Category Archives: Life as Bilinydjan

The life of stories

I was sitting in a cafe with friends in Darwin on the weekend, sharing stories about my time in the Mäpuru homelands (in NE Arnhem Land). It had been a while since I last recalled stories of my being with the people and country in Mäpuru; amongst many other things, this time in my life was characterised by deep learning about myself and what it is to be embraced by hosts whilst being a guest and in the cultural minority [1]. My recollections over coffee turned into storytelling and an actor that I have not been with for a while resurfaced from my past – the story about the Basket and the Book. This story describes a critical moment in my life, when the cultural lens through which I perceive the world became glaringly visible. The story also traces my own unraveling as ‘Nia’ and the process through which I was remade through my new connection (gurruṯu/kinship). If a humble basket and book have the potential to unravel and re-make, what about all the other things in our everyday lives?


So what happens to stories when we ‘put them down’? By placing The Basket and the Book on a website, surely the story has a life other than in my own memory. Verran and Winthereik (2012) offer discussion on ethnographic stories and suggest that they have agency; that they ‘make and work relations’ (p. 1). This idea that ethnographic stories are not just representations of other but actors with interventionist potential is a critical way of disrupting the view that stories are static and inert. But what gives ethnographic stories their interventionist potential? Verran and Winthereik (2012) attribute this potential to their capacity to ‘re-present the world in ways that are generative for the people and practices that the stories are about, as well as for the authors and their academic collective’ (p. 1) and their ability to ‘… ‘dive into’ the everyday, a move towards the inside to show what the everyday is made of’ (p. 2).

Looking around me whilst sitting at my desk, I wonder about all of the things (beyond the basket and the book) which have the agency to unravel and re-make me in this moment… my computer, desk, text books, the light streaming through my west-facing window… Each day I sit amongst these things and perform ‘doing a PhD’, often whilst longing to be amongst the other networks of association that I have performed in through my research (mamara, sand dunes, brolgas, morning star, moon cycles…).


[1] Anderson (2008) writes about the Mäori ritual of powhiri where the tangata whenua (people of the land/the home people) welcome the manuhiri (the “others”/guests) to country: “ritual performances like powhiri facilitate interaction between groups from near and far in traditional ritual of encounter” (p. 69). The powhiri ritual aims to lift the tapu (sacred/forbidden/unknown/beyond one’s control) “from the manuhiri – the ‘others’ – in order to change their state from tapu to noa, in order to normalize relations between them and the Tangata whenua” (pp. 88-9). Noa is taken to mean secular or normal/known. “The transition between the states of tapu and noa is effected by a series of interactive encounters between tangata whenua and manuhiri. These encounters involve music (waiata), oratory (whaikoreo), and dance (haka)” (p. 85).

I am struck by the potential to re-story people-place connections through welcoming rituals and feel that the Arnhem Weaving workshops with Yolŋu in Mäpuru, the walks up Guluga Mountain with the Yuin people and walking the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail with the Goolarabooloo people are all experiences where I have felt welcomed to country in a generative way, where I have been re-made by the local people-place.


Anderson, HA 2008, ‘A Confluence of Streams: Music and Identity in Aotearoa/New Zealand’, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, University of Maryland, <;.

Verran, H & Winthereik, BR 2012, ‘Ethnographic stories as generalisations that intervene’, Science Studies, vol. 25, no. 1.

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Welcome to my Country


Image: Local women say welcome to tourism (Source: Sandie Suchet-Pearson, ABC Online)

Yolŋu sharing their country through the book Welcome to my Country. This link takes you to an ABC Bush Telegraph interview with Laklak, a Datiwuy Elder and caretaker for Gumatj in NE Arnhem Land.

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Näkarrma shares dhäwu mala (stories) about gurul – visiting, planning ceremony, negotiating, being with.

This teaching from country lecture comes from north-east Arnhem Land.

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April 29, 2014 · 1:14 am

The book loses its power

Many of the actors that usually appear present on a weaving trip did not seem as powerful this time around. The book made an appearance but it too, was less powerful. This time, funeral business seemed to be performed like a bright strand of yellow pandanas, working its way through a bathi. It is uncanny that on my second weaving trip to Mäpuru this year, word came that another close relative had passed away in a neighbouring community. Grieving rituals were repeated and an exodus was made from the weaving shelter. People were heading to Gapuwiyak to be with family. M and M wanted to make sure that all of us Balanda women understood what had happened. Even though the person who’d passed was very close to M, she held us at the front of her mind. I wondered, would I wake in the night again to hear the cries of the curlew? 

I know very little about funeral time, I’ve only briefly been to one. I don’t really want to write about bäpurru, but maybe what was happening at Mäpuru when people went away to begin that time. I missed my waku’s when they left, they didn’t return to Mäpuru the following week whilst I was there working at the school. I felt their absence most on the last day of school during the assembly. M, D and I were acknowledging all of the families and how much love and encouragement they give the children. W was the only elder there who was able to hear these words. She loved it. So, maybe it was the absence of these strong women, my wakus, that I felt strongest during this week. 

On a completely different note, enter the pool table… 

My wäwa brought high drama to Mäpuru with the arrival of a mini pool table from Galiwi’ku. My märi’s house was the most popular all week with kids and adults coming over to have a go at this new source of entertainment. Sharing and turns were concepts that two wäwas in particular did not want to know anything about. It was a week of tantrums, pool cue snapping and tears!!! 

The other big news for the week was the arrival of B to assemble to solar power installation at Mäpuru. This was my first experience of having the role of gatekeeper projected onto me by a Balanda man. Although there were many people standing around when the B crew arrived, a b-line was made for me. All of a sudden, there were expectations that I had some kind of authority and would give permission for things and be a spokesperson for the community… a very uncomfortable experience and one that possibly tells a few stories about Yolŋu-Balanda relationships. I imagine this happens all the time. Do J and others from Mäpuru feel invisible when this happens? A small glimpse at ‘everyday’ life in Mäpuru when the weaving workshops take a break.

