Singing the Land, Signing the Land


The many Aboriginal peoples in Australia utilise different (though related) systems of genealogical patterning. To simplify matters for our limited purposes, we shall look briefly at only one of these, the gurruṯu system of the Yolngu. When Yolngu invite a stranger to their community, a stranger with whom they expect to have some prolonged personal contact, the person is told something like this: 'We have been talking about a name for you. Such and such a person will name you; you are so-and-so's sister or brother'. Why should an outsider need a Yolngu name? Before she can contribute in any way to Yolngu society, a significant stranger must first be located in the gurruṯu system. Once named, the stranger is constantly being instructed: 'He's your wawa (brother)greet him' or 'He is gurrung (son-in-law) for you, stay away'. While such a name might imply emotional involvement with the stranger (and that is how many European Australians see it), the act of name bestowal is acknowledgment in an objective sense. To be a 'real' entity in Yolngu life, a person or place must be named, and thus located within the genealogical order.

A stranger who is, say, a Walbiri woman (and thus already located in a connected system of kin names) must have her location in her own system translated into the gurruṯu system of the Yolngu. Through a series of intermediates, the relation between the Walbiri and a particular Yolngu person will be determined. Once the relation with one Yolngu has been worked through, then her relationship with all other Yolngu is known.

When a non-Aboriginal person is recognised in this way he or she will have established, in one moment, formal family relations and responsibilities involving several hundreds of people and more. Learning these complex formal connections, which seem so obvious to Yolngu, is inevitably a challenging experience for the European Australian.

Yolngu children, from the very beginning of their lives, are instructed in the details of all these relations, just as European children constantly rehearse their number manipulations. The comparison here is precise since the gurruṯu system is explicitly mathematical and is often identified by Yolngu teachers as 'the basis of Yolngu mathematics'. Using the gurruṯu system, the relations among all the elements of the world can be known. As we have said, connections are made to all parts of nature and also across time to the beginnings of meaning in 'the Dreamtime', Thus, when it is said that Yolngu live 'closely related to nature', what is meant is a concrete and very precise mathematically articulated relationship, not some romantic, or even mystical, 'closeness to the heart of nature', as it sometimes sounds to the Western ear. At the same time, it must be remembered thaI these precise relationships are those of kinship and thus entail certain obligations and responsibilities: certain types of beholdenness like those of sister to brother or parent to child. Thus, if there is a 'closeness to the heart of nature' in Aboriginal life, it surely stems from the practical, everyday attentiveness of gurruṯu.

Oh white man
how can I make you understand
this love of land?
It has the touch of a child's fingertips
to a mother's lips.
Her loveliness is summer red,
pink fading gold,
as mother sun sinks to fold
herself in a cloak of night
embossed with the light
of stars from a black nation's dreamtime.

Jack Davis, in John Pat and other poems, Dent, Melbourne, 1988, p. 32

In its most basic sense gurruṯu is a series of names with a re-occurring pattern. It enables one to articulate formally all types of relationships. The names constitute an infinite series by having a basic set of names and rules by which names are generated. Gurruṯu names (like number names) form a pattern of language. The basic form of this pattern requires alternation across three generations, grandparent-grandchild (the märi-gutharra cycle). The fact that every person has two direct ancestors-a mother and a father-is encoded by the universal division of the entire world into two moieties, the Yirrirja and Dhuwa. The Yolngu nation is thus half Dhuwa and half Yirritja. Every person who has dealings with the Yolngu, and indeed every named thing in the Yolngu world is either Yirritja or Dhuwa. In family relations, one is the same moiety as one's father and a different moiety from one's mother and one's husband or wife. Thus, to recapitulate, at its simplest, the gurruṯu cycle operates in two dimensions: Yirritja-Dhllwa (the moieties) and märi-gutharra (the generations).

Land tenure system in yolngu life


This diagram, adapted from a diagram by Richard Barwick, shows how gurruṯu (an abstract recursion) and narrative tracks (metaphors) are worked together in Yolngu life to create a working system of land tenure in much the same way that Westerners use numbers (an abstract recursion) and qualities (metaphors) in constituting a working system of land tenure.



Diagram of a double helix.

If one doesn't apply the model too literally, it might be useful to think of gurruṯu as approximated by a double helix. We can take the long axis of the helix as Yolngu society. The two chains symbolise the two moieties, and the base pairs symbolise the kinship linkages which occur throughout the social and natural world. The lines crossing over each other may be taken as symbolising the generations. Perhaps we can interpret the cross-hatching in ITEM 4.5 as looking through 'the tunnel' made by the strands of the double helix - the two moieties.

Many diverse accounts by anthropologists of how the system works might be cited from peoples spread across Australia. For instance, Deborah Bird Rose describes how the Yarralin of the Northern Territory observe the flow of seasons. Unlike Western calendrical cycles based on statistical norms of meteorological variation, directly related to astronomical events, Yarralin cycles focus on a subtle and intricate set of indicators in the local environment, all ultimately linked within the web of genealogical relations. For example, the many terms for different types of rain and different coloured rains have meaning within the same system as the recursive genealogical names through which relations between people are ordered within Yarralin life.

In a normal course of events, rain comes because the flying foxes have told the rainbow snake that the earth is getting very hot, the trees are all gelling dry, the flowers that are food for the flying fox are gone. They 'say' this by going to roost along the river. So one portion of the seasonal cycle is conceptually linked to a range of faunal species. Many of these species are associated with human beings through matrilineally derived categories of identity. In this way, humans, animals and seasons are brought together as part of a system. Sally Bijibiji (one of the anthropologist's instructors) told me: 'March flies are telling you the (crocodile) eggs are ready.' The value of this kind of information is manifest: the moment at which crocodiles start to lay eggs is quite unpredictable by the western calendar, but it is entirely predictable if one pays attention to march flies ... The other type of biting fly tells you that the bush plums are ready. 'When the brolga sings out, the jarlalka (dark catfish, associated with flood waters) starts to move.' Deborah Bird Rose, 'Exploring an Aboriginal land ethic', Meanjin, vol. 47, no. 3, p.382

Thus we see how genealogical relatedness, formally articulated in a recursive system of names, constitutes an encompassing pattern of Aboriginal life. It involves notions of hierarchy and equivalence, but is not a centralised hierarchy. Each individual and place plays different roles in several different hierarchies, and the many hierarchies woven together form a decentralised orderly mesh. In practical terms the mesh works in a way that de-emphasises competition among individuals in favour of co-operation, and social differentiation tends to be subsumed by social relatedness. Thus, like the number system, the genealogical order carries a powerful ideology. Most importantly, it achieves a general ordering of both the social and the natural world. It maintains an image of continuity and permanence both across space and through the passage of generations.

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