Statement on the value of Biodiversity

by Nanikiya Munuŋgiritj

Who am l?

My name is Nanikiya Munuŋgiritj. I am a senior man of the Yarrwidi Gumatj clan, one of the Yolŋu people who is a traditional owner of the land in Northeast Arnhem Land, Australia. Miwatj is one word that Yolŋu can use to identify this region. Yolŋu people share similar law, language and ceremony.

Nanikiya is the name of an island. Just like me, the island is Yarrwidi Gumatj. I sing for this place as a part of my responsibilities for looking after my family's land.

Almost everything in the Yolŋu world belongs to one of the two moiety groups, Dhuwa and Yirritja. People, plants, animals, water, land, the starts, our ceremonies and our creation stories are either Dhuwa or Yirritja. This helps maintain a balance in our culture. Particular individuals and groups of people have special connections with particular areas of land and sea, animals, plants, ceremonies and creation stories.

Bäru, the Saltwater Crocodile is special for Gumatj people. In the Miwatj area, the stories, songs, designs and ceremony about the Bäru belong to Gumatj and Madarrpa people. Madarrpa people are grandmother clan, for Gumatj people. Other people, west of here toward the sunset, also have stories about the Bäru when it travelled into their country. Yarrwidi Gumatj people are represented by the tail of the Bäru and other Gumatj people are represented by the head and body.

I am Yirritja and my wife is Dhuwa. Her clan is Rirratjiŋu. People always marry someone in a clan of the other moiety. My children are Yirritja, like me and Yarrwidi Gumatj, because I am their father. Gumatj and Rirratjiŋu clans have a special relationship with each other. We refer to ourselves as Yothu Yindi, which refers to the mother-child relationship, because our mutual responsibilities to each other are like those of a mother and her children throughout their lives.


What is nature?

The land was shaped by the Waŋarr, our creators, as they travelled across the country. They gave each family their land, law, ceremony and language. Bäru, the Saltwater Crocodile, is Waŋarr for the Gumatj people. Malarra, the Manta Ray, is also Wangarr for the Gumatj people. The things we see around us every day, the hills, rivers and waterholes, ocean, reefs and islands, show us where the Waŋarr travelled. All of these places have special names and stories that remind us of the Waŋarr journeys and Wangarr naming all the things in the land for the different clans.

There are special places on each family's land where the Waŋarr spirit is really powerful. Our children come from these special places and when we die our spirit is guided by song and ceremony back to these places. Nature is the world created for Yolŋu by the Wangarr. The Waŋarr also gave us the laws to look after this country and live with other Yolŋu.


What value do I put on the environment?

There is no life without the land or sea and all the things found in these places. Hunting, burning and having ceremonies are part of our responsibilities in looking after our country and maintaining our relationship with the land.

If you damage the land or the sea then you hurt the people connected with these places. For more than twenty years there has been a mining operation on my family's land. We talk about this mining as digging out our Uaraka, our bones. We are the children of this land. We feel pain for this land when we watch the mining. Sometimes we use the same words to describe the land that we use to describe different parts of our body. So, buku is a word I can use if I am talking about a hill or a cliff or a person's face. Nurru is a word I can use for a peninsula of land or a person's nose.

Everything in our world has a place in Yolŋu culture. Looking after these places and things is an important part of maintaining our culture and our identity both as individuals as a Yolŋu people.

Yolŋu people looked after this country for a very long time before white people arrived. The country was healthy because our culture taught us to respect the environment and manage it properly, so that everything in nature was in balance. We know that we are a living part of the living environment, not separate from it.

White people, we call them Balanda, have a different culture and we think they look at the environment in a different way. Balanda came to this place more than twenty years ago to mine bauxite and make money. Yolŋu here wanted to stop the mining and make Balanda [acknowledge] our right to control the land that was given to us by the Waŋarr. Our families took the mining company and the Australian Government to court. We wanted the Government to recognise that the land belonged to the Yolŋu. We told the Court stories about the Wangarr and tried to explain our laws about land management. Permission was given by the elders to show the judge and lawyers some of our Madayin, our sacred objects. Yolŋu understand that Madayin are like title deeds. They give groups of people title to certain areas of land. The Balanda legal system did not accept this proof and we lost that court case.

There is a waterhole called Gayngaru near the mining town. It is an important place created by Wititj, the Waŋarr python and belongs to the Galpu clan. It used to be a good place for camping and hunting and having ceremonies because there was so much food there. When the mining town was built the storm water drains were made to run into Gayngaru. Most Balanda would not understand what this meant for the Yolŋu who hunted there or who have a close spiritual connection with Wititj. Now there is a lot of rubbish washed into Gayngaru when it rains, and it isn't safe to drink the water anymore. The water level stays high all the time and we can't collect rakay, the water chestnuts, that grow in the mud. Yolŋu don't hunt at this place anymore. There are no ceremonies held there. A place that used to feed a lot of people can't be used anymore. Now we can buy Coca Cola and fast food at the shops the Balanda built near Gayŋaru; but we need Balanda money to buy these things.

When the bauxite is finished the mine will close. The company might start another mine somewhere else. We Yolŋu people have to stay on our own land and look after it. We can't just take from the land until everything is gone and then move onto other people's land.

Yolŋu law teaches us to take only what we need and to manage our land so that all its resources will be there for our children and their children.

Nanikiya Munuŋgiritj, Senior Ranger (1990-2003 check?), Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation

1. Munuŋgiritj, N., (1996) "Statement on the value of Biodiversity", Y'a'n, Number 7, May 1996, 4-6, Yirrkala Literature Production Centre.