Yolngu Diplomacy

In July 2008, at Yirrkala in the Northern Territory, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his entourage were camped under a marquee on a section of the town park. In the same park were tribal political leaders from across East Arnhem Land, the home of the Yolngu people. Everyone had hoped for sunshine but it was drizzling with rain. At a certain point the tribal leaders walked the distance between the two groups and handed the Prime Minister a petition. Despite the awkwardness of the exchange, the Yolngu people, through their delegated political leaders (the Dalkarramirr and Djirrikaymirr), had just requested Australian federal constitutional recognition of their ‘way of life’.

Ten years earlier, in February 1998, former Prime Minister John Howard had visited Galiwinku. He was met there by several tribal political leaders and was given the great honour of having the group’s Dhulmu-mulka Bathi hung around his neck. By doing this the leaders hoped to impress upon him the inherent depth of Yolngu law. Later the same day John Howard travelled with his group to Yirrkala, where he was given a petition by the Yolngu people. It read:

We request that you recognise:

  1. the Dhulmu-mulka Bathi (Title Deeds) which establish the legal tenure for each of our traditional clan estates. Your Westminster system calls this ‘Native Title’.
  1. the jurisdiction of our Ngärra/Traditional Parliament in the same way as we recognise your Parliament and Westminster system of Government.
  1. [and] our Madayin system of law.

Neither of these petitions was ever tabled in Parliament. Rather the 2008 and 1998 petitions, together with the 1988 Barunga Statement requesting a treaty and the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petition, merely appear on the government website <www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/bark-petitions-indigenous-art>. In fact, despite all these petitions, under the leadership of John Howard and Mal Brough the 2007 Intervention has meant the undermining of Yolngu autonomy and authority. As widely reported, Indigenous people across the Northern Territory are subject to blanket welfare quarantining, compulsory acquisition of lands and the removal of Aboriginal customary law from consideration in NT courts.

The Intervention has also seen a large investment in housing in designated communities (denied to those not willing to sign land leases) and more alcohol restricted areas. But unbeknown to most, the Intervention coincided with a raft of NT government actions, including the forced restructuring of local governance away from community-controlled associations to new super-size regional shires, the desertion of bilingual or ‘two-way’ education policies, and the Working Futures policy (aka ‘growth towns’) diverting funding from homelands, as well as an increased police presence in remote communities.

The result has been a huge centralisation of decision-making, with a large power shift from Yolngu governance to that of an outside jurisdiction. Indeed, the Intervention has meant that over five decades of Yolngu requests for recognition of their culture, legal and governance systems from Australian authorities has come to nought, and the very opposite is now occurring: the denial of land and legal rights, as well as culture and language.

The response of Yolngu leadership to the recent federal government announcement of a second round of NT Intervention measures into Aboriginal communities, then, comes as no surprise. In a press release on 27 June 2011, tribal political leader the Rev. Dr Djiniyini Gondarra responded: The Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory will only endorse a new initiative by the Government to improve the lives of Aboriginal people if the Government first establishes a diplomatic and respectful dialogue, negotiation and relationship with the traditional lawmen and lawwomen in the communities to be affected. These are the people that are seen as the true leaders by their communities, who are charged with maintaining ceremony, language, law and order. They must be properly consulted before any new initiative can take place in their communities.

As with previous attempts by Yolngu, Dr Gondarra is asking the federal government to approach Indigenous people government to government, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, leadership to leadership. It is a request for appropriate diplomatic relations between peoples.

The response of recent federal governments notwithstanding, such an outcome is not without precedent in Yolngu relations with the Australian state. But we have to go back to the beginning of last century to understand the Yolngu expectation that respectful diplomatic relations are possible, and even fruitful in bringing about mutual advantages.

Prior to 1906 the Yolngu had uninterrupted dominion of the East Arnhem Land region, complete with international trade with the Maccassans of Sulawesi. They had an ordered life, with political organisation based on clans, tribes and clan-nations, and a common system of law called Madayin.

In 1906 the South Australian government barred the Maccassan trepang-traders of Sulawesi from entering Australian coastal shores, thus beginning an economic decline that could be said to continue to this day. However, twenty-nine years later, it was this embargo that indirectly led to possibly the first and best instance of diplomatic communications between Yolngu and Australian government jurisdictions.

Following the removal of the Maccassans from Australian shores, others took over the northern trepang trade, and some Yolngu collaborated with these new trepangers. Yet such partnerships were often volatile, lacking the protections of the contractual and family ties that had been established with the Maccassans over centuries. This led to trespass on Yolngu land, legal violations of Yolngu law and personal abuses. One such incident culminated in the killing of five Japanese trepangers in 1932, and the 1933 killing of police constable Albert McColl, who was sent by Australian jurisdictions as part of an expedition party to investigate the Japanese deaths.

As a result of a naive missionary gesture of peacemaking, and because of a betrayal by Australian government officials, four Yolngu men (Natjiyalma, Maaw, Narkaya and Dhakiyarr) were jailed for the killings in Darwin. All of these men were considered son (gathu) to the Djapu tribal political leader Wonggu.

In the midst of calls for revenge expeditions from frontier populations in Darwin, the Melbourne-based anthropologist Donald Thompson was able to convince the federal government to help fund an expedition into East Arnhem Land where he might negotiate a solution. Thompson began his expedition in 1935, and through doing so developed a strong mutual friendship with Wonggu. As leader (Djirrikaymirr) of the Djapu tribe, Wonggu gave Thompson a letter stick declaring peace with the outside authorities. It does not seem that this stick was actually delivered to Australian government officials, but instead Thompson gave his sanctioned advocacy and assurances. As a result Wonggu’s three remaining sons were released and personally returned by Thompson to East Arnhem Land.

Unfortunately the son charged with Constable McColl’s death, Dakiyarr, had been released earlier and disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Nonetheless, the communication between Wonggu and Donald Thompson—underpinned by the Yolngu and Australian governing authorities—is the first clear example of diplomatic communications between Yolngu and Australian jurisdictions. In other words, the Australian government had sent an ambassador into East Arnhem Land to negotiate terms of peace, the ambassador found the appropriate authority, and with mutual respect the two were able to come to an agreement.

The question that might be asked in 2011 is why a version of that careful, open and authoritative diplomatic action can’t be undertaken today. Both Labor and Coalition governments seem incapable of understanding this requirement of appropriate cross-cultural decision making. A change of paradigm is needed that honours the voice of the Yolngu people and existing mechanisms of Indigenous government. In East Arnhem Land at least, the parameters for respectful relations across jurisdictions have been consistently defined. Through decades of their own diplomatic engagement Yolngu political authorities have made it clear: a helpful approach requires mainstream recognition of law, land tenure, Yolngu ‘way of life’ and Yolngu jurisdiction where decisions affect the lives and culture of their people. These requirements are the Yolngu basis for mutual dialogue; without them, what can really come next?

Author: Kendall Trudgen works as a community development facilitator and mediator in Galiwinku, Northern Territory.

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