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Ancestral, corporeal, corporate: traditional Yolnu understandings of the body explored.

This article explores the various ways in which the Yolnu of northeast Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory traditionally perceive of bodies, whether corporeal or corporate. It establishes how Yolnu understand the human body, its environments and its behaviours as phenomena that are modeled on archetypal ancestral designs for life, and shows how Yolnu nomenclature for human anatomy is used as a meta-language to describe the significances of features on country and in traditional modes of performance. It further explains how the Yolnu concept of the body corporate is related to an ethos of recognition and sharing between different peoples under a common constitution and law, and demonstrates how the music of the Australian band, Yothu Yindi, uses this traditional symbolism to express ideals of sharing and common humanity among different peoples from around the world.


In life, I am Neparrna Gumbula, but in death, I am already named by wanarr ('ancestral progenitors'). My feet and legs are those of the wurrpan ('emu'). My knees are fruit from the narrani ('native apple') tree. My front is that of the mokuy ('ghost') hunter, Muyarana. My back is the djalumbu ('hollow log coffin'). My heart beats as wurrpan's and my stomach, like his, is butulak ('yellow'). My spine is the waymamba ('pathway') worn in the scrub by the guwak ('koel cuckoo'). My mouth is the entrance to the beehive. My nose is beeswax. My eyes are nuts from the warraga ('cycad palm'). My hairs are the fine roots of the mayku ('paperbark tree') and the wulu ('white foam') that they produce in the swamp at Djiliwirri. My head and my knowledge are guku ('honey') from the wanarr Birrkuda ('Short-Nosed Bee'). In death, my name is no longer Neparrna. It is Birrkuda. (Gumbula, 2001)

Such is the way that the Yolnu ('People') of Australia's Northern Territory (NT) perceive human existence as part of a greater metaphysical design laid out by the wanarr ('ancestral progenitors') who originally named, shaped and populated their homelands in northeast Arnhem Land. In Yolnu epistemology, all that is found in the natural world--from the topography of country to the diversity of species found on them; from the living ecologies that sustain them to human life itself--are modeled on the metaphysical archetypal forms of wanarr such as Birrkuda ('Short-Nosed Bee') and stand as mali' ('shadows', 'reflections') of their progenitorial agency. All Yolnu ultimately trace their patrilineal descent or yarrata (literally 'string') from such ancestral progenitors, and under Yolnu law, this forms the foundation of Yolnu ownership over their numerous homelands and all incumbent ancestral knowledge. However, Yolnu are not only the direct descendants of their original wanarr, but also exist in mirrored image as their living physical consubstantiations (Williams, 1986: 23-4).

This article explores traditional Yolnu conceptualisations of the body in their various dimensions. It establishes how Yolnu understand the physical human form, its natural environments and its traditional behaviours as phenomena that are given by ancestors and patterned on their grand archetypal designs for life. It demonstrates how the Yolnu nomenclature for human anatomy is used as a meta-language to describe the significances of topographical features on country and the formal features of Yolnu performance traditions. And finally, it explains how in Yolnu epistemology, the concept of the body extends from the corporeal to the corporate; from a body of limbs and organs, to a body of different people and patrifilial groups.

The research presented in this article is grounded in more than a decade of my own collaborative work with Yolnu elders from northeast Arnhem Land to explore the meanings and beauty of their sophisticated intellectual traditions (Corn, 2003, 2006, 2007; Corn & Gumbula, 2004, 2006, 2007; Corn with Gumbula, 2005; Yunupinu with Corn, 2005), and builds on the fine work of ethnographers and Yolnu thinkers who have contributed significantly to shaping contemporary intercultural discourses on Yolnu culture (Williams, 1986; Berndt & Berndt, 1988; Morphy, 1991; Rudder, 1993; Keen, 1994; Zorc, 1996; Yunupinu & Dhamarrandji 1997; Knopoff, 1997; Yunupinu, 1998; Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, 1999; Gondarra, 2001; Gumbula, 2001; ARDS, 2002; Magowan, 2007). The work of anthropologist Franca Tamisari has been particularly influential in its insightful focus on the body as a 'spatio-temporal "hinge" between people and place' (1998: 249), and its consideration of Yolnu performance as a 'modality of co-presence and co-presencing, an encounter at a level of intensity which opens the way to an ever-deepening involvement with others' (2000: 274).

