All posts by Trevor Van Weeren

Sketch 2: Skin Group meetings becoming a new Tiwi organisation

Towards the end of the project we were asked to facilitate a workshop which focussed on leadership, governance, Tiwi Ways and Skin Group Meetings. By request of key Tiwi people that we had been working with, attendance at this workshop was by invitation only.
Sketch2-1There was very specific work that this group wanted to achieve at the meeting. We were to develop a working group to help reconstitute the Tiwi Skin Groups meetings, and an action plan for how the group work with services providers to address current issues arising in the community.

During our discussions, the old Tiwi word Ngarukuruwanajirri was remembered by one of the female elders in the room. This word means ‘four Tiwi skin groups coming together, helping together’. People were delighted with the re-emergence of this word which was not in common usage, and which some of the younger members of the group hadn’t heard. There was recognition that this was a deep concept which was crucial to the work we were doing now.

We were told that to work through Tiwi Way, people have to first go through their skin groups for governance and governance issues. The governing structure of Tiwi is the four skin groups Warnarrtinguwi (Sun), Miyartuwi (Pandanus), Lorrila (Rock) and Takarringuwi (Mullet), and for Tiwi Way to be properly practiced, people have to work from the social responsibilities and obligations defined by these groups.
Sketch2-2Re-establishing the Skin Group – or Ngarukuruwanajirri – meetings would allow people to speak from their proper cultural context when addressing issues about governance, leadership and mediation when working on community social issues. Recognising the Skin Groups as an organisation able to be engaged by other authorities and organisations, would also begin to update established but increasingly inadequate practices of seeking clan representation on councils and boards. While this approach to relating Western and Tiwi governance practices has supported clan representation within enterprise development, so far it has not enabled adequate Tiwi engagement with social issues in the community.

Convening the Ngarukuruwanajirri meetings provides a new way for the Skin Groups to participate within the variety of governance practices taking place in Wurrumiyanga, and also provides an opportunity for the teaching and modelling of Tiwi Way to Tiwi and non-Tiwi. As an organisation, the Ngarukuruwanajirri ‘s core function would be to articulate Tiwi Way and the Skin Group relationships, while nurturing and developing positive working partnerships between Tiwi people and traditions, and Western governance structures and service providers.

Reflections on the Rise Up approach – Michaela Spencer

Feedback from Michaela Spencer, project assistant.

I joined the IGLDP project in mid-2014, after the completion of Stage 1. I became involved in the work that was happening in Milingimbi with the Nyalka Women’s Corporation, and at Wurrumiyanga I began supporting Tanyah and Joanne Nasir with their Rise Up workshops. These workshops were conducted by Indigenous facilitators, and directed towards Indigenous people. For this reason, it was a very privileged position that I found myself in, being able to witness this work as a nonIndigenous facilitator myself only just beginning to learn about ways of working in Indigenous communities.

As I became involved in the Rise Up workshops, it was immediately possible to see that working with Indigenous facilitators was a very special thing for the participants. They immediately felt at home, and there was no need to put on a façade, or to feel ‘shy’ as they might when beginning to work with nonIndigenous trainers or experts. They arrived at the workshops interested to learn about what we would be doing that day, but also to hear Tanyah and Joanne’s stories, and to be able to trace out their family links and to relate to these facilitators not just as distanced teachers, but as members of their own community who were doing new – and very commendable – things.

As the workshops unfolded I was able to see Tiwi people beginning to relish the freedom that these settings offered. For some the workshops seemed to offer an opportunity to discuss governance in ways that did not just address questions of compliance and rules, but also allowed many other things that needed to be opened up as well. Issues of land ownership, fighting families, elders authority, football and skin groups could all be voiced and negotiated as part of an important and general conversation about new tangible solutions and possibilities for Tiwi people. And it was in having these things heard, that a sense of relief and hopefulness could arrive.

People also responded to being offered positive feedback and encouragement for their contributions. No matter how difficult it was for people to speak up, or how long it took them to contribute, their offerings were welcomed with praise and positive reinforcement. It was quite amazing to see the impact that this had on people, as they began to experience, feel, see and touch a lived sense of community at the same time as they participated in conversations around Western governance and its relation to Tiwi Ways.

