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Anthropology, self determination and Aboriginal belief in the Christian God.


The year 1992 was the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the community of Galiwin'ku by the Methodist Overseas Mission (Uniting Church). While missionaries departed from the community in the mid-1970s, the Aboriginal population is still coming to terms with the mission experience. On at least five separate occasions between 1987 and 1992, announcements were made by Aboriginal ministers of the Uniting Church and others over the public address system to the effect that island residents should not listen to anthropologists or other scientists. Anthropologists, in league with Satan, were accused by the clergy of belittling or reducing Aboriginal spirituality to some sort of aberration. The vehemence of the oration indicated that some 'raw nerve' had been touched.

The following anecdotes highlight the sort of internal debate that was going on in the community.

1. An Aboriginal minister told the congregation about a discussion he had with a non-Aboriginal anthropology student. The student was saying how rich Aboriginal culture was and how non-Aborigines had no culture whatsoever. The minister replied to the youth, 'You must be crazy. Look at the way we are living. It is you Balanda who have everything. We Yolngu have nothing.'

2. A further Aboriginal minister spoke to a gathering of senior men about his wish to see the Gunapipi, a major regional ceremony, banned from Elcho Island. While he was dismayed about the amount of interest being shown in the ceremony by Balanda, his major complaint was the association of the Gunapipi serpent with the creator. He said, 'God does not crawl on its belly like a snake.' He intended entering the ceremony in order to '...confront this devil.'

3. There had been a spate of illness at Galiwin'ku and a public announcement was made by a Church minister to the effect that people should not keep asking for Balanda medicine because medicine alone would not save them. Illness was the result of a failure to follow God's law and people needed to pray for forgiveness of their sins as the first stage of the healing process.

4. A senior non-Aboriginal public servant from the Northern Territory Education Department expressed concern at the growing interest by Yolngu in Christianity. At a teachers meeting at Galiwin'ku he questioned the value of pouring so much money into what was problematically called 'preserving Aboriginal culture'. In the future, he suggested, when culture classes were held in the school, all that would be taught would be Genesis.

There are countless other incidents that could be referred to which suggest a perceived connection between past missionary activity and present-day intrusive anthropological research. Were both anthropologists and missionaries guilty of the same sort of manipulation of people's feelings of self-worth and notions of dignity? Empowerment seems to be an idea associated not with contemplating the Aboriginal past, but with a future world in which 'black' and 'white' are equal in all respects. Are Aboriginal Christians fearful of being depicted as somehow inauthentic or not 'real' Aborigines by visiting academics? Keen (1994:256) says that in recent times Yolngu have tended to favour universalistic religious forms which unite groups and moieties. Christianity has helped overcome the traditional separation of men and women in terms of religious secrecy and provided a bridge between Balanda and Yolngu worlds. Such a re-configuration reflects the changing life circumstances of Yolngu, now living in central communities and participating in regional economies. Is the anthropologist, by placing so much interest on 'tradition', seen as a potential threat to this re-configuration?

In an investigation of the quest for self-determination and Aboriginal belief in the Christian God, I examine the anxiety some people feel about not only being the subject of anthropological inquiry, but anthropological inquiry itself. This paper provides a snapshot of the inter-relationship between traditional Aboriginal beliefs, Christianity and the role of the visiting anthropologist at Galiwin'ku, Elcho Island from the point of view of the author, an adopted member of the Wangurri clan. It is based on a personal experience of over 10 years at this north-east Arnhem Land community and in particular, upon discussions with the late David Burrumarra from the period 1987 to 1994. Throughout his life, Burrumarra was a major source of information for scholars of 'traditional' Aboriginal religion but he was also a significant player in attempts at reconciling the 'new way' (i.e. Christianity) with established Aboriginal beliefs and practices. His efforts have invited the attention of scholars such as Donald Thomson, Ronald and Catherine Berndt, John Money, John Cawte and John Mulvaney.

Burrumarra considered himself to be Australia's first Aboriginal anthropologist and he had particular views on their role in communities. He saw the anthropologist as being a person who worked for and with Aboriginal people to help them regain what had been lost in the transition from autonomous living in the 'bush' to self-imposed wardship in the mission (see McIntosh 1994). The task of the anthropologist was to re-establish Aboriginal pride in the richness of their cultural heritage. This was in an environment, however, where Christian authorities stressed that all people were equal in the eyes of God but where Aboriginal self-esteem was low and expectations high that in the future, Aborigines would once again have control over their lives. Belief in God was the way in which this would be achieved.


Insight into the significance of the statements of the Aboriginal clergy regarding anthropologists is to be found in a 1994 report examining ways to address the social and other problems faced by Aborigines in the communities of Galiwin'ku (Elcho Island) and Ramingining. Submitted to the Northern Territory Office of Aboriginal Development by the Aboriginal Resource and Development Service (ARDS), this was not the work of an anthropologist, but rather, of Uniting Church employees with long experience in the region and close personal ties with the Aboriginal communities involved.

In the study, entitled 'Cross-Cultural Awareness Education for Aboriginal People', a picture was presented of Yolngu as being totally mystified by 'white man's' law and unable to function within structures established by non-Aborigines. They took the term mystification from Paulo Freire (1973) using it to refer to the way a group of people is bewildered and trapped in dependency and overwhelmed with feelings of inferiority and powerlessness.

