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Publication Details: This web page was last revised on 12/12/2006
Yolngu Life in the Northern Territory of Australia:
The Significance of Community and Social Capital
Michael Christie and John Greatorex. School Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Aus-
SOCIAL CAPITAL IN THE CONTEXTS OF YOLNGU LIFE
Michael Christie, John Greatorex
School of Australian Indigenous Knowledge systems,
Charles Darwin University
The notion of social capital has had wide currency in mainstream social policy debate
in recent years, with commonly-used definitions emphasising three factors: norms,
networks and trust. Yolngu Aboriginal people have their own perspectives on norms,
networks and trust relationships. This paper uses concepts from Yolngu philosophy to
explore these factors in three contexts: at the former mission settlements, at homeland
centres (outstations) and among ‘long-grassers’ in Darwin. In Yolngu life, mulkurr
(head) and djalkiri (foot) form behavioural norms; gurrutu (kinship) defines social
networks; and maar (strength, power) is an indicator of trust. These components of
Yolngu social capital have sometimes been strengthened and sometimes weakened by
post-contact social development. At the major centralised settlements (former
missions) they have been attacked and undermined; at homeland centres (outstations)
they have been confirmed and remain strong; and among long-grassers in Darwin they
are still held out as representing ethical behaviour. The persistence of these
components of social capital at different levels in particular contexts should be seen
by government policy-makers as an opportunity to engage in a social development
dialogue with Yolngu, aimed at identifying the specific contexts in which Yolngu
social capital can be maximised.
Politicians from Peter Costello to Mark Latham, as well as representatives of many
non-government organisations, have bought into the notion of Social Capital. Falk
(2002), following Putnam, defines social capital as “the social values (norms),
networks and trust that resource a group’s purposeful action”. The World Bank refers
to social capital as “the institutions, relationships and norms that shape the quality and
quantity of a society’s social interactions”
. Now that the concept seems to be gaining
some traction in policy debates, it is time to assess its application to a specific
example of Indigenous affairs. Or vice versa.
In his recent Blue Book, Christopher Scanlon (2004) investigates ‘ the asocial life of
social capital’, pointing to ways in which the concept is (mis)used to focus on
relations of trust, reciprocity, tolerance and mutual obligation ‘without having to
bother too much about the deeper cultural mooring points to which those relations are
tied, and without which they would be impossible.’ (p. 3)
Its enthusiastic embrace by the conservative side of politics reflects the way social
capital has in recent years become ‘a particular way of thinking about and constituting
community, one that reconstitutes community in a form that is seamlessly compatible
This paper has developed from a forum discussion on ‘The Role of Social Capital in Alleviating
Persistent Poverty’ convened by the Centre for Learning Research at Charles Darwin University, in
http://www.worldbank.org/poverty/scapital/whatsc.htm. Accessed 28/06/03
with the market.’ (p. 4) Yet another step in the ‘normalization of the market as the
underlying model for social life.’ (p. 4)
This conceptualization represents a considerable decay from the original formulation
of Pierre Bourdieu in whose hands, Scanlon notes, ‘it is inextricably tied to an
analysis of social life as characterised by social and economic conflict and tension.’
The Yolngu Aboriginal people of Northeast Arnhem Land have their own traditional
perspectives on the norms, networks and trust relationships which preserve ethical
relationships in the contexts in which they arise, and which resist abstraction from
their ancestral roots.
The majority of Yolngu – whose numbers approximate 5000 - live in communities of
between 500 and 2000 people which were originally established by Methodist
missionaries between 1925 (Milingimbi) and 1975 (Ramingining). Today the
missionaries have no formal role in governance of these settlements, with independent
elected councils, set up under NT Government legislation, managing the communities
on a day-to-day basis. Overlaying this local council process is the Commonwealth
Government’s Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, or ALRA, which gives
ownership and control of land to particular Yolngu groups determined under
Ever since the days of the establishment of the missions, small numbers of Yolngu
have continued to remain living on their own, in family groups on their ‘homelands’,
resisting the alleged attractions of living in the former mission settlements. Today,
Homeland Centres continue to grow and are spread across Arnhem Land, their
residents now comprising a significant proportion of all Yolngu.
