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The ethics of teaching from country.

Abstract: The 'Teaching from Country' program provided the opportunity and the funding for Yolnu (north-east Arnhem Land Aboriginal) knowledge authorities to participate actively in the academic teaching of their languages and cultures from their remote homeland centres using new digital technologies. As two knowledge systems and their practices came to work together, so too did two divergent epistemologies and metaphysics, and challenges to our understandings of our ethical behaviour. This paper uses an examination of the philosophical and pedagogical work of the Yolrju Elders and their students to reflect upon ethical teaching and research in postcolonial knowledge practices.

Teaching from Country

In the Yolnu Studies program at Charles Darwin University (CDU), north-east Arnhem Land, Aboriginal knowledge practices have found a place in the academic world. This place, within the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Education, continues to be a site of careful work by both Yolnu and balanda (white Australian) philosophers working together. The Yolnu Studies teaching program established in 1994, was in constant contact with, and under supervision from, the language owners in Arnhem Land, as it developed in the city of Darwin on the traditional country of the Larrakia people. Yolnu Country is much further east from Larrakia Country. About 5000 Yolnu are the traditional owners of areas of north-east Arnhem Land, and are divided into 50 or more subgroups, each belonging to one of two moieties--Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each group has its own language, belonging to the Yolrju family of languages. As explained further below, it is the differences between these groups that are critical to Yolnu epistemology.

Yolnu people had contact with Macassans for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived, and Methodist missions were established in the early twentieth century. Bilingual education was a key feature of Yolnu schooling from the 1970s until the 1990s, and the researchers in the group--Yolnu and balanda--worked together during those years. For some time now we have been elaborating and supporting Yolnu knowledge practices, and their epistemologies, pedagogies and methodologies (see, for example, Christie and Marika-Mununggiritj 1995; Christie et al. forthcoming; Verran et al. 2007).

In 2008 I was awarded (through a National Fellowship with the Australian Learning and Teaching Council) sufficient funding for the development and evaluation of something about which we had long been talking: a program enabling Yolnu Elders living on traditional land in very remote Arnhem Land homeland centres to participate in the Yolnu Studies teaching and research program remotely. We named the program 'Teaching from Country: Increasing the Participation of Indigenous Knowledge Holders in Tertiary Teaching through the Use of Emerging Digital Technologies'. The funding provided for travel, Apple Macintosh laptops and G3 connectors.

We started with the rather simple and pragmatic goal of allowing Elders to participate in our program without the expense and inconvenience of long hours in light aircraft. But the Yolnu participants became focused upon what Australian Indigenous theorists Moreton-Robinson and Walter see as a common goal of Indigenous methodologies: the effort 'to make visible what is meaningful and logical in our understanding of ourselves and the world' (Moreton-Robinson and Walter 2010:2). This led us to some interesting and important philosophical work.

The CDU Human Research Ethics Committee generally refers applicants intending to work with Indigenous people to the AIATSIS (2000) Guidelines for Ethical Research in Indigenous Studies. Unlike other university systems--for example, the University of Victoria in Canada, which employs a two-tiered process with a separate Indigenous committee (Ball and Janyst 2008)--CDU has a single committee with Indigenous representation. For more than ten years now, we have been working with the committee on clearances for our collaborative, reflexive, performative research projects in a range of areas, including databasing of traditional knowledge, problem gambling, financial literacy, medical interpreting, housing and schooling. (2) In the many applications we have completed over the years, there are a few issues which arise regularly and which we have learned to solve together. For example, the National Ethics Application Form (NEAF) (3) assumes that in academic research it is natural to de-identify the source of data from its author. If the identity of the 'subject' is to be made clear in the research outcomes, that needs to be justified to the committee. The committee accepts our contention that the knowledge authorities that we work with insist that they are identified as the source of their comments. That is a fundamental ethical consideration of Yolnu knowledge work. Truth claims are assessed in the first instance on the basis of the claimants' right to speak. So de-identification compromises our ability to assess the evidence. While it is important for some types of research, it is unacceptable in Yolnu collaborative knowledge work.

