Category Archives: Milingimbi

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.

Milingimbi Petition

Towards the end of our work in Milingimbi, one of the key Yolŋu with whom we had been working (and with whom we had worked with before), decided that the number of issues which had arisen in the course of our work (the role of police, homelands, doing ranger work, health and education, the Yolŋu way, etc) had coalesced to the point of demanding community-wide attention. The way that he dealt with this was to call a community meeting. The term that he used to describe the beginning of the process was wäŋa way’yun, literally the land crying out calling the people to attention. This land-calling was enabled by a community loud-speaker. It seemed that the many small items of daily concern we were addressing – the emergence of a women’s group for example – had developed such critical mass that the place as much as its people was demanding attention. The result was a great deal of community discussion and a large community meeting with the development of a petition to government signed by many residents.

The petition which raised a good number of issues of concern seemed to cause some flurry in Darwin a quick response from Police (a successful community engagement visit), a promised visit from the Chief Minister and a letter from the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Each issue was addressed separately with a referral to this or that department or individual to deal with the concern, so the response did have the effect of dispersing the collective concern of the place into a range of directions, each of which would need to be explored separately. Wäŋa way’yun was not something that we saw as part of our governance and leadership program, but it clearly was an effect of it. We were asked to support the making of the petition, ie translating what people had said into English and putting it into a letter and helping with learning about petitions as a democratic governance technology. And it helped clarify directions in which further work could proceed.

Download Milingimbi Makarr Garma Petition pdf


Nyäḻka Womens group

Early on in the project we connected with various women who told us about the long history of women’s groups in Milingimbi since the mission days. Women are strongly involved through the health clinic and the school. The women we spoke with were all very keen to do some work around governance. During a trip to Alice Springs to attend a healing conference the women also visited the WALTJA Aboriginal Corporation. With a focus on families and Aboriginal services delivery this organisation was inspiring for the women from Milingimbi. We had many meetings and workshops looking at how to  develop the governance skills required to take on such an initiative. This work has been documented in the Story of the Nyäḻka Milingimbi Women’s Aboriginal Corporation.

The story of the Nyäḻka Milingimbi Women's Aboriginl Corporation
The story of the Nyäḻka Milingimbi Women’s Aboriginl Corporation

Milingimbi Council presentation

Milingimbi Council meetingOn the 9th April 2014, we presented a report on stage 1 and 2 of the Governance and Leadership project, to the Community Advisory Board of the East Arnhem Shire in Milingimbi. The report reiterated the goals of the project and reminded people about who was involved. It gave a brief outline of what we had done in stage 1 and sketched out the areas we planned to work on in stage 2. It included some pictures of meetings we had, and a detailed illustration of the sorts of activities we would be doing in stage 2. It was a busy meeting with Power and Water also presenting (see image) an employment project aimed at reducing water consumption, and enhancing reporting processes.

Download a pdf of the Powerpoint presentation here Milingimbi Stage 1-2 Report

Project Reports can be found on the Resources page