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A Journey to a Yolngu Funeral in Arnhem Land

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Kama Trudgen is a medical Doctor who stepped sideways from clinical practice to be immersed in the world of community development. She spent 8 years living with her family on Elcho Island, North East Arnhem Land, where she is adopted into the Gupapuyngu clan. Kama is passionate about empowering Yolngu to reclaim their vitality, the power and relevance of the wisdom held in traditional cultures, and bridging the Gap between the Yolngu world and the dominant culture. Sharing her family's food with a Yolngu friend Dianne Gondarra, started a chain reaction in the community that birthed the Hope for Health project, that TEAR supports.

Recently she attended the funeral of a friend on Elcho Island in Arnhem land, NT and shared these reflections.

I want to invite you on a journey. A journey to a Yolngu funeral in Arnhem Land, through Balanda [a word used in Arnhem Land to describe white people] eyes. I want to share this journey to offer a glimpse into the reality behind the statistics in remote Indigenous communities. I want to give you a chance to see why it matters. I want to celebrate how incredible Yolngu culture is, and how resilient Yolngu people are.

My family lived on Elcho Island in North East Arnhem Land for 8 years. During this time, we journeyed closely with people and the Hope for Health project was born from this journeying together. It is no small thing to find Hope in a crisis.

We returned to the island recently for a funeral. The funeral of a lady who I loved dearly.

I cannot tell you how many funerals I have been to in those 8 years. It must have been hundreds. Seriously. They are constant. It is common practice to try and hold just one funeral at a time here, given the interconnectedness of the community. That means that at any one time there is a backlog of funerals waiting for their turn. It means there is often a need to wait months before a given funeral can take place. This funeral is slightly different, in that she was old. She had lived a full life and was ready to join her creator. So many of the deaths here have the added sting of tragic deaths too young. But in loosing this incredible woman, it feels like a little piece of Traditional culture, strength and wisdom, is gone, and we will never be able to get that back.

It is hard to describe the experience of living life in a community that is constantly touching death. Its a war zone, but nobody can see the bullets – just the casualties.

It is hard to describe the experience of living life in a community that is constantly touching death. Its a war zone, but nobody can see the bullets – just the casualties. You can feel almost brutalised by the constant blows that death brings. You don't really ever adjust, I don't know how you could. You go on living, you go on making plans, and you go on being side swiped by death. This feels all too real in Hope for Health- if we were to stop striving to establish this work, we would be giving in and allowing us all to be swallowed by the tidal wave of loss that would keep coming. So we carry on. We have only just arrived in the community, carrying the particular grief that brings us here, and awaiting the opportunity to process that together. One day in to our visit we planned to meet together with our staff. Just an hour shy of this planned meeting we hear the devastating news of another death. Another Elder from the island. Collapsed and died without warning. Another blow to the community. So we stop, we reschedule our plans, and we carry on.

I feel so incredibly privileged that I have been able to participate in the mind-blowing life changing process that is a Yolngu Traditional Funeral. I cannot tell you how much respect I have for the wisdom and richness that this ceremony holds. This process celebrates life, reminds everyone involved of what they are connected to and how they fit together, and allows powerful corporate expressions of grief that are real and therapeutic. Without such a process I don't know how Yolngu would still be holding it together under the weight of grief that they bear.

I am still gutted as I remember whose funeral I am attending, as it was so often her sitting beside me at other funerals, explaining to me what was going on and what it all meant. I am simple a Balanda woman with a very incomplete understanding of Yolngu language and culture. But I would love to share with you a glimpse of what I have learnt. Please join me for this journey over the next week...


A Journey To A Yolngu Funeral In Arnhem Land Day 0

I am pictured here today with my adopted mukul, my paternal aunty. She is a very significant person in my life (and not the lady who's funeral we are attending). Given you inherit your clan from your father, she is the closest female relative in the same clan as me. As such she has a very important role as a mentor. In the traditional system I would marry my father's sister’s son, which would be my mukul's son. So she would be mentoring the person who will become her son's wife (so has a vested interest to do a great job!) – I think that is really cool!

Day One

So the body arrived yesterday. A special shelter is built to house the body for the duration of the funeral, which often goes for about a week. The shelter is large enough for some close family to also sleep in. It is always lovingly decorated and now days often filled with photos. Yolngu clan groups have particular colours associated with them, and the decorations are often a very vibrant representation of these significant colours.