In another example, when Yolnu knowledge authorities are paid consultancy rates for participation in our projects, including the Teaching from Country program, the NEAF requires us to justify why these payments should not be understood as inducement. Knowledge is owned and has value in the Yolnu world, and knowledge exchange continues to be a significant part of Yolnu economy (4) (see, for example, Keen 1994). In this schema it is unethical for university researchers to receive significant knowledge without payment. In coming to agreement with the ethics committee over such issues, the ethics review process at our institution has been able to deal with the 'often emergent, life-long, experiential nature' (Fitzgerald 2005:10) of our knowledge work and the 'the dynamic nature of its significant ethical moments' (Fitzgerald 2005:10) which often beset the work of other cross-cultural collaborative research programs. Through our collaborations, we seem to have avoided what Fitzgerald (2004:315) has termed the 'punctuated equilibrium and moral panic' which characterise many contemporary ethics review policies and processes in anthropology.

There are further understandings which are not covered at all by the NEAF, but which the AIATSIS Guidelines refer to as the 'Indigenous people's definitions', 'perspectives', 'protocols' and 'cultural values', which I address here. I am concerned with Yolnu ethics when Yolrou Elders-in-place, on their country, became active in academic work. I am further concerned with the wider question of how those ethics find a place in a postcolonial institution. What I propose is that the Yolnu co-researchers, in teaching from their particular standpoints (geographical and philosophical), reveal something new about Aboriginal knowledge in a university. This involves, in Nakata's Indigenous Standpoint terms, 'strategies that will assist us (Indigenous scholars) to read these (academic knowledge practices) as others read them, but in full cognisance of their relation to us, our history and our current position' (Nakata 1998:4). The knowledge work which unfolded opened some metaphysical issues, which in turn opened up new ways of understanding how we should behave ethically. Such ethics are hinted at in the introduction to the AIATSIS Guidelines, where Ms Erica-Irene Daes, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the United Nations Working Group of Indigenous Populations, is quoted on the nature of Indigenous cultural heritage:

Heritage can never be alienated, surrendered or sold, except for conditional use. Sharing therefore creates a relationship between the givers and receivers of knowledge. The givers retain the authority to ensure that knowledge is used properly and the receivers continue to recognize and repay the gift (AIATSIS 2000).

This paper looks at the work of the givers and receivers as a way of elaborating some questions of ethics in our Teaching from Country program.

The epistemology of teaching from Country

Before the Teaching from Country program started, the Yolnu Elders were already telling, recording and writing stories about Country in relation to knowledge. Some of the Yolnu theories derived quite specifically from the traditions held within particular clans and their ancestral lands, and some from a pan-Yolnu tradition which understands and enacts relations among them. (5) We need to differentiate them. The Yolgu researchers' ongoing insistence upon 'recognition of the differences between and within Indigenous communities' (Dunbar and Scrimgeour 2006:181), allows us to avoid the difficulties which Dunbar and Scrimgeour identify as a key problem in the ethics of Indigenous research. We began our project with some philosophical work searching for ways to frame the program conceptually which were valid in Yolnu terms, and which also supported translation into academic contexts. We were trying, in Martin's (2008:99) terms, for our work to be 'defined by Aboriginal ontology, epistemology and axiology'. But we wanted as far as possible to avoid having it 'refined by non-Aboriginal research traditions, expectations and conventions' (Martin 2008:99). We held two workshops for Yolnu Elders at the School of Australian Indigenous Knowledge Systems at Charles Darwin University in Darwin. The participants provided stories of land, knowledge and place, as well as stories of the university, formal education, technology, child development and the nurturing of Yolnu children and of balanda students. (6) We had recently been working on Yolnu understandings of 'gifted and talented' children in formal schooling: and on water management, (8) and our Yolnu colleagues at the Yalu-Marnggithinyaraw Centre in Galiwin'ku (on Elcho Island) were writing on Yolnu identity. (9) All those strands of thinking came together in the discussion of teaching from Country.

Introducing Yiniya Guyula's teaching

Yiniya, the Yolnu lecturer, immediately identified some ways in which the program would solve what he had come to see as an ongoing pedagogical problem. Teaching from Country is:

different to the education you get in the classrooms because the classrooms don't talk to you. We're learning out there under a tree, we're learning out there in the bush walking around, the trees are always communicating with you. The hills, the land, the air are always communicating, teaching you, and understand every need that Yolnu children have to go through (Guyula 2008).

Not only does the environment communicate with Yolnu young people growing up on Country, it also actively understands them. Here we have a notion of understanding which does not so much present the environment as sentient and agentive (though that may well be the case), but which, in Ian Keen's (2003:142) terms, embodies 'a picture of the person as an arena in which things happen, rather than as the originator of actions'. In Yolgu philosophy people 'reproduce forms rather than engaging in purposeful, goal oriented behaviour' in 'non-didactic' teaching practices (Keen 2003:137).