The Body Ancestral

The Yolnu have inhabited northeast Arnhem Land for countless millennia, and maintain continuous knowledge of maritime sites on their remote homelands that, some 10,000 years ago, are known to have been above sea level (Yunupinu & Dhamarrandji, 1997; Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, 1999; Horton, ed., 1994: 201). Today, there are approximately 7000 Yolnu. As shown below, their homelands extend from the Gove Peninsula in the northeast, west to Cape Stuart and south to Walker River. Of the six contemporary Yolnu towns in this district, Milininbi (Miningimbi), Yirrkala, Galiwin'ku, Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) and Ramangini. (Ramingining) were founded by the Methodist Overseas Mission between 1922 and 1973, while Gunyanara (Ski Beach) was established by the Yirrkala community in the 1980s.


Yolnu society is an expansive network of some sixty patri-groups or mala (literally 'groups'). Membership of a mala is agnatic, and passes through yarrata from father to child in perpetuity. This is also the hereditary conduit through which ownership of country and all incumbent ancestral knowledge passes from the original wanarr to patri-groups of their descent. All mala own at least one wana ('country', 'homeland')--comprising all lands, waters and natural resources therein--that the original wanarr bestowed as a wananaraka (literally 'bone country'). As explained by anthropologist Nancy Williams (1986: 232), 'so axiomatic' is the Yolnu relationship with their homelands, 'that people without land are people without identity'.

All mala are organised under two discrete yet interdependent constitutions of law known as Dhuwa and Yirritja. In conventional anthropology, these constitutions are classified as patrifilial 'moieties' from the Latin medius ('half'). The term thus describes them as halves of a greater social whole. The Yolnu nonetheless perceive Dhuwa and Yirritja to be two distinct legal and religious charters which, in themselves, are whole and complete (Corn & Gumbula, 2006: 176-8). The renowned Yolnu musician and educator Mandawuy Yunupinu instead uses the term 'constitution' to illustrate the agency of the wanarr Baywara ('Olive Python') in founding the Dhuwa moiety. He describes her as 'maker of the land, maker of the song, maker of the constitution' (Yothu Yindi, 1993: track 4). While Yolnu uses of terms such as 'constitution', and later 'nation' and 'sovereign', stem from twentieth century endeavours to demonstrate to external powers that their society does indeed possess a continuing system of law and politics, they nonetheless reveal critical insights into the functionality of Yolnu social structures that are difficult to conceptualise and translate into English.

Each mala is constituted as either Dhuwa or Yirritja, and this arrangement forms the primary balance of powers in Yolnu political life (Gondarra, 2001: 19; Corn & Gumbula, 2006: 175-87). Alignment with a constitution, like membership of a mala, is patrilineal and Yolnu are only permitted to marry someone born into a mala of the opposite constitution. Therefore, children inherit the constitutional alignment of their father, while their mother remains aligned with the opposite constitution. Similarly, a mala can only ever succeed ownership of another's hereditary property if it is of the same constitution. This renders the cross-constitutional relationship between waku ('woman's child') and nandi ('mother') fundamental to maintaining balance and order within Yolnu society. Because waku can never own their mother's hereditary property, it is their duty to support their nandipulu ('mother's group') by scrutinising all of their ceremonies and political dealings to ensure their legality (Morphy, 1991: 66-7).

Knowledge of each homeland and how to live on it is codified by the original wanarr in a hereditary canon of yaku ('names'), manikay ('songs'), bungul ('dances') and miny'tji ('designs', literally 'colour'). The most important traditional asset that a patri-group can own, other than country itself, is its distinct hereditary lexicon of sacred yaku. These names are said to have been called by the original ancestors as they shaped the Yolnu homelands, and serve to differentiate the identity and property of one mala from another, even when both trace their descent from a common wanarr. The speech of a mala, as defined by its distinct lexicon of sacred yaku, is called its matha ('tongue'). Some of these yaku are sung in garma ('public') contexts in the manikay of each mala, where they offer exquisitely qualitative and circuitous descriptions of country and ecology as observed by the original wanarr. This is also the body of language from which Yolnu traditionally draw all personal and family names (Williams, 1986: 42; Keen, 1994: 239; Corn & Gumbula, 2007: 120-2).

