Side by Side, Yolngu and Balanda

In his article, “Mutual Conversion?: The Methodist Church and the Yolngu,with particular reference to Yirrkala” (Humanities Research, vol. XII, no. 1, 2005, pp. 41-53), Howard Morphy essays a preliminary history of the Methodist Overseas Mission in Arnhem Land.  Admitting that his title “exaggerates the case but perhaps only a little,” Morphy examines the unusual degree of mutual tolerance and active respect of each other’s religious beliefs and practices among the early Methodist missionaries and the Yolngu in Arnhem Land, and especially at Yirrkala from the 1930s through the next few decades.  He quotes Daymbalipu Mununggurr speaking of the ability of the two practices to co-exist and enrich one another, as late as 1974, when the mining at Nhulunbuy had already begun to wrench Yolngu and Balanda relations into a different and devastating shape.

This time is a little bit different because there are two ways we see.  One is the Christian way, one is our law, the Aboriginal law.  These laws do not hate each another.  We like to make a good law, leading to peaceful ways (Morphy, p. 47).

The Spear and the CloudMorphy’s thesis might have been the Ur-text for the new book by Bernard Clarke, Larrpan ga Buduyurr: the spear and the cloud (Bernard Clarke/MediaCom Education Inc, 2010).  Ostensibly a biography-cum-memoir of Gätjil Djerrkura (1949-2004), former head of ATSIC and a man of considerable political vision and accomplishment, Clarke’s book is an extensive history of Yolngu-Balanda relations in Arnhem Land that adds considerable heft to the notions that Morphy put forth five years earlier.

Clarke’s association with the people of Arnhem Land began in 1964 when he arrived in Darwin to work as a minister and social worker for the Methodist Overseas Mission.  Two years later, realizing that a close ally and cultural guide from among the Yolngu was essential to the understanding upon which any success might rest, he became friends with young Gätjil.  Their active partnership lasted for fifteen years; their friendship until Gätjil’s premature death of a heart attack twenty-five years after that.  The two men had envisioned Larrpan ga Buduyurr as a jointly authored project, but Clarke carried it out as a tribute to his friend and to the Yolngu spirit of reconciliation and partnership (“walking side by side” in Gätjil’s formulation) that characterized their relationship and, indeed, in Clarke’s view, the history of the Mission at Yirrkala from its earliest days.

For Larrpan ga Buduyurr is more than a biography or the story of a friendship, it is a history of Yolngu attempts to work with the missionaries and within the larger frame of black and white politics.  This history dates back to the fraught days of the tensions surrounding the Caledon Bay Massacres that led to the visit of Donald Thomson to Arnhem Land and the negotiations with the great Yolngu leader Wonggu, who was Gätjil’s grandfather.

Much of the story of the early days that Clarke recounts will be familiar to readers of a variety of chronicles, including Ted Egan’s A Justice All Their Own: the Caledon Bay and Woodah Island killings 1932-1933 (Melbourne University Press, 1996), Wilbur Chaseling’s Yulengor: nomads of Arnhem Land (Epworth Press, 1957), and Edgar Wells’s Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land, 1962-1963 (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1982).  Still, Clarke’s retelling of the story is well worth the reading, for he approaches it with sympathy and from a perspective of great respect for men who are family to Gätjil and for other Yolngu leaders through the years.  For example, Wonggu, often characterized as a fierce and violent warrior with little sympathy for the outsiders who invaded his country, emerges from these pages as a sober and ingenious diplomat who laid the groundwork for the mission at Yirrkala and the collaborations that grew out of it.

In Clarke’s account, Wonggu created a framework of rrambangi, of Yolngu and missionaries working as equals in the new mission community.  There were areas where each group had a appropriate sphere of influence and power, and each recognized the right of the other to control that respective sphere.  This seems to have characterized, in Clarke’s view, much of what transpired at Yirrkala during the first three decades of contact, and interestingly, agrees with the perception that Morphy has obtained from his Yolngu informants (although Morphy admits that there may be a bias in Yolngu memory towards a “golden age” prior to the 1970’s; see Morphy p. 42).

