Academic Yolngu Matha Terms

Yolngu Matha is the official name given by linguists for the languages of the Yolngu (Yolŋu), the indigenous people of northeast Arnhem Land in northern Australia.

Listed below are the definitions of a number of important academic Yolŋu Matha terms, particularly around kinship, property rights, and law. Some economic terms are also included.


BalandaBalanda comes from the word “Hollander”, from the Yolŋu contacts with people from former Dutch colonies in Asia; and is used to refer to European or English-speaking “Western” person or people. Balanda can be used in both the singular and plural senses like the English word ‘aircraft’ or ‘sheep’.


Balanydja: Balanydja is a payment for goods or services rendered under contract (called djugu). There is no single equivalent economic term in English. The payment received at the completion of a contract is called ‘balanydja’. All the goods that Yolŋu received as payment when trading internationally with the Macassans were called balanydja.


Bäpurru:  Bäpurru is generally translated as ‘clan’ by westerners. However, usually, there are a number of Ḻikan clans in one bäpurru.  A bäpurru clan has one Ŋärra’ parliament for all the Ḻikan clans within that particular bäpurru.  The bäpurru clan is a patrilineal descent group, who find their corporate identity in the ownership of yirrakla (estates) and it is the bäpurru or its members who collectively own all the surface resources of that estate. It is around the bäpurru that inter-clan trade is organised.


dhäruk- bakmaram To talk around and in reference to the Madayin Law when inside a legal chamber (such as parliament) or in an official meeting. Not a person’s own thoughts, ideas or desires, but only the legal position according to the Law.


Dhuwa and YirritjaAll of Yolŋu society and its environment are divided into two halves or moieties; these are called Dhuwa and Yirritja.  The land, people, languages and all the living things on their lands and in the sea, belong either to the Yirritja or Dhuwa group.  Even the winds from different directions and the variously coloured sunsets are assigned to one or other of these moieties.

A Yolŋu person is either Dhuwa or Yirritja according to their father.  If their father was Dhuwa they will be Dhuwa, if Yirritja the child will be Yirritja.  Dhuwa people speak a Dhuwa language and own Dhuwa lands and Yirritja people speak a Yirritja language and own Yirritja lands.  The Dhuwa and Yirritja moiety divide is the most encompassing grouping of Yolŋu society and reference map over many things.


Djuŋgaya:   In general use, djuŋgaya are the people who labour for their mother’s clan/ bäpurru in the Yothu Yindi clan kinship relationship, however, amongst this group, specific men and women are delegated to manage the business affairs.  

So for example in the event of a dispute, business negotiation, or a gathering such as a funeral, the Yothu/child group is delegated to carry out certain duties, to represent, and manage the Yindi/mother’s clan’s affairs. Those Yothu/child clan members who are specifically delegated as a representative or manager are called djuŋgaya.  Djuŋgaya roles can include acting as traditional police, master of ceremonies, lawyer, public servant, or manager. The Ŋurruŋu Djuŋgaya is the head djuŋgaya of every clan, similar to the CEO of an organization, and is the appropriate contact in traditional law for most legal and business issues.


ḺikanḺikan, at times called Bundurru, is a term that denotes core bloodline identity and responsibility to land and law.  There is no English equivalent, but those belonging to the same Ḻikan group can be referred to as “clan”.  This designation is primary in land ownership within a particular yirrakla estate.


MadayinMadayin is the name that Yolŋu applies to their system of law.  Madayin encompasses all Yolŋu law, systems and processes of law, institutions and places.

(It is not easy to translate Madayin fully into English. The closest to it is the idea of “The Westminster system of law”, which includes all the laws, legal processes and practices of the Westminster system.)

Its meaning is expansive and implies a foundational network of authority and thereby enforceable custom and social behaviour covering all Yolŋu society. The Madayin system is a ‘rule of law’, not a ‘rule of man’. It is not arbitrary, impulsive or decided by dream or desire. Rather decisions must pass through the proper democratic process. Madayin is not simply religion, tradition, custom or lore. It is certainly not Dreaming, implying something that is whimsical, made up or fantastical. Instead, Madayin is considered a solid unchangeable cultural foundation and refers to a full system of law that underpins a sophisticated society.

(As defined in Basic parameters of Yolngu Law and Governance, by Kendall Trudgen. P.8)


Mägaya This cultural concept permeates everything in the Yolŋu worldview. Meaning peace, tranquillity, harmony, justice, completeness, health, prosperity, rest, safety, absence of agitation or trouble, and protection for all. It also encapsulates a necessity for good governance. If things were to be reduced to one objective for Yolŋu society it would be the state of mägaya. This means that ideally, we all bring this state of being to all aspects of life in our own hearts. If one is to have the right approach, participants must equally attempt to carry such a state in their own hearts when approaching negotiation, consultation or dispute resolution.

