Australia Has Its Own “Haka”

The following has been written by Richard Trudgen with coaching from Djiniyini & Dianne Biritjalawuy Gondarra, Dhulumburr Gayakamangu, Yingiya Guyula and & Maratja Dhamarrandji.


I recently got a phone call from Dianne Biritjalawuy Gondarra where she asked me, “What picture do you get when you hear the word balyunmirr?[1]” Her call was sparked by all the controversy over Adam Goodes doing what some people call “a war dance” or a “war cry”. “Well here in Arnhem Land in the NT we call what Adam performed ‘balyunmirr’.

Dianne continued, “You need to write something to explain that Australia does have a haka, in fact many of them”. She was asking me to write the article because English is my first language not hers. Most of our conversation was in Yolŋu Matha, the language of the Yolŋu people in Arnhem Land.


The Adams Goodes Controversy

externalAs a number of Yolŋu watched Adam Goodes perform on TV after he kicked the goal, they were excited because it was great for their culture to be represented there on the big screen. By his action he has very publicly taken the lid off and revealed some of the original Australian culture; and that could help us all know ourselves in a far deeper and more real way.

However Dianne and many Yolŋu were offended by a lot of the name calling Adam received, saying, “To balyunmirr is central to who we are and carries a much deeper meaning than just some ‘war dance’ or some heathen ‘war cry’.

So Yolŋu people were right behind Adam Goodes because to balyunmirr when you win something is the right time to balyunmirr.  And balyunmirr performances have been a central part of Australian culture for many thousands of years. It’s just most Australians don’t know it because their cultural roots come from offshore.

As Dianne said, “It seems strange that Balanda (European) Australians would attack Adam for what he did as most football, tennis and cricket players do a small contemporary balyunmirr before the crowd when they win”. She was referring to the times when players go down on their knees and point to the sky with both hands and fingers raised, or when some cross themselves or put their hands together in a small prayer – this is to balyunmirr.


Part of Common Cultural Practice across the World

_MG_7523Traditional Yolŋu balyunmirr performances are like the New Zealand haka and have been handed down through many hundreds of generations. The haka we see performed at rugby games and other sports events is a contemporary version of the real thing that New Zealand Māori people performed at many different times since the beginning of their cultural roots[2].

It seems that many Indigenous people around the world had balyunmirr performances or ceremonies that were performed at different times. It is a common part of cultural practice across the world and throughout history. However sadly it has been lost to many cultures.

Yet there are some things that all human beings need as part of their cultural expression, like breathing air, and we cannot do without it even if we want to. And so Yolŋu can still see in many mainstream cultural actions and performances the roots of balyunmirr type ceremonies.


No Clear Concept in English to balyunmirr

However there is no clear translation of balyunmirr into English, as it is with many of the more complex Yolŋu Matha concepts.

When Yolŋu balyunmirr they do a structured performance or ceremony where the action and the words used have a prescribed choreography determined by traditional Madayin Law[3].

These ceremonies are performed at prescribed times of great celebration such as at official ceremonies, funerals, or when opening and closing different chambers of law, such as the fully restricted Ŋärra’parliament, the semi restricted Dhuni, and in the full public domain Makarr-garma[4].

Yolŋu may also balyunmirr to create legal sanctuary, like a safe house or embassy for family members under threat. Plus it is used when welcoming outsiders to Yolŋu Yirralka estates as a statement of jurisdictional authority.

Sometimes a Yolŋu person will play just the rhythm and the words in their heads to encourage themselves in times of self-doubt or extreme trial.  At other times Yolŋu act out a part of the steps/dance and sing the words to give courage to themselves and their colleagues as they are about to take on a public challenge or defend their homes or themselves. Similar to “giving strength to the arm” or, in the way the New Zealand Haka is performed before a rugby game, to show the other side that, “We/I cannot be beaten”. It’s also used to celebrate a victory, in the same way as used by Adam Goodes.

In a sense, when Yolŋu balyunmirr they enter into the essence of ceremony itself, they become one with the actions, the words, rhythm or song that make up the performance.

Despite some people denigrating Adam Goodes for his performance many Yolŋu see clear cultural similarities between their balyunmirr performances and some European cultural activities. This can help us understand balyunmirr.