Clan groups take turns to be led into the shelter and join with close family inside to express grief together. Before my time on Elcho Island I had no concept of the power of corporate expressions of grief. In this space you are free to cry or wail and often this grief is expressed in a kind of song which declares your connection to this person. You will be held, and you will be joined. You never have to cry alone. There is no compulsion to express yourself in any particular way. You are given the time you need, whatever that may be. It is so freeing to express grief without any hindrance, particularly when others expressing their grief around you gives you permission to do so. The expression of grief is intense, and then it is over, and you feel lighter for it. My own previous experience of grief is that it does come in waves, and it seems that Yolngu process allows space for this. For close family they stay inside the shelter as different groups are brought in to grieve with them. They embody their grief, and then they come up for air before another wave.

Yolngu Funeral Shelter
A special shelter is built to house the body for the duration of the funeral.

I was crying today, held by a Yolngu mother. I then unexpectedly caught sight of a photo on the wall of myself together with the lady we grieve. I did not know that the family had this photo. It really hit me, as memories flooded back. But after a couple of rounds of grieving, I was able to then sit and share memories with family as we sat beside the coffin. This woman would always make you laugh, so it was so special to share stories of this.

My memories with her capture every aspect of my journey with Yolngu. Being a strong traditional woman she would always speak to me in Yolngu Matha the local language. She was not alone doing this, as many were supporting me in my quest to learn the language. For many years this was a real struggle, as I lived in a fog of half understanding. One day early on I ran into this woman and at the time she happened to have a cold. This made her accent so strong that I just could not understand what she was saying. I asked her to repeat herself so many times that in the end I just had to give up, and ended up smiling and nodding. The problem was there was a couple of things I had grasped. There was something about the next day, and about the women's centre. I ended up leaving the conversation terrified that I had agreed to something without knowing it, and that I would be letting her down somehow. You have to be able to laugh at yourself when attempting to learn another language! Thank goodness people are so forgiving!

We shared so much life over the years. We worked together on an enterprise with a group of women in my first years on the island. We went on so many hunting trips together. We weaved baskets together. We traveled together. We danced together and sat together at ceremony, including her husband's funeral. We sang together, laughed together, cried together. She made things fun. We had a running joke about Yolngu adopting Balanda. She used to complain laughing that she was too slow, and she would meet a nice new Balanda person, but someone else had always got there first and adopted them. We joked that she should sit up at the airport with a sign welcoming new Balanda and try and adopt them as soon as they got off the plane. We would laugh hysterically at this idea.

One time she hilariously relayed that the reason she was interested in Hope for Health was because she watched how when I got pregnant I got really fat, and that like many Yolngu I was still really fat after the baby was born. But then she noticed that I didn't stay fat, and she wanted to understand why. Its true, I did get really fat during my first pregnancy. It shocked me how freely people talked to me about that, as in the dominant culture we would usually shy away from this out of fear of embarrassing the person.

In my early experiences at Yolngu funerals I struggled with this structure that had clear times to express grief. Outside these times people are generally not sombre. I found it difficult to get in sink with the flow- I was not necessarily able to start crying at the right time, and equally not necessarily able to stop when others seemed to be moving on. Some of this was my unfamiliarity with the cultural cues. Some of it was just a lack of experience at expressing grief at all. But over the years this structure has grown to be a source of comfort. I look forward to these opportunities (as I know they are coming) to express freely with others feeling it too, and I am able to get my feelings out. Its a really powerful process.

So much of the Yolngu funeral process allows physical expression – everything from building the shelter, decorating the shelter, the physical expression of grief, and the rhythmic song and dance. To be able to embody your grief allows it to move, and not stagnate in your soul. We have so much to learn from Yolngu.

Day Two

When Balanda look on at a Yolngu funeral, they see lots of singing and dancing. Balanda generally associate these things with fun and celebration. Its easy for Balanda to not comprehend the depth, complexity and incredible sophistication of this ceremony. Balanda have different processes, structures and symbols, so it is easy to not recognize the law in action in this foreign space.

