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Ganma: Negotiating Indigenous Water Knowledge in a Global Water Crisis

On Elcho Island, six kilometers off the northeast Arnhem Land coast of Australia’s Northern Territory, a senior Yolngu woman sat by a riverbank in the shade, keening a crying-song for her recently deceased uncle. She was singing his spirit and essence out to sea, to his ancestral waters. The words of her song spoke of the river’s rushing floodwaters--of the bubbling, frothing foam that builds as the river rushes toward the sea, eventually mixing with the salt water of the incoming tide in a swirling whirlpool known as ganma (or garma). The freshwater embraces the salt and is enveloped by it to be carried inside and underneath to the deep sea and on to Indonesia.

In her mournful singing, as in all Yolngu songs, there was no clear separation between the environment and the person; waters have moral, social, and spiritual consequences.1 In the concept of ganma, ancestral waters come together as a foaming, frothy substance--the embodiment of new life and ideas. These ancestral essences of the Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties--the two exogamous halves of the Yolngu world to which all things belong--are inherent in beings like sharks, crocodiles, barracudas, and kingfish, whose enormous ancestral predecessors once journeyed through the landscape and seascape, shaping the topography from which Yolngu were born. They eventually returned inside the land. Today, the environment holds people-as-ancestors within its ancestral topography and oceanography. Each part of the environment has its own unique ancestral patterns that can be sensed in the speed of the currents, the smell of the ocean, the sounds of water movements, and the visible residue of water-marks left on the rocks.

Singing about these markers of ancestral aqua-aesthetics can jolt personal memories of and feelings about relatives who belong to particular areas, just as it prompts streams of ancestral consciousness about appropriate moral conduct in relation to the Ancestral Law. Gawerrin Gumana (1999) said, "Right now, I am living inland. My feelings and my thoughts, my law and songs, remain there, at the saltwater."

At a time when human relationships with water are heading toward a global crisis, Yolngu have much to offer non-indigenous views of ecological accountability. Environmental and biological sciences have long pioneered scientific approaches to lotic, or flowing-water systems, but it is only recently that aquatic and terrestrial landscapes have been considered as interdependent combinations (Johnson, Richardson & Naimo, 1995), a perspective that has long been understood by indigenous communities. Non-indigenous appreciation of the diversity of ecological knowledge, and of the differences between indigenous and non-indigenous concepts of "managing country" and "belonging to country," is often inadequate. The need is strong for a new consciousness about moral and social engagement with water issues. In an emergent ecological awareness, disparate indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge sets intersect, with the potential to create a more balanced and holistic perspective on the management, sustainability, and control of the world’s water systems. Yolngu offer an integrated understanding of the interdependence of human survival with the delicate balance of eco-systems. This environmental management principle stems from the water philosophy of ganma, a metaphor for the "coming together" of diverse frames of ecological and cosmological knowledge. Yolngu are now sharing this indigenous knowledge with the wider Australian community and other nations in ritual, educational, scientific, and political forums.2

To engage with this problem, Yolngu have produced an exhibit of paintings and an accompanying book entitled Saltwater that presents Dhuwa and Yirritja water philosophy through 80 paintings of 47 artists. Djambawa Marawili, one of the senior artists, said:

"Somehow the world doesn’t know about the patterns and paints that come from the land. There is not even an emerging understanding of the patterns and designs underlying Sea Rights or Native Title … every small bit of sea has a name. That is how we chose our names. From naming our grandsons or our nephews or family. Names after names. Before, it was the old people’s names. And in each generation there are people named this way." (Marawili, 1999)

These ancestral names speak to the identity of groups and to the collaborations and links between them for ritual and other purposes. Embedded within Yolngu water philosophy is knowledge about which kin groups one might call upon for assistance in times of trouble and about what rights and obligations one group has to another in caring for the country. An ancestral perspective is too frequently overlooked in calls for collaborative management arrangements between indigenous and non-indigenous organizations as the latter "often fail to acknowledge the unique physical and cultural components of indigenous land and seascapes." (Robinson & Mununguritj, 2001) Yet, Yolngu attitudes to resource access and availability, riverine and marine use, and the artistic and metaphysical properties of water go hand in hand, as Yothu Yindi lead singer, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, pointed out:

