Invisible to the state: kinship and the Yolngu moral order

Frances Morphy, Fellow, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University
(Paper presented at the conference, Negotiating the Sacred V: Governing the Family, Monash University, 14–15 August 2008)

This paper concerns the ways in which the Australian settler state makes the kin-based moral order of the Yolngu people invisible. I have worked with the Yolngu of the Yirrkala and Laynhapuy homelands region of north-east Arnhem Land [Fig. 1] off and on since 1974, but it was not until the late 1990s that I began to reflect seriously on what happens in the border zone between the encapsulating settler society and the Yolngu social field. I use ‘border zone’ in James Clifford’s (1997) sense to designate contexts in which two relatively autonomous socio-cultural systems meet and interact and where hybrid or intercultural forms arise, often as a result of contestations over meaning and value. In speaking of two systems I am echoing the Yolngu conceptualisation of the relationship, for they often say, ‘we live in two worlds now’. Fig. 1 Yirrkala and the Laynhapuy homelands The institutions of the border zone are heterogeneous and exist at different levels of organisation; at a national level they include the ‘recognition space’ created by the native title legislative framework (Mantziaris and Martin 2000) and national instruments such as the census, where the state attempts to capture facts and figures about the Indigenous ‘population’ which allow it then to compare that population with the mainstream. This in turn informs policy. I have conducted research in both these institutions of the border zone. The catalyst for this paper is research on the 2001 and 2006 censuses undertaken in collaboration with colleagues at CAEPR, looking specifically at the enumeration process in remote Australia (Martin et al. 2002; Morphy 2004, 2006, 2007a, 2007c). In both census years my casestudy area was north-east Arnhem 1

Land, but in 2006 I also did fieldwork at the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Census Management Unit in Darwin and at the ABS Data Processing Centre in Melbourne. So in 2006 I was able to monitor the journey of data from north east Arnhem Land, from the point of collection, right through to the coding process that produces the final output (see Morphy 2007a). But my analysis here is also informed both by my long association with Yolngu as a cataloguer of their social field as they see it, and by my research in other institutions of the border zone. With Howard Morphy, I worked on the Blue Mud Bay case, in the southern part of the Laynhapuy homelands region (see Morphy 2007b, 2008). It is anthropological field data and census data from this region, suitably tweaked to preserve the anonymity of individuals, that forms the basis of the paper.

Yolngu kinship
In the Yolngu-matha languages of north-east Arnhem land, the character trait rendered in English as ‘self-centered’ or ‘selfish’ is expressed by the idiom gurrutu-miriw, literally ‘kin-lacking’—acting as if one had no kin. The English (settler Australian) expression articulates the idea of the individual self in tension with, sometimes in opposition to, the wider demands entailed by the individual’s identity as a social being. Selfishness is an ambiguous character trait, because we acknowledge that, often, to succeed in life it is necessary to be selfish—to ‘put ourselves first’ as we say. For instance we agonise over the ‘work-life balance’, and in doing so we implicitly acknowledge that work partly defines our identity as individuals, and that its imperatives compel us to act in ways that are in tension with our desire for relatedness. Whereas the Yolngu expression articulates the primacy of relatedness. In the Yolngu view, any action that shows that a person is ‘working just for themselves’ is a sign of that person being gurrutumiriw, and this is unambiguously undesirable. People will say of such a person: ‘he’s not a Yolngu any more—he’s acting like a Ngäpaki [white person]’. These differences in the conceptualisation of the relationship between the self and its surrounding social field have profound consequences. I’ll begin by teasing out some of the structuring principles of the Yolngu social order, before considering its moral aspect. Fig 2 is a partial representation of the Yolngu kinship and bestowal system, one of the most complex in Aboriginal Australia. I am not going to subject you to a detailed analysis—there are just a few general principles of the system that I want to get across. The building blocks of Yolngu social organisation are patrilineal, estate owning clans. A person belongs to the clan (bäpurru) of their father. In Fig 2, the members of the patrilineal clan are in red, with ego, the male person from whose point of view the diagram is drawn, as the square in the middle. The Yolngu universe is divided into two exogamous patrimoieties called Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each clan and its estates and creator wangarr beings belong either to one moiety or to the other. By definition then, clans are also exogamous. In the Yolngu marriage system a mother’s mother’s brother (märi ) bestows his own daughter as a mother-in-law (mukul rumaru ) to his sister’s daughter’s son (gutharra). Thus a man marries an actual or classificatory matrilateral cross cousin—his mother’s mother’s brother’s daughter’s daughter (galay ), who may also be his actual mother’s