What does it look like?

When Yolŋu balyunmirr they act out a particular element of the environment, for example a type of rock, a species of tree or even a particular type of water, fire or wind. Other balyunmirr performances act out the character of a species of animal, bird, fish, snake, shark, porpoise or insect.

Sometimes the Yolŋu balyunmirr performances are very aggressive as they express the attacking actions of a shark or the strength of solid rock that will not be moved. At other times the performances are gentle and peaceful as they act out the character of a different element of nature like galŋa-watamirr, gentle breeze on the skin.

However all of these balyunmirr traditional performances link the people back to the creative and maintenance forces of existence itself. That is they create an active connection between their ŋayaŋu soul and Waŋarr, the Great Creator Spirit[5] or other waŋarr creating spirits that were sent by Waŋarr.



According to Yolŋu tradition and teaching each of the Yolŋu bäpurru tribes and family likan clans[6]of Arnhem Land were given one or more balyunmirr ceremonies. These ceremonies were given to them by one of the creating agents of Waŋarr the Great Creator Spirit. As many Yolŋu say, “When we were created our Madayin Law was also created there beside us. And part of the Madayin Law was the balyunmirr performances given to different Yolŋu groups”.

Some of the creating waŋarr spirit agents first created many of the things on the Yolŋu estates. During this process they turned themselves into different elements of nature, like a particular rock, type of water, animal or fish. These elements were then gifted to the different bäpurru tribes and family likan clans as their balyunmirr ceremonies.

Therefore today some Yolŋu will say I can balyunmirr, parrot fish, granite, or the thunder clouds. At times the people might call themselves by these particular elements such as we are the‘native bee’ people or the ‘parrot fish’ people.  These gift/s become a central point of reference for them.

As many Yolŋu say, “It represents me, it is my identity”.

Different times Yolŋu balyunmirri

As mentioned the balyunmirr ceremonies are used in many different ways. So let’s look at a number of them and also look at the comparable European ceremonies used in the mainstream context.


Traditional ‘Welcome to Country’

One of the times when Yolŋu would balyunmirri is to welcome people to their Yirralka estates. Many of the ‘Welcome to Country’ceremonies practised around Australia today are not the traditional balyunmirri performance, as they just use words. In some ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremonies the words used might be some of the words used in the original ceremony of days past, but overall the use of the balyunmirri ceremonies to welcome people to their lands are in decline.

Dianne commented, “It is strange that a traditional Australian ‘Welcome to Country’ is not performed when it seems even Europeans have their own balyunmirr-type  ‘haka’ that are used to welcome important visitors to their lands in the ‘Guard of Honour’ ceremonies”.


‘Guard of Honour’

The mainstream ‘Guard of Honour’ is not as ‘in your face’ and ‘aggressive’ as the Yolŋu traditional balyunmirr ceremonies. However when Yolŋu see them performed they see all the elements of the tradition Yolŋu balyunmirr that are used to welcome non-citizens or visitors to their Yirralka estates.

Let’s have another look at the mainstream Guard of Honour ceremony.

Check out Soldiers and their Weapons before a Cup of Tea

In European and Western tradition, when important Heads of State come visiting they usually do not just step off the plane to a nice cup of tea but are instead walked up and down past a troop of very well armed, very polished, highly disciplined soldiers as in a ‘guard of honour’.  Sometimes cannons are also fired.

But imagine next time you invite someone to dinner you hire security guards and their dogs so you can walk your dinner guests by them on the way to the dining room. Then, on the way, you point out your electronic security system so that they know your property is well defended. That would be strange cultural activity. Yet the Guard of Honour continues as a well-defined part of mainstream culture.

The Guard of Honour clearly spells out to the visitor that they are entering someone else’s lands; lands that are well defended by well trained and armed soldiers. Traditionally the visitor will walk up and down between the soldiers recognising the jurisdiction and authority of the people in the country they are visiting.

Also notice how this cultural action/ceremony is not named in a degrading way like Adam Goodes “war dance”, as though harkening back to the cowboys and Indians, goodies and baddies days. No, it is called a ‘Guard of Honour’.