Under Yolnu law, a patri-group's carefully-regulated ability to execute and interpret the canonical names, songs, dances and designs associated with its homeland stands as evidence of its ownership by virtue of ancestral bestowal and descent. These canons of ancestral knowledge or madayin ('sacra') describe the natural beauty of all that wanarr provide, and constitute an adaptive framework of materials and protocols for conducting ceremonies through which Yolnu demonstrate their observance of rom ('law', 'culture', 'correct practice', 'the way') (Williams, 1986: 29; Keen, 1994: 137-40; Gondarra, 2001: 19).

Observing rom through a demonstrated knowledge of the madayin of one's mala is not only an esoteric pursuit. The practical skills that this pursuit teaches are vital to human life on the Yolnu homelands and leadership in Yolnu society. As the character of 'Lorrpu' states in the feature film, Yolngu Boy (Johnson dir., 2001), which presents a poignant coming-of-age story about the bonds among three teenaged Yolnu men from Yirrkala (Corn, 2007: 91-3):

When the old people walked through the land, they made the rocks and trees. They made fire; everything we need. I had to walk like them. Be part of the land. This was my test. If I failed, we had nothing. (Johnson dir., 2001)

The canonical bungul choreography practised by men, women and children on the ceremony ground is seamlessly adaptable to the needs of the harvest, the hunt and the skirmish, while the yaku sung in manikay are deployed by Yolnu leaders in sophisticated negotiations (Tamisari, 1998: 250-1; Corn & Gumbula, 2004: 106). In this sense, Yolnu quite literally believe that to follow in the luku ('footprints', 'steps', 'foundation') of wanarr is to reflect their metaphysical presence in each living human. As explained by Mandawuy Yunupinu:

If you've ever been exposed to those big ceremonies, you see people dancing whether they're Shark ['Mana'] people or Stingray ['Gapirri'] people, or whether they're Baru ['Saltwater Crocodile'], the Maralitja man. Maralitja discovered fire in the beginning. So when you're dancing Baru, you become transformed into Maralitja, and that's when you say, 'I'm the Maralitja. I own the land. I own that philosophy. I own that knowledge. I have a right to that land and you can't take that away from me.' Other groups are the same. When people dance Shark, they're transformed into the Shark ancestor or the Stingray, or whatever it may be. That's how one becomes transformed into something they want to show; they want to tell in that most classical way. The classical way of making their point known is by doing this in unity and strength with one's own mala and, of course, the yothu-yindi ['child-mother'] balance between mala [related through marriage] is always there in that strength and unity. (Yunupinu, with Corn, 2005).

Yolnu believe that actively embodying wanarr, through speaking, singing, dancing and appearing like them, enables the metaphysical ancestral entities who remain eternally present and sentient in country to recognise and protect their living gurrutu ('kin', 'family') (Williams, 1986: 43-4, 85; Tamisari, 1998: 256-67; Gondarra, 2001: 15-20; Corn & Gumbula, 2004: 101-16). Indeed, wanarr are said to be able to smell and recognise the sweat generated by their living kin through performing this work (Williams 1986: 85; Tamisari 1998: 256, 267). Such observance of rom lies at the root of the long and arduous process of accruing marr ('inner strength', 'ancestral power', 'spiritual health'), which is said to gather in one's gumurr ('chest'), and of preparing to become a liya-narra'mirri ('learned', 'wise') leader with a comprehensive knowledge of Yolnu ceremonial conduct (Keen, 1994: 94-5).

Mandawuy himself demonstrates this kind of ancestral embodiment in the music-video for Yothu Yindi's original song, 'Tribal Voice' (1992: clip 6), which incorporates footage of a genuine Yolnu male initiation ceremony. Here, he dances Gapirri ('Stingray') over three boys as their reclined bodies are painted with elaborate sacred miny'tji in preparation for their initiation into manhood. As he dances, his fixed forward gaze is piercing, and between his teeth, he clutches a sacred bathi ('basket') to reflect the fierce ancestral power of Gapirri and the gravity of the ceremonial act to be undertaken (Morphy, 1991: 263). The miny'tji painted on the boys' torsos and bathi held in Mandawuy's mouth are among the most sacred emblems of wanarr authority that can be displayed in any public context.

