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Mapping the Sacred

Dinah Norman Marrngawi is a senior Yanyuwa woman who lives at Borroloola in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory of Australia. She spoke to me as we sat quietly on her verandah looking through draft maps associated with the development of an indigenous atlas of the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria. The aim is to map the sacred knowledge of a community into atlas form so that future generations of Yanyuwa people may learn, in part at least, some of the knowledge their old people and ancestors used to manage life and affairs on the savannah lands, islands, and sea they call home.

Yanyuwa country is 970 kilometers southeast of Darwin and outside the area of northeast Arnhem Land, on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Yanyuwa people reside in the township of Borroloola. There are between 600 and 1000 indigenous people in the community, descendants of the Yanyuwa, Marra, Garrwa, Gudanji, and Binbingka language groups. These people make up 85 to 90 percent of the population. Borroloola has been an open town since its establishment in 1884; the indigenous community has not been protected from outside influences but has held on with grim determination to its cultural wealth against an outside world seeking domination. The Yanyuwa community has been ravaged by the deaths of nearly all its senior men; there are about 10 full speakers of the language left and the drive to preserve sacred knowledge is being pushed by a core group of five senior women and a few younger people. Health conditions are perilous, serious addictive behavior and violence are common, and unemployment is the norm.

Amid this heartache is an attempt to hold onto those things that continue to resonate from the past by creating new texts based on the old and by asking serious questions about whether any text can hope to bridge the gaps between past life ways and the present community. The few remaining older Yanyuwa men and women possess among them many ancient traditions nearly buried in a contemporary chaos. The country from which these traditions came has been cut up and "squared" into town boundaries, pastoral leases, mining leases, and parcels of land. Some of it has been "won back" through the long process of land claims, but its status remains in doubt as government ministries, unhappy with court decisions, delay land grants. Many people in this community thus lie between home and exile from the land they see as the source of spirit and identity. Such issues confront senior Yanyuwa men, women and their families on a daily basis.

Because it involves the mapping of the sacred onto pages of text and symbol, the atlas project challenges Yanyuwa cognitive abilities and emotions. The atlas is an attempt to preserve the sacred and presents a story perhaps never meant to be read; its contents belong to an original and spoken form given full authority in song. Now encoded in bilingual text and images, it binds people together in a mythological and actual history of kinship in a social act as important as the words themselves. Its many emotional dimensions become the means by which groups of people and individuals are in constant negotiation with each other. And these negotiations, especially in relation to that which is considered sacred, center around the legitimacy of claims to privileged knowledge and around connections to place and people as well as to the past, present, and future. Life is about the union of all of these things.

The production of the sacred into a text becomes in itself like the source of the Yanyuwa identity: the sea. The Yanyuwa sacred--the atlas--has, like the sea, a vastness and, at times, a nature seemingly impossible to categorize, made up of stories, folklore, argument of Law, and intergenerational wrangling. It is almost heretical to attempt a codification of the Law, whose seemingly chaotic order is what, in fact, produces its very fecundity, drawn as it is from the meshing of both the sacred and the secular. The convergence of all this knowledge creates webbings of genealogy, song, history, personal narrative, and experience--the threads of connection visible only to those with the eyes to perceive them. A loom is thus constructed that presents itself as a metaphor both ancient and modern, both inclusive and exclusive. It seeks to capture the reach and randomness of an infinite variety of interconnected themes produced through words, song, and activity and speaks of relationships between people and the land and sea, and all that they contain.

The atlas is ultimately gaining acceptance as an authoritative text drawn from a moral imperative to survive the pressures created by loss and exile and by the intense political processes of land rights claims, from the self-conscious need to keep families together in any form possible, and from a desire--a driving desire--to find ways to identify with and follow the Law or, at least, to provide conduits by which (in part) such a feeling can be made possible. The atlas is born partly through the knowledge of loss and partly because the Yanyuwa have seen what other indigenous people did in their attempts to reconcile and provide continuity for the Law in the 21st century.

The Law--the sacred knowledge of peoples like the Yanyuwa--has always been contained, on many levels, in processes of personal embodiment: in the relationship of spirit to land and sea, or in ceremonial body designs and ritual, for example. The atlas, however, produces a fundamentally different embodiment of this tradition--one of pages--that, at its worst, engages only the mind. A scan of its pages does not reveal what is not there--knowledge that cannot be recorded, like the songs and processes of the great secret and sacred rituals and like the deeper and more subtle ways of knowing that will die as the older men and women pass away. At Borroloola, people talk openly about the problem of knowledge loss; there have been too many deaths in recent years to ignore it. Still, when one middle-aged Yanyuwa woman saw, in the atlas, the visual description of her father’s song cycle, she said, "I have heard the songs of my father many times, and looking at this now I know what they all mean, I can understand, they will all die--we will all die--but our children and grandchildren can look, read, and they can know what it is we had." (Mavis Timothy, 2002)

The Yanyuwa culture has never been a calcified one; it has always been flexible and always full of inherent spirituality. Many non-indigenous observers do not understand a spirituality dependent on landscape and on its human component. The Yanyuwa have found it hard to endure the chaos of a sometimes violent, unsympathetic, and non-understanding world and have developed, in response, a fearless openness and a willingness to assimilate--to work with aspects of outside cultures in an attempt to preserve, as much as possible, the fabric of their own identity. They have made three award-winning films: Two Laws (1980), Buwarrala Akarriya-Jounrey East (1989), and Ka-wayawayama--Aeroplane Dance (1994). They have also developed a Web site in collaboration with academics from Deakin University in Melbourne, the Australian National University in Canberra, and the University of Queensland in Brisbane; the site ( is part of a process of self-representation and education. (see Bradley, Mackinlay & Devlin-Glass, 1999)