The consultation process for this project, conducted over six months in 1994, sparked great interest and attracted considerable local Aboriginal support. For many Yolngu it was a breakthrough. On the one hand it was the first major attempt by Balanda authorities to come to an understanding of Yolngu concerns. On the other, there was a perception that the secret knowledge or magic that underlay Balanda success was to be revealed to them. Using the terminology of Paulo Freire, the report labels such understandings as characteristic of situations where one group of people comes to find itself being completely dominated by others. This is because events and forces shaping people's lives are not understood intellectually. People are fatalistic and dependent on those in authority. They conform to an image of themselves superimposed by the other culture.

In these circumstances, Yolngu feel inferior, unintelligent and are perceived as being followers of a way of life that is illegitimate according to Balanda thinking. The ARDS report looked at ways of confronting this state of intellectual marginalism, and the solution proposed was to institute a series of training programs which would explain how the Balanda world functions by using Yolngu concepts and understandings.

One unusual aspect of the ARDS analysis was that the subject of Christianity did not come up at all and yet the thrust of the report was open criticism of mission insensitivity to Aboriginal aspirations. The report had the full-scale support of the Aboriginal clergy and thus illustrates Comaroff's (1985) distinction between ideology as lived experience and ideology as a vehicle for explicit discourse. Belief in Christianity, although undeniably linked to the colonial process, is changing and even undermining past forms of lived experience.

The report is also relevant in terms of the current debate on the representation of racial issues (see Cowlishaw 1993; Lattas 1993; Morris 1989). I suggest that the sensitivity some Aborigines feel towards anthropological inquiry is not merely a matter of Aborigines having little or no say in setting the anthropologist's agenda or that some Aborigines unquestionably accept the Freire model as an explanation of their powerlessness. Rather, I suggest it is linked to what Lattas (1993) refers to as the attempt by 'white' intellectuals operating in Aboriginal studies to police the cultural practices through which Aborigines produce themselves. He says:

Aborigines have become the focus of a gaze which analyses, questions, and problematises [Aboriginal] resistances and even their identities. Determining the boundaries of Aboriginal authenticity has become the pre-occupation of some European intellectuals whose concern with situating the culture of Aborigines is at the expense of acknowledging the positioning power of their own cultural practices (Lattas 1993:240).

In this paper, what Elcho Islanders say on the subject of their belief will be viewed in the light of Cowlishaw's (1993) argument about oppositional culture. Cowlishaw suggests that the logic of Aboriginal cultural forms can be understood in part through their dialectical relationship with more powerful cultural forms. In many parts of Australia, she says, cultural reproduction occurs in a context of opposition, as Aborigines attempt to establish an arena of dignity independent of the judgements of the wider society.

At Elcho Island, I suggest, this 'arena' revolves around the Church and Aboriginal belief in the Christian God. Within this arena, there is open resentment about the fact that Yolngu have made virtually no impact on the Balanda world, whereas Yolngu have needed to make substantial changes in their way of life to accommodate Balanda.

My objective is to speculate on the underlying significance of the ministers' condemnation of anthropology and I am not looking for simple answers. Any examination of the growing interest in Christian beliefs and practices at Elcho Island must tackle the intellectual marginalisation and powerlessness Elcho Island Aborigines are experiencing in their lives. I aim to give insight into the dynamics of community life as people contest and argue about issues relating to religion, and concomitantly, race relations and politics, as they frame their lives in relation to non-Aborigines.


An Historical Perspective

North-east Arnhem Land is an area which has seen extensive contacts with non-Aborigines over many centuries, including visits by a number of ethnic groups, in particular 'Macassans' (Bugis, Macassarese, Sama-Bajau) from what is now Indonesia, as well as Dutch and French explorers and Japanese fishermen.

The earliest knowledge of Christianity, some Elcho Islanders say, came via contact with Macassan trepangers who had been visiting northern Australian shores in search of the sea slug (trepang) since the early 1700s (see Macknight 1976). According to Buthimang, a senior member of the Wangurri clan at Elcho Island, his grandfather was told by a visiting Indonesian fisherman of a man in the sky, on a wooden cross.

The Macassans did not know who he was, but they told us that he was good, and that he was coming our way and that we should keep our eye out for him (pers. comm. 1988).

There was also a story, Buthimang said, that there were two types of Balanda. One had a gun and the other a book (i.e. the Bible), and only the latter could be trusted.

North-east Arnhem Land Aborigines were spared the worst aspects of European colonisation owing to their remote location. The unsuitability of the land for cattle, local resistance to this industry and also the establishment of the Arnhem Land Reserve in the late 1920s, saw Aborigines living in relative isolation prior to the Second World War. Only missionaries,(1) Japanese pearlers, European beachcombers and anthropologists were in regular contact with indigenous populations.

As I suggested elsewhere (McIntosh 1994), the movement of people onto missions was largely voluntary. Methodist Church policy in the north-east Arnhem Land region was less punitive and autocratic than that enforced in other areas of Australia (Keen 1994:26-27). The dormitory system was employed for only a short period and people were not forced to speak English or curtail their involvement in ceremonial life. Yet in going from a 'bush' life to the mission there was a transition from inter-clan connections and autonomy to isolation and dependency in central communities, a point made very strongly in the ARDS report.

Before 1962, Aborigines in the Northern Territory had no voting rights. They were wards of the state, with the mission superintendant being the legal guardian of the people. His word was law and according to the ARDS report, dictatorial rule was all that the Yolngu knew of the Balanda world.