Yiniya also commented with reference to water management:
 If we don't have a good system to care for
 our water resources, this land will punish
 us, because we are breaking the ways of the
 ancestors. The land is alive and watching us,
 the rain and wind are alive. If we look after
 it, then it will look after us. (10)

How does one actually care for the rain and the wind? By understanding them, in the same way (as Yiniya points out) they understand the Yolnu. This is not so much an environmental ethic as an ethical commitment to the inseparability of people from place, and to being there when 'the story comes along'. In his original description of the potentials of teaching from Country, Yiniya makes reference to the ways in which 'the story comes along' when we see particular clouds, from a particular place, on his traditional land, at a particular time of year:

Straight after the Wet Season when we sit down by the beach and look at the sea around the small islands of the hunting grounds... certain signs in the skies tell the stories, clouds ... sitting around the horizon which tells who we are ... the right people of that country. And the story comes along, and the children are taught. We have never learned in classrooms, we have never asked questions about what we want to learn ... the old men, the wise men, and the land and the trees, and the birds that talk with the land. It's all connected with the learning, association with the land. The trees are all related, the trees all tell a story (Guyula 2008).

In Keen's terms, the Yolnu ancestors:

did not create the world out of nothing in six days; the world pre-existed them. Events that befell them gave the world its present shape. I say 'befell' because the signs and substance of ancestors now in the land and waters are often the result of things that happened to them, of accidents of the unintended consequences of their actions, rather than deliberate creative acts. The downplaying of agency (like those turtles) goes all the way down (Keen 2003:143).

This downplaying of human agency has an implication for the ethics of teaching. The asking of questions is often mentioned by Yolnu educators as a key difference between Yolnu and balanda knowledge production. In a workshop on educational provisions for 'gifted' Yolnu children, the Elders characterised them by their silent watchfulness, their listening, their quiet, respectful, biddable involvement at the fringes of ceremonial and political activity, and their respect for and support of their Elders. Asking questions is more a sign of impatience and disrespect than of intelligence. Yiniya made this clear:

Growing up we have never asked questions to our teachers, to our elders. We have never asked them about what the images are, what the stories of this land are. And in fact it is bad manners when I stop an older person, an elder, a senior elder in the clan, and start asking them questions ... We always listen when their time is right when they want to tell the story, because the land is talking to them, because their feelings and their knowledge is ready to be told to the younger generation. And when we're asking questions ... the answers are just not there ... When I'm sitting around here [in Darwin] talking to a television [video camera] ... the stories are just not there, because I'm not ready to tell that story, and the land is not ready to sort of talk to me about certain stories, and then the story might not be fully told, what we want to be able to tell (Guyula 2008).

Yiniya's point also implies something about the ethics of collaborative research; that we should avoid starting with a question. We should develop the issues together and work through them in discussion, waiting for the story to come along.

What might we conclude about how young children learn on Country? Stories of child development are different for different clan groups. Each child's identity is provided by the clan waters from which the child derives. Yolnu children are not born empty, there is no tabula rasa; they are born with ancestral knowledge in potentia, as it were. Consider the example of the Wangurri clan water given to us several times during the discussions around teaching from Country. The Wangurri water of a newborn child's knowledge wells up in the ground on Wangurri ancestral land when the rains start, and, brimming over, listening to the singing grass, it starts talking. It already knows its way to the swelling river and down through the flows of negotiation to the sea of agreement (Buthiman 2008). In Yolnu epistemology, it is wrong to assume that children are empty vessels. As such, a Western education for Yolnu children who are not already confident and self-assured in their own language and cultural traditions is neither effective nor ethical.

It is the power of these differential ancestral connections welling up inside the heads of children and their Elders that the Yolnu contributors saw as the key to their contribution to the research and the teaching, rather like the mana that Ku Kahakalau (2004:22) brings to her Hawaiian 'Indigenous Heuristic Research':
 I bring to every task my mana, my personal
 power which includes all my strengths:
 physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
 I also bring with me my personal skills
 and experiences, my hopes, my dreams, my
 visions, and my ancestral endowments.

