I asked Murray what was the best way to go about fixing it, thinking that I would get an explanation of what needed to be done and how to go about it. Not so. Murray said in a most direct way, “Bring it over to the air pump and you can watch me (break the bead, remove the split rim and patch the leak).” Through his eyes there was a problem that needed to be fixed immediately and I was asking for his help. On the other hand, I was wondering whether I had the necessary tools, if now was a convenient time for repairs or should I use one of my spares for the time being. I was formulating a plan.

We’ve had this conversation, talking at crossed purposes many times. I might be possibilities and hypotheticals, Murray would think specifics and be getting ready for action. It isn’t that Pitjantjatjara doesn’t allow for considering alternatives, it does. It is that as far as I can see, traditional life turns on a different axis; talk about what you know, what you can and are responsible for doing. It is anchored in the present moment and guided by ngarpitji ngarpitji, a world view based on holistic flow rather than individual transactions.

Just as one came claim to know how to do something once one has done it, I wanted to make the film to demonstrate that we could, and in the process adhere to cultural ways of doing things. Two Brothers Walking is embedded in both traditional and conventional practices, and we will explore more in our storytelling this year.

I am very interested in your observations of traditional and western attitudes and perspectives.

In the summer of 2008 I visited the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands of South Australia for the first time. APY is an area of traditional land whose title is in the hands of Aboriginal people. It is, I believe, the largest piece of country in Australia whose full body of traditional tjukurpa is still intact. I went there to record an historic meeting between representatives of the trade union movement and Australia’s first peoples.

It wasn’t my first visit to an Aboriginal community but it was like no other. While earlier visits were characterised by shock in discovering that Australia was not the place I always thought it was, this was the beginning of a different kind of education, a long way from my university studies in science, education and social ecology. This was the education that would go well beyond the intellect and primarily inform the senses and spirit. Through it I would come to consider what it really means to have freedom and what it means to strive to be a full human being. These were questions that men and women of the APY Lands had been considering for millennia.


First Contact

I was raw with grief from the sudden death of my mother when I first visited a traditional desert community. I lived in Newcastle and worked as a school teacher at the time and had the opportunity to spend a week in desert country during the school holidays. The Sydney Olympics were on, and I wasn’t the least bit interested.

I got a flight on the four seater mail plane and touched down around mid day. As I walked the half kilometre to the community I came across kids playing on the road, riding bikes, eating bush tomatoes that grew prolifically after an unusually wet season, then moving on with their games. Some girls were playing a marriage partner game based on the elaborate kinship system that preferred certain combinations of skin names. I wasn’t to understand the significance of this until much later. No one spoke more than a word or two of English. I knew nothing of Aboriginal languages.

By and by some boys on bikes rode up and asked me who I was, “What’s your name , mister?”
“David,” I said.
Then again a little bit later, “What’s your name, mister?”

Same kids, same question over and over. I couldn’t work it out. Why parrot the same question over and over? I was baffled and displaced. It’s like I was nobody in a foreign country knowing nobody apart from my friend who was elsewhere occupied. It was at that moment it dawned on me that Australia wasn’t the place I thought it was.

Later I realised that the kids where asking me, “What’s your skin name?” and had I been able to answer that, everything would have been different. I would no longer be a stranger but a skin name would immediately let everyone know my relationship to them, at least in broad terms, my relationship to country and so on and so forth. But of course, I really was a stranger, a visitor an intruder. I knew less about these people than the youngest in the community, and I knew that were thousands of these communities through the central and western desert. This was beyond the outback.

on moving to Adelaide some years later, I had the opportunity to visit communities on the AŠĻČangu Pitjantjatjara Yankyuntjatjara Lands of South Australia to film what would become Two Brothers Walking. I met Murray and Wititji George at Pukitja and sat down with the Tjilpis (senior men) as they expressed their hopes and dreams for their communities and people to a delegation of trade union secretaries on a fact finding mission. Most of the conversation was in Pitjantjatjara that Murray translated.

After the meeting, one of the Tjilpis beckoned to me, and started a conversation in fairly clear english. I understood the words well enough but only had the flimsiest grasp of what he was talking about. As he spoke he drew patterns with his finger on his outside leg below the calf muscle. He said, “I can see things that you can’t see. I’m a witch doctor. I can see that Wanampi (Rainbow Serpent), he’s here with us now. He’s going up to everyone and having a look at everyone, black fellas, white fellas, everyone. He’s a happy fellow moving from one to another, as if to say, “here I am, I am here.” He moves up from Sydney, from Canberra, from Melbourne, everywhere moving over the whole country. I felt the power emanating from the old man, I was entranced.

The full significance of all this only became clear when the Two Brothers Walking documentary years later.

When he finished talking, I felt the mood shift, like coming out of a cinema, or a dog shaking off water to dry itself, setting me on an adventure that continues to this day.

I have found it difficult to get started writing about these things. The reference points that would help us westerners understand Australia’s tribal people simply don’t exist. The usual assumptions don’t hold. We have to get back to the essence of what is to be a human being, what does it mean to be a free person, where did we come from to build a meaningful relationship.