In 1974, in line with changing policies in Aboriginal Affairs, the Methodist Overseas Mission withdrew from the Elcho Island community, but Aborigines were completely unprepared for it. Those living on missions had become a totally dependant people (ARDS 1994). Since 1974 however, Aborigines have taken over the administration of settlement and Church affairs.(2) Today the township of Galiwin'ku has a population of over 1000 people and it is regarded by many of its Aboriginal residents as a stronghold of the Christian faith (see Keen 1994).

What does the world know of Galiwin'ku?

The outside observer of happenings at Elcho Island might be aware that over the past forty years there have been on-going attempts by Yolngu to reconcile Christianity and Aboriginal beliefs. They might also know that Galiwin'ku has been the setting for landmark Aboriginal Christian movements such as the Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land and the Christian Revival. These have been commented on by many anthropologists and the analyses have tended to focus on the quest for Aboriginal self-determination, the question of Aboriginal identity in an environment where Aboriginal land and rights were under threat from non-Aboriginal interests (e.g. Berndt 1962; Maddock 1972; Morphy 1983), or on the concept of 'changelessness in change' as a central tenet of the Aboriginal approach to religion (Bos 1988a and 1988b; Rudder 1993).

A number of ex-missionaries have also produced articles and books on their experiences on Elcho Island and neighbouring communities, (e.g. Chaseling 1957; Guy 1991; McKenzie 1976; Webb 1938), and the relationship between missionaries and Aborigines, more often than not, is described in paternalistic terms. While the assistance of 'good natives' is acknowledged, mission 'in-mates', on the whole, are regarded as being totally dependant on the newcomers and one has the impression that missionaries believed that they saved Aborigines from themselves. While some Aborigines agree with this position even today, it is largely an unfashionable view.

In many accounts it is implied that missionaries would suffer Aborigines keeping aspects of the 'old' culture alive so long as Christianity was to become a universal law that transcended all others. Take the following account from missionary Wilbur Chaseling's exploits at Yirrkala in the early 1930s. With the aid of local workers, including David Burrumarra, Chaseling shaped and erected a fifteen metre high wooden cross, made from local swamp timber, on the headland at Yirrkala, to the east of Galiwin'ku, and called it a madayin. Madayin is an Aboriginal word for sacred objects usually kept out of the public eye, and in his account, Chaseling is talking with the local people about his controversial action.

[Un-named Aborigine] - 'Bapa [Father], why are we digging the pit?'

[Chaseling] - 'We are going to erect a [madayin] sacred Totem pole.'

Incredulously the men paused from their digging.

[Aborigine] - 'A [madayin]? But if we put it here on the headland the women and children will see it.'

[Chaseling] - 'Yes, this is the Jesus-Totem. It is the biggest Totem of all.

Everyone can look at it and ... think of Him. It is His Mark. We call it His Cross' (Chaseling 1941:7).

This exchange suggests that inroads were made by missionaries through attempts at syncretism. Yet the cross was erected atop an Aboriginal sacred site (pers. comm. Burrumarra 1988) which suggests that Aborigines themselves were a party to attempts to sell the Christian idea to the people. Syncretism was also in evidence in the actions of leaders of both the yirritja and dhuwa moieties(3) at Elcho Island when they embedded sacred rocks into the walls of the Galiwin'ku church, also built on a sacred area (pers. comm. Burrumarra 1988).

The Contemporary Scene

The process of reconciling 'traditional' Aboriginal beliefs and practices and Biblical teachings was accelerated following the departure of Methodist missionaries in the 1970s. Island residents perceive that the major struggle has been to allow a place for Christianity but also to establish a sense of continuity with the past. How this is to be achieved is the subject of continuing discussion on the island. Minister Dr Djinyini Gondarra, for instance, advocates a need to maintain traditions while following Christian beliefs and practices. Minister Mawunydjil Garrawirritja disagrees and sees a complete break from the past as being a necessary step forward for the Yolngu so that in the future, all people will be united in Christ.

In Sunday sermons attended by Aborigines and non-Aborigines alike, many of the Aboriginal preachers deem it necessary to justify their belief in Christ. In a sermon in July 1992 Mawunydjil asked the congregation, 'When did the Good News first come to Arnhem Land?' Some people said it came with the missionaries but then the Minister said, 'But God has always been here, preparing our minds and bodies for the message'. Minister Rronang Garrawurra (1982), in a similar way, writes,

Before the white man came, God revealed Himself, to show that He is God. He chose our ancestors and showed them how to make a Law. This was passed on from generation to generation until now. We remember our sacred areas because of this (Garrawurra 1982:4).

One Aboriginal lay preacher justified her belief in historical terms. She said that it was the decision of her father and grandfather that her family follow a particular 'line'. These were people who had an intimate knowledge of 'traditional' matters and they made the new law for all to follow. Another lay preacher said that belief in the word of God had released the Yolngu peoples from a 'dark and brutal past' and he viewed Christianity in terms of social justice. He said that it was only by following this 'path' that inequalities between Aborigines and non-Aborigines would be alleviated. Still others viewed Christ as a manifestation of certain Aboriginal mythological beings. The Warramiri leader David Burrumarra said that the followers of the ancestral being Birrinydji should be Christians and that Walitha'walitha was one and the same as the Christian God (see McIntosh 1997).(4) In many cases, such perspectives follow clan lines. Despite an overall agreement on the fact that many of the people at Elcho Island follow one God, the community is split on the way they understand the relationship between their own cultural inheritance and Christianity.