A third group can be
found in Darwin, the state capital, several hundred miles away from Yolngu land and
with difficult access. While some live in hostels and suburban housing, many of them
are “long grassers”, living on the beaches, in the mangroves, parks and other public
In this paper we use key concepts from Northeast Arnhem Land Yolngu philosophy to
contextualise and complexify the notion of social capital in its role in policy
development for Yolngu in three contexts of Yolngu life.
YOLNGU PERSPECTIVES ON NORMS, NETWORKS AND
Emboldened by the general fuzziness of the notion of social capital, we have
identified a number of key concepts from Yolngu philosophy which might help to
reground our policy decisions in the links of groups of people (and the complex
He goes on: Bourdieu’s account of social capital is a rebuff to the belief that we now live in a post-
ideological era, devoid of fundamental social cleavages or alternative ways of living. For the most
concensually minded liberal-pluralist North American and Anglo advocates of social capital, the chief
virtue of social capital is that it seems to be beyond ideology. Talk of alternatives or discussion of
structural inequalities are portrayed as distractions to the task of developing practical solutions to
pressing social problems.
The ALRA, being Commonwealth legislation, can override any NT legislation, such as local
government legislation, and so confers strong powers on traditional owners.
In reality, many Yolngu live part of the time in Homeland Centres and part of the time in the ex-
relations among them) to their ‘deeper cultural mooring points’. How do Yolngu
understand norms, networks and trust? The following notes arise from ongoing
collaborative work among Yolngu and in our work at Charles Darwin University.
Norms : mulkurr and djalkiri
Yolngu philosophers often refer to mulkurr (literally head) and djalkiri (literally foot)
in their elaborations of identity. The Yirralka (or home-identity-centre) referred to
above, is also commonly known as ‘djalkiri wanga’, or foot (print) place. Djalkiri is
also translated by Yolngu as foundation. Footprints are highly significant in Yolngu
politics and religion and represented in song and art. Feet and heads are inalienable.
Human feet have human heads. The norms of behaviour articulated through the
mulkurr metaphor are not confined to the human species.
Djalkiri, the prints and paths across one’s ancestral country have been in place since
the ancestors hunted, cooked, performed ceremonies, procreated, died (became sacred
objects) and were buried as they travelled. The ‘scent’ of the ancestors remains in the
land. Yolngu use the metaphor of the djalkiri of a tree (roots) that grasp and penetrate
the soil, and thus become landscape.
Most significantly, different people, identified with different ancestral connections
and associated estates, have quite different mulkurr. In her paper entitled ‘ Yolngu
Balandi Watangumirri’, (Yolngu owners of connections) Garnggulkpuy, one of the
, researchers write about the normative function of mulkurr, the clan/land based
Mulkurr is at work in everyday life when you are with people who are able to
perceive and speak about (or sing or dance about) and produce a social/physical
environment, using words and practices which are importantly identified with the
creative words and practices of their own specific small estates and ancestral
connections. Yolngu devote much energy to explicating the specific separateness of
the mulkurr of their closer kin groups.
Garnggulkpuy notes that the mulkurr of those of her ancestral affiliations is known as
Gayilinydjil. Gayilinydjil is both perceptive and productive – it gives you a particular
way of seeing as well as a particular way of acting upon the world. Through the
knowledge of their own mulkurr, other people know how to understand you, to act
towards you, and to respect you.