brother’s daughter. In Fig. 2, the people in ego’s matriline, from his mother’s mother and her brother’s generation through to his sister’s daughter’s children are shown in blue. So the complete marriage cycle centered on ego involves relationships between a set of five clans, including two of the same moiety and two of the opposite moiety to ego’s own clan: his märi clan (own moiety), mother’s clan (opposite moiety), own clan, sister’s childrens’ clan (opposite moiety) and gutharra clan (own moiety). His sister’s marriage involves a different set of clans, since this is an asymmetrical system: she marries an actual or classificatory patrilateral cross-cousin (dhuway). Fig. 2 The Yolngu kinship and bestowal system

So, viewed over time, the Yolngu marriage system constructs long-term relationships of bestowal and marriage that link groups of both moieties. A relationship is formed between two clans of the same moiety who are said to stand in a relationship of märi and gutharra to one another, because over time the märi clan bestows many mothers-in-law on members of the gutharra clan. The relationship between a person and their mother’s clan (of the opposite moiety) is some times referred to as yothu-yindi (child–big (one)). Just as a person is waku to their mother and her brother, so they stand in a waku relationship to their mother’s (ngändi ) clan as a whole. Waku have special responsibilities to their ngändi clan. In fulfilling these responsibilities they are termed djunggayarr (or djunggayi), often translated into English as ‘manager’ or ‘caretaker’ or sometimes ‘policeman’. In essence they have a duty of care to their mother’s estate, and this involves helping—or sometimes ensuring that—the 3

ngändi clan members look after their country properly, both in mundane and ceremonial contexts. In the past, and to a considerable extent in the present, most marriages tend to take place between members of clans with geographically contiguous estates, and so over time ‘connubia’—that is, regional groupings of clans that are linked in sets of marriage bestowal relationships—tend to emerge. And this is reflected in today’s settleme nt geography, because each clan estate tends to have an outstation settlement on it. Fig. 3 shows the most salient kinship links between some of the Blue Mud Bay clan settlements. The existence of connubia is not merely statistical—they are not simply an emergent property of the local system of kinship and marriage. They are recognised by Yolngu as a social fact. Connubia are often associated with regional names. For example the northern Blue Mud Bay clans are the Djalkiripuyngu. These cultural properties of connubia are a factor in their reproduction over time. The genealogies from Blue Mud Bay show that Djalkiripuyngu has existed as a connubium since at least the late eighteenth century. Despite the challenges posed by colonisation and its aftermath, the underlying principles of the Yolngu gurrutu system are largely intact. Fig. 3 Kinship links between the settlements of Blue Mud Bay

Note: the numbers in the text of this figure (9, 10, 11, 13) refer to individuals who live at Community A.

The term bäpurru, which I have translated as ‘clan’, encompasses not just the living representatives of the group but also its spiritual essence located in the clan estate, the


product of ancestral wangarr activity. Clan members are wänga-watangu (‘place-belongs to’ [people]); i.e. those to whom the place belongs, and who belong to the place) with respect to their clan’s estates. The main points to be made from this quick gallop through Yolngu social organisation are: a) the complexity and highly structured nature of the relationships not just between individuals but between groups; b) the groundedness of the system in the relationship between clans and their ancestral estates; c) the resilience and persistence of this kinbased social field. The complex system of rights and obligations entailed in this kin-based universe far transcends the boundaries of any ‘nuclear’ family. This category, which is vested with such moral force in the Anglo-Celtic culture of the Australian mainstream, is not a ‘natural’ category in Yolngu society, either as a social or as a residential unit. Let me illustrate briefly. There is an assumption deeply embedded in the psyche and culture of the AngloCeltic mainstream that the nuclear family is a ‘natural’ and universal building block of all human societies everywhere. Anglo-Celtic cultures thus tend to take the nuclear family as the ‘norm’, and to describe all other household types as variations on, or deviations from that norm. Anglo-Celtic kinship terminology (Fig 4), with its unique reciprocal terms for the members of the nuclear family, reinforces the view of the nuclear family as somehow ‘natural’. Fig. 4 Anglo-Celtic kinship terminology and the nuclear family