This positive reinforcement was given regardless of where people were at, and as quite separate to any other struggles or traumas that participants might be facing. At times, being offered this opportunity to experience a sense of competency and being valued whilst also trying challenging and new things seemed to have quite a miraculous effect on the individuals participating and the group in general.

There was no ‘shame’ produced in any of these discussions, or any of the difficult questions and learning around things going on in the community and ways that things might change. Instead the approach seemed to allow people to be able to turn this dynamic around and to be able to speak knowledgeably and with great experience about this thing ‘shame’ which can cause so many problems for Indigenous people. And it was in doing this that possibilities for change seemed to open up, and people experienced a new sense of hope and vibrancy in their learning experience.

Watching and assisting, but trying not to get in the way, I felt as though I witnessed a remarkable and spontaneous joyousness on the part of Tiwi people who were involved in these events, and as they revelled in the experience of ‘being Tiwi’ but in relation to new contexts and sets of practices.

This may be an outcome which can also be achieved by skilled and sensitive nonIndigenous facilitators, working carefully with people in communities. However, here there was something of an immediate and quite amazing effect that occurred as Tiwi people, for the first time, experienced working with skilled Indigenous facilitators to whom they were related, and with whom they felt personally connected.

Reflections on the Rise Up approach – Deb Cooper

Feedback from Deb Cooper, Regional Coordinator RJCP Women’s Centre

Over the past two years, Tanyah Nasir has been delivering this program on Bathurst Island. It has been an overall success due to the nature of the culturally sensitive delivery process.

  • Participants were Tiwi only, to encourage and enable each person to develop confidence and trust
  • Facilitators listened to their stories, acknowledging the strong family ties and recognising that a facilitator, Tanyah was a relative to a particular Tiwi family
  • Acknowledges in differences in culture on Tiwi, as opposed to the mainland
  • Encouraged to speak up for what they see as best strategies that will work for all generations. E.g. have representation of all different groups. Elders, men only, women only, youth, skin groups etc
  • Most potently, the presenters of this governance course learnt how the traditional Skin Groups advise the community, re law, social problems and counselling regarding family and community. This ancient system is intricate and fundamental to Tiwi Culture
  • An increase of Capacity Building over the 2 years of progressive presentations of the workshops that were developed to assess how Indigenous people (Tiwi in this instance) see Governance and what it means to them regarding family and community. Also to address how does Governance relate to modern Tiwi society in amongst stakeholders, service providers, council, law, and mainstream.
  • Capacity building… Public speaking, speaking up, motivation, support within the group, ownership of ideas. Post course I found that the RJCP women’s group to be more motivated regarding the future. Attendance improved and we found more of the women entering the workplace.
  • Everyone enjoyed the workshops and always looked forward to the next sessions. They embraced their time together and the Governance course engaged all groups, ages, all genders. A testimony to the success of the process can be seen in the videos of the women sharing songs, dance and music.

I am not sure how it all works because I did not attend; however, I did get invite to experience a couple of Tiwi songs with the group after an intensive session. This was phenomenal as the women had literally transformed into confident, radiant, happy, uplifted souls. I guess that by that time of day. All the work was complete and it was a special time if expression and sharing. If I can put it into words it would be… “That which we seek we already have within ourselves. It’s simply there awaiting an awakening, a self-realisation, an epiphany.” So indeed they did Rise Up to find an essence deep within themselves that day and I feel that this is something so strong that it will help in the future. I just hope there will be more opportunities to bring this course back to Tiwi for others to experience, plus to act as a reminder that living by our core values, culture and beliefs, enhances our lives. The outstanding outcome is that the governance course was so different to tother structured service provider, stakeholder, government, or even educational processes.

Action Plans – TITEB board

Further development of the TITEB Board’s policies and processes

Following on from several workshops with TITEB, the Board expressed a strong desire to continue with further workshops on Governance that produce Board policies and other key documents that they will use in developing their Governance approach. They also requested that the acting CEO works with Northern Institute Researchers to identify funding for this work, apply for it, and implement the Governance development program.

