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The Yolngu

The Yolngu

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Who are the Yolngu

The people who live in the Miwatj or north-east Arnhem Land region are known generally as Yolngu, which simply means 'people'. They belong to a number of intermarrying clans that are also closely related culturally and linguistically.

The main clans are the Rirratjingu, who are the focus of the exhibition, Djapu, Marrakulu, Ngaymil, Galpu, Djambarrpuingu, Marrangu, Datiwuy and Djarrrwark of the Dhuwa moiety: and the Gumatj, Dhalwangu, Manggalli, Madarrpa, Munyuku, Warramirri, Wangurri, Gupapuyngu and Ritharrngu of the Yirritja moiety.

A colour photograph of eleven Australian Indigenous people sitting in a circle. Each of them has traditional body and face markings. Some have white pigment in their hair. Many hold long spears that are painted red and white. The tips of the spears rest on the floor. Behind the group stand other people, only visible from the waist down.
Djang'kawu performance at Government House Darwin celebrating the launch of the Yalangbara: art of the Djang'kawu catalogue, 2009. Photo: Fiona Morrison.

Today the Yolngu live mostly in the settlement of Yirrkala or in the 25 or more outstations or homeland communities scattered throughout a 200 kilometre region. Thanks to the land rights struggle initiated largely by the Marika family with other Yolngu, the Miwatj region is now Aboriginal owned land.

There are many famous Yolngu politicians, artists, singers and dancers who have worked hard to promote Indigenous culture to a global audience. They first gained national attention for their historic land rights struggle, and their rights regarding commercial and recreational fishing in tidal waters was recently recognised in the Blue Mud Bay decision.

Through their art projects like the Yalangbara: Art of the Djang'kawu exhibition the Yolngu continue to assert their identity and title to land.

Yolngu and the Macassans

Before the coming of Europeans, the Yolngu's first significant outside contact was with the Macassan trepang fishers who visited north Australia from at least the eighteenth century until the trade was banned in 1907. During this time they developed long-term trading/working relationships with many Yolngu people who helped them obtain other commodities like pearl shell, turtle shell and timber.

The Yolngu also obtained goods from the Macassans such as tobacco, cloth, axes, steel knives, and dug out canoes. They also adopted many Bahasa Indonesian words and incorporated elements of their Macassan encounter into their rituals and mythology.

A colour photograph, taken from an aeroplane, of a small island near some coastline. The island is covered in vegetation at its thicker part and has a rocky point at one end. A shallow white sand beach almost encircles the island. In the background can be seen the coastline. It stretches from one side of the photograph to the other, just under the horizon. The sky is visible in the upper part of the photograph.
Wapilina Island in Laluwuy Bay.

The most important myth for the Rirratjingu is about the Bayini, a Macassan-like people encountered by the Djang'kawu on Wapilina Island. Wapilina in reality was the largest and most significant Macassan trepang processing camp in north Australia which was subsequently used by various European trepang fishers because of its ideal location.

This contact was in living memory of artists such as Mawalan 1 and his brothers Mathaman, Milirrpum and Roy Marika who often depicted Macassan scenes in their artwork. The most remarkable of these is the large crayon drawing by Mawalan 1 that illustrates the sea route and camping places of the Macassans in and around Wapilina, alongside those of trepanger Fred Grey and the Djang'kawu ancestors.

A coloured map drawn by Mawalan 1 Marika. The map is in landscape format ie the horizontal sides are longer than the vertical sides. The map depicts a settlement near some water. Roads and houses are represented. The surrounding land is divided up into sections coloured orange or yellow. Parts of the nearby water are coloured blue. The map appears to have been drawn using graphite and coloured pencils.
Mawalan 1 Marika. Map of Yalangbara, Port Bradshaw 1947.
Crayon on paper 61 x 153.5 cm. Berndt Museum of Anthropology.