Introducing Kathy Gotha's teaching

Gotha is a Warramiri clan Elder who was told by an elderly relative about ten years ago to leave the large ex-mission township of Galiwin'ku and return to her traditional land at the top of the island to set up a homeland centre at Gawa. Her Elder had indicated that Galiwin'ku was becoming too big, that people were forgetting their languages and losing their connections to Country. She was excited at the prospect of teaching our students from Gawa. At the first workshop (Figure 1) she explained:

So you see, [children on country] know the land ... and the breeze, and the water, what time the tide will be in, when it will be out, because they are learning on country, and it grows with them, by means of that learning ... This here [pointing to a drawing on the whiteboard] is balanda learning, they are just hearing the story, and they don't know its body, what do you call it [in English]? Just 'Theory'? ... Yolnu students in balanda teaching, they are sitting in the water tributary ... it's the balanda spring flowing here, so they just get a little trickle, not a full stream, crying there to each other, just like the scriptures say; 'By the rivers of Babylon' when they were crying together, and the government says: 'Okay, give us a story'. And the children say: 'How can we sing a song in this place, here singing in a strange land, we can't sing or tell a story or teach, because that law of the (Balanda) water has taken it.' (11) He will talk, but inside his inner being has been truly blocked. Yes, he can't really learn anything, what is his is far away, and there is nothing inside him. So those are the two different methods, the children will learn the land, and who he is, and the stories, and where the breeze is blowing ... on his skin, he knows ... I will give, and they will take what they see, they will recognise, or they will misrecognise, or they will want that thing, you see. I will just give my own story, and they will do whatever with it. I'm not going to tell them, that's how we learn. And you will learn. Whether it's good or bad, good practice or bad practice (Gotha 2008).


The idea of knowledge emerging from the environment and marginalising the usefulness of the verbal transmission of knowledge is not restricted to Yolnu. In their study of what they find in common among all Indigenous methodologies, Moreton-Robinson and Walter (2010:4, 5) characterise Indigenous epistemology as understanding knowledge to be 'embedded in the land', and 'predicated on (our) being embodied and connected'. Likewise, in Maffie's (2008) ethno-epistemological terms, such knowledge production might be considered as 'orthopraxy' rather than 'orthodoxy'--how we learn rather than what we learn.

Introducing Dhangal Gurruwiwi's teaching

Dhangal is from the Gurruwiwi family which belongs to the Galpu clan. She lives on one of many traditional estates of her Galpu clan people, next to a long beach at Birritjimi on the Gove Peninsula close to the large Alcan bauxite processing plant. She taught from Birritjimi (see cover photo), from nearby Galuru beach and also on Galpu land (Figure 2). She made a point similar to Gotha's--'I'm not going to tell them'--in an interview recorded on the same afternoon after the workshop. When asked what she would like the students to achieve in the Teaching from Country program, she thought for a moment then said:

I'd teach students to really know about themselves, who they are, to see things which are good about that's within themselves, to know who each person really is, and what they can achieve from the teachings from the Yolnu perspective ... That's for the balanda [non-Indigenous] students as well. First of all they have to find out for themselves who they really are. I'll be at home and feel that--what you would call--the power within. And any person that has the knowledge to pass things to other people that a lot of people miss out on by themselves, who they really are and what they should achieve (Dhangal 2008).


Dhangal's commitment to her students resonates strongly with the Whakawhanaungatanga Maori research approach from Aotearoa/New Zealand: 'a process of establishing whanau (extended family) relations literally by means of identifying through culturally appropriate means, your bodily linkage, your engagement your connectedness and therefore an unspoken but implicit commitment to other people' (Bishop 2005:118). Bishop's extended lines of kinship--whanaunga--also connect to Gotha's reading of the agency of ancestral water, and Yiniya's of ancestral lands: 'Knowing who we are is a somatic acknowledgment of our connectedness with and commitment to our surroundings, human and nonhuman' (Bishop 2005:119).

The sociotechnics of teaching from Country

The complex philosophical works treated too briefly above (12) all took place before the teaching program began. By early 2009 we had begun exploring possible technical arrangements to suit particular people in specific contexts, with their particular histories, aspirations and agendas, and with a range of connectivity infrastructure and access. For six months we conducted 'teaching trials' connecting Elders from remote places of significance to the School of Australian Indigenous Knowledge Systems Seminar Room in Darwin and to other places around the world. In this section, I offer a short summary of the work of the three Elders quoted above. (13)