Policies and resources to be developed in the course of this policy development program include:

  • An overall framework that brings together TITEB programs and the high level outcomes and indicators that demonstrate progress in achieving outcomes.
  • A TITEB shareholders agreement
  • TITEB policy on delegations for the board, and a clear process to present information to the Board with recommendations for action.
  • TITEB policy on Tiwi Workforce development addressing the Role of the Board in developing and sustaining key relationships with Tiwi Elders, and other Tiwi Boards around issues like activity development and participation, activity testing and dealing with potential family and other conflict, ways of building Tiwi Workforces
  • TITEB policy on Tiwi Employment and Tiwi Staff development
  • TITEB policy on Cultural awareness and development of Cultural Competence of Non Tiwi Staff
  • TITEB Policy on cultural competency of service delivery
  • The Board were interested in the ‘Tricker Model’ (1994), and would like to workshop it in the context of the governance responsibilities for TITEB in the Tiwi Community
  • Revision of processes of financial reporting, formats to allow the Board to better understand the financial position of TITEB, and the option of establishing a Finance Subcommittee of the Board

Funding is being sought from the NTG Department of Business to further this work.

Sketch 1: A focus on ‘Tiwi Way’

From the beginning of this project the Tiwi people at Wurrumiyanga raised the need for Tiwi Way/ Tiwi governance to be acknowledged and for the Ponki Mediation process and Skin Groups Meetings to be reinvigorated and re-established. When we talked to them about the project, they highlighted these concerns as their focus, which they continually reinforced as we worked together.
Sketch1-1Tiwi understand the need to develop their learning and understanding about Western governance. But they also are committed to strengthening Tiwi governance/Tiwi Way to ensure its sustainability in future generations to come. They want to know, learn and understand how to ensure Tiwi governance is valued and can complement and work with western governance to maximise social outcomes for Tiwi people.

As we began to conduct workshops in Wurrumiyanga, There were many informal discussions and references made, to the constant expectations for Tiwi people to attend and engage with western service providers, structures, businesses and government agencies all of which privileged western ways of doing and western governance. They talked to us about the many service providers in Wurrumiyanga who are each pursuing their own individual and unique outcomes, operations and ways of doing which at times may not know how to include the Tiwi Way. In amidst this constant stream of visitors, the Tiwi are not afforded the regular opportunity to reflect on or discuss their cultural traditions, language, ceremony, skin groups, Tiwi knowledge or Tiwi Way. Therefore, the Tiwi who attended the community workshops were very appreciative and grateful of having the time to reflect, rediscover and reconnect with some elements of the Tiwi language, Tiwi culture and Tiwi Ways.
Tiwi understand the world they are living in is forever changing and there are many new challenges which they face which involves technology, social media, instant communication, addictive behaviours. In the old days the elders and the skin groups would play a central role to working through issues and resolving any conflicts or misunderstandings or misinterpretations. However, these days it is difficult for Tiwi people to be given enough time to breathe, and to constitute the proper groups and authorities who could deal with these issues in meaningful ways through proper processes.

This ‘Tiwi Way’ influenced and shaped the several workshops delivered to community members at Wurrumiyanga. The successful outcomes of the workshops were achieved using the tool of engagement and facilitation, the ‘Rise UP Program’ which has been developed by a local Aboriginal business (Tanyah Nasir Consulting Service). There were several community workshops for the men, women, Elders and young people. The discussions and learning was of significant cultural relevance, high energy, thought provoking and future focussed. At times the workshops were confronting as we discussed the Tiwi reality, their social, cultural, economic and physical environment. The reality they live and work within on a daily basis. However, the workshops were also stimulating, collaborative, full of learning and connectedness and full of hope. Tiwi people were motivated and inspired to challenge assumptions and expectations and felt empowered to consider solutions and change for their people, community and their future.

It was precisely by working in this way, and by reconnecting with traditional practice within modern and safe contexts, that people began to activate the potential for means for traditional practices to carefully update and rejuvenate themselves through engagement with new issues and concerns confronting Tiwi people.


Tiwi Islands Skin Group Project

skingroupsSupplementary Resource

The NT Government through the Department of Business provided an NT Research and Innovation grant to conduct research for the purposes of developing a model that brings Tiwi Skin Group culture and Western youth diversion systems together. This connection would enable training and employment prospects for young people so they become strong leaders in the future.

This study has been guided and directed by a group of Tiwi Elders. This was an important part of the project methodology given that the project incorporates the rich cultural foundations that are integral to the model developed. Twenty six Elders predominantly from Wurrimiyanga as well as Pirlangimpi participated in this study. The principal researcher continuously sought Elder support and endorsement for the development of the project and worked collaboratively with the Tiwi Youth Diversion Unit throughout the project duration.