In such ceremonies, the metaphysical nature of physical being for Yolnu is realised. In their classical understanding of the world, all that Yolnu are, know and have is the stuff of wanarr. In death, their birrimbirr ('souls') are believed to become indivisible with the eternal wanarr, and from birth through death to rebirth, migrate between the physical and metaphysical planes of reality in an endless loop. As people age, the innate wanarr attributes of their birrimbirr are said to become visibly manifest. The birrimbirr is homologous to purified bone, and through the process of final burial into a hollow log coffin, is released to return to its metaphysical ancestral home. All flesh and blood that remains to decompose in the physical world simultaneously manifests as the deceased's mokuy ('ghost') (Berndt & Berndt, 1988: 213).

The Body Corporeal

Among the seven Yolnu languages or Yolnu-Matha (literally 'People's Tongues'), there is no direct word for the corporeal body of an organism as a whole. Yolnu instead use galna or monydjulnu (literally, 'skin') in its place, or rumbal or yuwalk (literally 'true') for 'trunk' or 'torso'. They nonetheless make extensive use of anatomical nomenclature as a meta-language to describe the component features of other things including plants, other animals, and sacred artifacts. A tree's root, for instance, is its luku ('foot'); its trunk, its bundhurr ('knee'); and its branch, its likan ('elbow') (Rudder, 1993: 29). The propulsive tailfin of a fish is also its luku, while the penetrating stinger of a bee is its nurru ('nose'). The tip of a flagpole is its nirrpu ('head'), and the bright feathered cords that adorn a sacred bathi ('basket') are its wana ('arms').

Such terminology is also applied to topographical features on country that remain as mali' ('shadows', 'reflections') of the original ancestors who shaped it (Keen, 1994: 103; Magowan, 2007: 131-2). As the wanarr imprinted their metaphysical archetypal forms into the Yolnu homelands, they inscribed mali' in the topography and ecology that would hold meaning for their human inheritors. At the epicentre of each homeland is a luku ('footprint', 'foundation') site, where a specific wanarr, Mana ('Shark') for example, will have embedded itself deep into the bedrock. A hill at such a luku site would be his buku ('head') and all his knowledge; the scrub behind it, his diltji ('back'); a rocky outcrop there, his djukurr ('liver'); and the lagoon below it, his gulun ('belly'). A bend in the stream flowing from this lagoon would be the Shark's likan ('elbow'); the stream's estuary, his mayan ('neck'); its stream's mouth, his dha ('mouth'); a rock pool off to the side, his manutji ('eye'); and a solitary rock beside this, his nurrku ('brain'). A point some distance along the shoreline from the stream would be his nurru ('nose'); an islet off the coast, his dhakal ('cheek'); and an adjacent landmass across a strait, his makarr ('thigh') (Rudder, 1993: 48-50).

It is by such signs of progenitorial wanarr activity on country that Yolnu 'orient themselves now and believe to have always oriented themselves' (Williams, 1986: 28), and it is in this way that the body spatio-temporally hinges people with place (Tamisari, 1998: 249). Just as the wanarr originally shaped the environment by 'externalising and imprinting parts of their bodies' into country, Yolnu come to experience, know and be part of the ancestral within country by moving through it and leaving remnants of their own presences there, such as the ganu' ('ashes') left at a well-established campsite that has been used by a family over countless generations (Tamisari, 1998: 250-8).

Dreams and waking revelations are media through which wanarr are said to communicate with their living kin when visiting their homelands (Corn, 2003: 122-4; Corn with Gumbula, 2005: 55-62), and when Yolnu musicians perform on the sacred sites that their manikay name, they commonly describe how they can feel their napes tingle as they are observed by wanarr from waters nearby (Corn & Gumbula, 2007: 117). Yolnu musicians also describe how they can know their homelands through manikay, even when they have never physically been there. The sensations of recreating and moving through country that manikay and bungul evoke in performers are explained in detail by anthropologist Fiona Magowan:

While the seeing, singing body does not necessarily move from place, it moves in the mind through different landscapes, touching them in various ways as it goes.... Yolnu [singers] move through the landscape at different rhythms, hunting and gathering, resting and sensing the feel of place through sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.... [They] turn the rhythms and movements of the environment into active images that they feel and touch through the mind's eye in song and the body in dance. Yolnu have a sensorial mastery of the environment through which they interpret changing colours, sounds, feel, tastes and smells of seasons that are marked by the prevalence of particular fruits, animals, birds and other species. The environment shapes the performers' reflections of sensory awareness as much as performers recreate its sounds and movements ... Singers must learn to 'feel' the environment as sensory experience within the body ... Aural, visual and kinaesthetic fields are completely intertwined. Yolnu singers and dancers allude to their bodies as 'feelingful extensions' ... of the ancestral seascape and landscapes as the ritual context invites men to dance as the ancestors with vigour, dynamism and sometimes anger in revenge for the deceased. Learning to dance is an integral and primary mode of learning to sing and directly involves the externalization of musical form as bodily action with a corresponding internalisation in bodily memories ... (Magowan, 2007: 14-15)