Adelaide Film Festival

We are disappointed not to have made the Adelaide Film Festival 2013 but nevertheless very proud of the film and welcome you support by liking the trailer at

More news of our launch shortly.


Yothu Yindi and the Yolngu culture: dreaming of a brighter day

By Samuel Curkpatrick

The lead singer of the band Yothu Yindi died yesterday of kidney disease, aged 56.

Only a few decades after radio, popular music and electric guitars spread through Arnhem Land in the 1960s, Yothu Yindi rose to take a prominent and celebrated place in Australian culture.

Forming in 1986, the band was soon making a number of international tours and their hit songs Treaty from 1991, blazed its way up the Australian pop charts.

Treaty not only became the first song in an Indigenous Australian language, Gumatj, to gain widespread attention but it also became the unofficial anthem for the reconciliation movement: “Now two rivers run their course, separated for so long. I’m dreaming of a brighter day when the waters will be one.”

Composed in collaboration with Paul Kelly and Midnight Oil, this song protested the lack of action taken by then Prime Minster Bob Hawke’s on his 1988 promise of a treaty with Indigenous Australia.

Two halves

Yet the significance of Yothu Yindi goes much deeper than the band’s phenomenal success as a popular music group. The very name of the band asserts a fundamental tenet of indigenous ancestral law. This principle of yothu-yindi or “child-mother” underpins the entire Yolngu world, the cultural and linguistic group to which the band and its musicians belong.

The Yolngu world is divided into two halves, or two moieties, known as Dhuwa and Yirritja. Everything in nature, society, language and ceremony belongs to either one of these two halves. To anyone born in the Yolngu world, your mother always belongs to the side opposite yourself: if you are Dhuwa, your mother will be Yirritja and vice versa.

This system governs important rights such as land ownership, shapes regional parliamentary gatherings and determines the particular songs and dances that are your duty to sing and maintain.

Yothu-yindi is an expression of unity in diversity, a relationship of difference (child-mother) out of which stems good society. Yothu-yindi is about the reciprocal responsibilities of caring for country and family.

Yothu Yindi’s recently deceased lead singer, who was also the first Aboriginal school principal in Australia, carried the notion of yothu-yindi into his tireless advocacy for a “two-ways” bi-cultural approach.

His 1993 Boyer lectures advocated relative autonomy, where Yolngu people, law and culture exist side by side with the rest of Australia. He was also named Australian of the Year in 1992.

Just as salt water meets fresh to create brackish water, yothu-yindi concerns productivity amid difference. This ancestral law extends into the very music that Yothu Yindi plays. As the singer told Rolling Stone magazine: “I’m using white man’s skills, Yolngu skills and putting them together for a new beginning.”

Narratives from public Yolngu ceremonies and tradition are carried by the new musical forms, contexts and instruments of Yothu Yindi. Like the colourful artwork that comes out of Arnhem Land, popular music continues to be used as a means of telling ancestral stories in the present.

Sunset dreaming

Another ARIA winning Yothu Yindi song, Djäpana: Sunset Dreaming, imagines the red sinking sun that, as the vocalist sings, “takes my mind back to my homeland, far away.” It is a song of worry and homesickness sung at funeral ceremonies. The design being painted onto the chest of a boy in the film clip shows clouds on the horizon forming out to sea. The sunset glows, reflected on the clouds and water.

Like other Yothu Yindi songs, Djäpana: Sunset Dreaming uses lyrics taken directly from the age-old ceremonial repertoires belonging to the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans. The characteristic sound of the didjeridu (yidaki) and clapsticks (bilma) that can be heard in rock music from Arnhem Land also stem from tradition. These instruments are at the heart of ceremonial dance (bunggul) and complement the band’s rock style, creating rhythmic drive and groove.

Yothu Yindi’s performances across the country and globe are, first and foremost, an assertion of the relevance of Yolngu law today. They are a demonstration of the Yolngu ability to bring their ancestral narratives into contemporary expressions, asserting their legitimacy as they share them in an ever-changing world.

Truly Australian music

Touring through the 1990s and into the 2000s, Yothu Yindi have continued to achieve success as a widely recognised group representative of truly Australian music. Embracing popular sounds and media, they have given Australians a fresh and positive perspective on Indigenous culture. Their music exudes hope for a brighter future.

The band’s high profile gigs, such as the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, are matched by their workshops with Indigenous bands across Arnhem Land. The Yothu Yindi Foundation’s annual Garma Festival at the homeland Gulkula, continues what Yothu Yindi started, bringing people together to discuss ideas of reconciliation and to share traditional culture.

With great energy and colour, Yothu Yindi sing in celebration of the great traditions of their ancestral homelands, allowing their voices to merge with mainstream Australia in hope for our shared future.

The lead singer of Yothu Yindi has not been named or depicted in this article out of respect for Yolngu cultural protocols.

Samuel Curkpatrick does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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John Hartley on Harmony Day 2013

Harmony Day 2013 from David Salomon on Vimeo.