The crucial difference between the values at work in the social capital of non-
Indigenous Australians and Yolngu living on Yolngu land is that non-Indigenous
groups’ norms can be generalised from context to context. Mulkurr on the other hand,
is celebrated for its specificity as it is found in place, and in people with historical
connections with place. From the Yolngu point of view, the normativity of values is
found through conformity to ecological norms, for example through water as it is
found in springs which are particular to the ownership and identity of specific descent
groups. The Yolngu verb balyunmirri describes this reflexive identity building
through investment in country and totems, which works in concert with the
environment and implies a certain sustainability (Christie 1990). By contrast, Balanda
Most recently: research into cross cultural communication in the context of clinical health service
delivery, the perspectives of Yolngu ‘long grassers’ in Darwin and the role of digital technology in the
intergenerational transmission of traditional knowledge.
norms are derived from more generalisable understandings of human individuality,
rights and responsibilities.
‘Ngalapal mulkurr’ the ‘minds of the elders’ is necessary if for example a funeral or
other ceremony is to be well organised. It represents the ability to plan and take into
account all the various clan groups and their connections to the deceased. Even a child
can be called ‘ngalapal mulkurr’, if s/he is able to specify their kin, be they animal,
plant, country, tribal groups or individual people. This kinship is the second
foundation of Yolngu social capital.
Ever since the ancestors first moved over the land and sea, every Yolngu has been
born into a vast network of kinship called gurrutu. While each figure of the tapestry
has its own history and identity, the figures combine to produce a broader complex in
which the group is always prior to the individual. Yolngu spend much time discussing
and re-exploring kinship, and (re-)fitting newcomers and distant kin into the system. It
is not unusual for an adult to detail hundreds of direct predecessors, detailing all their
The gurrutu paradigm (which has about 20 distinct terms) maps not only individuals
into their extended families, but also whole groups of people into networks of clans,
and corresponding totems, estates, languages, ancestral images etc. One may have as
one’s mother, for example, or one’s daughter, a particular wind, star, rock, current,
body of water, bird, cloud, or even ceremonial practice.
When people are living on country, secure in their rights to be where they are,
networks of gurrutu work to enable the equitable distribution of resources,
collaborative economic enterprises (eg. large scale food procurement such as fish
traps and landscape burning), ancestral systems of conflict resolution and goal setting,
implementation and review.
The networks of kin are still at work on the former mission settlements – all adults
still know how they are related through gurrutu to all other adults, and clan groups are
clear (although not always agree) about how they relate to the land they live on. The
ascendant Gupapuyngu clan at Milingimbi for example often makes the point that
they are living there on the beach at Rulku looking after the country of the
Walamangu, their mother’s mother’s group. They make use of beautiful and esoteric
idioms and the totems of tamarind and barramundi to link their blood to those of the
Thirty years ago, almost every young adult at Milingimbi could recognise the
footprint of almost every other person in the community. Twenty years ago, every
young adult could still name the kin link which related them to every other person in
the community. Today at the major centres of Yolngu population, young people are
growing up with a sense of other Yolngu as strangers, and the networks are retracting
away from land and the wider Yolngu polity: the erosion of social capital.
Maarr denotes the power which comes through the strength of identities and
connectedness. The dictionary defines it as ‘strength, spiritual power, faith,
The residents of Homeland Centres comprise not only landowners but also significant other people
related in particular ways to the landowners and there by their agreement.
personality, nature, emotional state’ (Zorc 1976). Many Yolngu verbs of emotion
have maarr as their root – maarr-buma (hit) means to be concerned, maarr-garrpin
(bind) means to worry, maarr-yuwalkthirri (become true) means to trust or believe,
maarr-ngamathiri (act well) means to love, maarryu-dapmaram (to clench by means of
maarr) means to treat someone properly through respect for traditional law. In the
Gupapuyngu gospel, when Jesus asks his followers ‘Where is your faith?’, he
demands ‘Where is your maarr?” Donald Thompson, early friend and advocate of
Yolngu, compared maarr to the Polynesian concept of mana (Thompson 1975).
In the 1940s the concept of maarr was understood to be transcendent of the
psychological profile of an individual - something at work in the land, in art, music,
ceremonial exchange and success at hunting. Yolngu today tend to see maarr more as
residing in the individual: a sign of the strength governed from a well-realised
mulkurr, properly located in land, and properly connected with gurrutu. So aspects of
trust, as central to the theories of social capital, take on their meaning for Yolngu in
the context of the wider quite strictly defined histories of rights and identity. When
trust of this kind is at work, Yolngu make clear, the land recognises, respects and
makes secure the people, just as much as the other way around.