The funeral process involves clan groups that are connected to the person coming and presenting items of law in the form of song and dance. They are reciting their law, which is the most powerful and grounding thing at such a time. It celebrates the person and where they fitted in to the world, and reminds people of what carries on.

The songs hold the most incredible depth of knowledge and wisdom. They are drawn from the land, physically describing specific geography, flora and fauna, which holds deep metaphors with intricate layers of meaning. The Elders who maintain this knowledge are Professors, and I am in awe of this powerful method of maintaining knowledge- it is encoded in the rhythm and the movement. The knowledge is embodied. What a mind-blowing system of education!

Entering this foreign space has been my greatest teacher. It shows me in reverse a glimpse of what Yolngu experience when they must engage in Dominant Culture systems. I don't pretend for a second to really comprehend what Yolngu are forced to navigate- I can engage with the Yolngu foreign experience by choice, and not understanding it fully has few implications for my life- for Yolngu there is little choice and the consequences are drastic. But it nonetheless gives a valuable glimpse. When I look on at this foreign legal process, I have had to learn from scratch what the framework is that is operating- who has authority; from where is that authority given; how is that authority represented; who is organising what happens next; who has responsibility to do what roles etc etc. I am like a child trying to make sense of a new world. I cannot grasp the meaning of things simply from observation, as I cannot recognize the symbols. I need someone to patiently explain it to me.

Many years ago, the first time I had the opportunity to participate in a funeral ceremony with the dancers, I had nothing to draw on but the mentoring of a close Yolngu relative. If I copied her every move, surely I couldn't get anything wrong :). I had no way of filtering which of her actions were part of the ceremony and needed to be copied, and which actions were not relevant to the ceremony. In the middle of a dance, she walked across to where her shoes lay, and moved them about a meter away. In the split second that followed, my brain was frantic- is this part of the ceremony? Am I supposed to move my shoes also? Is it a practical thing- are the shoes being moved because the dancers are about to move through that area? Did she just decide to move her shoes for no reason? Is anyone else moving their shoes? I had a second to decide if I was going to move my shoes also!?!?! Was I going to look more stupid moving my shoes if this was not necessary, or not moving them and it was significant?!?!? I moved my shoes. I often think of this experience, and it reminds me to never take for granted how foreign cultural and legal processes can be across cultures.

The funeral time is a gift of space- to be together, meditating on the law being presented that holds us all together.

Day Three

So you know what happened today- I didn't make it to the funeral! Life happened- a sick toddler, no sleep because of said sick toddler, some friends and family missing a plane. Not the smoothest of days! But Yolngu hold space for life. There is enough time given to this process that life can happen.

One of the aspects of working with Yolngu that Balanda can often struggle with, is the very different relationships to time. Often meetings are scheduled and people are unable to come. One personal experience changed my attitude to this phenomena forever. Many years ago on Elcho Island my husband and I were supporting a group of women running a social enterprise. Their AGM was scheduled, and obviously this was a significant event on many levels that we had all worked hard to prepare for. But there was a problem. Our little baby was sick. He had a really bad skin infection and we were really worried about him. We were really distracted by this, and it was hard to fathom attending this meeting in the midst of it. The time was fast approaching that the meeting was scheduled.

Some of the Yolngu women who were involved in this planned AGM turned up at our house, picked us up and drove us out bush to collect bush medicine to treat our baby. Somewhere in the midst of this process I realised that the meeting was being held up because of me! I was so grateful that everyone could see that my sick baby was the priority right now, and that the meeting could happen after this was dealt with. We treated the baby, and were able to get on with the meeting (many hours late). (By the way our baby responded really well to the bush medicine!).

So many times I had felt frustrated at meetings not happening on time. I needed to experience this to realise that there is always a good reason why people are late or unable to attend something. People could be unwell themselves or a family member, or any myriad of complexities. I genuinely believed that my sick baby was more important than that meeting at that time. The fact that Yolngu value people over schedules is a wonderful thing. I now know that there is always a good reason for people's absence, and I take the time to find out.

Today I didn't make it to the funeral, but again find myself grateful for Yolngu women who took us out bush to get medicine to help my baby boy (number two- the other one is a big boy now :).

Day Four

Today at the funeral grounds there was two Hearing Ceremonies. A Hearing Ceremony is a process to announce that somebody has passed away. Two more deaths to grapple with whilst this funeral is not yet finished.