When you think of it surely the Guard of Honour is a European “Haka”. ManyYolŋu see it this way. The Guard of Honour is not just about the soldiers on parade or their weapons. It is about them acting in unison to a higher authority of the State and beyond to the rule of law and ultimately God[7]. This is to balyunmirr.

When Yolŋu do their balyunmirr Guard of Honour many of the same elements as a mainstream Guard of Honour are there. The difference being the well-armed, well dressed, Yolŋu soldiers would confront the visitors by moving in unison towards them acting out the particular character of the gifted element that is theirs.

At times this would mean very sharp spears being thrust towards the visitors with a very aggressive haka-type action and cries. The thrusting of the spears is like the firing of shot from cannons and rifles in the mainstream Guard of Honour.

In the mainstream Guard of Honour blank shots are fired and in the same way Yolŋu never let loose their spears just thrusting them forward and then withdrawing them. In some Yolŋu ‘Guard of Honour’ balyunmirr ceremony a spear is also broken in two at the end of the ceremony.

The role of the visitors in the Yolŋu balyunmirri ceremony is to stand still, looking straight ahead at the advancing group. This meant that the visitors were accepting the jurisdictional authority of the particular tribe or clan they were visiting. The act of participating in these balyunmirr ceremonies is in effect taking a wawun oath of acceptance of the fact that the visitors recognise the high authority of Waŋarr in giving this particular estate to this tribe or clan.

People throughout parts of the Asia Pacific and in Australia have these very in your face “haka”, “Guard of Honour” welcomes. In the same way the Guard of Honour is used for other events such as military funerals, opening of parliament and other special occasions, so the balyunmirri ceremonies are also used in this way by Yolŋu.


Military parades

These haka-type balyunmirr ceremonies were also performed at times when Yolŋu were preparing for the defence of their home lands and before going to war. These were like the different types of military parades that mainstream soldiers participate in.

If Yolŋu soldiers were getting ready to go into battle to defend their homes or family they would balyunmirri, perform their particular character of waŋarr that was theirs. This gives strength to the soldiers both individually and collectively.

The formal parades and drills turn the group into a fighting force.  Soldiers need to be ready to shoot and kill the enemy and they need to know they are defending their homelands and not committing murder when they do so. So in mainstream military customs many different types of “balyunmirr” ceremonies and drills are used, such as the flag being carried into battle to remind the soldiers of the fact they are fighting for God, Queen and Country.

Again the Yolŋu balyunmirr ceremonies were used in the same way but instead of a flag being carried at the front of the parade or at the front line the leading Yolŋu officer can be seen biting hard on the legal dilly bag which represents the flag of the particular tribe or clan.

Before big events

Balyunmirr ceremonies are also acted out when people are anxious, such as times when the people were about to perform at some special event.

When it was used at these times it was to ŋayaŋu ḏälkum (soul – strengthen). In times like this, a Yolŋu person acts out their particular balyunmirr character and performs their particular “haka”(bala-ŋarra dhu balyunmirri)to strengthen their soul and resolve.

This could mean just doing a small part of the balyunmirr ceremony. This is enough to take the person back through all their generations of their families’ existence, back to the original event of the waŋarr creating spirits turning themselves into different characters of the created elements for different bäpurru tribes and family clans.


Building Self Esteem

What does it mean for the individual to balyunmirr?

Because I have never really experienced the balyunmirr the way Yolŋu experience it I was still struggling with the concept at this level. So Djiniyini Gondarra, one of my elder Yolŋu colleagues said, “It’s like taking a salute”.

He went on to say, “When I first took a salute of the Australian mainstream flag it was when I was given my OAM. The Governor General was there but I was not saluting him I was saluting the flag, which represented the Queen and back to a rule of law and to God Waŋarr the Great Creator Spirit. So when I balyunmirr I am not worshipping the animal or rock or whatever, I am making a connection through the ceremonial process back to the Rule of Madayin Law and back toWaŋarr the great God Creator.”

“See from a Yolŋu perspective a true Rule of Law cannot exist without the sovereign authority of Waŋarr – The Great Creator Spirit. Without Waŋarr it is only a rule of man. The balyunmirr experience reminds Yolŋu of this every time they balyunmirr. And this experience builds their self-esteem like almost nothing else can because it is a special balyunmirr gift that is given to me and my own people.”