Corporeal nomenclature is further found among terms that are used to describe the formal parameters of a mala's integrated manikay and bungul repertoire (Tamisari, 1998: 253, 2000: 278). Though the specific synonyms used can differ from mala to mala, all manikay repertoires have a dambu or liya ('head'), makarr or yutungurr ('thighs'), and gumurr ('chests'). The 'head' of a manikay repertoire is its vocal melody, or to be more precise, is a fairly static intervallic structure that is sung repeatedly, with only subtle variation, in each vocal phrase of each discrete song item throughout a manikay series (Corn & Gumbula, 2007: 120-2). It is the 'head' of any given manikay series that most plainly identifies it as the property of the mala who owns it (Knopoff, 1997: 128).

Consisting largely of the sacred yaku ('names') inherited from the wanarr, the lyrics of a manikay series are also intimately linked to the ancestral identity of the mala who owns it (Keen, 1994: 239). The 'thigh' of a manikay item is the lyrics of each discrete song item, or again to be specific, it is the fully-accompanied core of each song item. Usually only around a minute in duration, the structure of each manikay item is tripartite. It consists of (i) a brief unaccompanied introduction called the nurru-wana (literally 'nose-speech') in which the 'head' is softly hummed, (ii) the greater 'thigh' in which the lyrics are sung with full bilma ('paired sticks') and yidaki ('didjeridu') accompaniment, and (iii) a brief unaccompanied coda in which a small sample of key lyrics are softly recapitulated. The accompanied 'thigh' of a manikay item will also include at least one 'chest', which is a stanza of repeated vocal phrases that terminates in a distinctive yidaki cadence.

Manikay repertoires are highly adaptable and can generally be performed in two basic formats: (i) without bungul and (ii) with bungul. Luku manikay refers to the 'step-by-step' performance of each successive subject in a manikay series without bungul accompaniment. By contrast, bungul'mirri manikay ('songs with dance') refers to the deployment of songs and their corresponding dances in fully-realised ceremonial contexts. As ceremonies are structured to deliver predetermined outcomes such as the initiation of boy into manhood or a funeral for the deceased, less pertinent subjects within a manikay series will usually be omitted from a bungul'mirri performance (Keen, 1994: 138-41; Corn & Gumbula, 2007: 120-3).

The term bungul itself comes from the root word bon ('kneecap'), which alludes to the way that dancers repeatedly touch their knees to the ground. Similarly, the virtuosic leaders of a dance chorus in ceremony are said to be gakal ('calves'), which alludes to the deft precision of their every dance step (Tamisari, 2000: 278). Tight ensemble in a bungul'mirri manikay performance is achieved through clear aural and visual cues between musicians and gakal. Such communication between participants in ceremonies is a vital mechanism through which Yolnu performance functions as a 'modality of co-presence and co-presencing', and generates sufficient intensity between individuals that deepens their rapport with each successive performance together throughout their lives (Tamisari, 2000: 274).

In bungul'mirri manikay, male dancers embody the observations of the original wanarr not only through the performance of choreography, but also with their voices. Male gakal lead the male dance chorus in antiphonal call-and-response vocal parts that interlock formally with each specific song item. Usually consisting of relevant place names and onomatopoeic vocables, the call-and-response vocal parts of male dancers offer an additional layer of musical and lyrical meaning to each specific manikay subject that is sung. The various painted designs worn by dancers over the days of a ceremony will also be drawn from the subjects of the specific manikay series being performed, and contribute an even further layer of meaning to the overall performance (Corn & Gumbula, 2007: 123).

To return to 'head' and 'thigh', the temporal and textural interrelationship between melody and lyrics in manikay offers a compelling window onto Yolnu understanding of a (super)natural order, modelled on archetypal ancestral forms, in which the individuals of a species or a mala are each the same but different. Manikay are most often sung by several parallel singers in heterophony, but although each singer ostensibly sings the same melody with the same lyrics, their individual performances will almost never be exactly the same. Movement from one note to the next, and the ordering and repetition of each word sung is entirely individuated. Together, the singers' voices delicately intertwine and gracefully permutate around the ideal of a unified melody over the more rigid bilma and yidaki patterns that anchors them rhythmically. They give the illusion of hearing a single voice comprised of many: one that is loosely unified, yet full of ever-shifting ever-resolving dissonances (Corn & Gumbula, 2007: 116-20).

