Linguistically speaking, Australia is special. With around 250 languages spoken when Australia was first colonised, Australia was one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world. But few people speak our Indigenous languages. As of 2016, only 10% of Australia’s Indigenous population spoke an Indigenous language at home. Most Indigenous languages are now “asleep”, waiting to be woken up by language revivalists.
There has been an indigenous community at Yirrkala throughout recorded history, but the community increased enormously in size when Yirrkala mission was founded in 1935. Local governance and planning are now the responsibility of the Yolngu-led Dhanbul, which is roughly equivalent to a Shire Council in non-indigenous communities.
Yirrkala is also home to a number of Mission Aviation Fellowship pilots and engineers based in Arnhem Land providing air transport services.
Yirrkala is home to a number of leading indigenous artists, whose traditional Aboriginal art, particularly bark painting, can be found in art galleries around the world, and whose work frequently wins awards such as the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. Their work is available to the public from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre and Museum and also from the YBE art centre.
It is also a traditional home of the Yidaki (didgeridoo), and some of the world’s finest didgeridoos are still made at Yirrkala.
Yirrkala played a pivotal role in the development of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians when the document Bark Petition was created at Yirrkala in 1963 and sent to the Federal Government to protest at the Prime Minister’s announcement that a parcel of their land was to be sold to a bauxite mining company. Although the petition itself was unsuccessful in the sense that the bauxite mining at Nhulunbuy went ahead as planned, it alerted non-indigenous Australians to the need for indigenous representation in such decisions, and prompted a government report recommending payment of compensation, protection of sacred sites, creation of a permanent parliamentary standing committee to scrutinise developments at Yirrkala, and also acknowledged the indigenous people’s moral right to their lands. The Bark Petition is on display in the Parliament House in Canberra.
One of the Wurrwurrwuy stone arrangements
Yirrkala has a number of heritage-listed sites, including:
the small community of Maningrida is remarkable for many reasons. It is one of the most linguistically diverse communities in the world, with 15 languages spoken or signed every day among only a couple of thousand people.
Sitting in a portable dental chair in a small community in remote northeast Arnhem Land, a young child is having fluoride painted onto his teeth.
It will help prevent tooth decay in an area of Australia where there is no fluoride in the water and where it can be difficult to visit a dental practitioner.
The person applying the fluoride, and checking the young boy’s teeth, is a University of Melbourne student on a four-week immersion program as part of her studies.
“Until you are up there, on country, it is impossible to understand the challenges and the complexities with regards to health,” says final year Bachelor of Oral Health student Laura James, who spent five weeks earlier this year working in the region.
The Melbourne Dental School is working with Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation to tackle the issue of oral health in these remote communities. Together with the other community health providers in the region, they are working on an Oral Health Plan for East Arnhem Land.
“The problem the local community has identified is that dental disease is up to four and a half times worse than in non-Indigenous communities,” says Professor Julie Satur, who leads the Melbourne Dental School work on country in northeast Arnhem Land.
“Our project has come from the community, which is really important. They have identified the problem and we’re bringing the expertise and some of the resources and power of the University to build capacity to help address it.”
Laura James and her fellow students were based in Nhulunbuy and travelled to clinics and schools in remote communities across the region.
“We were doing fillings and extractions but also prevention and health promotion, working with children from pre-school to grade six. And for some of these children, English can be their fourth or fifth language,” Laura says.
Once they realised that language could be a barrier to oral health, the students decided to produce picture books, using their textbooks and images found online, which they laminated and took to schools and health clinics in remote communities.
“And we found that these picture books really resonated with the children.”
Professor Satur says access to dental care and a lack of preventive care is an issue for people living in remote communities. She says part of the University’s role is helping to bring together the services on offer in the region.
It also includes contributing policy and research evidence to inform planning, bringing in students who can help with clinical and outreach dental services and boost service capacity, and providing support for locally driven research.