Yiniya Guyula is an Elder of the Liya-Dhalinymirr clan, and during the program, he was the official Yolnu Studies lecturer at CDU. He was somewhat frustrated as the Teaching from Country program unfolded that be had to remain in Darwin--the traditional land of the Larrakia people. He was fully supportive of teaching from Country, but was looking for opportunities to go out to any of his traditional estates and try remote teaching himself. We organised for him to travel to his Country to see what teaching from Country felt like, and how it might help him understand his knowledge at work in the context of the university. There is no mobile phone connectivity available in the two significant places he had in mind, so we hired a satellite connector, and Yiniya and John Greatorex, the CDU Yolnu Studies co-ordinator, drove some 700 kilometres to his ancestral land. The first site be visited was Badaypaday, where his turtle-hunting ancestors had left behind highly significant traces including the clouds mentioned above. From that place, the satellite receiver did not work well, due to a technical problem. But we have some footage. (14) On the website we can see Yiniya standing on top of a troop-carrier, camera swerving, telling us briefly, before cutting out, that now, finally being on Country, his first feeling is that 'the stories are all falling into place'.

The next day he called into Gapuwiyak community to pick up some key kin--his older brother, sons, cousins and so on--and they drove out to a sacred well dug by the creator Djankawu sisters at Dhamiyaka (Figure 3). From there they made contact with a group of students in Santa Clara, California. Yiniya and the old man both told stories about the land, and Yiniya added comments about authority, permission and the young men learning. Everyone, including the young men in that sequence, had a clear right to be there, and a keen understanding that it was the camera-screen that was constituting them as rightful Yolnu on Country for the young Californians they could see on the other side of the world. The camera (at Dhamiyaka) and the screen (in California) had the effect of producing a particular performance from the Yolnu in the jungle--story telling, sitting, standing by, listening, looking in various directions, making comments, pointing the camera. The context, trees and the breezes were part of the story. In this knowledge work, reminiscent of Bishop's Kaupapa Indigenous approach, 'the central context positions the participants by constructing the story lines, and with them the cultural metaphors and images as well as the "thinking as usual", the talk/language through which research participants are constituted and researcher/researched relationships are organised' (Bishop 2005:123). In our case it is the teachers on Country and the students around the world who are being constituted by the context, and the thinking and talking 'as usual'. Our ethical commitments are not only to the people we work with in these unique events, but to the 'as usual' configurations of people and place which make possible the privilege of our work together.


Dhangal was involved in five teaching sessions, and two recorded trials with a MacBook Pro, G3 connector, free screen-sharing software called TeamViewer, Skype and Google Earth, and screen-recording software. We tried connecting up from various places including the top of Mount Saunders and a sandhill adjacent to a favourite mangrove hunting ground. Neither site could pick up a signal. But the successful sites were her home at Birritjimi and the beach at Galuru not far away, where she sat with her family and her familiar surrounds, and told stories of the past and future, and of what was going on around her. In one early session, she decided to introduce us to her gurrutu --her kin--whom she gathered together from the extended family about her at home at Birritjimi. They were called to come forward and stood shyly in front of the camera, beneath a giant poster of Elvis Presley. I had felt when the session started that it would be a good chance for the students to see concrete examples of their growing understandings of Yolnu kinship, so I began to write names of people and kin terms on the whiteboard as they were introduced. But as the family became more interested in what was on the other side of the screen, and Elvis was introduced also as a Galpu clan man and thus himself a python, and Dhangal pointed out a couple of Yolnu students in the seminar room who were also Galpu and also pythons, and the Yohju started calling back and forth, the didactic nature of the encounter once again dissolved. Dharjgal relaxed to become a matriarch presiding over a celebration of togetherness between Birritjimi and her students and kin in Darwin, which did not need, and in fact defied, explanation. She was acting with confidence and authority, and was clearly happiest when the session started to take on a life of its own, the event unfolded, and I abandoned my teacherliness. It was as if, in this warm confusion, Dhangal had the best chance of teaching the students who they really are. It was our role to support, enhance and learn from that performance. This again is reminiscent of Bishop's Kaupapa Maori approach to research where the Maori and Pakeha (non-Indigenous) 'can participate in a process that facilitates the development in people of a sense of themselves as agentic and of having an authoritative voice' (Bishop 2005:123).