During a Hearing Ceremony, people gather to hear the news, not yet knowing who has passed away. A procession enters the space, with song and dance (reciting of law). Once somebody has passed away, their name is not spoken, out of respect. To communicate who the person is that has passed away, a relative is chosen, and using Yolngu sign language, the leader demonstrates what relationship to this chosen person was the person who has passed. Upon this announcement, there is a sudden and intense expression of grief from the gathered families. The powerful process of corporate grieving begins again.

A Journey To A Yolngu Funeral In Arnhem Land Day 4
My little boy feeling better running off to join in the ceremony.

The Yolngu gurrutu or kinship system is amazing. As a Balanda person, if adopted into the system, by being given a relationship to one person, you are automatically given a relationship to every Yolngu person. It is an incredible web of interconnectedness. These relationship terms are the most common way that you would greet/refer to another person. It clarifies your relationship, and what roles and responsibilities you have to each other. It means you are constantly reminded that we are all connected.

As a Balanda person, it has been the most incredible gift to be invited into this world. Although I do not know what my relationship is to every person in the community, I know that that relationship exists, and we can work out what the right term is. Every single person. Your work colleague, the person serving you at the shop, passing you in the street etc etc. When meeting a new person, it is always the first step to work out what relationship you are. As these terms are what is used to refer to each other in every day life, it is just constantly reinforcing the connection we all have.

I remember after a very long stint on the island, we went to Darwin for a visit. After getting off the plane we went to a shop, and I remember feeling a sense of emptyness that I did not know who the person was that was serving me, and how I was connected to them. That sounds really corny to write, but it felt really shallow that we were interacting, but that there was no concern for how we were connected as people.

Although I did not personally know the two people who passed away today, I know how I was connected to them. I know what relationship they were to me. This amazing web of interconnectedness makes tangible for me a really important human truth. Imagine how the Balanda world could change if we were to remember that we are all connected.

Day Five

A Journey To A Yolngu Funeral In Arnhem Land Day 5 2 T

The Yolngu funeral is full of symbolism and practices that constantly reinforce our connectedness, and our place in the whole- for the person who has passed away, and for those of us who carry on. The Yolngu framework divides the world into two categories or moieties- Dhuwa and Yirritja. Everything is either one or the other- every person, animal, plant etc. A Dhuwa person must marry a Yirrita person. You inherit your clan, and your moiety, from your father. This funeral is for a Yirritja person. The flags pictured here represent the Yirritja clans that are connected to her clan (which is represented by the blue flag). I am adopted into a Yirritja clan, represented here by the yellow flag.

Throughout the week clan groups come and recite their items of law, in the form of song and dance. In-between these times, there is space. Its just time to be together.

I have grown to love these times "in-between", as that is always where magic happens. I remember I used to feel frustrated when having to wait around for a meeting or ceremony to start. I remember feeling like I was wasting time, and needed to be getting on with something. Now I know different.

On one occasion, I was supporting a group of women starting a social enterprise. We were sitting around waiting for a few others to arrive for a planned meeting. As we sat there, my Yolngu grandmother pointed to a poster on the wall and asked me what story I had for it. I was really perplexed by the question. I looked at the poster, and I read the words out loud. She said, no, not the words, what story do you have? Again I was perplexed. I described the picture that I saw. She again shook her head. I then had this moment of realisation, that I didn't have a story, all I could do was describe what was there and I actually felt the shallowness of this. I told her sadly that I did not have one and I asked her what story she had. The picture on the poster was of a dog. She told me that for Yolngu, they don't need posters, because their stories are held in the land. She told me about a particular homeland, where there was a particular rock, that was shaped like a dog. And she told me the story about that dog.

Yolngu Elders are like Professors, that carry these stories that they have embodied their whole lives. Their physical environment is their text book, that holds the record of these stories. These stories are being recited at funerals. I was so grateful that the meeting was late that day. I still have so much to learn, so thankfully many more meetings will be late :)

Day Six

It frustrates me no end that the term "education" is often used in a way which implies that it is something that arrived in Australia when white people did. Yolngu have been masters in passing on the law and information needed for society to function, for thousands and thousands and thousands of years before we Balanda were on the scene. If only we could be using these incredible methods today!