After this conversation I thought of a time when I had experienced the same self-esteem experience through a saluting ceremony.

It was in my younger years. I was hopeless at school, picked on all the time, no good at sports and all those things. Then I joined the Scouts movement as a Cub and started to learn some useful life skills, like knot tying and so on. But now when I think about it, it was also the ceremonial process where we would be all dressed up in our uniforms and taking the Cubs salute that I experienced something that was life changing for me.

The ceremonial process, which we said we did not like, required us to take the salute for God, Queen and Country. Thinking back it was the first time I felt like someone and so I got into the whole scouting thing. My self-esteem got a boost. So this is what Yolŋu are talking about from a much deeper perspective.


Does Australia have a Haka?

Does Australia have a haka? Yes many of them. In the past across Australia there would have been hundreds of different haka-type balyunmirr performances. Today these ceremonies only exist with the more traditional First Nation People who still know and balyunmirri in a fully traditional way.

So like the New Zealand Māori people Australia also has its own haka. There were over 300 different Australian languages across Australia so maybe there were at least 300 different balyunmirr haka ceremonies in days gone by. And many of these Australian balyunmirr are just as impressive as the New Zealand haka!


So Good on you Adam Goodes

So good on you Adam Goodes. Now let’s take it to the next level and put the Australian balyunmirr “haka” back into the mainstream. And if some Australians don’t like it then too bad because this is ORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN CULTURE.


Richard Ian Trudgen © 2015


Additional Information

The name of the gifts

Some of the creating waŋarr spirit agents first created many of the things on the Yolŋu estates. During this process they turned themselves into different elements of nature, like a particular rock, type of water, animal or fish. These elements were then gifted to the different bäpurru tribes and family likan clans as their balyunmirr ceremonies.

Therefore today some Yolŋu will say I can balyunmirr, parrot fish, granite, or the thunder clouds. At times the people might call themselves by these particular elements such as we are the‘native bee’ people or the ‘parrot fish’ people.  These gift/s become a central point of reference for them.

Many Yolŋu will call these gifts their waŋarr. That is their connection back to the Waŋarr the Great Creator Spirit. As it was Waŋarr who sent the creating waŋarr spiritual being to create their tribe, their language and everything in the world around them.

Another Yolŋu Matha word that is used to name these gifted elements is guluguluŋu.

When Yolŋu think of the word guluguluŋu they get images of, my help mate, my companion. Yolŋu would see their close pet animal as their guluguluŋu. So when Yolŋu people think of the particular type of water, fire, wind or animal, bird, fish or insect that their group has been gifted with, they see them as guluguluŋu, as a very close companion.

Now we also need to remember that most Yolŋu people are very religious. They believe in Waŋarr, the Great Creator Spirit as being central to everything, whereas many Australians reading this may not even believe in God in any form or way.

For Yolŋu to balyunmirr is where the individual or group takes on and acts out, internally or externally, the character of their particular element of their created existence gifted to them by a higher being who they see as Waŋarr, the Great Creator Spirit.  It does not matter if they are acting out the character of a particular fish or bird – even a mosquito or native bee – or a particular mineral or a species of tree, or wind or fire….they are all gifts of Waŋarr. And these gifts are central to their being and identity.


Thousands of years old internet/Google search systems

These balyunmirr performances are also much more than just a performance.

Many main-stream Australians will say that Australian Aboriginal people were an oral society, but in fact Aboriginal society had many sophisticated knowledge recording media that did not require carrying around lots of books or being connected to the internet. These were knowledge systems that were carried around in their heads.

These tens of thousands of years old balyunmirr performances are one of these. That is they have recorded on their balyunmirr song-lines and the prescribed choreography steps a whole encyclopaedia of information.  Within the words and the steps are many layers of information that can be accessed by the people as they repeat them throughout their lives!

As young Yolŋu people learn the basics of the balyunmirr performances they just learn the rhythm, the tune, the steps and actions. Then as they start to understand the gurraŋay matha, the academic language and concepts, loaded on the song-lines and put them together with other high levels of learning from many other song-lines plus the conversation with their elders, things take shape in their thinking.