Gotha is the Warramiri clan Elder who had taught us about water and knowledge. We had earlier installed a satellite dish at her house on the remote homeland centre of Gawa, and from there she taught six classes, three of which were recorded and transcribed. On the last day of March 2009, Gotha used TeamViewer, the free screen-sharing software and the telephone to teach the Yolnu Studies class from her home. She showed photographs of two of her great grandchildren, aged about six and eight, in the mangroves alone with axe and pannikin collecting mangrove worms. She wanted to make a point about confidence in the environment, and growing up in Yolnu knowledge. Makuyuk, one of the young boys, was sitting attentively beside her. A little earlier, John Greatorex, the course co-ordinator, had been speaking with Daymagu, Gotha's son-in-law, who is a well-known painter and leader, and grandfather of the two boys. He asked Daymanu if he might be interested to talk to the class about his art. Yolgu mothers-in-law must never speak to, look at, say the name of, or be in the same space as their sons-in-law, and vice versa. But they care for and respect each other deeply. The session started with the usual cutting in and out of sounds and screens, then after the hunting story, Gotha mentioned to John that her son-in-law was hovering outside the door waiting to talk. Makuyuk soon found himself in the familiar role of helping his great-grandmother out one door and his grandfather in another, and then, when someone accidentally hung up the telephone, ushering out his grandfather and ushering in his great-grandmother to set up the sound again, and then the grandfather back in. Meanwhile, John had enlisted Yiniya's help to talk with the old man, and I was videoing the proceedings in Darwin and trying to explain to the students the avoidance rules which gave rise to the otherwise inexplicable behaviour. Daymanu talked for a long time in language full of names of ancestral and totemic connections which the students in only their second year of study would not have a chance of understanding, (15) John doing his best to interpret what he was saying, Yiniya doing his best to slow him down. The students were mostly silent and open mouthed, sometimes laughing a little at the chaos. That turned out to be a long session when little specific teaching took place, but rich complexities of daily life at Gawa came directly through the screen once again.

The three episodes described above were quite different from each other, and so again were the other episodes. In total we recorded 14 teaching sessions. We had no chance at all of pre-empting what the students were about to learn. We never knew what to expect. But in each session there was interaction between the camera and screen composing the Yolnu-on-Country at one end and the camera and screen composing students-teachers-seminar room at the other. The Yolnu authorities on Country each had a commitment to sharing their world and their ways with the non-Indigenous students. They had little idea who most of the students were, but they trusted the CDU staff--Yiniya, John and me--and that was enough to make them feel confident that they could share their lives and world with interested, respectful people around the world.

The metaphysics of teaching from Country

Having started with some rather startling assertions from Yolnu Elders about knowledge and what teaching from Country means, the actual trials allowed us to reflect on how that work on Country actually challenged our work in the academy. Through the mediations of a large flat screen mounted on the wall we saw complex configurations which could be called people--places-moments beaming into the seminar room. We began to see the agency of the environment and its connections as the Elders and their children and grandchildren, old photographs, places, breezes, trees, beaches, cameras, computers, sacred wells, and Google Earth and other software came together to help the students reflect upon who they are. Teaching from Country allowed a Yolnu metaphysics to begin an infiltration of an academic classroom.

Coming from a variety of angles--the epistemologically active environment where stories 'fall into place', the healthy Yolnu child grown up by land and water, the teachers who refuse to teach, and the balanda students learning from Yolnu teachers how to be a balanda student--the Yolnu philosophers systematically rejected the transmission model of pedagogy so firmly embedded in the university, and instituted their own epistemology.

Stories here are complex emergent performances rather than representations. They have a quite different epistemological status. Questions here do not make sense. They undermine the Yolnu commitment to keeping people and place inseparable, mutually constitutive. The conventional understanding of the identity between Indigenous people and land as based in metaphor is here enacted quite literally, requiring us to rethink the metaphysics at work in the academy and the ethical work required when we are no longer dealing so much with truth in terms of representation. It was not so much talk, or knowledge or ideas, coming through the screen, but undifferentiated people-places-moments. When these presentations were at their most complex and inexplicable, the Yolnu teachers were most satisfied. And it is to these emergent configurations that we are ethically responsible.

As I stood there on the sidelines, watching events in Arnhem Land unfolding, I tried, then gave up trying, to tell students what was happening about the ancestral connections which make a particular breeze or cloud relevant to a particular discussion on Country, for example. Or the reason why it is important to let a woman know that her brother is in the classroom in Darwin. The students watched incredulous, confused, delighted, and learning who they are themselves.