Download the story about this project

Yolŋu Governance practices

In preparation for a promised visit from the Chief Minister (Adam Giles), in response to a community petition that raised a number of concerns in relation to Governance and Leadership, Law and Order, Education etc, Näkarrma Guyula started documenting how Governance worked from a Yolŋu perspective. Below are some of the headings with brief descriptions that outline many of the concepts and practices that underly the way people organise themselves and make decisions. This is an early draft. We are continuing to  develop this resource.

Creation story (Djank’wu ga Barama) where our law comes from

In the beginning, Djaŋ’kawu ancestral creators landed on the eastern shores of Arnhem Land. They were Guŋgurrkuŋgurr (empowered with cosmic cultural knowledge, wisdom, constitution and governance).

Dry ground was struck with Ganinyiḏi, a Dhuwa spiritual wapitja (walking stick) wielded by the creator beings, and water came gushing out. The ground turned into a living sacred waterhole and was named Milminydjarrk. The water flowing out of the sacred waterhole was sacred and was named Milŋurr (wisdom and knowledge). The Djaŋ’kawu creators looked up and saw Wolma, a cumulonimbus cloud. It acknowledged their presence through Djirrikay (Thunder). The area on and in the ground, the waters, above and around was declared Djäpul Makarr Dhuni’, a sacred site, the site of the maḏayin law, the Parliament for Yolŋu.

Djaŋ’kawu passed on jurisdiction for the governance of knowledge systems from the sacred Milŋurr, to our forefathers, who passed it on to our fathers, and our fathers passed it on us. That process became the legal law which we live by today

The elders/leaders from the Djaŋ’kawu clan nations took the djota muḻuḻu (knowledge tree) out of the Djäpul sacred site. They planted it (Something like what Captain Phillip did when he, mistakenly, planted the Union Jack on Australian soil proclaiming it a colony of Great Britain in 1788) on the common ground where it became a Riyawarra (Makarr Garma) a place of legal public practice and participation and performance). Through the Riyawarra the laws and governance for all Yolŋu are made visible. This is where the laying down of the law was finalised. These laws and governance principles were given to Yolŋu by these unseen creators. This law remains unchanged.

We didn’t make up this law, in the creation time the land had no people, the Djang’kawu came and created the Yolŋu and gave them these laws to live by.

Yolŋuw Makarr Dhuni (Parliament) is the actual land of, water, space below and space above. It has no depth, height and size. Yolŋu Jurisdiction comes from the Milŋurr which holds destiny. It is unchanged by mortal knowledge.

Only those who spiritually seek that destiny of the Djaŋ’kawu see them submerging at sunset horizon as two worrutj (lorikeet) parrots to this day

We are a people with wisdom and knowledge. Our Milŋurr is alive and cosmic, it never runs out. We seek and gain that Milŋurr through practice and participation on the Makarr Garma.

The law is made manifest through the land by ceremony, song, dance, designs and painting, and objects. Our governance processes such as peacemaking, conflict resolution, discipline, the whole Yolŋu constitution is contained in these manifestations.

Our forefathers and our fathers carried on that Maḏayin system of governance ever since the beginning

We feel that our laws and practices have not been respected, valued or recognized. We seek a new engagement based on respect, and recognition. We need a seat at the table so we can be partners in our futures.

What follows are some descriptions of some of the laws and processes we practice. Through engaging equally with all stakeholders and decision makers we seek to have these laws recognized and a new Memorandum of Understanding (Treaty) and process agreed to. Something that lives beyond the cycles of elections and changes in policy.

Issuing from this Milŋurr described is our foundational governance system Gurruṯu

Gurruṯumirri rom

Ever since the ancestors first moved over the land and sea, every Yolngu has been born into a vast network of kinship called gurruṯu. Gurruṯu is the glue that holds our communities, clans, people and land together. Gurruṯu 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. Underlying gurruṯu, is rom. Sometimes referred to as ‘law’, rom, includes many processes, structures, laws and customs.