A number of Yolŋu have said that as they work though the particular balyunmirr rhythms and tune, singing the words they experience epiphanies and knowledge growths. So the older you get the more things come together for you from the balyunmirr experience.

These very sophisticated self-learning media allow the people to be always learning even when they sit by themselves just singing the rhythm, words and tunes. In a sense they are able to go back to the event of creation where the creating waŋarr spirits initially taught their first bäpurru tribal members at the beginning of Yolŋu recorded time.

That is why now many Yolŋu will says “Ŋarrakubalyunminyawuy[8] my performance is ŋarrakuminjtigagamunuŋgu, ŋarrakulukudhulaŋ -is my families heraldic symbol, our legal colours and designs that belong to my family.It is our “coat of arms”, it is part of the bases of our traditional law and estate rights”.

“When I balyunmirr narrkuwaŋarrnarradjama riyawarra – when I balyunmirr, my particular spirit creator –  I create a riyawarra, a legal chamber of law where our law is taught. So to balyunmirr is all about the maintenance of a law abiding community.


[1] Balyun-mirr pronounced “a” as in ado and “u” as in put. Not baḻ’yun which mean to beg or cadge.


[3]Madayin [ma – day – in]. The underlined d is the d sound made with the tongue curled back in the mouth.

The Madayin is the name for our complete system of Law including all the laws, legal processes and practices, plus legal objects, law chambers and the places that have been proclaimed through the processes of Madayin law. So even animal or fish production sites can be called a Madayin wäŋa – Madayin place/home.

It is not easy to translate Madayin into English as English does not seem to have a word like Madayin. The closest to it is when we say,“The Westminster system of law”. “The Westminster system of law” includes all the laws, legal processes and practices of the Westminster system.

[4]Where the name for the Garma Festival comes from.

[5]Waŋarr is the Great Creator Spirit, who lives on the heaven island of Burralku, the home of the morning star, to the east of Arnhem Land.

[6]Paternal Family lines.

[7] God is still referred to in the Australian constitution. New citizens still mention God in the oaths they take. And to open the Australian parliament the Lord’s Prayer is said. So whether most Australians recognise it or not the higher authority of God is very clearly part of the contemporary Australian culture.

[8]Balyunminyawuy this is its noun from for the gifted performance


Richard Ian Trudgen © 2015

About Richard Trudgen

Richard was born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner. He moved to Arnhem Land in the NT in 1973 and became a community worker, learning to speak Djambarrpuyŋu. Has now worked with Yolŋu people for over 45 years. He was the CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) for 10 years during which time he developed discovery education methodology with Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and also established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He is the author of Why Warriors Lie Down and Die and facilitated ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars, and delivered corporate training across Australia. He is currently the CEO of Why Warriors Pty Ltd, a community development social enterprise organisation working with Yolngu people. He spends his day writing, producing podcasts and building online learning platforms, producing videos and working face to face with Yolngu. He is also involved in building online cross-cultural training material to build understanding between Indigenous peoples and the Dominant Culture.


Add your comment:

  1. James Cooper

    Thank you so much for this insightful and educational article. I stumbled across it while looking for media narratives in response to the booing of Adam Goodes and, more specifically, the response to his balyunmirr. I’ve found that mainstream media articles, that present as being supportive of Adam Goodes, still contain what I’d describe as colonial narratives that aim to put him into the ‘Indigenous box’ as opposed to educating the reader on what he is doing/saying and why it matters. I’m glad to have found this website as a consequence of my research and look forward to reading more of the work you have all produced. I will be sure to cite this article in my essay.

  2. Rodney Dyson

    Full of shit,over it

    • RICHARD Trudgen

      Well Rodney it doesn’t really concern me whether your over it or not. The truth is the truth. If you are having trouble with this bit of truth about the Real Australian Culture, then you should have a look at my 90 Q & A questions about Abouirginal Culture up the front of this website. They might really get to you. I am 72 years of age and over the lies. Happy to talk any time.

