Murngin - Sociopolitical Organization

From the point of view of the Australian government, the Yolngu are citizens of Australia, although the entitlements of citizenship have been acquired piecemeal. As citizens they are subject to the administration of both Australian Commonwealth and Northern Territory law. Special status exists in terms of the legislative provisions defining "Aboriginal land" and in limited recognition of some aspects of customary law. Yolngu towns receive financial support for their infrastructure maintenance and development from federal funding authorities and/or from the Northern Territory, depending on the legislation under which they are incorporated.

Social Organization. Yolngu society is based on principles of descent and the categories and groups within it are related through the idiom of kinship. In addition, the factors of age (both absolute and relative), birth order, and gender all influence the organization of social groups. Thus, through the operation of pervasive dualism, the universe is divided into two mutually exclusive but complementary name moieties, Dhuwa and Yirritja, and each individual is by birth a member of the moiety of his or her father. Each language-named clan is either of the Dhuwa or the Yirritja moiety; clans of the same moiety are linked through a shared myth while clans of the opposite moiety, through lineages within them, are linked by marriage alliances. Clans or particular lineages of alternate generation defined by matrifiliation are closely linked—or merged—through shared interests in land and ritual performance. Yolngu place a high value on personal autonomy and individual achievement.

Political Organization. Leadership roles in Yolngu society are defined by seniority, which is determined by birth order. The oldest man in a sibling set exercises (or should exercise) primary authority over his brothers and sisters and their Families. The oldest man in a clan should be its head, with his next-younger brother "second" to him. The expectation that the oldest man in a clan will be its head mitigates the strict ranking of lineages, and in practice if the first son of the first son is still regarded as too young to assume the headship, a younger brother of a deceased head will usually assume the headship. Here exist the grounds of competition for the headship. The rule of seniority operates with respect to both men and women; except that in public men usually exercise authority, birth order is more salient than gender in Yolngu Political process. Leaders should be skilled orators, and have the obligation to "look after" all the people who acknowledge their position as leader. To be implemented, a decision must represent a consensus; until a consensus is reached, no decision has been made. These principles of authority and decision making still govern Yolngu political life, even though elected councils are responsible for administering the towns. Yolngu are increasingly active in Northern Territory politics, both through the activities of the Northern Land Council and interaction with elected officials of the territory government. A Yolngu man is currently serving as an elected Member of the Northern Territory Assembly.

Social Control. One of the chief responsibilities of a Yolngu leader is to manage the procedures of dispute settlement. When a member of his clan requests his help to gain satisfaction for some grievance, he may intervene personally to attempt to bring about a resolution; he may convene family meetings or clan moots to ensure the involvement of all those whose concurrence in the matter in dispute and the appropriate outcome is necessary for settlement. People may call attention to a grievance by a public and very loud announcement; if they also threaten physical assault, certain kin should immediately respond: a sister and/or brother-in-law to provide physical restraint, and a lineage leader or clan head to urge calmness and to undertake to arrange satisfaction for the grievance.

Conflict. In the past, blood revenge (payback) prevailed; it was incumbent on certain kinsmen of a deceased person to avenge his or her death. Since deaths were rarely attributed to a "natural" cause, at almost any time people were planning a revenge expedition or were fearful of being subjected to one. It has frequently been said that the only sources of conflict among Yolngu (or Aborigines in general) were women and corpses. Yolngu deny this; rather, they say that serious disputes concern interests in land. The makarrata, which has been described as a "peace-making" ceremony, or as a "trial by ordeal," is ritualized revenge. A successful outcome is signaled by blood flowing from a wound inflicted in the thigh of a principal offender and is accepted as balancing accounts, at least during the time required for the performance of the Ceremony. A custom referred to as mirrirri relates to special kinds of avoidance behavior expected between brothers and sisters regarding a reference to a woman's sexuality—a reference which, if made in the hearing of her brother, causes him to attack that sister or any other woman he calls sister. Nowadays, while a man might not attack his sister or "sisters" with a spear, people are still very circumspect about any reference to a woman's sexuality in the presence of her brother.

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