This aesthetic of difference within similitude lies at the core of the manikay tradition, and captures the diversity that can be observed in all natural forms. Just as each species in nature carries its own genetic blueprint yet seldom produces two individuals that are exactly the same, so too are the parallel voices heard in a manikay performance. Each singer follows the same melodic and lyrical templates for a performance, yet is free to realise these in a multitude of individuated ways. Each voice can be likened to an individual thread that is woven together with others to create a more substantial whole, and just like each new generation of a species or a mala, each new manikay performance will yield new, yet familiar, realisations (Corn & Gumbula, 2007: 120-2).

The Body Corporate

Manikay repertoires also incorporate different bilma modes, different combinations of rhythm and tempo in the bilma part, that serve to reveal in turn the different features and behaviours of each subject performed. The specific rhythms, tempi and nomenclature for the suite of bilma modes that can be performed in a given manikay series will differ from mala to mala. However, a typical manikay series will nonetheless include both a wana ('arm') bilma mode and a rengitj ('body') bilma mode, which can alternatively be called yothu ('small') and yindi ('large') (Tamisari, 1998: 253; Corn & Gumbula 2007: 120).

Rengitj, also spelt ringitj, is a fascinating concept. Though 'body' is one of its possible meanings, like so many other Yolnu terms, it defies direct translation. In the Yolnu-Matha Dictionary (Zorc, 1996), it is defined rather vaguely as a 'place which is sacred to special people' and a 'ceremonial group'. Anthropological accounts offer considerably more detail. Ian Keen (1994: 312) states that a rengitj site is a 'place at the confluence of several groups' countries, associated with ceremonies'. Nancy Williams (1986: 79, 88-9) specifies further that a discrete rengitj site will commonly be owned by one mala, yet lie encapsulated like an 'embassy' within the larger homeland of another mala as a symbol of those parts of their respective ancestry and law that is shared. Franca Tamisari (1998: 260-1) again links this concept to the 'embassy' metaphor, yet instead describes a rengitj site as a place on a mala's larger homeland that symbolises its unity with other patri-groups who trace descent from the same wanarr.

Rengitj primarily refers to a place on a group's country where ancestral beings emerged to commence or gathered to continue their journey across the land. These places are often characterised by particular geographical features or botanical images which iconically convey ideas of connection between groups. For instance, the creeks or tributaries formed by the water flowing into a river, the rays radiating out from the sun, parallel paths cut through the shrubbery along a beach, or the branches of a tree departing from its trunk are examples of rengitj places ... The creeks, paths or branches are said to represent the different groups which are distributed along the same ancestral trajectory. Rengitj places, I was told, are like embassies which represent and stand for different groups on another group's country. It is at these rengitj places that the ancestors 'picked up all the names' which were to be distributed along their journey. Thus the rengitj, as a visible mark or imprint on the land, is characterised as a place of origin, the repository of all the names, as well as a kind of mapped visual expression of the connection between people and places which is to be carried out in the temporal sequence of the journey. In fact, it is through the movement of the ancestral body over the land that the connections embodied in the rengitj place are realised and the names distributed. (Tamisari, 1998: 260-1).

In this sense, the different mala who trace descent from a common wanarr are quite literately like the branches or likan (literally 'elbows') of a tree or a river system. Indeed, they will be said to hold their own discrete likan of a shared ancestral law with sacred names and subjects that are specific to each. The ways that a mala typically expresses its likan are among the most sacred that can be presented in any public context. They include (i) invocations of likan yaku (literally 'elbow names') that echo the ancestral gunbur or birkarr ('power') vested in each mala; (ii) the distinctive angle in the repeating geometric patterns painted by each mala on torsos and its sacred bathi ('baskets'); and (iii) the way that dancers bend their arms to recreate this angle when dancing to a likan yaku invocation of that mala.