CONTEXTS OF YOLNGU LIFE
Although ‘homelands’ existed from the early mission days, the incentives of
homeland living have become more apparent since the 1970s, with the loss of the
Gove Land Rights case
, and the enactment of the ALRA during that decade. This
was an era of direct action by Aboriginal people all over the Northern Territory: many
workers on pastoral stations agitated, with only limited success, for Aboriginal living
areas to be ‘excised’ from the cattle properties; land claims were made under the
ALRA by the newly-formed Northern Territory Land Councils; and some cattle
stations were purchased, to become Aboriginal land. In those years and since, Yolngu
have voted with their feet in significant numbers, walking out of the centralised
former mission settlements to set up small homeland settlements back on their
When first established, Homeland Centres received almost no government services,
and the provision of physical infrastructure was left to Aboriginal communities
themselves. The movement was widespread, reflecting a range of goals, xpectations
and results (see Gerritson, 1982). Water was carried in buckets, airstrips and roads
were cleared by hand, toilets were dug and solar power was gradually introduced.
Homeland Centre residents today talk proudly of how they overcame these barriers
through combined hard work, and built their own communities.
In 2004, many Homeland Centres are equipped with well-built houses, piped water,
mains power and telephones. Government-sourced funding to Homeland Centres is
now available for various infrastructure purposes but is much less than that available
for the former mission settlements. For example, current policy guidelines of ATSIC
and such Northern Territory Government agencies as the Power Water Corporation
and the Northern Territory Department of Health are notable for the restrictions they
place on providing services/funding to new Homeland Centres and to Homeland
Milirrpum vs Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) 17FLR 141
Centres which have less than a certain number of permanent residents.
main policy focus of these agencies is on the centralised former missions and the
larger, better-established homeland centres. To its credit, the Commonwealth
Government does now provide some assistance, for example by funding some
primary health care services to a number of Homeland Centres.
There is no doubt that providing services and infrastructure to Homeland Centres,
particularly the smaller ones, is an expensive business on a per capita basis and so
some policy restrictions must be put in place; however, the economic cost/benefit
equation should also include the benefits derived from Homeland Centre living, such
as improved health, environmental sustainability and so on. If this were done, and the
results compared to the lesser social benefits derived from spending government
money in the former missions, it may well be that the opportunity costs of funding
Homeland Centres are not as high as some claim.
The persistence of Homeland Centres in remote places with significantly poorer
infrastructure and service delivery than is the case in the centralised settlements is a
sign of the strong resolve and dedication of the Yolngu who live there. The
populations live on through the drive to care for their ancestral domains; the desire of
people not to be caught up in the troubling politics and social dysfunctions of life in
the major Yolngu centres; the responsibility to ensure a safe environment for children
and grandchildren; and the need to follow in the steps, and actively pursue the
instructions of, the ancestors.
Of course, there is a sense in which most Yolngu Homeland Centres were never
‘established’ in the European sense. The sites were always there in what Yolngu call
Yirralka. The best translation of Yirralka may indeed be ‘home-land-centre’ or maybe
‘land-identity-centre’. The Yirralka were set in place even as the creating ancestors,
the original Yolngu, moved across the land, singing, dancing, crying and talking the
forms of the knowable world into place, and leaving named groups of Yolngu and
plants and animals behind on identified estates.
However, the creation of stable homeland communities - in a fixed location and
supplied with houses, water bores and other infrastructure - is relatively new and,
particularly when viewed in the context of the ex-mission settlements, throws up
important issues to do with the proper relationship between governments and
Indigenous people. Life at Homeland Centres is difficult, and some are significantly
more successful than others.