For commentators such as Bos (1988a; 1988b) and Rudder (1993), it is this manoeuvring, this redefining of Aboriginal law in response to the new in ways which achieve 'changelessness in change' which is of major anthropological interest. But as the ARDS report and the public statements of ministers suggest, the tradition of Christianity allows for a commentary on cross-cultural political issues. While Uniting Church ministers and lay preachers at Elcho Island may be divided on theological issues they agree on one thing, and that is that belief in the Christian God does not mean that Yolngu become Balanda. Burrumarra exclaimed in one meeting of Church elders that Aborigines needed to keep their culture strong, for example, otherwise it would not be possible for them to say 'no' to a mining company if it wanted to operate in Arnhem Land. Only by stressing differences could Aborigines maintain their status as spokespersons for the land. This gives the impression, of course, that 'traditional' Aboriginal belief was merely instrumental, but the situation is more complex than this.


Aboriginal identity at Elcho Island is framed in part in terms of belief in the Christian God but Christianity is also a structure for the expression of ideas on what should be the relationship between Aborigines and non-Aborigines in Australia. But to what extent has it provided an avenue for confronting the intellectual marginalisation that has come in the wake of the mission experience? To answer this, I look in detail at the work of the Warramiri leader David Burrumarra who had a substantial input into the staging of the 1957 Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land; the 1978 Christian Revival; and the performance of a 'totemic' Ngaarra ritual in 1993.

The Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land

The Adjustment Movement was undoubtedly one of the most significant and controversial events in recent north-east Arnhem Land history; it can be seen as an attempt at reconciling Christianity and 'traditional' Aboriginal belief (Beckett 1993:679-680; Berndt 1962; Borsboom 1992:15-16; Bos 1988a, 1988b; Keen 1994:277-278; Maddock 1972:1-3; Morphy 1983:110-113; Rudder 1993:74-75). While there was far from universal agreement by senior Yolngu, sacred madayin representing groups from across the region were revealed for public scrutiny for the first time, altering their character irrevocably for future generations. Not all the madayin were revealed however, a point which various commentators (e.g. Morphy 1983) use as evidence that Aborigines were at least in part, leaving their options open.

The Adjustment Movement represented an across the board break with the past and Berndt (1962) firmly placed the initial stirring for the movement with Burrumarra, who was then forty years of age. It was he who convinced the more established Aboriginal leaders at Elcho Island to join the movement and reveal their madayin. He says Burrumarra had,

... for some time been thinking...about the problem of adjusting or bringing together traditional Aboriginal and introduced ways in order to achieve the maximum benefit from the latter ... On the one hand he wanted change from the outside with greater rapidity. On the other ... he did not want them to overwhelm his own society and culture ... If this loss of identity were to be avoided then some reorientation of traditional life would be necessary (Berndt 1962:39).

Events came to a head, Berndt (1962:39) said, after the visits of the American-Australian Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948 led by C.P. Mountford and of Dr Richard Waterman and his wife to Yirrkala in 1952. Berndt (1962) quotes Burrumarra as saying,

[Anthropologists] take photographs of [our] sacred things and show them to all the people throughout Australia and other places ... We're not supposed to show these [madayin] ... to just anybody ... [We] saw a film at the Elcho Church. It was from the American-Australian Expedition and it showed the sacred ceremonies and emblems. And everybody saw it ... We've got no power to hide [these madayin]; they are taking away our possessions. Are we to lose all this? Our most precious possessions, our [madayin]! We have nothing else; this is really our only wealth (Berndt 1962:40).

Some scholars suggested that the movement was something akin to a cargo cult in which the Yolngu, in return for showing their most precious belongings, expected great riches (e.g. Borsboom 1992:16-17; Burridge 1971:172). Such categorisation was offensive to Burrumarra. Of course there was an expectation of some form of material compensation as a result of the changes that were being forced upon Aboriginal people. The balance in wealth between Aborigines and non-Aborigines was to be made more equitable. But there was also a hope that relations between Yolngu groups, for the first time living together as a single community, were to be consolidated. Prior to the Adjustment Movement, Burrumarra said all the clans had their own ideas about right and wrong. As Cawte (1993:16) adds, there was widespread feuding between the clans and this jeopardised the growing community of Galiwin'ku.

While the Adjustment Movement is now viewed in terms of key individuals i.e. Batangga of the Wangurri clan, Burrumarra of the Warramiri clan, and Walalipa and Mayamaya of the Golumala and Djambarrpuyngu clans, at the time, it was seen to be under the leadership of one man. As Berndt (1962:41) explained, the people were 'lifting up' Batangga to lead all community groups, presumably in line with an image of Yolngu as followers of one God. There was thus a conscious attempt at re-defining social organisation. The Yolngu were to be a single unified block of clans and Christianity was being put forward as legitimising such unity. Christianity was being presented as a belief that transcended all others but this was not at the expense of clan beliefs. One striking sculpture by Batangga in the 'memorial' for instance, was based on Lany'tjun, an All-Being associated with the yirritja moiety, and it had a cross built on top of it. Of its significance, Berndt wrote (1962:60),

The Christian cross ... at the apex of the [madayin] is 'Batangga's believing'. In his own words, 'helped' by Burrumarra, [he said] 'Before, [Batangga] was leaning on the old laws. But in 1956 he changed himself and he also changed genesis (the traditional wangarr [or Dreaming]) to follow Christian fellowship. He kept this madayin, but the Bible is there too. He would like to keep both laws. [He] has combined both ways, so that he can put all of his children in school to become missionaries.