Yolngu have a very different style of education to what Balanda are accustomed to, and I don't just mean that the information is embodied – encoded in rhythm, movement and geography. As a Balanda person, I am accustomed to acquiring information by hearing explanations and descriptions, rather than direct participation. I am used to exploring information in an "artificial" or pretend context, rather than the real thing immediately. I expect to hear an explanation before I participate.

During these ceremonies, Yolngu children are learning their law. Not from being lectured, but from being in it. Young children participate in the ceremony, learning, absorbing, practicing. There is not a practice kids version on the side- they are in the thick of the real thing. They participate first, and the explanations unfold in layers as time goes on.

The method of education is the same for us beginner Balanda as it is for children- we are thrown in the deep end, invited to participate. For me this has been frequently challenging and often confusing . It means I sometimes have to do things not yet knowing what they mean. It means I often have no idea what is going to happen next. It means sometimes I have to sit with questions for a long time before I can understand – sometimes I would not even be able to formulate a question yet that could give me the answer I am missing. I find these experiences so wonderfully humbling. To feel lost, unsure, unclear, but at the same time held by a bigger system that I have every reason to trust and respect. In our world today we are used to having all the answers at our fingertips all the time. To have to take time, hold uncertainty and trust a process, has given me back a deeper respect and awe for knowledge and understanding.

Photo above by Brenda Mutha, used with permission.

Day Seven

Memorial Service today. This is the part of a Yolngu funeral process that most resembles a Balanda funeral. It is a church service, that includes many tributes to the person, and much sharing of memories and stories about their life. When handed the paper program for the memorial I had to laugh- I was listed as one of the speakers to give a tribute. I was one of 25 people listed! Space for everyone!

I felt so Balanda today. In my previous posts I have shared about the Yolngu funeral process, that includes certain times and rituals that give opportunities to express grief corporately. Now, the memorial service is not really one of these times. For Yolngu its a time to reflect and share stories, and is a celebration of the person's life. Unfortunately my body didn't receive the memo that this was not the time for crying. For my Balanda brain, this process, which is so much more familiar as it resembles a Balanda funeral, gives me so many cultural cues to cry. I just could not help it. I cried through other people's speeches and boy did I cry through my own speech! Nobody had any problem with me crying. After my speech I was really upset, and someone happily sat and had a cry with me.

It was an honour to be able to pay tribute to this amazing woman. To me she represents the strength and wisdom of a time that we are fast losing our connection to. At the heart of Hope for Health is remembering the health and vitality that Yolngu experienced when following their traditional practices- eating food that God made, before Balanda came along with food made in factories. For Yolngu, traditionally, food was good, enjoyed in its season and nourishing to the body. If it wasn't good, it wasn't called food. It was so incredible to have people like this women in our midst as living resources, who could describe this time- what was eaten and the cultural practices that surrounded this. I feel the sting of this loss, but it makes me even more determined to keep her knowledge alive- to keep using it and allow it to be passed on. Yolngu people matter. They matter not just because of their innate human worth, but because they are different to me, and we need them in this world.

Day Eight

So I had to fly home today. The funeral carries on. Some family have not been able to get there yet. When does a Yolngu funeral finish – when its finished. When what needs to be done is done, and those who need to be there, who can, are there. Its sad to not be able to complete the process together, but I have loved the journey.

On the final day of a Yolngu funeral the body is carried in a vehicle with a procession of people following. Most often to the cemetery just outside of the community. The body is buried, and again this is a physical part of the process. Family are the ones physically shovelling the earth. The grave is then lovingly covered with bright plastic flowers.

Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me. I hope you can feel the loss, and know that you are connected to this too. Its easy for "The Gap" to just be about statistics, but its about people. People of so much value.

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Kama Trudgen is a medical Doctor who stepped sideways from clinical practice to be immersed in the world of community development. She spent 8 years living with her family on Elcho Island, North East Arnhem Land, where she is adopted into the Gupapuyngu clan. Kama is passionate about empowering Yolngu to reclaim their vitality, the power and relevance of the wisdom held in traditional cultures, and bridging the Gap between the Yolngu world and the dominant culture. Sharing her family's food with a Yolngu friend Dianne Gondarra, started a chain reaction in the community that birthed the Hope for Health project, that TEAR supports.