But where a minimum level of infrastructure is
provided, and where the residents are determined to succeed, the social outcomes at
ATSIC asserts that it supports the development of Homeland Centres as a matter of principle, but
that it should not be expected to provide funding/services to organisations such as Homelands Resource
Centres which should properly be the responsibility of governments (ATSIC NT,
Submission to the
Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration Inquiry Into Local Government
and Cost Shifting
, July 2002). National ATSIC policy is that Regional Councils cannot consider
funding homelands unless they are sure there is security of land tenure, it will be the principle place of
residence, potable water is available and ongoing support will be provided by resource centres/agencies
Community Housing and Infrastructure Program Policy for 2002-2005
, Canberra). Regional
Councils also have policies which add to these restrictions. It is notable that if the homelands
movement had had to satisfy such conditions when it got going in the 1970s, it would never have
It is commonly observed that Homeland Centres have been more successful in the Top End of the
Northern Territory, where food and other resources are relatively plentiful, than in Central Australia,
where the desert landscape means day-to-day life is harder. A number of Homeland Centres in Central
Australia have been abandoned, probably for this reason.
Homeland Centres represent a huge improvement over those of the centralised former
Clues to the connection between these good outcomes and the land-based knowledge
inherent in life at Homeland Centres can be found in research pointing to the presence
of strong traditional authority over land and law (e.g. Altman 1987) and the good
availability of traditional foods (e.g. Altman and Taylor 1989) as being key factors in
the viability of homeland centres.
The point of this is that the existing web of kinship and relationship obligations,
which is itself based on obligations to land, and which forms the basis of Homeland
Centre life (but which in the former mission settlements is often debased and
distorted), has the potential to act as a mechanism by which governments can lever
genuine community development.
While it is commonly thought by non-Indigenous people that life in the centralised
former mission settlements and life in Homeland Centres, are similar, this is in fact far
from the case. It is problematic to describe today’s former mission settlements like
Galiwin’ku as ‘Aboriginal communities’. Rather, today they are simply western
settlements with majority Indigenous populations, often living in a very unhappy
interworld. Yolngu continue to routinely refer to them as ‘mitjin’ (mission).
There is a sense in which the land on which the former missions stand is not
communal or public land and never can be: particular individuals (the ‘landowners’)
have ancestral connections to this land, and these are usually respected by the other
residents whose ancestral lands are remote from the settlement. Under the ALRA, the
rights of traditional landowners to have a major say in landuse activity even within the
former mission settlements are protected, at least in theory. However, in practice their
interests may not be particularly privileged by community politics in general or by
decisions of the elected local council in particular.
Indeed, under the criteria of both ‘efficiency’ and ‘democracy’, it is feasible to assert
that traditional landowners should not necessarily have the major say in running all
the town’s affairs.
For example, those who prioritise administrative efficiency would
query the need for senior Yolngu to be involved in decisions relating to mundane
governance matters (such as garbage collection or house maintenance). And those
who prioritise democracy would point out that all the residents – including those not
from the land-owning group - should have a say in the settlement’s governance.
The ‘other’ Yolngu – those not from the land-owning group - may choose to become
involved in local politics at some level or, more likely, may show their respect for the
traditional land owners by an unwillingness to become involved in the settlement
politics or issues relating to ‘mission’ land. In the former case, traditional authority is
weakened, and in the latter case democracy becomes a less relevant concept.
The co-location of a spectrum of clan groups, each with its own language and estates,
did not present an unmanageable situation in the mission days, but with the demise of
This view is reflected in current policies of the Northern Land Council (the body set up under the
ALRA to represent traditional landowners’ interests) which is exploring ways in which traditional
owners can cede some powers to local councils, to give local councils genuine authority to act on
municipal issues within town boundaries, and to avoid the need to consult traditional owners on
relatively mundane matters.
the missions and the rise of government and council bureaucracies, the powerful
authority of collaborating Yolngu elders has been eroded. The number of Yolngu
estranged from their ancestral land is accelerating. Increasing numbers of young
people are looking westward, as the grasp of community life weakens. Today, as is
frequently reported, ‘the youth control the elders’. These tensions have led to great
distress, concentrated in the former mission settlements. Incidences of suicide,
substance abuse, and widespread fear of sorcery have been documented for the former
mission settlements (Maypilama et al, Reid 1982) whose major demographic feature
is the proportion of people from various faraway estates, often traditionally without a
lot of common trust, living in close proximity, and unhappily.