To describe more of their ceremonial importance, Williams (1986: 89) explains that rengitj sites are places where the initiated men from related mala gather to perform and share knowledge in deeply-sacred narra' ('restricted') ceremonies. Howard Morphy (1991: 59) adds that the knowledge obtained in such rengitj contexts is considered the most definitive, as it is generated through accord among the members of each mala. Men will accordingly authenticate the credentials of their knowledge by referring to the various rengitj contexts through which they acquired it. The rengitj context is also one in which disagreements and divisions must be resolved or put aside before such knowledge can be shared or joint ceremonies can be undertaken in common purpose (Yunupinu, 1998; ARDS, 2002; Corn, 2003: 96-103).

Chaired by the retired Yolnu reverend Djiniyini Gondarra, Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) presents a somewhat different view of rengitj that links it to the concepts of 'nation' and 'alliance' (ARDS, 2002). In this model, a cluster of individual mala will be joined together under a common constitution, whether Dhuwa or Yirritja, in a 'sovereign' rengitj or national alliance. Because of the recursive logic of the nomenclature used in the Yolnu gurrutu ('kinship') system, each mala will relate to others in its rengitj as either wayirrilili ('women's daughter group') yapapulu ('sister's group') or maripulu ('mother's mother's group'). As one's own mala is a napawanditj (literally 'spine group'), wayirrilili literally means 'towards the spine', as it is a 'women's daughter group' who is most likely to inherit its maripulu's property should the 'mother's mother's group' possess no viable male heirs of its own (Corn & Gumbula, 2006: 175-87).

The constituent mala of each rengitj nation commonly possess broadly distributed homelands that rarely possess common boundaries. However, each mala's ownership rights over its own homelands stop at the yirralka ('bedrock'). The subsurface of each constituent homeland within a rengitj nation is instead owned collectively by the alliance. All decisions relating to the subsurface, mining negotiations for example, must be made by the rengitj nation as a whole, and if an individual mala becomes alienated from its homelands, through an absence of viable male heirs, its property can only be ceded to another mala within the same rengitj nation. This kind of traditional alliance once prompted Yolnu mala of the Laynhapuy region to controversially push for the creation of their own Northeast Arnhem Land Rengitj Land Council (Martin, 1995; Reeves, 1998; Levitus, Martin & Pollack, 1999; Australia, 1999).

Echoing Williams' (1986: 79, 88-9) explanation of rengitj as 'embassy', ARDS (2002) also refers to small rengitj or 'alliance' sites that are encapsulated within the larger homelands of other mala. It is protocol for visitors of one patri-group onto the country of another to stop first at the rengitj site that, due to its shared ancestral significance for both, is designated for their mala. There, the visitors will light a signalling fire before either seeking out the homeland's owners, or if matters are tense, awaiting their arrival.

Although these explanations of rengitj are somewhat varied, they each touch on common themes of confluence, shared ancestry, accord, cooperation and political alliance between different mala, and it is in this sense that rengitj, as originally translated, can mean 'body'. This, however, is not a corporeal body, but instead a corporate one: a body of people across a body of mala who come together as rengitj through their shared heritage under a common wanarr. Generally, a patri-group will identify the various other mala to whom its manikay repertoire refers as its rengitj allies, yet this does not preclude the formation of new alliances between mala, based on other evidence of their shared ancestry, through ceremonial exchange (Keen, 1994: 140; ARDS, 2002). However, the broader definition of rengitj as a body of people across a body of mala coming together in unity is also evident in the structural significance of the rengitj bilma mode in manikay repertoires, and bungul'mirri manikay in particular (Corn & Gumbula 2007: 123).

Characterised by fast and even bilma beats, it is manikay items in the rengitj mode that lead into the focal outcomes of ceremonies, such as the exact moment when a boy is circumcised or when a corpse is buried into the ground. They articulate seamlessly into likan yaku invocations which are sung over the very same rengitj bilma pattern, and function as an executive seal of approval over the correctness of the ritual deed being undertaken in the name of wanarr. The rengitj bilma mode quite literally brings together all who are present at a ceremony, irrespective of mala alignment, to gather around, participate in and witness firsthand the veracity of its ritual outcome(s). Indeed, the garma ('public') ceremony that brings a community together for the announcement of a death can be called a rengitjthirri (literally 'to be as a corporate body') (Keen, 1994: 139). In this sense, the overall quality of a ceremony is indexical to the number of people and mala who gather to participate in it, just as esoteric knowledge that is generated in multi-mala rengitj contexts is considered to be the most definitive.