Bon-Milmarra relates to your in-laws who are from the opposite moiety to you, this is where your wife or husband will come from, these relationships have various rules associated with them

Mirrirri rom

Mirrirri rom rules around brothers and sisters


Manggupuy – (blood relation) caretaker uncle for a young initiates

These laws were practiced around our campfires, western culture and laws continue to threaten these systems. Balanda culture and laws are taking us away from these systems and destroying our culture. We are not saying we want to go back to the old ways but we are saying that both laws need to be negotiated together to find common ground.
We won’t be putting amendments into Yolŋu law, but we can find common ground. We have the processes for doing this through gumurrkunaminyawuy rom (see below). This requires trust, honesty and commitment from both sides, we have been asking for this for a long time…
Raypirri rom – Discipline law

We have been disciplining our children and community through both ceremonial and domestic practices and according to our law. We discipline our children at home, when they are mature boys and girls, and when boys are ready for circumcision at the Makarr Garma. We teach and discipline young men at the Makarr dhuni and we do it at Makarr Garma for both young older boys and older girls.

We give tough love discipline for young men and young women when they break yolŋu law

Dhapi rom

The circumsion ceremony

Ŋarra rom –

The next level of learning

Nuŋgat rom –

This law is a very strict one and relates to punishment for breaches of law within ceremonial contexts that are totally prohibited.

Makak rom – Law of respect

When entering and or, passing through someone else’s makarr garma must be respected at all times


Sharing resources in equal shares. For example; when a group of yolŋu go hunting, they all go out catch and gather bush tucker. They come together at a fireplace and through wetj, the catch is distributed according to Gurruṯu and Makmak conventions.

Ḻay-gora –

Serving others first before your family, clan, or clan nation

Gumurrkunaminyawuy rom

This literally means chest to chest (open hearted and truthful towards each other) Through holding the principles of Gumurrkunaminyawuy at the centre of our negotiations we can enter into business agreements through Djugu rom (ŋärra rom, mamurrŋ, marradjirri, buku-wuṯ) This is where we can close the real gap.

Djugu rom

This is like a contract law. Through Djugu, arrangements can be made that hold each party to an agreement.

Police station is a balanda institution situated inside Yolŋu makarr garma. Together Yolŋu law and order, and balanda law and order can work together on the related issues

Magaya rom- Peacemaking

Peacemaking is something we are always working towards, certain people are recognized for their skills in this area. Peacemaking is an


 Makarraṯa is a peace making ceremony. Although Makarraṯa is not practiced these days it still informs our conceptual understanding of justice.


Lily Roy traditional owner at Milingimbi

Lily differentiating Yolŋu governance from Yolŋu leadership

Having worked at Milingimbi for some time, we felt it important to get some firm declarations from key elders as to how they themselves understand governance and leadership. In this interview with Lily Roy, the land owner, she made a clear distinction between her authority as land owner – an authority largely to do with the different clans for whom she was ‘mother’ or ‘grandmother’ of whole groups – and the way in which the members of a community should be governed. She made clear that even though she is the land owner, she is not the leader for everyone at Milingimbi. Particular other groups have leadership responsibility at Milingimbi because of their relationship to the land and each other, but this doesn’t include everyone. Leadership is specific to ancestral networks of clan groups and places. Each individual is in a network of kinship care and concern which demands complex interactions of leadership. Governance is a different story. Everyone needs to work together with the land in full agreement if we are to succeed in governance. Lily’s discussion of governance was focussed on the collaborative work which must be done when we are working together to maintain and harvest the resources which the land has to offer. Promoting Governance and Leadership in an Aboriginal community is here made easier by being clear about what ancestral law has to say.

Community Workshops at Wurrumiyanga

The Tiwi people at Wurrumiyanga highlighted their focus for the project on Tiwi Way/Tiwi governance.  Tiwi people continuously articulated the need for Tiwi Way to be strengthened through skin group meetings which also included the ‘Ponki Mediation’ cultural process.  Tiwi want to know, learn and understand how to ensure Tiwi governance is valued and can complement and work with western governance to maximise social outcomes for Tiwi people.

Currently there are service providers who have their own individual outcomes, operations and ways of doing which at times may not know how to include the Tiwi Way.   Therefore,  there is a need for further developmental work and tangible assistance to formalise the articulation of Tiwi Way as well as the reestablishment of skin group meetings.   As they understand the need to develop their learning and understanding about Tiwi governance/Tiwi Way to ensure its sustainability in the future.

