Yolngu, meaning ‘person,’ is the name given to related Australian Aboriginal groups based in the North Eastern reaches of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territories of Australia. They have also been known to ethnographers and anthropologists as the Murngin. The Yolngu speak variations of the Yolngu Matha (‘people tongue’). These include six mutually intelligible languages, around twelve different dialects and perhaps over thirty clan variations on these. The Yolngu people also use a form of sign language in situations which demand silence and where noise is taboo, for example when observing mourning rites.
In terms of lifestyle and subsistence the Yolngu may be described as hunter gathering peoples but they also carried out controlled burnings as a form low intensity land management. During the year the Yolngu identify six different seasons and respond in turn to each individual challenge they bring. Population size and the rate of migration and nomadism are modulated by the environment, most notably by rainfall and flooding, as are the types of food and social resources the Yolngu utilise during different periods. The rhythms of Yolngu life have remained remarkably intact to this day due to the tenacity of the peoples fight to retain their culture and identity. Examples of this Yolngu pride are most easily visible to the world in the form of the art they continue to produce and from which they can now earn an important living. Beautifully woven Pandanus leaf baskets and painted bark canvases are testament to Yolngu artistic brilliance, but their best known contribution in this sphere is the decorated didgeridoo which has become a universal symbol for Australian Aboriginalism.
The Yolngu have a rich and at times tragic past. Possibly amongst one of the first groups to settle in Australia, given their geographical location close to the Melanesian and Indonesian archipelago’s, a probable migratory route. Again due to their location it is more than likely that for some of this time they traded via sea with those from other areas. The earliest record of such contact is encoded in the Djanggawul mythological song cycle which talks of a Baijini people with whom the Yolngu traded. Certain evidence exists of later trade during the 18th and 19th Centuries with Macassan Fishermen from Sulawesi who are said to have been respectful of Yolngu ownership and culture.
Unfortunately the same respect was not shown during the wave of European colonialism which swept into the Northern territories in the late 19th Century. Cattle invasions and land grabs were met with Yolngu resistance which was in turn put down by a series of brutal massacres at Coniston, Myall Creek and elsewhere. The threat of mass killings was again present as recently as the 1940‘s after decades of subjugation as the result of an incident between Yolngu men and Japanese fishermen at a time of political unrest. However, due to the efforts of the Yolgu and the sympathetic anthropologist Donald Thomson this was avoided and by the 1960’s the Yolngu had begun a real struggle to achieve recognition for their land rights. In 1963 a Yolngu petition written on bark was submitted to the house of representatives opposing a Bauxite mine on Yolngu land. Though the case was ultimately lost the bark still hangs in Parliament House in Canberra and this defiant action paved the way for future land rights movements and successes.
Today the Yolngu still suffer at the hands of government schemes which seek control over these fiercely autonomous groups. Recent impositions include the Northern Territory Emergency Response initiative which involved derogatory assumptions of Yolngu cultural behaviour, an unhealthy dose of racial prejudice and aspects which decreased Yolngu autonomy drastically. It has since been replaced by the ‘Stronger Futures Policy’ which has been similarly criticised by human rights groups such as Amnesty International. In the face of all of this the Yolngu continue to work to preserve their lifestyles and also to recover from the vices, such as alcoholism and solvent abuse, introduced into their communities by past and existing European colonialists who would now seek to use these problems as reason for further intervention and control.