Monday musings on Australian literature: about Arnhem Land

When this post goes live (during NAIDOC Week) I will be in Australia’s Top End, touring a region called Arnhem Land – and will most likely be incommunicado. Located in the north-east of the Northern Territory, it is named after the ship captained by Dutchman William van Colster who visited the area in 1623. The ship, the Arnhem, was named for the city of the same name, in the Netherlands.

According to Wikipedia, the region has a population of around 16,000, of whom 12,000 are Yolngu, the traditional owners. The main town is Nhulunbuy, with other major population centres being Yirrkala, Gunbalanya, Ramingining, and Maningrida. Mr Gums and I will be visiting most of those places during our 12-day tour. Arnhem Land is known for the fact that a large percentage of its indigenous people live on small outstations on their traditional lands, with minimal western cultural influence. Arnhem Land is almost like a separate country – and visitors need a permit to enter.  Many of its leaders continue to push for a treaty that would allow the Yolngu to operate under their own traditional laws.

East Alligator River, western Arnhem Land

Arnhem Land borders, on its west, Kakadu National Park, which we have visited twice in the past. On both occasions we have done short indigenous-led tours of that border area – one on the East Alligator River, and the other into the country as far as the Injalak Art Centre. Those tours introduced us to some of the culture – the law, the art – of the people. It’s gratifying to feel our understanding of our country growing through these experiences.

However, for my Monday Musings of course, I want to share something of the region’s literary heritage, which given that the traditional culture there is oral, includes song. This list is very little, highly eclectic and very selective.

Some musicians

Yothu Yindi

Probably because I lived some of my childhood years in northwest Queensland, Arnhem Land was familiar to me, but it didn’t really, I think, become known to many Aussies until the band Yothu Yindi burst on the music scene in the early 1990s. The group was formed in the mid 1980s, but it was their song “Treaty” (I did mention of treaty in my intro, after all!) from their album Tribal Voice which brought them to national attention in 1991. The lead singer was Mandawuy Yunupingu and his nephew Dr G Yunupingu, about whom I posted last week, was an original member. The song “Treaty” was a collaborative work by the two Yunupingus, and other members of the band, and non-indigenous museum Paul Kelly. “Treaty” has gone on to become one of Australia’s most significant songs, being named in 1991 by Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) as one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time, and being added, in 2009, to the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry.

Yothu Yindi could occupy a whole post to themselves, so please check the link I’ve provided if you are interested. They have played a major role in promoting and developing Yolngu culture, to both Yolngu and wider Australia’s benefit.

There are many performances of the song, which includes words in language and English, on YouTube, including this one published by mushroomvideos. Here are a few lines:

This land was never given up
This land was never bought and sold
The planting of the union jack
Never changed our law at all

Dr G Yunupingu

I won’t add much here, because I spoke about his legacy in my above-mentioned post on Gurrumul, the documentary film about him. Besides the fact that his music is beautiful, and that he sang about his culture (and lived his culture for all to see), Dr G also made a significant contribution to Australian culture by writing and performing most of his songs in the languages of his region. The pride in culture that singing in language gives to his people can’t be underestimated.

A writer from Arnhem Land

Marie Munkara

Marie Munkara, Of ashes and rivers than run to the seaA member of the Stolen Generations, Munkara was born on the banks of a river in Arnhem Land, but she was taken, at the age of three, to a mission at nearby Melville Island (part of the Tiwi Islands). From here she was passed on to European foster parents, and didn’t see her mother again until she was 28 years old. You can read some of her story at SBS. I have reviewed her glorious David Unaipon Award winning book, Every secret thing, and plan to read her memoir Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea while I’m in Arnhem Land (for Lisa’s ANZlitLovers Indigenous Literature Week which coincides with this year’s NAIDOC Week. This year’s theme is, appropriately, Because of her we can.)