The ethics of teaching from Country

What can be said about the ethics at work in teaching from Country? First, the ethics assumed by the Yolnu teachers reflect a strong prior commitment to a Yolnu epistemology which they find critically important, and painfully and worryingly lacking and unrecognised in schools and universities. Theirs is an ethics which reveals a thorough commitment to keeping the different stories (associated with different clan groups, different places) separate, not mixed up. Being 'on Country' is really the only way to make that happen. The place tells the story when its people are there.

We also see that Yolnu ethics are enacted moment by moment, reminding everyone of the authorities at work and their accountabilities. The work that they do is towards supervising appropriate configurations of people-place-moments, models of as well as models for the ethical Yolnu life (Morphy 1991:241). As they say, for example, 'I can tell you about this but not that', 'The trees are telling this story', 'The story comes along and the children are taught', 'This is my older brother who is the leader', or 'Here the stories all fall into place', the camera on Country, and the screen in Darwin (or Santa Clara, or Tokyo), requires that the Yolnu knowledge owners preside over the coming together of a projection (16) or of a configuration, and take an ethical responsibility for it.

This is not a search for truth so much as a search for rightness, a reconceptualisation of what we assume we seek in the academy in similar terms to those recommended by Goodman and Elgin (1988). Truth is but one among the factors--along with such others as relevance, effect and useability--that sometimes enter into the rightness of what is said. 'Truth is an occasional ingredient in rightness' (Goodman and Elgin 1988:157).

Rightness is a matter of fitting and working. Since rightness is not confined to those symbols that state or describe or depict, the fitting here is not a fitting onto, not a correspondence or matching or mirroring of independent Reality--but a fitting into a context, or discourse or standing complex of other symbols (Goodman and Elgin 1988:158).

What has teaching from Country taught me about my requirements to act ethically towards the givers and receivers? About the givers: the program has reinforced the idea that the strength of the relationships between the Yolnu knowledge authorities and Charles Darwin University really depends upon a longstanding commitment to a respectful and productive relationship which is outside of (and must necessarily remain outside of) the relationship which is ongoing with specific elements of the university's teaching and research work. The program works because of an ethical commitment on the part of all the non-Indigenous people involved, including the students, to place and people and the viability of a radically alternative epistemology. It is a commitment which works prior to, and remains quite separate and different from but alongside, institutional guidelines for ethical conduct in research.

The Yolnu teachers continue to work to institutionalise a new regime of accountability within the university. It's a regime in which 'They are not going to tell anyone'. Their work is a gift. They are accountable not so much to the students, or the environment, or each other, or (much less) the university, but to the ancient and ongoing project of bringing forth and projecting a coherent performance of the integrity and partiality of their people-places.

About the receivers: how did the students react? They worked together to make a collective statement about their reactions to the program. (17) A few examples of their reactions: 'I found myself smiling a lot and becoming aware of a sense of pleasure when watching the screen'; 'It was like we were brought more into the Yolnu world than they were brought into ours'; 'They were demonstrators of knowledge, not so much lecturers'; 'Not only did this feel like we were learning cultural content, but also cultural learning processes and structures'; 'Teaching from Country changed the way I learned a Yolngu language. It brought the walls of the classroom down'; 'I got the sense that there was an overarching something that was expected of us, and it was us within it ... a very satisfying way to learn'; 'You do think about your career and what jobs you might not do, that might not use your knowledge well and others that will use it properly' (Clark n.d.).

They seemed not to be worried about the incomprehensibility of these episodes in which they were caught up every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. They seemed to abandon happily any attempt to derive what academic theorists call 'pedagogical content knowledge' (Shulman 1986)--at least in this part of the course. They were impressed and thoughtful, and clearly learned about themselves in the way that Dhangal had hoped they would. The students learned that learning from Country is different from learning from classroom, at least in part because they could see Yolnu knowledge work as inseparable from ethical work.

What is my ethical responsibility here? I reflect upon the assessment tasks which students must complete to pass the course. They remain the same tasks as before the program started. The Yolnu have demonstrated so thoroughly their work of composing and respecting configurations of place, story, camera and kin for the screen that our assessment tasks seem archaic. We must continue to engage the students and the Yolnu Elders in remote places thinking through how university and Yolnu assessments of knowledge, learning, progress and accreditation can understand each other. We continue to give back to the Yolnu Elders the gift of balanda students who are learning who they really are. Meanwhile, the CDU Human Research Ethics Committee continues to work with us to ensure that we act with probity in our various projects, working two systems of ethics together, paying careful attention to their differences, as well as samenesses.


