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Common MISCONCEPTIONS about Traditional Indigenous Law

Misconception 1: Aboriginal law is mainly a ceremonial and spiritual mythology

Talk of Aboriginal law conjures images of dreamtime stories, ancient mythology and religious ceremony. But very few westerners have any real idea of what Indigenous law is like and how it compares to Western law. In truth most Indigenous cultures have a law founded in very similar principles to Western systems of law. Why is this? Because all human societies must function under a system that provides security & protects its citizens.

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Magayamirr - A Foundational Principle
A basic explanation of the foundations of Yolngu law

Misconception 2: Aboriginal Society was pre-civilization

Most cultures, probably all ancient cultures, operate under a complete system of law which includes social, judicial, economic and religious systems. In fact, evidence from Yolngu society suggests that the complexity of many of these systems of law from Indigenous cultures have been largely ignored because we tend to assume that commerce, parliamentary decision making and justice by trial are inventions of the European civilization. The law of Indigenous peoples such as the Yolngu are represented as pre-civilization and consisting of social and religious lore rather than legally binding law. This is certainly not the case.

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Madayin - A Complete System of Law

Misconception 3: Traditional Indigenous society was pre-democracy

The standard Western view of traditional Indigenous political systems is that of an autocratic tribal chief whose decision is final. If we think about it, what we imagine is a patriarchal hierarchy or monarchy which in fact is a kind of dictatorship. However, we do not name it that strongly. Alternatively, the Australian dominant culture views pre-colonised Aborignal society as egalitarian, with no real authority strucutres apart from family life. Western world-view attributes the development of democracy to the Greeks. This is consistent with our historical experience. However, it is likely that many Indigenous cultures have operated under a political system based on representation for thousands of years. The Yolngu people practice a form of democratic political representation, by selection rather than election, in their traditional political system.

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Political Structures of Government
Basics of the traditional political government structures of Yolngu law and Yolngu views on the nature of the Western political system

Misconception 5: Indigenous Australians were nomads

Although it is seen as politically incorrect today to call some Indigenous groups 'nomads' it is still the accepted ideology about traditional Indigenous society. Yet there is more and more evidence that makes it clear that tribal family and clan nation Indigenous groups owned specifically defined parcels of land. Property rights are fundamental to social stability and a system of law. Without a geographic area of influence or jurisdiction the law becomes a set of conventions that lack sovereignty.

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The Basis for Land Ownership - Native Title

Information Papers (Copyright 1998 © ARDS Inc.)

The above Information Papers were published by Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) as a response to certain issues and topics. ARDS is a non-profit NGO working to build the capacity and the independence of the Aboriginal people in Australia particularly the Yolngu people. They are at the forefront of grassroot community development and are currently the only source of adult educational material in the Yolngu language.

The Information Papers are available as HTML (text) documents or as PDF documents.  The HTML documents use the English alphabet. However the Yolngu Matha fonts are reproduced correctly in the PDF documents and you will be able to print these as they appear. They are also available from the ARDS website here, alternatively you can order a bound hardcopy booklet directly from ARDS.



The Information papers here are provided by the ARDS website. The links to Info pages will open in a new window, close the window to return.