The bureaucracies which dominate Aboriginal affairs today – the Northern Territory
Government, ATSIC, local councils and so on – have an inexorable tendency towards
centralisation – whether it has been the amalgamation of ATSIC zones, or the
attempted amalgamation of local councils into regional councils, the underlying
tendency is always in the same direction: more centralisation. More and more funding
is concentrated in the centralised former mission settlements, in the mistaken belief
that more funds will make these happier places to live.
The key policy point is that this centralisation, this attempt to build Aboriginal towns
on a European model, where ‘community development’ is equated with mere service
delivery and where knowledge is taken out of its land-based context to become a
tradeable commodity like any other good in the marketplace, flies directly in the face
of the Yolngu experience of what makes a happy and functional settlement.
Social capitalists may tend to rest easy with this centralization wherein as Scanlon
notes, ‘ethical relations are made over into a form that is radically continuous with the
exchange relations of the market, insofar as both are detached from broader
frameworks of social and cultural meaning grounded and bounded by the face-to-face
relations which to some extent limit and constrain such relations.’ (p.6)
Consider, for example, employment and health in this context. These days on the ex-
mission settlements, almost all paid work is done by ‘Europeans’ and by Aboriginal
people who are not local. This is in marked contrast to twenty or thirty years ago
where plumbing, building, electrical, gardening, fishing, sewing, baking and other
‘teams’ of local Yolngu carried out most of the community development and
maintenance. Decades ago, Yolngu men and woman from quite different and
disparate clan groups and Yirralka were working together on shared projects. In the
former mission settlements today, the loss of employment to contractors (many on a
fly-in basis) has resulted in widespread disaffection among young adults - notably
males - including feelings of inadequacy, depletion of the skill base of the community
and attitudes of ‘what’s the point’ amongst non-Aboriginal staff.
This is in contrast to the Homeland Centres, where a much lesser proportion of the
work is done by Europeans, as the community together maintains a greater degree of
responsibility for the infrastructure and overall community development. The rich
network of communication and collaboration in Homeland Centres, where the sharing
of resources continues, is the basis of this.
There are high levels of ill health in the centralised settlements, and good evidence
exists for the health benefits of living on country. Living at Homeland Centres has
been shown to dramatically improve morbidity and mortality among Aboriginal
people, to a greater extent than clinical interventions could bring about and in contrast
to the dire health situation in the centralised settlements (McDermott et al). The
homelands movement has already shown itself to be a genuine public health
movement, yet it remains largely unrecognised as a health strategy by policy-makers.
Yolngu have enjoyed an association with Darwin for many years - probably since
soon after its establishment. Up till recently old people referred to Darwin (and other
centres of European population) as Yumaynga - a Macassan name. Yolngu used to
travel to Darwin in the old days, a few by boat, and others walking along the coast.
There were many wide river crossings, and interactions with other non-Yolngu
Aboriginal groups. Yolngu acknowledged and built economic, marriage and totemic
connections with the local Larrakia landowners, and others in surrounding areas.
Larrakia place names, like Mindil Beach (Mindilbitj) have been taken into Yolngu
Yolngu live in Darwin in a variety of contexts. Some Yolngu have lived in Darwin in
public and private housing for many years. Six Aboriginal hostels accommodate about
a hundred Yolngu every night - mostly people in town for a short while. There are
similar numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from other areas also
staying in Aboriginal hostels, but Yolngu probably represent the largest cultural
group. At any one time there are probably about 50 Yolngu in-patients at the Royal
Darwin Hospital, and almost every one of them will have at least one relative in town
looking after them.