A blast from the past

Of course, I had to check out the digitised newspapers in Trove, and by narrowing my search to “Arnhem Land Literature” I retrieved a small number of hits, all from the 1930s, only two of which specifically related to Arnhem Land. Both were short stories by non-indigenous writers about Japanese pearlers in the region. I’ll just share one, because it’s by one of Australia’s most popular authors of the day, Ion Idriess (1889-1979). According to Wikipedia (the link’s on his name), he spent some time, after returning to Australian after World War I, travelling in the remote Cape York region, and working with pearlers and missionaries in the Torres Strait islands.

His story, titled “The massacre on the No Gawa Maru”, was published in Sydney’s The Sun on July 11, 1936, and clearly draws from his knowledge of pearling. It’s about a Japanese pearl-shell poacher, Captain Toyama of the “No Gawa Maru”, who “knew he was cruising here against the laws of his own Government and the Australian.” He knows about the Three-Mile limit, and he’s also aware of the Australian patrol boat, the “Larakia”, with its machine gun. It’s “nervy” business this pearl-shell poaching, but they are driven by “fatalism and greed and hope”, the idea of “easy wealth, quickly won.” (Something Idriess likens to the Australian gold field mania which also sent men to “lonely graves”.)

Anyhow, Idriess sets the scene:

They had passed Groote Eylandt lying away eastward with its hills rising as if from a great grey cloud upon the sea. Captain Toyama now stared for’ard where along the Arnhem Land coast islands were taking shape in silhouettes of tree-tops. Presently he saw the sun sheen on straw-colored grass.

Toyama’s crew tell stories of brutal indigenous attacks on boats, too, and of indigenous men selling their women “cheerfully” and the women going “eagerly”, but to accept this “is a death trap. Their women are only a snare. They kill for blood lust and loot.” He refers here to King Wongo of Caledon Bay, who was a real person. Idriess’ story is a gruesome, dramatic story about an indigenous attack on Toyama’s boat. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), it appears that Idriess bought into the idea of Wonggu/Wongo as an “evil genius” behind this sort of brutality, but not all agreed. ADB’s article on Wonggu concludes:

A man of influence, authority and charisma, he represented a romantic and little known aspect of Northern Territory history. More importantly, the events in which he was involved drew attention to the issues of Aboriginal justice and rights to land.

Trove, which I’ve only dipped into about this, certainly includes some very positive articles about Wonggu/Wongo.

The other story is by Keith Ellis, and is called “Sampans”. You can read it online if you like.

I hope that by the time we’ve ended our Arnhem Land tour we’ll know not only more about contemporary culture, but about some of its history and past characters too. I’ll report back if we do!

PS: There’s a good chance I will not manage to post a Monday Musings next week. Enjoy the break!

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: about Arnhem Land

  1. Enjoy your trip, it sounds marvelous. I saw one Yothu Yindi concert, by accident though I loved it, I’d gone to see Debra Conway who was on first. I think I the Aboriginal, a biography told to Douglas Lockwood, is set in east Arnhem Land.

    • Thanks Bill. That would have been great to see.

      I read I, the Aboriginal, back in the late 1960s, and still have it, but had completely forgotten its setting. Darn, if you’re right!!!

    • Thanks Meg, it truly was, though you had to be able to take hundreds of kms of outback dirt roads. I found it ok, though the back of the bus could be challenging at times! Such a fantastic place to visit though, and we learnt a lot. Now in Darwin for some r&r before returning to the cold south. I dread it.

  2. Arnhem Land Sounds like a great place to visit. It seems that one can really enrich one’s mind and understanding of a different culture by visiting. Happy and safe travels!

    • Thanks Brian. It was a whole other world. Twelve days with no shops to speak of, almost no internet (just at scattered locations), and hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads. A never-to-be forgotten experience.

  3. When I saw the title of your post, I thought “Yay, something about the place I’ve just read about in Marie Munkara’s book!”

    I’ll be happy to discuss Of Ashes and Rivers That Run to the Sea when you’re back, I just finished it.

    Have a great trip. (and watch out, there seem to be a lot of dangerous animals over there)

    PS: 15 days before we fly to Australia, I can’t wait!

  4. Pingback: Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea by Marie Munkara – Indigenous Literature Week | Book Around The Corner

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