Some commentators have dismissed the Adjustment Movement as a failure because the social reforms Burrumarra tried to implement as part of the process of reconciling beliefs were unsuccessful. He desired an end to the promise system of marriage and wished to introduce monogamy in line with missionary teachings but there was too much opposition from older men (Shepherdson 1981:23). Also, if one looks at the movement in terms of Burrumarra's attempt to set up negotiations with the government over a number of demands, including claims for compensation in the form of community services and recognition of Aboriginal rights (Morphy 1983:111), then the movement was as Maddock (1972:2) says, 'deluded or misguided'. The community of Galiwin'ku was remote and just one of many Aboriginal settlements across the Top End and as the ex-Elcho Island missionary Harold Shepherdson says, the effects of the movement were primarily local (pers. comm. 1990).

It was only a matter of years after the 'Memorial' was erected that mining operations commenced in Nhulunbuy (Gove) with the rights and wishes of the Aboriginal people being largely ignored. It was as if the Adjustment Movement had come to nothing. But to call the movement a failure on these grounds alone is inaccurate as it is not how many of the people of Elcho Island now remember it. Within Christian circles it was a momentous occasion and the perception is that it allowed a freedom and peace that most people had not previously known in their lives (see Keen 1994:285-286).

The Elcho Island Christian Revival

The next landmark event in the reconciliation of beliefs at Elcho Island was the Christian Revival of 1978, when, as Rudder (1993:72), a practising Christian suggests, the Holy Spirit came to Galiwin'ku. This was a time of prophesies and visions. In one documented case, an Aboriginal fisherman, Djaymila, diving in the waters around Elcho Island found a rock at the bottom of the sea in the shape of Australia in fulfilment of a prophesy by the Wangurri clan leader Buthimang. This rock was seen to be evidence of a time to come when all the peoples of Australia would be united in Christ and the place of Aborigines in that future would be paramount.

This period is commemorated each year in a Revival weekend in March with visitors coming from all over the country to celebrate and worship. Prior to 1978, despite the Adjustment Movement, only a small percentage of community members were baptised Christians and there were few regular Church goers (Rudder 1993:53). Leading up to and following the Revival, however, prayer meetings became a regular nightly occurrence and a majority of island residents were involved (Buthimang pers. comm. 1990).

Rudder (1993:73-74) says that in many ways the 1978 event at Elcho was viewed as the 'second' Revival. The first was the Adjustment Movement. It was the sons and daughters of the major figures of the 1957 movement that were now promoting belief in Christianity. Wuyatiwuy and Rrurambu, sons of Batangga of the Wangurri clan, and Djiniyini Gondarra, the son of Walalipa of the Golumala clan, were the chief instigators, along with Djilipa and Bunbatju of the Liagawumirr clan.(5)

In the wake of the revival, some Elcho Island Christian leaders saw themselves as having a mandate to bring Christianity to the rest of Australia. Known outside Arnhem Land as the 'Black Crusade', Aboriginal groups from Galiwin'ku travelled throughout the outback spreading the 'Good News' (see Bos 1988a; Keen 1994:285). I was present at a Christian Festival in Alice Springs in 1991, for instance, when an Aboriginal elder praised the efforts of visiting Elcho Islanders for they had transformed his homeland in the outback from an Old Testament 'valley of dry bones' into a living community. He said that when the Elcho Island evangelist Rrurambu and his team came to his settlement there was not a single 'living' thing there. All the people were spiritually dead, but then they found 'a new way' and life returned to the valley.

The growing trend on Elcho Island at this time was to associate Jesus with the major Yolngu ancestral beings, Djang'kawu and Lany'tjun, and to see Christianity as the foundation of the Aboriginal way of life. Referring to the work of Bos (1988a), Keen (1994:284) said,

Leaders likened wangarr such as Djang'kawu to Adam and Eve or to Moses ... some Christian symbols were decorated with lorikeet feathers like other sacred objects ... Songs were similar in form to manikay [song] ... baptism was modelled on the bukulup washing ceremony.

As my involvement in the Yolngu community of Galiwin'ku was mainly with Wangurri and Warramiri men, my knowledge of the Revival movement is biased. My reading of events from this time suggests that there was far from universal agreement on this development just as there had, been considerable indecision on the part of certain Yolngu at the time of the Adjustment Movement (see Berndt 1962).

In contrast to Wangurri clan involvement, senior Warramiri leaders did not play a significant part in the Revival. While sympathetic, Burrumarra stood by the original Adjustment Movement position in which both 'traditional' Aboriginal beliefs and Christianity would be held side by side. Neither would have precedence (pers. comm. 1990). The Revival position was for Christianity to be the one and only law in the community and there was little public discussion on the important ways in which older beliefs were still relevant in people's lives, even though it appears to have been a subject on many people's minds (pers. comm. Roy Marika 1990; Timothy Buthimang 1990). As Keen says,

[Some] Yolngu...were...hoping that religious arguments would lead the white community to understand their point of view and bind them in a way that arguments solely related to the wangarr ancestors would not (1994:285).