Yolngu who come to Darwin have a variety of choices of accommodation. One of the
choices made with increasing frequency is the ‘long grass’. One any one night there is
claimed to be up to 1,000 people sleeping under the stars in the Darwin area.
number fluctuates with the wet and dry seasons. The number of Yolngu in this group
would fluctuate between 50 and 300. Some Yolngu long grassers stay for many
months, some become part of the culture of heavy drinking which pervades the long
grassers’ lifestyle. There is considerable community concern about long grassers, and
the NT Government has recently developed a project aimed at meeting their needs
while ensuring they do not become a ‘nuisance’ to other Darwin residents. Originally
known as the Itinerants project, now called the Harmony project, this combined the
expertise of a number of government departments, non-government organisations
such as the Larrakia Association, Yolngu leaders (the mala elders) and organisations
such as Yalu Marnngithinyaraw (a family support centre at Galiwin’ku).
As part of the Harmony project, Yolngu researchers from the Yalu Marnggithinyaraw
interviewed Yolngu long grassers in their own languages and found that the majority:
acknowledge and respect Larrakia ownership of the land they occupy. Some go so far
as to claim, albeit rhetorically, that they have become Larrakia (‘Larrkiya’)
themselves, because the local people trust and help them more than their kin back in
the former mission settlements of Arnhem Land.
Further, they claim a strong and continuing link to their Yolngu identity and culture,
and claim a more authentic Yolngu way of life than the bureaucratic “socks-up”
Yolngu (and other non- Yolngu bureaucrats), whose involvement hampers the proper
processes of Yolngu governance at the larger communities. The long grassers make
clear their response to the complicity of some Yolngu in bureaucratic reconstructions
of Yolngu social capital. Often the kin to which they refer are those privileged
Newsletter, Issue 3, October 2003, p. 1
through Indigenous government agencies. ‘The mechanisms of delegation and
representation (in both the theatrical and legal senses) which fall into place … as one
of the conditions for the concentration of social capital … also contain the seeds of an
embezzlement or misappropriation’ (Bourdieu 1986, p. 251). While they presented a
very wide range of perspectives on life in the long grass, they were remarkably
unanimous in their assertions that, despite their ‘exile’, they retain and reclaim the
specifically Yolngu norms, networks and trust which constitute their Yolngu identity.
The vagueness of social capital terminology in western debate has allowed different
people to use it to bolster their own ideological perspective. The fact that the
Treasurer in the current Australian Government has drawn a link between
participation in voluntary (unpaid) work and social capital suggests a conservative
ideological role for the concept (Costello 2003). And it is probably no coincidence
that the terminology of social capital has grown remarkably over the last decade or
two, a time in Australia of greatly increased privatisation of services previously
provided by public enterprises and institutions. There is a neat ideological connection
between the Treasurer’s lament for the decline of voluntary work, the emphasis on the
obligation (allegedly as part of ‘mutual obligation’) on the unemployed to
‘participate’ in society by working for the dole, increased emphasis on privatisation in
such areas as health, education and telecommunications, and increased use of the
terminology of social capital.
We have argued that Yolngu concepts of social capital also have a political aspect.
We find common ground with Bourdieu’s view that social capital can be best
understood in the context of struggle, of various interests asserting themselves in the
complex negotiations over power and influence: a clearly political process. In the
history of Yolngu since European contact, and particularly in the later decades of the
century, it is apparent that the clash has been between Yolngu and Balanda
notions of what makes a ‘good’ society - of what processes represent ‘good’
community development. The creation of social capital takes on an ethical dimension
– the assertion by proponents of different development processes that their process is
the best. In this debate, who are we to listen to? We can listen to funding bodies as
they privilege formal institutions such as local councils and support, through funding
programs, the further growth of the already-dysfunctional centralised former mission
settlements. We can listen to governments and bureaucracies such as ATSIC as they
privilege accountability on paper rather than in everyday life, and turn community
development from a grass roots discourse to air-conditioned meetings dominated by
the ‘socks-up’ people. Or alternatively we can look at the successes achieved by
Yolngu themselves – marginalised people acting in struggle.