In its broadest sense, rengitj is the expression and realisation of all that people of different mala under a common constitution share, by virtue of common ancestry, within a common system of law. It is as much about the act of sharing as what is shared. This ideal is expressed by Yothu Yindi in the original song 'Timeless Land' (1993, track 1), which incorporates a traditional Gumatj manikay item on the subject of mambulmambul ('rare kangaroo flesh') as an extended coda. Its lyrics describe how the Gumatj mala will share the spoils of the hunt, the rare meat of the red kangaroo, with all of their extended family: whether they be Yirritja like the Gumatj or Dhuwa like their mothers; whether like the Gumatj, they trace descent from Saltwater Crocodile or a different wanarr.

In a later original song, 'One Blood' (Yothu Yindi, 1999: track 2), the blood of the red kangaroo is transformed into an even more inclusive metaphor. This song was composed in anticipation of people from all over the world gathering in Sydney for the 2000 Olympic Games. So here, the blood of the red kangaroo's rare flesh is used to symbolise the 'one blood', the shared humanity, of all in the context of sharing and cooperation between peoples of all nations in common purpose. Its chorus includes the lyrics, 'Mittji maypa [Different peoples], miny'tji gulku [many colours], bata'yunmirri [racing each other], ganydjarrnupan' [racing]. Ah, one blood' (Yothu Yindi, 1999: track 2).


This article has explored the various ways in which Yolnu traditionally perceive of bodies, whether corporeal or corporate. It has established how Yolnu understand the human body, its environments and its behaviours as phenomena that are modeled on archetypal ancestral designs for life. It has demonstrated how Yolnu nomenclature for human anatomy is used as a meta-language to describe the significances of features on country and in traditional modes of performance. And it has explained how the Yolnu concept of the body corporate is related to an ideal of recognition and sharing between different peoples under a common constitution and law.

At a more fundamental level, this article has shown how traditional Yolnu understandings of the body reflect innate truths about life on Earth in two key ways. Firstly, with their emphasis on the continual (re)birth of the birrimbirr ('soul') and decomposition of the mokuy ('ghost'), they demonstrate how life is cyclical, and how all matter is recycled and reused by living environments. Secondly, with their emphasis on the faithful passage of ancestral knowledge from generation to generation, they remind us that we humans are all the stuff of our ancestors; from those forebears we have known in life, to the countless unknown individuals over 40,000 generations of our species' existence whose genetic legacy lives within us.

There is much beauty in the Yolnu ideal of rengitj, as both the act of sharing and that which is shared, among groups and individuals in common cause. Humanity inflicts its most terrible injuries on itself when we forget, or willfully deny, that all humans are of the same species; that ultimately, we are all of the same 'one blood' (Yothu Yindi, 1999: track 2). While no human society is entirely conflict-free, the notion of rengitj as multi-party relationships through which disputes must be addressed and consensus reached before new knowledge and plans can be generated, seems an effect and reasonably-equitable mechanism that has long served the Yolnu well in maintaining order among individual bodies corporeal within a functional society of prosperous bodies corporate.

However, it is important to remember that, in Yolnu tradition, the body corporeal and the body corporate are not mutually exclusive domains. Both are seen as physical manifestations of ancestral agency and experience. Whether encoded in the genetic makeup of an individual person or in protocols for how different individuals should treat each other, Yolnu perceive both to be consubstantiations of eternal blueprints for existence that can be observed in the patterns imprinted by wanarr on the natural environment, and in the metaphysical bodies ancestral that reside dormant and unseen within each living being.

Aaron Corn is a Research Fellow in Ethnomusicology and Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Sydney. He holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne, and his research addresses traditional imperatives and political economies that impact on Indigenous cultural survival in contemporary Australia. As a founder of the National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia, he works collaboratively with remote communities in Arnhem Land to record and archive the endangered performance traditions of this region. He also mentors a Yolnu-led Indigenous project funded by the Australian Research Council which traces the global diaspora of early ethnographic records and materials from Arnhem Land.


My sincerest thanks to the many fellow travellers, who made this research possible. Your contributions have been indispensable. To Lisa Slater, thank-you for coaxing this article into existence. To Neparrna Gumbula, thank-you for brainstorming with me on our long-haul flight to Belfast via Toronto. And to my ever-inspirational wife, Melinda Sawers, thank you for understanding and for enduring my all-too-frequent absences.


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Aaron Corn

The University of Sydney
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Date:Oct 1, 2008
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