Burrumarra however was concerned that Christianity was a belief that provided no definite guarantee that Aboriginal rights would be safeguarded. At a public meeting on the subject of reconciliation of Church and Aboriginal law at Elcho Island in 1990, Burrumarra made what appeared to be a complete turn around from his 1957 position. He said,

"I can't change what I believe and [the Christians] can't force change in the community. They want to bring out more [madayin]. They came and asked me and I agreed but I still feel sad. Badanga's son brought out the Wangurri fighting stick [madayin] at the Church. This is what sustained the Wangurri Yolngu in the past. But God is much more than these wooden objects. God sustains the people today. This is the way we have to follow now. But in years to come you'll find all the people living as one group and they'll be crying because they've got no [madayin]. But who's to blame?" (quoted in McIntosh 1994:111).

Despite attempts by some Yolngu to play it down, a largely unspoken concern in the community is that Christianity actually does pose a threat to identity. Buthimang, the Wangurri and Christian leader, following on from Burrumarra, said that he feared that in the future, there would only be one clan at Elcho Island, the Christian clan. Laws at family, clan and moiety levels determine links to country, inter-group relations and marriage procedures, and this was at risk if one law dominated all others. Looming in people's minds is the threat of chaos that would accompany the loss of authority by leaders. So while the alignment of Christianity with Aboriginal traditions in the Revival was supported by Burrumarra, he also stood by the Adjustment Movement position of laws overlapping and entwining in important ways, but with neither having precedence.

The Wangurri/Warramiri Ngaarra Ceremony

One of the most influential events in reconciling Christianity with the legacy of Arnhem Land ancestral beings, at least from the perspective of certain Wangurri and Warramiri leaders, came with the performance of a Ngaarra ceremony at Elcho Island in December 1993. This ceremony has been well documented in the literature (e.g. Keen 1978; Warner 1969). The Warramiri/Wangurri variation deals with the founding actions of the moiety ancestral being Lany'tjun and his emissaries. It is described by Elcho Islanders as being about the history of the world and one's place in it.

While other clans had held their Ngaarra ceremonies, the Wangurri and Warramiri had not staged their version since before the time of the Adjustment Movement, with Burrumarra stressing that while the ceremony remained of the utmost significance, he was worded that it was no longer relevant given the way people were or should be living. But it is never straight forward. As Burrumarra said,

We all have doubts. Aborigines are no different. We don't know the truth. We keep reaching for it. When we do the [ceremony], we ask ourselves, why are we doing this, who are we doing it for? Leaders guide our thinking in such matters (pers. comm. 1990).

In 1957 the sacred madayin had been brought out but there was no ceremony or public statement on its significance. Berndt's (1962) text that was published some years later was geared mainly towards a non-Aboriginal audience. The performance of the Ngaarra ceremony in 1993 was to be the culmination of the Adjustment Movement, various community leaders said. It was to be a final statement on the vexed question of what was to be the relationship between 'traditional' law and Christianity.

As nominal head of both the Wangurri and Warramiri clans, Burrumarra's direction in terms of whether or not the Ngaarra ceremony could be held was final. He personally doubted that there would be much support and complained that the time never seemed to be right. The Wangurri leader, Dayngumbu, for instance, was a 'born again' Christian, desiring a clean break from the past. Buthimang however believed the ancestral being Lany'tjun to have been an emissary of Jesus, and when he delivered Christian sermons, he often wore the sacred madayin associated with this yirritja moiety ancestor. Still other Wangurri leaders had different ideas. Warramiri clan leaders, likewise, were largely scattered in terms of residence and belief. Liwukang and Wulanybuma of the Warramiri clan, for example, saw madayin as the Yolngu 'Bible' whereas Burrumarra saw a place for both beliefs in the Yolngu way of life.

Burrumarra told me that it would be pointless to hold a Ngaarra ceremony if the real 'power' in people's lives i.e. the Government and Christianity, were not represented. It would be nothing more than a mockery of sacred traditions (McIntosh 1994:xvii). Just as the madayin revealed in the Adjustment Movement were never to be made again, so too the ceremonies would not be performed. 'It would be like a football match...It would be meaningless' (Burrumarra in McIntosh 1994:111). Younger leaders however were starting to complain that they did not know what to tell the young about the past or how to explain the relationship between various Yolngu groups. There was concern that no policy had been agreed to by all on the reconciliation of the 'old' and the 'new' (McIntosh 1992:74).

In late 1993 a compromise was reached and the ceremony commenced. A Cross was positioned in the sacred ceremonial ground, just as a cross had been placed on one of Lany'tjun's madayin in the Adjustment Movement. At the end of Lany'tjun's dances each day, the performers would bow their heads in prayer. While the Ngaarra is said to be about Lany'tjun 'holding the country' on behalf of the Yolngu, the new addition was Lany'tjun 'praying to God for the people' (Dayngumbu pers. comm. 1993). As in the Adjustment Movement, the message was that for some Warramiri and Wangurri clan members, there could no longer be any mention of the heritage of Lany'tjun without reference to Christianity. Yolngu were first and foremost Christians, but their identity as Aborigines was inextricably linked to their clan and family history.(6)


As the work of Beckett (1993) and Keen (1994:301) suggests, the reconciliation of 'old' and 'new' beliefs in the community implies both a desire by residents for unity and equality with the dominating 'Other' (both in the spiritual and physical sense), and also simultaneously, a desire for recognition that Aborigines hold a privileged place in relation to the land and sea. At the 1992 Elcho Island Revival, which coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the community of Galiwin'ku, a series of events occurred which brought into focus the local significance of this process.

