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Caring for Yolŋu and ways of life during COVID 19

In Arnhemland, Yolŋu people live in extended family groups with traditional kinship and authority structures. The many ways we practice leadership and care come from our ancestral traditions. They cannot be broken. When Balanda (non-Indigenous Australians) don’t understand or respect our way of governance, they often come up with ways of dealing with problems that undermine the authority of our Elders and their ways of keeping people and places safe.

Despite many good intentions, we observed this happen around COVID-19 as Balanda ways of staying safe were prioritised by many organisations and people who wanted to help. When trying to spread the word in Yolŋu communities, the Balanda authorities went straight to the council office and then the health clinic, and the clinic started to tell everyone to wash their hands and stand apart from each other. This way of sharing the story had the effect of by-passing the Elders in their family groups, and of prioritising ways to keep ourselves safe as individuals, but not as family groups. It cared for the ‘biomedical body’ threatened by the virus, but not the ‘Yolŋu body’ (which is not just an individual but includes our family and clan groups related to us by kinship). This ‘Yolŋu body’ was also being threatened by all these new practices that have not been negotiated, arriving in our communities. They picked one person to take the news to the people in the community, but this did not involve negotiating among ourselves what the right story for Yolŋu should be, and the best way for it to be shared.

It is important that we work together with Elders to negotiate good ways of handling a crisis. Elders have responsibility for particular groups of people – extended families and networks of families. It is the small family group that is the basis for all work – ceremonial work, hunting, caring for each other – it is a network of ancestral connections and kinfolk from different clan groups married together including parents and grandparents, in-laws, children and grandchildren. These are the groups which we need to keep safe, and stick together, so the traditional work of caring for the old and young can be done in the right way by the right people.

When the three tiers of government ignore the Elders, it becomes harder for us to practice right ways of making decisions and caring for each other. Our culture becomes undermined because we have not been able to negotiate and follow the best ways forward under the authority of elders, caring for each other, our clan groups and homelands.

If we can work through our practice of law, we will be able to protect ourselves from the virus, and from threats to our culture and law that come through other ways of knowing and making decisions.

There are ways we can work together, beginning with the authority of Elders, to understand the true stories of this virus and to care for each other. We have traditional ways of doing that sort of work and sharing out the right responsibilities to the right people. Every family group has elders. Every Elder has a family group. We know the right ways to keep our relationships strong, including our relations to other clan groups and to our homelands. When we are able to remain connected with each other and our places, this is how we remain healthy.

Doing this work will help to keep us strong and safe in times of crisis. Making sure that we continue practicing strong and original law while also paying attention to ways of washing hands and stopping the spread of the virus. Balanda people and organisations can help, we can work together, but start with our Elders first. This way we will be able to show the way that Yolŋu bodies and environment and western science can collaborate in the right way in our places, to keep Yolŋu bodies strong.

At the moment we are happy that we are safe and well. We are happy that the representatives are working to make sure that the virus cannot come into the community. It is even better if we can lock down in our homelands rather than the larger communities – there we have the health of the environment and all the food and spiritual strength it provides us to help us remember who we are and where we come from.  It’s like reconnecting to something, rather than shutting something out. It’s not like panic buying, it’s like we go to keep safe in our own family supermarkets.

Gawura Waṉambi, Joy Bulkanhawuy, Stephen Dhamarrandji and Rosemary Gundjarranbuy are the authors of this piece. They have worked with the support of CDU staff members Michael Christie, Michaela Spencer and Yasunori Hayashi to translate and adapt this text from a discussion in Yolŋu languages which was held to prepare for a seminar for the Northern Institute, Charles Darwin University. To view the seminar, visit here.

Gawura Waṉambi, Joy Bulkanhawuy, Stephen Dhamarrandji and Rosemary Gundjarranbuy have authorised this piece to be published.

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