In the almost-empty landscape of social achievement in Northeast Arnhem Land, one
phenomenon stands out: the success of the Homeland Centre movement. This success,
achieved through struggle, and measurable in health or other indicators, highlights the
myopia of policy development in Northern Territory Indigenous affairs. It draws
attention, for example, to the need for governments to really question the criteria by
which they hand out money – more than just looking at financial acquittals, there is an
overwhelming need to look at outcomes on the criteria of their ability to strengthen or
weaken the key indicators of Yolngu social capital: of mulkurr, of djalkiri, of gurrutu,
and of maarr.
Certainly Yolngu have shown, by their own action in creating and maintaining
Homeland Centres with a minimum of government support, and even in asserting the
importance of the proper connection to land and landowners when they camp in
Darwin, that they value mulkurr, djalkiri, gurrutu and maar as key outcomes. For
Yolngu, they are by far the most important criteria in identifying proper social
development. Yet policy development by government and semi-government
bureaucracies goes on ignoring the impact which government schemes have on these
aspects of Yolngu social capital. If policy-makers developed an economic opportunity
cost equation which tallied all the benefits of Homeland Centre living (including, for
example, long term health and environmental benefits) against the costs, it may well
be that the conclusions reached by Indigenous people and those reached by
mainstream economists would not be too different.
Further, if policy researchers examined Yolngu views regarding current policy, they
would find parallels between what Yolngu are thinking and what is being said in
mainstream debate. One particular example of this is a concern among Yolngu that by
creating dependence on welfare we are weakening the ‘social capital’ of the group. In
the early mission days when elders had authority, and were respected, this respect was
self-perpetuating and reinforcing, there was positive feedback and encouragement to
continue believing and trusting in one’s relatives and one’s place in the world. Yolngu
observers of life in the former mission settlements, where almost everyone’s main
income is welfare payments, and where scrutiny of the uses to which welfare
payments are put is non-existent, are very aware of the damage being caused to
Yolngu society – to its social capital – in this process. They contrast this with the
ability of community development projects in Homeland Centres to both utilise
existing social capital and increase its stock in the process.
Scanlon (2004) has noted social capital’s acceptance of the individual as a rational
self-interested agent, and its generalisability based on ‘universal’ notions of individual
rights and human needs. Rather, this paper suggests the assumption that social capital
can be transferred from one context to another with no loss of validity is at the heart
of bureaucratic notions of community development, and underlies much misguided
policy. A key point is that it is precisely the grounding of Yolngu concepts of social
capital – mulkurr, djalkiri, gurrutu and maarr – in particular locations and in specific
contexts that gives them their strength. The reason for this is obvious when one takes
a land-based perspective – relationships, people, everything has its source in, and
gains integrity from, the land. The land, and its provenance, is different in different
Therefore, social development programs must be based on strengthening connections
with the normative value of particular pieces of land, and it is those social
development programs based in Homeland Centres which are most likely to achieve
this. Even social development programs based among the long grassers in Darwin
have a chance of achieving this, if worked through the concepts of djalkiri, mulkurr,
gurrutu and maarr. But social development programs based in the centralised ex-
mission settlements have little chance, instead being likely to merely cement the
decay in Yolngu social capital which is increasingly apparent to both black and white.
Experience from Northeast Arnhem Land clearly demonstrates the ‘ethics of co-
operation’ is the community development strategy most likely to hold out hope of a
better future for Yolngu. The problem from a policy-maker’s perspective is that this
ethic is grounded in deep culture – the meanings contained in specific pieces of land –
and as such cannot be adequately translated into program guidelines and outcome
indicators without a fundamental shift in approach. The shift can be achieved through
decentralised place-specific negotiations in which the goal of supporting the deep
cultural mooring points of Yolngu social capital can be provided not on the basis of
transferable individual ‘rights’ but on the basis of local connectedness.
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