Present at the weekend celebrations were many of the missionaries from the early days. It was a moving, though at times, controversial reunion. For instance, in a short play presented for the entertainment of the visitors, Dr Djiniyini Gondarra dressed as a missionary and acted out his memories of the food rationing days of the 1940s and 1950s. He wore a large hat and carried a stick. In a booming voice, he told the Aboriginal men to line up for their rations, which in this case was a cup of flour, a cup of molasses and some tobacco. One by one he admonished the men for either not coming to Church or not working hard enough during the week and on this basis, distributed or withheld rations. The Aborigines in the audience were delighted with the performance, and roared with laughter. The missionaries looked on quietly, apparently unsure of how to respond.

Of particular note were the evening prayer meetings led by the local congregation. On the opening Friday night, Djiniyini called for the old missionaries to come forward and to pray the way the Aborigines now do, following a charismatic style. Of the hundreds of visitors, no-one came forward. On the second night, only Harold Shepherdson, the Elcho pioneer and a few others joined in the circle of prayer. On the Sunday, the last day of the Revival, the Minister berated the audience, saying,

In the old days we followed you. We kept our heads down because we were ashamed. Now we walk with our heads up and we look at you in the eye and say, 'We can be brothers and sisters together'. You must pray the way that we do. Come forward.

Virtually all the visitors came forward, joining hands with the Aboriginal congregation. Burrumarra often said that when one is on Aboriginal land, one must do things the way the land owners do, otherwise there is trouble. This was true in the past and being a fundamentalist Christian does not alter this fact.

Yet if we accept the findings of the ARDS report, Galiwin'ku Aborigines feel unable to function adequately within alien power structures within the community. Aboriginal lives are to a significant degree being directed by non-Aboriginal interests and influences and many Galiwin'ku residents resent this. Few Yolngu are employed in meaningful jobs. Most live in very overcrowded houses and are almost totally reliant on government hand-outs. They often despair at their inability to take advantage of the wealth of their homelands, as non-Aborigines are seen to do.

In earlier times, Burrumarra encouraged the work of anthropologists for he saw them as people who listened to and worked for Yolngu. They were seen as agents facilitating change for the better in Yolngu lives. They would help the people reclaim their status as spokespersons for country. By the 1970s, following the Gove land rights case, Burrumarra's views on all such 'specialists' had soured.

While I rarely heard any derogatory comments about the activities of mission workers, suspicion surrounded the work of anthropologists. Most of the scholars that have worked in north-east Arnhem Land have been adopted into a family and clan group. Morphy (1983:114; 1991:98) says that such adoption into the Yolngu kinship system, and the revealing of knowledge to Balanda generally, is a means of having outsiders affirm the value of sacred traditions and Yolngu rights to them. But in the Galiwin'ku case, tradition includes Christianity and if the discussions leading up to the Wangurri/Warramiri Ngaarra are a guide, many people are unsure of how to respond to requests for anthropological data from visiting 'scientists'.

For Burrumarra, one's credibility as a spokesperson for a law is often judged in terms of. what has been published in the anthropologist's account and the potential is there for any variation to be looked on with suspicion or viewed as culture loss by Aborigines and non-Aborigines alike. In elaborating this point, Burrumarra said that the participant observer often hears in discussions with Elcho Islanders a request for clarification as to what level one is speaking on. For instance it might be on the 'government line', the 'mission line', or the 'Yolngu line'. If it is the latter, there are numerous other levels to choose from, depending on whether one wishes to discuss matters of a public or 'outside' nature. If 'inside' themes are to be discussed, at what level of 'membership', i.e. family, clan or moiety.

In most cases in 'inside' discussions, people will speak only of their own clan interests; often groups"inside' information will not be discussed unless prior arrangements have been made with other groups. More often than not, it is from the 'inside' level that the anthropologist seeks ethnographic data. But in a community such as Galiwin'ku, where people are attempting to forge an 'island' identity free of clan divisions, providing 'inside' information poses a problem. The new 'inside' story for many Galiwin'ku residents is that Jesus is the foundation of the Yolngu way of life.

From such a perspective, the way Yolngu have struggled to establish a relationship between Christianity and their traditional heritage cannot be seen separately from attempts to clarify and re-model the relationship between themselves and the non-Aboriginal Other. Christianity provides an avenue for both reflecting on Aboriginal identity, and also confronting the intellectual marginalisation and powerlessness that many residents feel. When Burrumarra spoke of Christianity for instance, he made reference to an over-riding system of law, the framework where 'black' and 'white' Australians could live as one people together. From this viewing point, he saw anthropologists as posing a potential threat to the momentum of Aboriginal directed change in the community. But this was not Burrumarra's only objection.

Often pressured by scholars, Burrumarra had grown tired of their continual presence, claiming they took up valuable time of the people, taking them away from their families and other responsibilities. The anthropologist was making people think about a time when they 'lived by the law' and were masters of their own destiny. Such reflection made the people feel sorry if not guilty for what they had become and resentful at the way they were living, Burrumarra suggested. In private discussion, he referred to anthropologists as miners, 'Digging away at the souls of the people.' In a letter to the late Prof. R.M. Berndt (see Mcintosh 1994), Burrumarra wrote:

Aboriginal people are like a huge boil. The anthropologist wants to squeeze it to get everything out. What they don't realise is that when they squeeze us with their questions, we all feel pain.