"If you’re looking for something you’ve got to be able to apply what we’ve always applied: To live in harmony with mother earth, with nature, with the environment. You don’t exploit it, you respect it. You see the thing that we always believe as Aboriginal people--as Indigenous people of Australia--is that we don’t own mother earth, the earth owns us." (Yunupingu, 1992; emphasis added)

If flowing water carries "feelingful" emotion, it is because the aqua-aesthetics of Yolngu ancestral waters embody identities and personalities. Where these waters come together, an interaction of different personalities is implied in their ebb and flow. And a conjunction of personalities is also a conjunction of groups and kinship relations. Each water has its own flavor, design, and temperament held in its names, which are ritually intoned. These colors and tastes change as one water meets and mixes with the next. Waters that relate as mother/child or grandmother/granddaughter come together with the possibility of reproducing ancestral knowledge and lineages in their flow.

Yolngu waters speak to how people must treat the environment, to the respect commanded between kin, and to proper behavioral conduct for those known to the country and for strangers. Raymattja Marika-Munungguritj (1992) noted:

"There is always a dynamic interaction of knowledge traditions. Fresh water from the land, bubbling up in fresh water springs to make waterholes, and salt water from the sea are interacting with each other, with the energy of the tide and the energy of the bubbling spring. When the tide is high the water rises to its full. When the tide goes out the water reduces its capacity…. In this way, the Dhuwa and Yirritja sides of Yolngu life work together. And in this way, balanda (non-Yolngu) and Yolngu traditions can work together. There must be balance; if not, either one will be stronger and will harm the other."

The Garma Festival (see page 44), held at Yirrkala in July each year, affords visitors the chance to come to know the value of the environment; Yolngu there teach an awareness of ganma principles for living and explore ganma as a mediating force between two worlds. The ganma ideology requires an epistemological shift from the perspective of water as molecular matter that can be regulated, controlled, and manipulated by humans to a view of water as the prime mover in ecological and social systems--a view in which people are led by a constantly evolving, sentient environment. Yolngu have been actively engaged in this kind of management since an indigenous land management corporation, Dhimurru, was set up at Nhulunbuy to control unauthorized use of Yolngu lands and waters and to develop appropriate and flexible management plans founded on the principle of ganma.

Yolngu have been actively engaged in this kind of management since people living around Yirrkala established (a decade ago) an environmental body, Dhimurru, to control unauthorized use of their lands and waters and to develop appropriate and flexible management plans founded on the principle of ganma. Yolngu environmental management strategies offer the global water crisis a way of seeing and acting toward the country--an understanding of ecology as a series of balances between human and environmental relations, between moral and physical ethics of sustainability and resource needs, and between scientific and cosmological knowledges. The Yolngu philosophy of balance is ultimately about how people, laws, and country are innately and intimately implicated in the future wellbeing of the next generation, a view with worldwide appeal.


1. See Bradley (2001) for a similar philosophy regarding Yanyuwa songs.

2. See http://www/

Fiona Magowan lectures in anthropology at Adelaide University, South Australia. She has researched Yolngu culture since 1990 and previously carried out consultancy work on marine tenure in northeast Arnhem Land. Her research focuses on the nexus between ecology, ritual performance, and diverse cultural knowledges. She is currently completing a book on Yolngu performance. She can be reached at

References & further reading

Bradley, J. (2001). Landscapes of the mind, landscapes of the spirit. In Baker, R., Davies, J. & Young, E., eds. Working on Country: Contemporary Indigenous Management of Australia’s Lands and Coastal Regions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp 295-307.

Johnson, B., Richardson, W. & Naimo, T., eds. (1995, March). Past, present and future concepts in large river ecology: how rivers function and how human activities influence river processes. BioScience 45:3, pp 134-142.

Marawili, Dj. (1999). Declaration. In Buku-Larrngay Mulka Saltwater: Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country. Yirrkala: Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre in conjunction with Jennifer Isaacs Publishing. Pp14-15.

Marika-Munungguritj, R. (1992). Workshops as teaching, learning environments. Paper presented to Yirrkala Action Group, Yirrkala Community School, Yirrkala.

Robinson, C. & Mununguritj, N. (2001). Sustainable Balance: A Yolngu framework for cross-cultural collaborative management. In Baker, R., Davies, J. & Young, E., eds. Working on Country: Contemporary Indigenous Management of Australia’s Lands and Coastal Regions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp 92-107.


Yunupingu, G. (1992). Yothu Yindi: the videos. Mushroom Records.

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