In Fig. 4, each circle represents an ego. The terms within the circle are those by which other members of the Anglo-Celtic nuclear family address each other. The nuclear family and its constellation of relationships only comes into being with a marriage and with the subsequent births of the children. It is a bounded and finite unit that comes into being through the choice of previously unrelated individuals (or this is most usually the case), and so has no prior existence. It is also portable, as a discrete unit. The Yolngu kinship terminology, in contrast, privileges lineages, not nuclear families (Fig. 5). Ego and ego’s siblings constitute a point of intersection between a pre-existing patrilineage and matrilineage. The boxes in Fig. 5 do not represent individual egos. Rather, each contains a set of relationships that occur within the intersection of a patrilineage and a matrilineage in a particular generation. Fig. 5 Yolngu kinship terminology and the intersection of lineages

These relationships exist prior to and independent of any particular marriage because the dhuway–galay relationship between two people exists before a marriage does, and in this classificatory kinship system every person has many dhuway and galay. It is simply impossible to draw a box around a set of reciprocal terms that apply exclusively within a ‘nuclear family’. The siblings in the bottom box are gäthu with respect to their patrilineal parent (and his siblings), and waku with respect to their matrilineal parent (and her siblings). And since a fundamental principle of the system is the equivalence of siblings, so that for example a child uses the same kin term for their father and their father’s brothers, and so on, all children have many ngändi , bäpa, yapa and wäwa. So the nuclear family is not picked out by Yolngu kinship terminology as a bounded unit. The most we can say is that there are conjugal units and parent-child units. These are produced from


and are embedded in a much wider network of kin, and this network is essentially unbounded.

The Yolngu moral order
What of the values and behaviours that produce and are produced by this system? Kinbased obligations structure the Yolngu moral order: everyone in a person’s social universe is classified as kin, and how one ought to behave to others is framed in terms of one’s relationship to them. One thing that is immediately obvious if one sits with any group of Yolngu that contains an infant that is able to sit up and take notice of the world around it, is that every time a new person comes into view the baby is told ‘here comes [insert appropriate kin term]’ and the term is repeated several times. The person will greet the baby affectionately, addressing it by the reciprocal term. When a child is beginning to speak, any effort to produce a kin term in response to seeing a person, or anything that can be interpreted as such an effort, is greeted with delight and extravagant praise. As a result, by the time a child is speaking, they will know the correct kin term by which to address a very large number of people—amounting to every person in their social universe. This includes non-Yolngu who have any kind of ongoing relationship with the child’s kin, for such people will have invariably been adopted into the system as someone’s sibling. The power of relatedness to comfort is evident, even for very young babies, for it is common for them to cry when they see a white person, but to stop when they have been ‘introduced’ as kin. If the child continues to cry the adults will cajole: ‘Hush this is your [insert appropriate kin term].’ In this way, from a very early age—even from before birth, because a child’s spiritual essence is believed to come from a conception site in its clan territory—personhood is constituted through relatedness. So how should one behave with kin? There is much in the anthropological literature on the moral order of Aboriginal societies, and I can only mention a few relevant characteristics here, borrowing heavily from Nic Peterson and John Taylor’s (2003) paper on ‘The modernising of the Indigenous domestic moral economy’. Their general comments apply well in the Yolngu case. Sharing with kin is at the heart of this domestic moral economy, and it has a ‘central constitutive role that arises from: • an ethic of generosity informed by a social pragmatics of demand sharing [a term that signifies that people very rarely offer to share, but frequently ask others to share] a universal system of kin classification which requires the flow of goods and services to produce and reproduce social relationships [so these are economies of circulation, not of accumulation] personhood constituted through relatedness but valuing an egalitarian autonomy [This is not the same as western individualism, but rather assertion of equality. It is not a given—it is something that the person has to build for themselves within a field of relatedness.] an emphasis on polite indirectness in interaction that makes open refusal difficult.’


They conclude their summary by saying that ‘Combined with the practical economic significance of sharing, this account of its place at the heart of the Indigenous domestic moral economy helps explain the resilience and persistence of sharing and the strong anti-accumulation pressures associated with it’ (2003: 110). In other words this is a moral order that is profoundly non-market and non-individualist in its orientation. It informs a social order characterised by networks of relatedness and in which personal identity is deeply grounded in ancestral space.