(As defined in Basic parameters of Yolngu Law and Governance, by Kendall Trudgen. P.7)


Märi Gutharra

Märi: Märi is the Yolŋu relational term given to a person’s mother’s mother (grandmother on the person’s mother’s side), and all their siblings male and female.  Whole clans, too, can be known as Märi clans.  This is determined by family linage through the maternal line.  The Märi clan has a role to play in the protection of their Gutharra clan (see Gutharra).

Gutharra: is the relational term for a grandchild through the maternal line.  When a clan is called Gutharra it has representative and executive responsibilities for its Märi clan.  It is those in special Gutharra relationships who:

  1. are escorts for patients when they attend hospital or when they are critically sick at home. Giving space to the immediate family.
  2. inherit the estates of deceased Märi clan, if that occurs.


Märr  Defined as spiritual power or strength. The spiritual power or force of strength that is imparted to an article of primary produce, a manufactured product, or service provided. In all cases, märr is enacted where sweat is produced. It is a person’s ‘sweat’ that transmits the worker’s spiritual power, or force of strength into the article or service.  Per quote “This märr will increase to dangerous levels if not discharged through reciprocal trade or payments”.


Ŋärra’ (institution)

The Ŋärra’ institution (as differentiated from Ŋärra’ rom / law) is the political centre of Yolŋu society. Authorities are designated from Ŋärra’ space, decisions from this space can be enforced, and the construction of Constitutional Articles of Law are authorised in this space or via authorities designated from this space. All social authority and fundamental law thus originates or is ‘held up’ in some way from Ŋärra’; it is also the institution that is uniformly used by all Yolŋu groups for these purposes, and it is the reason (it is) termed the institution of nationhood. This is also why many Yolŋu apologists themselves interpret Ŋärra’ as a type of parliament. There are other institutions within Yolngu society, but no others carry the universal influence and power that the Ŋärra’ institution does.

(As defined in Basic parameters of Yolngu Law and Governance, by Kendall Trudgen. P.15)


Riŋgitj  Riŋgitj is an alliance of bäpurru of the same moiety – a nation of clans. Up to six clans can make up one of these nation alliances. These nations can be spread over a great distance with other clans of other Riŋgitj located in between them. This means that the clans of one nation do not have a common boundary with the other clans of the same alliance. It is the Riŋgitj that collectively owns the subsurface of all the clan estates within nation groups. Each nation of land-owning clans shares a common constitution/law base, a common army, and a common anthem or song line. There are also smaller Riŋgitj alliances covering a whole range of things from military to conservation alliances, trade alliances and even alliances that cover the teaching of particular information/knowledge.


Rom waṯaŋu walala (Rom- Law, waṯaŋu- denotes ownership, walala- they (3 or more).) The extended citizens of a yirralka estate. The larger group of interconnecting tribes and clans that have a right under Madayin law to monitor and protect, and to discipline or pass judgment on an offender if necessary. They support the wäŋa waṯaŋu – landowners, yirralka waṯaŋu – estate owners in decisions over their property and estates.


Yirralka Yirralka are traditional estates that cover both land and water. An estate is connected to a particular bäpurru and Constitutional Article of Law (under the Madayin system.) A bäpurru cannot have more than one yirralka. A yirralka is synonymous in identity with its clan and therefore to identify a clan one must be familiar with the estate.


Yolŋu or Yolngu: Yolŋu traditionally means human or humans, person or people. (so if you’re asking a Yolŋu person if they are Yolŋu you really asking if they are a human being.) It also now means an Aboriginal person or people from northeast Arnhem Land. Across Australia, a number of words are used to identify different groups of Aboriginal people: Koori in the south, Murri in Queensland and so on. The term in north-east Arnhem Land is Yolŋu. Yolŋu can be used in both the singular and plural sense like the English words ‘aircraft’ or ‘sheep’.


Yothu Yindi:  “Yothu” literally means “child” and “Yindi” literally means “big”; but the literal meaning of each individual word is an inadequate rendering of the compound word, which has a much larger meaning.  The mother-child relationship between clans is very important, and it is to this that Yothu and Yindi designation refers to.  In this case, the Yothu are the people born into the clan that the mother marries into.  This will be a clan of the moiety opposite to her own.  If the mother is Yirritja, her children will be born into a Dhuwa clan, the clan of her husband.

Yindi here refers to the mother’s clan and the mother’s mother’s clan.  Its members are called the yindi pulu – the big people in one’s life.  A person will work for their mother’s people all their life.

In the event of a dispute, business negotiations or a gathering, like a funeral, the Yothu child group is delegated to carry out certain duties, to represent, and manage the Yindi mother’s clan’s affairs. Those Yothu Child clan members who are specifically delegated as a representative or manager are called Djuŋgaya.  The head Djuŋgaya Manager of every clan and tribe is the appropriate contact in traditional law for most legal and business issues.



About Justine Speed

(Executive Assistant to Richard Trudgen) From 2001 Justine worked with Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) in Nhulunbuy as Event Manager, before joining Why Warriors in 2010. She has worked alongside Richard Trudgen for nearly 20 years. She studied English at the University of QLD and also has qualifications in community work and counselling.

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