Troubles began in the 1960s with the advent of mining interests that cared little for concepts of shared responsibility.  Again, the history is familiar territory, from the creation of the Yirrkala Church panels in response to concerns about the incursion of Balanda mercenary interests onto Yolngu country (see Ann Wells’s This Their Dreaming: legends of panels of Aboriginal art in the Yirrkala Church, University of Queensland Press, 1972) through Justice Blackburn’s decision in the Gove Land Rights Case in 1971 to the Whitlam era of self-determination.

Clarke brings to his discussion of this era an exposition of some fine points of distinction that are too often lost in the heated arguments over Aboriginal policy.  Chief among these is the difference between self-determination, which the Yolngu desired but did not achieve, and self-management, whereby “the Government gave them control over the very domain they had never sought to control,” that is, education, health care, and management of the township and the mission.  These were areas over which Wonggu had ceded control to the mission many years ago (Clarke, p. 92).  The shift that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s sacrificed Yolngu values that ought to have been enshrined in a policy of self-determination to a Balanda bureaucracy imposed through a regime of “self-management” that was never in fact managed, nor meant to be managed, by the Yolngu themselves.  The Yolngu wanted consultation, not intervention.

If the first half of Larrpan ga Buduyurr is dominated by the spirit of Wonggu, it is in the second half that the story of Gätjil comes to the fore.  Ironically, many of Gätjil’s achievements took place after Clarke left Arnhem Land and their close collaboration ended–although the men remained fast and personal friends after their professional careers took them to opposite ends of Australia around 1980.  Clarke clearly intends to portray Gätjil as Wonggu’s successor, a man who adapted the spirit of dhälay, side-by-side, to an era when politics worked in quite different ways.   Gätjil hoped to achieve the kind of balance that his grandfather sought with Chaseling and the earliest missionaries.

Gätjil’s career was extensive and multifaceted.  He worked for the homelands movement; he was critical to establishing Yirrkala Business Enterprises (YBE); he was a tireless advocate for Yolngu health through the Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation.  In addition to chairing ATSIC in the late 1990s, he was chair of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and served on the boards of the Indigenous Land Corporation, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and the National Australia Day Council.

One of the most appealing aspects (ironies?) of Gätijil’s career is that this man who stood for everything that in today’s debates is identified with urban, leftist, and liberal (with a small “L”) politics labored most closely with the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory and served much of his career at the national level under the government of John Howard.

Gätjil’s response to those who questioned his willingness to work with the CLP was one of pragmatism. Clarke describes it in this way:

His persistent optimism in the willingness of people to do the right thing once they really understood the needs of Yolngu and other Indigenous people led many to misinterpret his approach to politics–his focus was not on the arbitrary classification of people or Governments as left or right, conservative or radical.  His political decisions were based on those with the power to achieve positive changes for Yolngu people.  Never once did he waver from his desire to serve his people and to win greater power and autonomy for them (Clarke, p. 267).

Gätjil believed that Yolngu people had the ability to govern themselves, to impose standards of behavior, to follow their Law and to meld it with the Balanda law as Wonggu and others had striven meld traditional beliefs with the story of Jesus that the missionaries brought to Arnhem Land.  The causes of social breakdown had their origins in the attempt to substitute an alien form of governance for Yolngu Law.  He tackled, for instance, the problem of domestic abuse from this vantage point, stating that

Current Domestic Violence programs are generally resourced and administered outside the Yolngu domain.  In this situation it is difficult to envidage how strategies can become relevant and appropriate to Yolngu culture.  Cultural consideration has to become an intergral part of the implementation phase.  It has been the view of many Yolngu families that Balanda law overrides the Yolngu laws in the maintenance of traditional and customery codes of behavior (Clarke, pp.292-283).

In handing down his 1971 decision in the Gove Land Rights Case, Justice Blackburn reasoned that although there might well be Indigenous law governing rights in land, that law had no place and found no precedent in Crown Law or common law and thus could not hold.  What Gätjil is saying here neatly turns that reasoning on it head: Balanda law can not function as a replacement for Yolngu Law in Arnhem Land and is thus an ineffective means of making decisions and implementing solutions.  What the Yolngu seem to have sensed since Wonggu’s time is that when two cultures come into contact, their laws and customs must accommodate to one another if there is to be a continuing, successful integration and reconciliation.  This is a vision of a “shared responsibility agreement” that exposes the hollowness of Liberal political agendas that persist to this day.

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