Aborigines are now taking steps to re-claim their status as spokespersons for country at a number of levels. The move towards universalistic forms of religious expression is one. Another is at a ceremonial level. As discussed in the last section for instance, Burrumarra insisted that government and church representatives be present at the performance of a Ngaarra ceremony at Elcho Island in 1993, for these were major players in Yolngu lives, and it was important for the visitors to understand and acknowledge that Aboriginal lives were not defined by them. Also, as the ARDS report details, Yolngu are encouraged by the idea that a process is underway that will set in place management procedures in the community that reflect and reinforce Yolngu ideas and ways of doing things. They do not need missionaries or anthropologists to achieve this.


According to Cowlishaw (1993), the logic of Aboriginal cultural forms, such as Yolngu belief in the Christian God, can be understood in part through their dialectical relationship with more powerful cultural forms. It is necessary therefore to look at Christianity not just in terms of the 'universal truth' that all people are one in the body and blood of Christ but in the ways in which the Elcho Island Aborigines are confronting powerlessness and mystification via this belief. The aim of this paper has been to reflect on the comments of the clergy on anthropologists, and in so doing, present a perspective on the relationship between Christianity and a 'timeless' Aboriginal identity. The local view that there is little respect among Balanda for Yolngu understandings or ways of doing things and yet Aborigines have needed to make substantial changes in their own ways to accommodate Balanda ideas and structures is of paramount importance here.

Following on from the work of Comaroff (1985), in examining Elcho Island history over the past forty years it is evident that two quite distinct processes have been under way and both were aimed at confronting the intellectual marginalisation that is an on-going feature of community life. On the one hand, Aborigines at Elcho Island have struggled to forge an identity that was quintessentially Yolngu but which embraces the Balanda world. On the other there have been on-going calls by Yolngu to share equally in the wealth of their country with non-Aborigines.

Two separate though related ideas have been examined:

1. The reconciliation of Christianity and 'traditional' Aboriginal beliefs has been achieved by Aborigines at Elcho Island in such a way that God is seen to have always been in the land, influencing Aboriginal lives and traditions. This over-arching pan-Yolngu belief provides the spiritual framework whereby 'black' and 'white' Australians can live together, in harmony, following one law.

2. Totally mystified by Balanda law and unable to function in structures established by outsiders for outsiders, there is growing confidence on the part of Elcho Islanders that they can confront their situation of powerlessness and perceived inferiority as a means of regaining control of their lives.

The perception by Aboriginal Christian ministers of the Uniting Church at Elcho Island is that anthropologists are agents of Satan. Their task is seen to be at odds with the momentum of Aboriginal inspired change at Galiwin'ku. In the 1950s this momentum of change involved the release of sacred/secret information as a means of affirming Aboriginal interests in country and there was an expectation that people would be compensated by non-Aborigines for revealing their most treasured possessions. From the 1970s to the 1990s, with little recognition of Aboriginal self-determination, we now see accelerated efforts by Yolngu at determining the nature and intercultural significance of their belief in the Christian God and also considerable local support for training programs designed to educate Aboriginal people in the ways of the Balanda world. Yolngu want access to that 'secret knowledge' long denied them by missionaries and government workers which has kept the Balanda rich and Elcho Islanders poor all these years.

The imbalance in status and wealth between Aborigines and non-Aborigines and the documented view that Yolngu feel themselves to have little or no effective means of altering their situation is perceived by some Church ministers to be exacerbated by the impact of intrusive anthropological research by non-Aborigines. Is it because Aborigines are not in a position to determine what the world knows of them or that they are not content to be the subject of endless speculation on the part of the Other?

It was Burrumarra's view that the anthropologist should work with and for specific Aboriginal collectives for the furtherance of their aims. Alternatively, one might suggest, they can be seen as a part of that anonymous totality that attempts to define Aborigines as the Other with the perceived desired end of keeping them in this position of Otherness and consequently as an underclass in the wider Australian community. In the Ngaarra ceremony, Burrumarra said that the dancers ask themselves, why are we dancing and who are we dancing for? In a similar way, the comments by Aboriginal ministers on anthropology reflect a similar concern. They seem to be asking, 'Are we to be forever bound in a state of dependency upon the non-Aboriginal Other as followers of 'timeless' and perhaps out-dated traditions perpetuated, in some cases, merely in response to non-Aboriginal interests?' The debate is continuing at Galiwin'ku.


1. Missionary activities were concentrated in the coastal settlements of Milingimbi (established in 1923), Yirrkala (1935) and Galiwin'ku (1942).

2. In 1978, the Methodist Church became a part of the Uniting Church of Australia.

3. Moieties are a feature of Yolngu social organisation. The world (people, land and natural species etc.) is divided equally between the two.

4. Aboriginal elders from all clans at Elcho Island have stories associating Christianity with their own clan's cultural repertoire. In many cases, the major ancestral figures Lany'tjun and Djang'kawu are viewed as 'prophets' or 'angels of God' in the style of the Old Testament (see Berndt 1962:72; Keen 1994:284).

5. Other key figures were Buthimang and Djulaymung of the Wangurri clan, and also Milindirri (Wolkarra clan), Munanygil and Gelung (Warramiri), Nyula (Galpu), Djoymi (Wutjara-Djambarrpuyngu), and Gamarung (Ngaymil).

6. In 1995, the land at Dhalingbuy, a centre for 'traditional' beliefs and practices of Wangurri people, was baptised during a Christian rally (pers. comm. Sachiko Kubota 1995).


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