Galarrwuy Yunupingu and the Aboriginal future

The Weekend Australian is to be congratulated for publishing what will be regular columns by Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the first of which appeared on 4 July, 2009. As Nicolas Rothwell notes in an introduction, Galarrwuy Yunupingu became after the Gove case in 1971 ‘the best-known campaigner for the land rights of indigenous communities’, even though his own people, the Yolngu of north-east Arnhem Land, had never been dispossessed in comparable ways to those experienced by most other Aboriginal peoples. 

During the next two decades, however, Galarrwuy Yunupingu became increasingly distressed as, in Rothwell’s words, ‘In contrast to him and his brothers, he saw that the younger generations of the Yolngu were poorly educated and had fewer prospects. He was spending most of his time, and his Gumatj clan’s mining royalties, on funerals’. He soon realized, too, that no good had come from ‘indigenous umbrella groups’ being ‘mandated to speak for all Aborigines’. He gave strong support to the Howard-Brough ‘intervention’, in the Northern Territory. 

Unfortunately, Galarrwuy Yunupingu retains some beliefs that perpetuate Aboriginal disadvantage. He claims that he and other indigenous Australians are left out of the debate on policies that affect them and that, ‘Largely, Aboriginal people are left out of the economic life of the nation. If we are in the debate, it is as a threat to economic development or as a disappointing participant in an economy’. In fact governments of every party, and many companies and individuals, try hard to engage more indigenous Australians deeply in national debate and in the economy. Indeed, he concedes, ‘The reality for us is that we are un-economic’.    

He celebrates aspects of outstations such as his own: they enable people ‘to lead better lives and maintain contact with their land, ensuring that song cycles and ceremonies are intact and passed on to younger generations. They are the universities where young men and women learn about their country and the bush tucker and resources that exist in the country’. Yet he concedes that this ‘outstation existence…has been unable to sustain our lives into the future’ and that ‘the main source of income for outstation residents is work-for-the dole-schemes or sit-down money.’ 

Galarrwuy Yunupingu describes his own living facilities. These include ‘a house made up of two portable buildings from a mining company strapped together under a roof’. There are nearby ‘a generator, a bore, a ceremony ground and a basic sewerage system’. ‘The road to Dhanaya is a disgrace…the water bore and its infrastructure are getting old and prone to failure. The nearest school is 120 km away, along with the nearest store, clinic, mechanic or amenity. The fuel for the generator is expensive’. He complains that his ‘brothers and sisters, who all wish to live at Dhanaya cannot because they have jobs, kids who need to go to school or medical needs that cannot be met at Dhanaya’. Galarrwuy Yunupingu blames lack of resources for failures by many indigenous Australians to get jobs and claims that ‘the jobs that exist are usually taken by balanda’.

Just how genuine indigenous autonomy can be achieved if people cannot fix their water bores or repair their roads and sewerage, he does not explain. He pays a warm, perhaps an excessive, tribute to family life, schools, hospitals and welfare systems in the ‘balanda world’ of non-indigenous Australians, ways of life shared by many Australians identified as indigenous, but he does not tackle how the best of those features might be created in outstations, or coexist with traditional Aboriginal cultures. 

Galarrwuy Yunupingu tells of encouraging recent local economic developments: harvesting of stringy bark trees in cooperation with Forestry Tasmania, the University of Tasmania, the local Rotary Club and Fairbrothers, the building firm. He and his colleagues have been ‘using the clan’s royalty money’ to help pay the indigenous workers. We all hope that such developments will flourish, but very often in the past the removal of, even reduction in, non-indigenous staff, has led to a rapid disintegration of the enterprise. One reason is for this is that indigenous family structures often severely handicap economic progress, whereas those of, say, Indians and Chinese facilitate it. 

He places his hopes on ‘education’ but complains that ‘too often there is no school for the little ones to attend to prepare them for a job’, but that is often because it is impossible to get teachers who speak the relevant local language out to outstations. He claims, too, that ‘when there is a school it is under-resourced’ and ‘if it is properly resourced, the students too often live packed together in overcrowded houses, looking for sleep at night and food in the morning; their attendance is then poor…’ Yet if money and resources alone were sufficient, indigenous Australians would already be high in the ranks of educational achievement. 

Galarrwuy Yunupingu claims that ‘too often we appoint people to look our interests, and too often we see them dictate new methods of control, quickly forgetting that the real authorities are too often left sitting under a tree unable to use a phone or a computer, let alone understand the immense world of government money.’ 

His solution to the issue of authority is ‘simple’: the senior men and women of east Arnhem Land must be given the power to lead. The power of our senior people has always been there and is found in the authority of Delak, senior men and women of ceremonial authority: this is the Yolngu parliament, whose members are sworn to the future of their people’. With their power and authority they will then ‘…develop their land, have security in their townships, have education for their children, a job for their children, a job for their men and women, a home for their families. They will look for roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, sporting grounds and libraries, as does every working Australian’. The Delak ‘will seek the power to enforce their authority when it is questioned.’

Such traditional structures had long disappeared among most indigenous Australians decades before Arnhem Land was colonized. If they could be revived among the Yolngu, they would reduce the current inadequate pace of development. The role of non-indigenous Australians would be, apparently, to provide the money and that of the Delak to spend it. There is no autonomy or democracy in that.

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