Some voices, coming from both the indigenous world and the non-indigenous world, speak out against the so-called "mingling" of cultures and think any attempt to do so corrupts a "pristine" world. They don’t see that chaotic forces have already torn--and, in some instances, continue to tear--both the social fabric of unity and pristine representation. In some respects, the atlas breaks down these broken ideals and reassembles them on another plane--one that speaks to larger truths that are sometimes elusive but become more real as time goes on. Creating the atlas has entailed listening to sometimes querulous men and women in a constant state of disagreement and demonstrates the best of an oral tradition that serves as a healthy inoculation against simple reality, simple faith, or simple doubt. It is precisely these flexible conversations that are so hard to represent on pages of text and symbol.

Because of a number of tragic deaths among senior men and women, the atlas has been brought to life somewhat prematurely; the codification of the Yanyuwa sacred is a direct response to calamity. Though it does not live in the mysterious intermediate space of the atlas, the land still lives for many Yanyuwa people, and the atlas fulfills a need--it is a trick of survival. It offers to people who are scattered a possibility to see their homes. It gives the banished a chance to be at the center of what is significant. Such opportunities are especially important for Yanyuwa youth, who are heirs to dual legacies they would like to reconcile,1 either now or in the future.

The loss of land and family is ultimately a loss of center, and demonstrates how our ideas of community, culture, and perhaps even what constitutes country for indigenous people--not to mention how we communicate, think, and see--are being transformed by vast networks of information, much of it generated by political forces emanating from far-away Australian urban centers. Such networks, the negotiations they demand, and the realignment of society they entail might be responses to changes that have already taken place, and provide an explanation for the late recognition of losses or perceived losses from within the community. The Yanyuwa find themselves involved in an attempt to recover from shattering upheavals. As they create texts, ancient becomes modern while an oral tradition is written down. In so doing, they create from a broken journey what may look like the end of a culture, but might also be a beginning. Perhaps a journey of "two ways" is not as irreconcilable as we thought.

When finished in November 2002 the atlas will represent a journey that exists between extremes of loss and creation--a negotiation among the dead and living and those yet to come and between a sense of being at home and a sense of living in exile. To map the sacred is ultimately to find oneself in a sea of competing voices, an ancient challenge but also a modern one filled with contradictions and uncertainty. Those who worked on the atlas experienced an emotional drive to continue the task of speaking about connected things and ideas. Indigenous species, family members, land, sea, and song are interconnected and the links between them can become supercharged with meaning. The further back these connections go, the greater the meaning any one thing or group of things can have. In putting these pieces together into the body of any one people’s lived experience on the landscape, memory and negotiation are means by which people continually create themselves and their sense of who they are, and by which sequence and order are maintained. Memory is an important issue here and probably has more to do with the way things are stored than with what is stored. Song cycles are related to sacred sites, ceremonies, and people--systems imbued with order. The arrangement and interconnected nature of each of the parts preserves the message and the meaning. People perceive song and the related landscape and ritual to be transforming agents that give order to the lived life. People, land, and song can be viewed as a text that is ultimately about memory and maintenance. But the question must be asked: What happens when the memory and the maintenance of the original text is failing and people choose continuity by way of a seemingly discontinuous text? This question is important, both for the owners of the text and for outsiders (like me) who find themselves acting as recorders. Herein lies the journey’s paradox, and the sacred lies at its heart.

The atlas comprises three volumes, Wirdiwalangu Anthawirriyarra (The Authority of the those descended from the sea), Wirdiwalangu Mayanguwarra (The Authority of those from the mainland), and Wandayarra a-yabala (Following the paths of the songs of the country). These three volumes are representative of the invisible connective threads that provide a fabric the people and elders see as life-sustaining. The Yanyuwa world is dependent on the continued existence of this fabric, regardless of contemporary and radical changes; Yanyuwa bodies and minds are composed of it, and the meaning of death and life inherent in it. Despite its many shortcomings, the atlas is considered a viable and important endeavor; it is representative of the way in which the Yanyuwa have experienced the pulses of time from the past and the present, and it is their hope for the future.


1. It might be that reconciliation is not essential; that the two might live together in the mind, if not integrated, then at least side-by-side in point and counterpoint.

John Bradley is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Queensland. He has worked with the Yanyuwa community for 23 years on land claims, the production of the Yanyuwa dictionary, and environmental issues. Dinah Norman Marrngawi is a senior Yanyuwa woman who has been instrumental in the production of the Yanyuwa dictionary and a key player in land claims and other issues. Thelma Douglas Walwalmara spent many years working as the adult educator in the Borroloola community. In her retirement she is a tireless worker in community youth education and the fight for her community’s rights. Mavis Timothy Muluwamara represents the voice of the middle aged people at Borroloola. She was an Indigenous Health Care Worker for many years in her community and in Darwin. Her father and older brothers (all now deceased) provided much of the material for the atlas.

References & further reading

Bradley, J., Devlin-Glass, F. & Mackinlay, E. (1999). Towards a New Kind of Two-Way Classroom. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 27:2, pp24-26.

Diwurruwurru. Our Message stick to the World. Http://


Rose, D. (1999, August). Re-enchantment. The Religion Report. Http://

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