The above link is to a 1989 publication entitled “Singing the Land,  Signing the Land” by Helen Watson,  the Yolngu community at Yirrkala, and David Wade Chambers.

Their theme is the difference between Aboriginal and European knowledge systems and the interaction between them,  the latter described as being guided by the spirit of ganma1.  The authors’ work was with a Yolngu community and they recognize the degree to which extrapolation to other aboriginal communities may not be valid.  However their work throws an interesting perspective on the degree to which European thought (and linguistic expression) may be said to have been “corralled” into disciplined lines of measurement, categorisation,  logic and media.  Yolngu expression and thought appears to focus more on the linkages among items and their connection to the environment.

To illustrate their thinking they examine texts “concerned with one plant, the Cycad, a Palm-like tree that occurs in eucalypt forests around most of the coastal perimeter of Australia. Yolngu people produce texts about cycads in several forms: dance sequences, songs and graphic representations. Westerners produce scientific texts about cycads”.

Not only is the method of expression different but the occasion for expression is also.  To quote again from the book “ the most important texts in Yolngu life are produced as part of buŋgul, a term which is loosely translated into English as ‘ceremony’ or ‘business’”.

The book “Disputed Territories, Land Culture and Identity in Settler Territories” (Hong Kong University Press, 2003) contains a chapter by Neville White (who is well known to the writer and has worked with the Yolngu since the early 1970’s)  entitled “Meaning and Metaphor in Yolngu landscapes, Arnhem Land, northern Australia”. Inter alia White discusses (page 188/9) the differences between the two cultures in the understanding of nature and human perception,  seen separately in the European knowledge system but as an indivisible whole by the Yolngu.  White discusses the resulting problems in expressing concepts of land and environment in the two systems.

Both these works illustrate further a point made during this course,  namely the degree to which achieving understanding between European and Aboriginal culture is made more difficult by the inherently different conceptual frameworks but at the same time the way in which better understanding of “wholeness of the environment” inherent to aboriginal thinking is important in a continent in which the environment has been placed under heavy strain by the activities of its newer inhabitants.

Note 1.  Ganma is a Yolngu expresson referring to the meeting and mixing of two streams and applied here metaphorically to the two knowledge sytems.  It is described more fully in the paper

Peter Duncan LING566

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