Hope dawns in Yirrkala.
I share just a little of my experience here in Yirrkala in the hope that ‘the art of the possible’, a model of integration of first nations people, can be extended to include even more of Australia’s first nation communities. It’s always disheartening to read of so many people struggling to overcome disadvantage and rise above the poverty line.
Coming ashore again in zodiacs, there’s a relaxed tropical feel of wide-open spaces as we walk up from the beach along red sand paths into the township. We head for a seat in the shade of large trees surrounding a courtyard outside the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.
“The feeling on your face as it is struck by the first rays of the sun” is an apt meaning for “Buku-Larrnggay”. And “Mulka” means “a sacred but public ceremony”. I can relate to these as I sit and wait.
A community leader welcomes us to Yirrkala explaining that “we are not like white man who tells the story of first nations peoples as if we are strangers”.
He goes on, “you are welcome to this place. You are a person and a friend.
He reminds us that Australia did not acknowledge aboriginal people in 1901, and they are still fighting for recognition:
“Aboriginal people still have a law and customs; they still own the land; we struggle; we still live; we want to share something that is really special; we want to share our culture so you can learn; tell your people. Thank you very much for coming.”
We start to hear singing coming down the street and see a huge crowd of women and children walking together towards us to join in the ceremonies. Rhythmic sounds of clap sticks and ‘yidaki’ (didgeridoo) alert us to the start of the ‘welcome to country’ and smoking ceremony.
The Yolngu put their heart and soul into the songs and dances while circling the fire. The children seem steeped already in the tradition and join in.
Afterwards, I’m amazed at the quality and extent of local artwork including totems and bark paintings on view in the museum and for sale in the Buku-Larrnggay Art Centre. Many of award-winning local artists represented here exhibit in Australia’s top national museums and abroad.
With the advice of one of the Yolngu staff, I happily purchase a yidaki (a traditional wooden didgeridoo) for which Arnhem Land is famous. I’m told that this is an instrument that you must feel, rather than just simply hear, and after hearing the beautiful sound, I get the feeling that I might be challenged to learn.
I’m fortunate to be introduced to one of the celebrated local artists, Barayuwa Munuŋgurr, whose paintings represent stories from his mother clan’s salt-water country. His mother beautifully describes the complexity of her beliefs and of her son’s work:
“My son Barayuwa Munungurr is the caretaker for this land Yarrinya and the sacred designs that lie beneath the foundation of the sea Garnggirr Manbuynga and beyond … our paintings and designs represent the identity and the characteristics of who we are, where our mother and grandmother land is and where we need to stand firm in the foundations of laws in Yolngu culture.” This woman’s words invite reflection.
Guided down a spiral staircase into a darker area of the museum, we are also fortunate to view and learn about the historical Yirrkala Church panels. Each of these two large paintings document the creation stories of the Yolngu country. They were originally installed as part of a screen behind the communion table in the Methodist church at Yirrkala.
The major theme is that of country and kin, of how the panels represent the combined efforts of the Yolngu people to tell the story of their land and their relationship to it, and to one another through the land.
These paintings became a crucial record of the Yolngu rights to the land in the 1960s when the area was threatened to be destroyed by bauxite mining. In 1963 the now famous Yirrkala Bark Petition was created in an attempt to prevent mining projects going ahead. (We view copies of the original that are now in Canberra.) Despite the protest being unsuccessful, this was a pivotal moment in Aboriginal history, asserting the need for Aboriginal representation in such decisions, and prompting protection of sacred sites.
I traipse back to the beach, hot but not bothered, thinking there’s so much for us to learn and respect about life ‘our own backyard’.
… to be wound in.
I ‘invade’ the homeland of the Yolngu indigenous people in North East Arnhem Land by zodiac, landing on the beach.
Unlike stories of history, I’m an invited visitor here in Yirrkala, one of Australia’s most remote communities and a pulsing stronghold of aboriginal culture.
The children are raised to appreciate their traditions while benefiting from education and opportunities to make a living. So many of Yolngu people are all capable and entitled to express their sacred identity through art.