This ‘Tiwi Way’ influenced and shaped the several workshops delivered to community members at Wurrumiyanga. The successful outcomes of the workshops were achieved using the tool of engagement and facilitation, the ‘Rise UP Program’ Rise UP website. There were several community workshops for the men, women, Elders and young people.  The discussions and learning was of significant cultural relevance, high energy, conceptual and visionary. The workshops were confronting, collaborative, full of learning and hope. Tiwi people were motivated and inspired to consider change for their people, community and their personal life. These workshops were engaging, highly interactive, energetic, fun learning and productive in sourcing Tiwi people’s thinking, voices and their direction for Wurrumiyanga.

Don’t leave us out – Posters-for-talking…

Don’t leave us out

GovernanceMapIn one visit two facilitators (T and J) and Yolŋu consultant (M) were talking about governance in Ramingining and all the different ‘balanda’ stakeholder groups or ‘bodies’ in Ramingining and their affiliations with government and nongovernment organisations. J began drawing a picture on butchers paper as we talked. Looking at the drawing, M talked about ‘communication’ being a real problem. Not enough involvement of Yolŋu community members in the running of the community through different agencies, Balanda not communicating properly with Yolŋu and vice versa. With issues like school attendance, health and safety etc. most community members don’t understand how agencies have responsibility and how this connects with the community. They don’t know enough about the Australian, NT and local government laws, policies and programs how these are implemented. M pointed out that, ‘There is a current and Yolŋu are caught in the government current which is pulling Yolŋu to their way of learning and doing things. Yolŋu have things. I need to think what I have and what I can do. Yolŋu have land, sea, bush, culture. What I have I can use to make something useful in the modern world’. Later J re-drew it in Word and shared it. This new picture provoked different conversations. ‘Where are Yolŋu leaders in this picture? How do Yolŋu leaders fit into this stakeholder governance picture? No Yolŋu body in the picture. M remembered the days of the ‘Village Council’ in the 1960’s. ‘Maybe we should look at the Village Council again?’ We talked about the VC as a Yolŋu stakeholder group under Yolŋu governance and leadership and operate according to Yolŋu rom (law/protocols/processes). ‘All we would expect is the outside world’s respect’.


In the next IGLDP visit several weeks later, M and other leaders were talking about the Milingimbi petition (website URL) and doing something similar at Ramingining. They were also talking about drafting an MOU for all Ramingining stakeholders including Yolŋu of how to work together. M and T made a rough drawing together while thinking through the MOU idea. T showed M another poster he’d made of a generic community governance scenario and had trialled at Milingimbi a few weeks before. They used the elements from this poster with the MOU drawing to make a ‘poster-for-talking’ showing the current state of affairs with ‘Balanda’ stakeholders, governed by their Rule Books or Constitutions and their connections to the Australian and NT governments. After showing drafts to other elders we started looking at some concepts of Yolŋugovernance and how different it is from the Balanda system and made some edits to show the Yolŋu clan nations each governed by their Sacred Dilly Bag and how these are not recognised by the dominating Balanda stakeholder governance landscape. A draft of the poster was sent to the IGLDP Steering Committee who noted Local Government was missing.
The final poster has been used in all three IGLDP towns and with Yolŋu Nations Assembly to stimulate conversations about governance. Yolŋu consultants and other leaders have copies of the printed poster
Drawing together as we are talking prompts conversation, helps us to explain our ideas and reveals important cultural and other differences in the way we understand things. It supports us to work collaboratively, to generate collective understanding and most importantly, to do our ‘difference’ respectfully and well. The pictures are also traces of our journey together through a landscape of shared understanding we have performed and created together. When we do this work particularly well, the pictures often start to resonate and do their own work. The pictures themselves provoke, stimulate and generate dialogue. They become ‘actors’ in the dialogue. These pictures we develop slowly and carefully through using them with other people over time, watching how they work until we feel we have a version that is ready for printing.
Ramingining Governance

The poster came from some earlier work we did in mapping out the governance bodies and networks in Ramingining.

The final poster was used on many occasions to talk around ideas of governance and leadership, below Dhulumburrk makes a point at the recent Yolŋu Nations Assembly meeting.
Dhulumburrk and Poster