  3. Yep

    Aborigines jealous and copying Maori culture again

    • Richard Trudgen

      How can they be copying Maori culture when it is the oldest people in Arnhem Land who speak little English who are the holders and the teachers of this information that they call balyunmirr ceremony. And with over 24 clans in north-east Arnhem Land alone, not counting the clan in southern, central and western Arnhem Land all having their own very complicated balyunmirr ceremonies this is impossible.

      Plus they are a group of people with one of the highest deaths rates in Australia. So I do not think they have the time or inclination to want or have to copy Maori culture.

      Besides any study of the subject will see that the balyunmirr ceremonies were common throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Captian Cook ran into these ceremonies.

      Please see our World View online courses up this week to see that things are not always what we think or assume them to be. Happy to continue the conversation.. thanks RT

  4. Erin McDonald

    I’m glad this article popped up in my search about haka, although I understand that balyunmirr are different, as well as more varied and ancient. I’ve been deeply impressed by the things I’ve been finding about about Australia’s First Peoples in recent years. It’s heartbreaking the way colonial cultures have treated indigenous peoples and destroyed cultures and languages, some lost forever. I’m glad that there are groups that are dedicated to preserving and restoring this knowledge. I hope that more if the general population in your country and throughout the world begin to recognize the significance and richness of these 300+ cultures bring to the history and wisdom of humanity.
    Much respect from Stockton, CA, USA!

    • RICHARD Trudgen

      Thanks Erin for your comments. Yes it seems the colonial way is to wipe out the people’s culture and language and then complain about the results. Or spend millions of dollars teaching them their language again. Hopefully, we can turn things around here in Arnhem Land so the Yolngu don’t have to go completely through the same destructive process.
      If you know of any resources that can help us achieve this we would be grateful.
      If you want to learn more about the original Australian culture make sure you sign up for our newsletter. We try to get one out of every month and put something new in it every time. Just go to the bottom of any page on this website to sign up. Thanks again RT

  5. Richard

    I am confused. Elders have come out and said , that their has never been war dances , nor do we have a haka , which is an embarrassment, when the indigenous players do their league attempt. Now we also have an person of indigenous origin, putting a feather in a head band like the warriors of the americas.

    • Richard Trudgen

      Did you or did you not read the article above?

      The balyunmirr ceremony as it is called in the original Australian language here in Arnhem Land, not in the colonial English, is thousands of years old.

      Some of the elders you may have said they don’t have any such ceremonial dance might come from a more of the mainstream understanding. That is there are many different Aboriginal cultures across Australia. From the very traditional people like the Yolngu of Arnhem land who still assent to their own traditional law and speak their own original Australian languages, to Aboriginal people who have now lost all their traditional law and their original Australian language. This is no fault of their own, it’s the fault of the mainstream system that force out the original Australian language and completely denies the original Australian traditional law of this country, still today.

      The Yolngu man in the picture above is dancing a Balyunmirr dance that is like the Haka and was performed at my granddaughter’s funeral just a month ago. So it’s real, it’s in Australia, it’s part of the original Australian “ceremonial” performances that every different tribal clan in Arnhem Land has as their own.

      So I suggest you read the article again and then come back to us if you are still confused.
      Thanks for your comment as the silence on this article has been deafening. RT

    • David

      Nothing to be confused about richard ust like the aboriginal women elders said there was not such thing as “secret womens business” when others tried to the use it as an explanation to stop building a bridge to hindmarsh island, but didn’t have to tell what I it was never it was a …”secret”…but was real so you have to believe it.
      No one ever hear of the Australian haka before. Now it magically appears..should never call it the haka anyway.. nothing like the NZ haka and never will be.
      Stop copying other cultures and pretending it’s always been around. If it has it should be video taped on an episode of ..Leyland brothers…Harry Butler…or a written article from the 1st settlers who WOULD have witnessed it. Or even in modern times welcoming a foreign country it would have been performed. But it hasn’t just created after Adam goodes did his little spear throw..
      And of course let us not forget the typical reaction to people mot agreeing..of:
      look into it closely sweety, let the big people talk and the kiddies go and play…etc etc etc..plain and never was there and everyone knows it.

      It’s like a child trying to convince an adult that they didn’t do anything it though the adult saw then do it. But just keep arguing until they get their way. So which is is an excuse for every time there is a hole found in their claims