coastCultural Snapshot

Aboriginal people in the Miwatj region form three major cultural blocs:

  • Anindilyakwa people (Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island)
  • Nunggubuyu people (the Numbulwar area)
  • Yolngu people (broadly, the area from Milingimbi/Ramingining in the west to Yirrkala in the east)

Many languages are spoken, and for most Aboriginal people in the region English is a third or fourth language.

Attachment to land remains fundamental: the numerous clans of the region identify with particular tracts of land, with the kinship system forming the basis of social interaction.

While the languages and clan names differ between the Yolngu, Anindilyakwa and Nunngubuyu people, the underlying concepts are similar across the region. The example below talks about Yolngu, but the basic principles apply to other groups as well.

Yolngu stories, clans and kinship

At the beginning of time, the creating ancestors of all yolngu made their journeys across the land, creating the animals, giving birth to the people, giving them their languages and ceremonies, singing their songs, and creating the formations of their land. The exploits of these people, their hunting, and the things that befell them make up the most important and popular of all yolngu stories.

The descendants of these creators have lived through time in small semi-nomadic family groups travelling over large areas of land. Each clan group always had, and still has, its own traditional land (wanga), its own totems (rannga), its own dialect of yolngu matha (language), its own songs (manikay), ceremonies (bunggul), and stories (dhawu). Each clan, along with all its land, songs, plants and animals, belongs to one of two moieties – dhuwa or yirritja.

The songs are of primary importance: they are the very songs which were sung and then given by the creators. All the plants and animals in the yolngu world are named in the songs, people are always named from clan songs, and the songs are sung at all ceremonies.

Marriage is always outside the clan group. Individual clan groups had longstanding marriage arrangements with particular other groups. A man would normally marry into the same group as his father. In other words, he would marry into his mother’s clan. Therefore, that group, the land belonging to that group, and all the totemic plants and animals of that group would be called ‘mother’ by that man.

kinshipThe mother’s mother (märi) and her brother (also märi) are an equally important relative. Their clan, and all its land, songs and totems would be called märi. Your märi would be the same moiety as yourself, and this makes the märi important ceremonially. Your märi has a major say in the ceremonies in which you are involved, in making and controlling sacred objects, and in settling family disputes.

A woman would marry into a clan different from the one her brothers marry into. All her children (her waku) would belong to this clan. She and her whole clan would call that clan, as well as its songs, land and totems, ‘waku’.

Ultimately, all clans are somehow related to each other. One or more clans might be your mother (ngandi), others would be your grandmother (märi), and others your greatmother/daughter (waku). The system is cyclic. Your mother’s mother’s mother clan is the same as your daughter clan. Therefore you would call your great grandmother ‘waku’. Continuing around the cycle, your märi’s märi (great great grandmother) is your sister.

(Note that the system is matrilineal, so by daughter – waku – we refer to a woman’s daughter, or to a man’s sister’s daughter. A man’s own daughter – his gathu – would belong to the same clan as himself.)

The clan of your ngandi is called your ngandipulu. The whole system of clans related to you is called the yindipulu.

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