“If we can get this plan working, there are things in it we can achieve – around health promotion, tooth brushing programs in schools, getting the water fluoridation plants running and thinking about how we shape our messaging to fit with beliefs that already exist,” she says.
“You know, instead of imposing beliefs on people, how do we work with existing cultural beliefs and Indigenous knowledge to improve oral health.
“A preventive approach, in my view, is the way to tackle this. It’s not going to produce fast solutions but I’m more interested in sustainability and having the community empowered to deal with the problem than riding in on a white horse and doing a heap of fillings and leaving town. That is not to say that providing treatment is not important – but on its own it is not enough.
“I think the really important bit of work we have to do is at community level – understanding how people and communities think about oral health and what they see as the problems and what they see as the solutions, because they’re the experts in their own lives. It is also important that over the longer term we develop pathways for Yolgnu people to lead these programs themselves.”
Professor Satur says poor oral health is related to systemic health issues including heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and premature birth – both contributing to and making these conditions worse. But she says it can also be a social determinant.
“Toothache will stop a child performing at school,” she says.
“If they have chronic infection and pain in their mouth they don’t sleep or eat properly, and the family doesn’t sleep properly, the child goes to school and their learning is impeded, they fall behind, they don’t want to be there and then they stop going.”
The University of Melbourne has a long relationship with the Yolgnu people in northeast Arnhem Land, which was formalised in 2015 through a partnership with the Yothu Yindi Foundation. The oral health project is one of several that have developed as a result of this partnership.
Professor Satur believes the importance of having students on country in Arnhem Land is twofold.
She says it is important that they have the opportunity to understand local community perspectives on oral health, what they see as the problems and what they see as the solutions.
“But I also want to make sure that we produce a workforce that cares about the gap in Indigenous oral health and wants to do something about it.
“And really mainstreaming Aboriginal culture and knowledge in Australia, making it a celebrated part of how we understand the world.”
ONE (sic) A LONESOME, seemingly infinite stretch of shoreline more than 100km away from any significant outpost, two Aboriginal rangers trawl through a pile of marine debris. Other than their own footprints, the only obvious signs of life the Yirralka rangers see are a sun-bleached kangaroo skull, crabs, hawks, and the occasional pile of buffalo droppings.
For the second year, the late Gumatj singer, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, was posthumously honoured at the National Indigenous Music Awards (Nimas), with three major awards including artist of the year.
His recently released Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) picked up album of the year and its title track won song of the year at the awards.
“The history he has made taking a true Australian language and heritage to number one proves the strength of the underlying cultural identity of this nation,” Michael Hohnen, creative director at his label Skinnyfish Music said at the time.
Sometimes, in order to learn, you need to slow down and shut up. Which is exactly what my TV crew and I were told to do when we entered the sacred ceremonial grounds at Gulkula in North East Arnhem Land, the home of the Yolgnu clan for more than 50,000 years.
While flying along the red dirt road to the campsite for the Garma festival, I carefully read the “behaviour protocols” provided by the Yothu Yindi foundation. They state: “Remember you are on Yolngu land and entering Yolngu time.
A Yolngu artwork on aluminium depicting fish traps and the flow of water to the sea in the Arnhem Land wet season has won this year’s overall prize at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
This year five of the seven winning works are from Yolngu artists, including four from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, an Aboriginal arts centre in Yirrkala.
The judges chose 66 finalists from more than 300 entries across the country.
“For me, the strength of the Yolngu work speaks to happy artists who are being well supported and artists who are being encouraged to be adventurous,” Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, one of the award’s judges, said.
The colonisation of Australia was wrong and illegal and more land should be handed back to traditional owners, says activist Galarrwuy Yunupingu.
Aboriginal leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu has told the federal government it must face up to the fact the colonisation of Australia was wrong and illegal and more land should be handed back to traditional owners.
Dr Yunupingu, a 70-year-old land rights activist and leader of the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people, opened the 20th Garma Festival in East Arnhem Land, where he made the remarks, on Friday.