Making the Yolngu kinship system and moral order invisible
Yet the state, through mechanisms such as the census, insists on representing Indigenous social formations through the lens of mainstream categories. I will illustrate this briefly from my research on the 2001 and 2006 Censuses. Let us first take a bird’s eye view of a particular community. Fig 6 shows the kin relations between the people who were designated as the heads of households at a particular Yolngu homeland (‘Community A’) in 2001. The male and female household ‘heads’ are in black, and deceased relatives who provide links between them are in white. Fig. 6 Relationships between heads of households at Community A, 2001

The majority of the ‘household heads’ are members of one of the two lineages of the clan on whose land the homeland community is situated. In brief, everyone living in this community of over 100 people is related to everyone else. Although there are discrete dwellings it is problematic to view them as ‘households’. For example we have two cases where the ‘household head’ is the wife of another ‘household head’. These are cases of polygamous unions, where a senior wife lives in a separate dwelling, but where the two 8

dwellings function in many respects as a single household. On the left of the Figure are three dwellings occupied by a man and two of his adult sons. The occupants of these dwellings wanted to put the father down as ‘household head’ for all of these dwellings, ‘because he is the boss for all of them’. The categories that frame the census questions are founded in certain settler Australian assumptions about what is ‘normal’. All things being equal, the boundaries of the ‘dwelling’ and the ‘household’ are assumed to coincide, and the failure to ask questions about relatedness to other households in a community rests on the assumption that such information is irrelevant and that the self-contained (nuclear) family is the unit of measurement relevant to the users of census data such as politicians and government departments who formulate and administer policy. Let’s drill down now into the next level. Fig. 7 shows the people present at the 2006 census count in one dwelling at one of the Blue Mud Bay homelands. It also shows the key relationships between those present and the absent people through whom they are significantly related. 16 (with the arrow pointing towards her) is a ‘visitor’—she is an elderly woman who usually lives on her own clan homeland, even though her husband is still alive. But presently she visiting her husband’s community and is spending some time, as she often does, with her waku (two sons (1 and 13) and a daughter (7), all of whom are living in this house. Kin relationships between the co-residents of a dwelling, 2006

1 and 13 have their spouses and children with them, whereas 7’s spouse is away . The thicker lines in the diagram trace the kinship connections (through people now mostly deceased) that make the marriages of 1 and 13 ‘correct’ marriages according to the Yolngu system. 7 has a two waku (a son and daughter) and a gutharra (daughter’s son) with her. The remaining members of the household are one of 7’s close classificatory waku (10), who is also called waku by her brothers 1 and 13, and two more distant 9

classificatory gutharra of 7, 1 and 13 (they are the actual great-grandchildren of 16’s cowife, and they are more closely related in purely genealogical terms to the inhabitants of another dwelling in the community). It is commonplace for such more ‘distant’ (in our terms) relatives to be present in dwellings. Fig. 8 shows how this dwelling got coded at the data processing centre (DPC) in Melbourne. The data coder at the DPC operates according to a complex set of ordered rules. It is imperative to form couple and single parent families within the ‘household’, to choose one family as the ‘primary family’, to which ‘other relatives’ are attached, and to relate the families within a household to the primary family, using a single ‘reference person’ for each family. The model allows, arbitrarily, for a maximum of three ‘families’ per household, and for a maximum of three generations. Households that fall outside these parameters, such as this one, are handled according to a further set of ordered rules. Here the ‘family’ represented by the two hatched circles has been dismembered and (17) has been attached as an ‘other relative’ to the ‘primary family’. (16) does not figure at all because she is a visitor, so the coder did not have to solve the four-generation problem in this instance. But this is at the price of eliminating from the ‘family’ information the person who actually connects the adult members of the household to one another. Had she been a resident, this would have changed the coding of the entire household, which just goes to show how arbitrary the whole exercise is. Fig. 8 ‘Family’ coding at the Data Processing Centre So this complex extended family has been dismembered by the coding process. In the output data they are recorded as two ‘couple’ families, one with grandchildren and an ‘other relative’ present, and one ‘lone parent’ family. Now this problem could be fixed, and the Yolngu system made partly visible, if only the ABS would allow another type of family into its lexicon, namely the ‘extended family’. But even that solution can do nothing to address the data shown in Fig. 9 which juxtaposes the complexity of the relationships within and between three contiguous households — modelled on Yolngu kin categories elucidated through anthropology’s genealogical method — with the census representation of the same households as a set of bounded nuclear families. The family that we have been looking at is on the right.


