Yolngu inspire us to pursue all our ambitions

Opinion Article

2011 August, 13

The Garma Festival hosted by the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land is the country's premier  indigenous cultural festival. Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians from all corners of the country  make the annual pilgrimage to the Gulkula site outside of Nhulunbuy hosted by Galarrwuy and  Mandawuy Yunupingu. 

Garma is an astounding showcase of the efflorescent cultures of this corner of the country. The art,  dance and ceremony is rich and exhilarating. But it is not all classical culture; contemporary musical  and artistic performances testify to the enormous creativity and vibrancy of communities in this part of  Australia. Witness the music of Geoffrey Gurumul Yunupingu. 

Coming from Cape York Peninsula, a region where we harbour great anxieties about the future of our  languages, the strength of traditional languages at Garma gives us great hope and inspiration. The  strength of cultural determination of the Yolngu people is a wondrous thing to behold. 

Garma also hosts an indigenous policy dialogue. Galarrwuy Yunupingu told the gathering something  that I first heard him say 20 years ago, 10 years before we began our reform agenda in Cape York:  "Welfare is a killer." 

For people who know anything about Aboriginal communities, this is so obviously true that it is almost  trite. I claim no originality or great insight on passive welfare; after all, I have heard elders in my own  home region and, indeed, across the countryside, lamenting its effects on our society for all my adult  life. 

Yunupingu has been consistent in his critique of welfare for all of the time I have dealt with him.

He has also been very clear about his desire for his people to gain real educations, to participate in the  economy and to retain their native culture, languages and traditions. 

The notion that Aboriginal children should be able to walk in two worlds and have facility in both is  very much a Yolngu inspiration. 

Yunupingu's record in advocating land rights is probably unequalled. 

For the best part of three decades under his leadership, the Northern Land Council has been indisputably the most successful land rights organisation in the country. 

My own work with the Cape York Land Council was very much inspired by Yunupingu's NLC, and  this year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of our struggle for indigenous rights to land. We too can  count many achievements in securing land justice for our people. 

Tasmanian Aboriginal leader Michael Mansell reacted to Yunupingu in the following terms in a letter  to The Australian: 

"If the unwanted influence of a white lifestyle on Aboriginal culture is the source of Galarrwuy  Yunupingu's concerns, fair enough. However, welfare payments to Aboriginal individuals is no more a  killing of culture than are Toyotas, rifles, jobs or TV. 

"Real education, as Mr Yunupingu puts it, is another form of killing of a culture, not a saviour of it.  White schools for Aborigines has its value but can also lead to loss of language, religion and alienation  from Aboriginal values and authority." 

This struck me as a strange critique to make given the resplendent culture on display at Garma, and the  obvious value attached by Yunupingu to the languages of his people and their traditions, and the work  that he and other Yolngu leaders have performed for all of their lives in determination to keep their  cultures. 

There are indeed many challenges and dilemmas to face, but it can hardly be said that Yunupingu and  other cultural leaders like him are not acutely aware of what threats face his people. How could  Mansell claim to have a better idea than Yunupingu about cultural and linguistic retention? 

The idea that modern technologies such as Toyotas, rifles, jobs and TV "kill culture" in the same way  as welfare payments shows a poor understanding of what is meant by culture.

The end logic of Mansell's view of culture as being obliterated by introduced technologies and other  social and economic changes is that the Aborigines of Mansell's own community in Tasmania don't  have an Aboriginal culture. Which I am sure Mansell and his people would object to, and rightly so. 

Yunupingu's point that welfare is a killer is a more profound point than Mansell's trivial analysis. It is  about how corrosive it is to not just the social and economic wellbeing of his people but how it  ultimately is corrosive of their culture. 

Mansell continued: "This dilemma has not been properly debated. Aboriginal leaders who disagree  with Noel Pearson and his copy cats are dismissed as rights campaigners, a tactic designed to obfuscate  the role welfare plays in Aboriginal society as against other influences. 

"And calls for denying Aboriginal citizens welfare payments invariably come from those with plenty of  money, never from those on welfare." 

Like anyone in indigenous leadership in recent decades, I have crossed paths with Mansell, heard him  speak, read his writings and sought to understand his political and strategic thought. This much I will  say of him: he is a very courageous and, from what I know of him, principled man. 

My view is that Mansell's analysis here is the standard socialist viewpoint of his industrial and rights  advocacy background. He has nothing to offer people who are really struggling to maintain their  languages and retain their traditions. While his courageous advocacy for Aboriginal rights is undoubted, I would not concede to Mansell or many other champions of the rights agenda that they  have achieved more than people such as Yunupingu and Marcia Langton have in regaining rights for  their people. 

The hurdle that Mansell cannot intellectually cross is the idea that land rights and welfare reform are  actually both correct policies and can indeed be consistent with each other. 

The ingrained socialism of his perspective prevents him from making the leap to a proper  understanding of indigenous self-determination.

Yolngu inspire us to pursue all our ambitions