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What is the ‘issue’?

A question that goes to the heart of what I am grappling with at the moment is, what is the issue that my research seeks to address? Is it the recognition of cultural/philosophical and economic practices in a homeland community (through the Arnhem Weaving workshops), a place where Yolŋu are determined to live on country? Or, is the issue more about the nature and quality of relationships that are generated between weavers (Yolŋu and visitors) during these workshops… this idea of being with? Maybe the recognition of cultural practices and cultural survival in homelands is the broader context in which a exploration of relationships needs to occur.

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Changing form

I’ve been back from Mäpuru for almost a week and have been feeling the pinch to get things ‘onto paper’. Where do I begin? 

My time there was different from others in the past in many ways. I nervously adopted my new mälk, Bilinydjan, and on more than one occasion encountered resistance to my new relationships with everything. Many of my young dhuway were now gurruŋ (poison cousins) and did not take to the idea of our close relationships becoming more distant. Neither was I. On reflection, this experience has given me a chance to learn about gurruṯu with a greater awareness of how it does affect being and relatedness. 

When I think of metaphors to describe my feelings of being in Mäpuru, I keep coming back to the lotus. Petals unfolding, going deeper and a brilliant center that I feel myself being drawn into.

End of each day and we were sitting with R under the weaving shelter, the sun hanging low on the horizon and the colours of the newly dyed pandanas glowing in the orange light. R kept on saying about our relationships, ‘Yonlŋu-Balanda, it’s like a world.’ I ponder these words, sometimes getting a glimpse of what R means… A world of connections? Everything exists there in the relationship? We were gurul’yun (going and seeing) R, wanting just to be with each other, weaving and talking. I had never heard of the word gurul’yun before M mentioned it. Can/does it describe being with? There is something here for me to go deeper into, a concept to unfold. 

The other weavers and I had some interesting conversations around the cooking fire. At one point, I asked the other women what they had woven into their baskets that day. Some interpreted the question literally, I was hinting at the metaphor. At times I was weaving a sadness and letting go into my mat (below). This did not go undetected by R, who would catch my eye and ask questions with her hands. In an emotional landscape, she sees everything. So, to respond to my sadness of letting go (goodbye Baŋaḏitjan) I wove a rainbow of colours into my mat. Slowly, I gained confidence in breaking out of one form and created another. Still transforming… What would our baskets look like if the emotional landscape into which we weave (the warp and the weft) were made visible? Can the Mäpuru women read us through the stories we tell in our weaving?

It surprises me that I still get shocked when the newly dyed pandanas appears on the line to dry or in a new bathi. I feel the colours, but find them hard to describe. Maybe they are pure joy and excitement. Is this how my friends at Mäpuru feel when the vibrancy is revealed from the flour pot boiling can? There is something generative about this practice that draws from so many elements around: the obvious materials like gunga and kala, but also the gurul’yun or being rrambaŋi (together) that speaks through the colours and forms.


I realise now, that somethings are more quickly unpacked when coming back from Mäpuru. The washing’s the easy bit!

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Following the book

I was speaking with A earlier about the actors that I might follow during the Arnhem Weaving workshops. One powerful actor that emerged from this conversation was the book

During the the two weaving workshops I participated in at Mäpuru, I used the book to write down new words I was learning in Gupapuyŋgu, stories people would share with me about my gurruṯu and to help keep the weaver’s time-sheets. It was for this final function that the book attracted a lot of attention from the weavers and its power in the network was reinforced. So how was this book performed at Mäpuru this July?

In hindsight it was not such a great idea for the time-sheets to be in my book. I became a sort of a gatekeeper to important information which the weavers wanted to access. All of the weavers knew about the time-sheet and that G (a weaver) and I were maintaining for the week. Weavers would often ask me, ‘Do you have x’s name in the book?’ and I would have a look in the book and confirm it was there. If not, we would write it in. Looking back at the situation, I realise I was quite anxious about the whereabouts of my book; it contained a lot of things that I considered to be important to my Yolŋu education. I had no idea until later in the week that the book was also being protected by other people, but for a different reason. 

On occasions the book, which often sat on the mat next to where I was weaving, would be carelessly abandoned (by me) and safely put away by one of the weavers. This protection and care of the book (usually by others and not myself) was starting to tell a story. Was the story about the time-sheet? If so, what kind of story? At some point I need to write the back-story on how the time-sheet came into being, but I’ll do that later. 

Throughout the week I increasingly felt like some kind of supervisor, for I was giving power to the time-sheet (a very Balanda construct) by helping to fill it in. Although we never spoke about this with each other, I have a sense that G also felt like she was in this prickly role. Whilst I could pretend that there was a balance that we were disrupting, I think that would be naive. There are all kinds of actors that have more power than others when these weaving workshops are being enacted (e.g. confidence in speaking English, mother’s with babies, bright and abundant piles of dyed pandanas and Balanda confident in speaking Yolŋu Matha to name a few). 

At the end of the week G and I explained to the weavers how the time-sheet would be used to divide up the payments made by workshop participants. This was not the first time a time-sheet had been used, but was its performance during this workshop any different? My book was certainly not always an actor.

So, again it was A who reminded me of Latour with the question, what would it cost to break the network? A question I’ll leave open and contemplate! One thing I am becoming increasingly aware of is how I am trying to grasp ANT terminology – for me it is performing as an awareness that helps me to observe which actors are there, how they are performing and what networks are being formed/undone. 


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