Fig. 9 The coding of ‘families’ in 3 contiguous dwellings, 2006

The top part of the diagram shows the genealogical links between the people designated as the heads of these three households for the purposes of the census. We can see that from the Yolngu point of view the kin connections that link these households and explain their contiguity and composition go back two generations before the oldest living people on the chart. And we saw from an earlier Figure (6) that in fact all the households in this community are linked by kin ties. The ABS coding is an impoverished representation (the result, nevertheless, of considerable intellectual effort on the part of the data analyst and the data coder). It is also a misleading representation because it masks the social dynamics that lead to the formation of these communities and households. And in rendering them invisible it simultaneously obscures the moral order that supports the structure.


The policy consequences
Does this matter? I believe so, because, having rendered Indigenous socio-moral systems invisible through a process of mistranslation, the state then proceeds, in policy directed towards Indigenous people, to act as if these systems do not exist. The lens through which the state persists in viewing these social fields has the effect of making the surface manifestations of the Yolngu moral order appear incoherent—a ragbag of ‘traditional’ customs and attitudes that can be targeted selectively. The new ‘mainstreaming’ agenda, initiated by the Howard government and continuing under the Rudd Labor government, with its emphasis on the ‘individual’ as ‘worker’ has seen the re-emergence in a new guise of an old colonial discourse about desirable and undes irable forms of mobility and immobility. Indigenous forms of immobility — constituted through attachment to country and kin — are implicitly undesirable because they hamper ‘good’ mobility, that is the movement of individuals (with or without their nuclear families) to places where there is a job market. In the latter days of the Howard government this discourse was overt and couched in neo-assimilationist terms. Outstation communities were labelled ‘cultural museums’, and discourse about Indigenous cultural forms (insofar as they were recognised at all) was overwhelmingly negative. The only salvation for remote Indigenous individuals, it seemed, was to join the ‘mainstream’, conceived narrowly as the full-time job market in places where there was a ‘real’ economy. Couched in the rhetoric of ‘choice’, the implicit assumption was that when ‘freed’ by education and training to choose the mainstream, all but the old and the unfit would do so. The ‘choice’ increasingly on offer was between mainstreaming or remaining on increasingly neglected and underfunded remote communities. With the new Labour government this discourse shows signs of becoming more complex, with a willingness once again to accord positive value to at least some aspects of Indigenous cultures. But the lens remains. The avowed policy of ‘closing the gap’ will founder, just as did John Howard’s ‘practical reconciliation’, unless Indigenous social formations and their moral orders are first of all recognised and secondly taken seriously. They cannot simply be dismissed as an undesirable barrier to economic development and job creation. If change is necessary, and some change probably is, its implications for Indigenous socio-moral systems need to be understood and negotiated over — both Yolngu and the state need a recognition space in which this negotiation can take place. For these are indeed encapsulated, complex, socio-moral systems. They are gurrutu-mirr (having the property of kinship), not simply aggregations of individuals who happen to be ‘Indigenous’.

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Martin, D.F., Morphy, F., Sanders, W.G. and Taylor, J. 2002. Making Sense of the Census: Observations of the 2001 Enumeration in Remote Aboriginal Australia , CAEPR Research Monograph No. 22, ANU E Press, Canberra. Morphy, F. 2004. ‘Indigenous household structures and ABS definitions of the family: what happens when systems collide, and does it matter?’ CAEPR Working Paper No. 26, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University, Canberra. Morphy, F. 2006. ‘Lost in translation? Remote Indigenous households and definitions of the family’, Family Matters, 73: 23–31. Morphy, F. (ed.) 2007a. Agency, Contingency and Census Process: Observations of the 2006 Indigenous Enumeration Strategy in Remote Aboriginal Australia, CAEPR Research Monograph No. 28, ANU E Press, Canberra. Morphy, F. 2007b. ‘Performing law: the Yolngu of Blue Mud Bay Meet the native title process’, in B. R. Smith and F. Morphy (eds), The Social Effects of Native Title: Recognition, Translation, Coexistence , CAEPR Research Monograph No. 27, ANU E Press, Canberra. [Available at]. Morphy, F. 2007c. ‘Uncontained subjects: “population” and “household” in remote Aboriginal Australia’, Journal of Population Research, 24 (2): 163 –84. Morphy, F. 2008. ‘Enacting sovereignty in a colonized space: the Yolngu of Blue Mud Bay meet the native title process’, in D. Fay and D. James (eds), ‘Restoring What Was Theirs’: the Rights and Wrongs of Land Restitution, Routledge, London. Peterson, N. and Taylor, J. 2003. ‘The modernising of the Indigenous domestic moral economy: kinship, accumulation and household composition’, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology , 4 (1 and 2): 105–122.


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