The Yolngu
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The Yolngu

Hunter-gatherers

Hunter-gatherers

Venture off the beaten tourist track to experience Australia alongside the Yolngu people, their name meaning ‘aboriginal human being’.

Become an honorary Yolngu clan member and discover the northern territories and northeastern Arnhem Land through the community’s traditions, mythical beliefs, and colorful culture.
Snapshot

Snapshot

  • Region is Australia

  • Climate here is Tropical

  • The challenge here is Medium

  • This trip has been rated 5 by other travelers

Life

Life

The Yolngu are known for being hunter-gatherers, hunting all types of wildlife, including kangaroos. Traditionally this was their main source of income. In more recent times, however, missionaries have introduced other market goods and many of the community are employed by the government. The Yolngu follows a seasonal calendar with six different seasons. These are Midawarr, Dharratharramirri, Rarranhdharr, Barra ‘mirri, Dhuludur, Mayaltha, and Gunmul.
Home

Home

Traditionally Yolngu houses were built using bush timber, with roofs made of corrugated iron. Now the Yolngu live in homes built from corrugated iron and cement slabs or in typically Australian outback houses. In main Yolngu towns, where the population is anything from 1,000 to 2,000 people, you’ll find administration buildings, a church and Australian style homes.

Culture

Social Structure

Communities are organised in a complex moiety-based kinship system, grouped by patrilineal lineage (male ancestors). These kins determine who marries who. For larger kin groups there can be sub kins or lineage groups — for example, the Yirritja moiety kin has thirteen groups and the Dhuwa has ten. The Yirritja and Dhuwa always marry from one another’s kin.

Religion

The Yolngu beliefs derive from myths of how the universe began. They believe earth has always been the way it is but spirits, or what they call ‘Wangarr’, meaning ‘the dreaming’ or ‘dreamtime’, have changed aspects of the landscape as reminders that they were present. Since the arrival of missionaries, many Yolngu also practice Christianity.

Traditions

From sorcery doctors to musical talent, the Yolngu have many traditions they continue to practise. ‘Marrnggiti’ is a traditional doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating illnesses inflicted by sorcery. The Yolngu are the most well-known players of the ‘vidaki’, more commonly known as a didgeridoo, however only some men are allowed to play. They are also skilled crafters of the instrument. The most successful contemporary indigenous music group is part of the community, called The Yothu Yindi.

Language

Yolngu Matha is the collective name for the different languages and dialects spoken by the Yolngu. Many Yolngu people use multiple forms of the language, and many also speak English too.

Art

The Yolngu’s main art expression is through performance. For performances the men paint figures and designs that represent their clan, as well as their mother’s clan’s heritage, all over their bodies. The Yolngu used to be best known for their detailed crosshatch paintings on bark before being influenced by Western Desert art. Now they produce paintings and carvings on bark to sell — the designs often have religious meaning. At funerals, the Yolngu traditionally paint a hollow log coffin called a ‘larrakitj’ which has an important spiritual purpose. The community is also talented at basket weaving.

Celebrations

Death rituals are a major celebration and very important within the Yolngu culture. Yearly celebrations include:

Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures: The biggest calendar event where the Yolngu community come together to celebrate their culture in collaboration with the Yothu Yindi Foundation.
Further knowledge

Further knowledge

There are two organisations supporting the Yolngu people:

The Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation was established by Yolngu land owners. They look after the natural and cultural management of land, as well as other initiatives.

The Winkiku Rrumbangi NT Indigenour Lawyers organization. They represent the Australian Aboriginal community, Torres Strait Islander Lawyers, and Law Students of the Northern Territory. They work with the communities’ lawyers and support members.

Photos copyright Lirrwi