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Christie, Michael and Raymattja Marika-Mununggiritj 1995 'Yolngu metaphors for learning', International Journal of the Sociology of Language 113, Fall:59-62.

-- Yiniya Guyula, Dhangal Gurruwiwi, John Greatorex, Joanne Garngulkpuy, Kathy Guthadjaka and Helen Verran forthcoming 'Teaching from Country, learning from Country', Learning Communities: international Journal of Learning in Social Contexts.

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-- Michael Christie, Bryce Anbins-King, Trevor van Weeren and Wulumdhuna Yunupingu 2007 'Designing digital knowledge management tools with Aboriginal Australians', Digital Creativity 18(3):129-42.

Michael Christie, with the assistance of Yiniya Guyula, Kathy Gotha and Dhangal Gurruwiwi

Charles Darwin University


(1.) Full details of the program, and the theoretical and technical work it entailed, can be found at the Teaching from Country website at <>.

(2.) For more details of projects and methodologies, see the Yolnu Aboriginal Consultants Initiative (YACI) website at <> and the Indigenous Knowledge and Resource Management in Northern Australia website at <>.

(3.) The application form can be accessed at <>.

(4.) Such complex knowledge economies are also evident elsewhere; see, for example, the Warlpiri of Central Australia in Michaels 1985.

(5.) All marriage is exogamous so each person's identity involves a range of clan groups.

(6.) The students were not, in fact, all balanda. There were some Yolnu students, and other Indigenous students, and increasing numbers of Asian students (including online from a Japanese university) whom Yolnu call Djapan. Balanda here is used as shorthand for the non-Yolnu students.

(7.) See the 'Gifted and talented children workshop' page of the YACI website at < centres/yaci/gt/index.html>.

(8.) See the 'Milingimbi water' page of the YACI website at <>.

(9.) See <>.

(10.) Quoted from a consultancy for NT Power and Water Corporation to be published in 2010 at <>.

(11.) Referring here to the biblical story of the Babylonian conquest of the children of Israel, where 'They that carried us away into captivity required of us a song, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion". But how can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' (Psalm 137:3, 4). Especially significant to Gotha is that it was by a strange river that 'We hung up our harps'.

(12.) For full details of the philosophical foundations, see the 'Papers by Yolnu consultants' page of the Teaching from Country website at <http://>.

(13.) Screen captures of what the students in Darwin came to see, short videos from Country, and full transcriptions and translations of 24 trials can all be viewed at the 'Trials' page of the Teaching from Country website at < inc/tfc/trials.html>.

(14.) See trials 23 and 24, < inc/tfc/trials.html>.

(15.) For the most part, the conversational language which students learn in class will be good for an everyday conversation with any other Yolnu they meet. (They will have to observe the kinship rules which dictate the use of pronouns etc., but by and large they will be able to participate.) However, as soon as an old person starts making assertions about particular ancestral connections, immediately the references become highly specialised, conjuring and alluding to complex networks of ceremonial responsibilities and rights which are impossible to translate--and especially impossible to interpret on the run. Daymanu knew that John and Yiniya could understand.

(16.) Here, 'project' is used more in the sense of the verb 'to project', as in Verran and Christie 2007.

(17.) For a good summary of the student feedback seminar, see Clark n.d.

Michael Christie worked as a teacher linguist in Yolnu communities in Arnhem Land for more than 20 years before moving to Darwin to set up the Yolnu Studies program at Charles Darwin University in 1994. He is currently Professor in the School of Education, working on collaborative research and consultancies in a number of areas including health communication and literacy, water management, Yolnu epistemology and schooling, Indigenous and trans-disciplinary methodologies and knowledge work in a postcolonial institution.


Yiniya Guyula is a Liya-Dhalinymirr Djambarrpuynu Elder who is currently working as the Yolnu Studies lecturer at Charles Darwin University. He is one of only three people accredited as a professional interpreter of Australian Aboriginal languages.


Kathy (Guthadjaka) Gotha is a Warramiri Elder living on her ancestral land at Gawa homeland centre on Elcho Island. Before she moved to set up her homeland centre, she spent many years as a teacher in the bilingual education program at Shepherdson College at Galiwin'ku.


Dhangal Gurruwiwi is a Galpu clan Elder living on her ancestral land at Birritjimi, near Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula. She has worked for many years as an educator and interpreter.

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Author:Christie, Michael; Guyula, Yiniya; Gotha, Kathy; Gurruwiwi, Dhangal
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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