Yolngu have a complicated kinship structure that involves both ‘care’ and ‘avoidance’ relationships between family members that must be adhered to. Avoidance relationships can be with people much older or much younger, and are put in place for reasons of respect or protection from things like incest.
A Balanda (white, mainstream) nurse said to Why Warriors founder, Richard Trudgen:
“I went to pick up this Yolngu baby to have a little cuddle,” and everyone was saying to me ‘no, no, no, you’re in avoidance with that baby!’… did it really matter that I continued to pick up the baby?”
“Yes!” said Richard, “you made a stressful situation even more stressful. Some things you just have to avoid.”
Yolngu know their kinship structure off by heart. The nurse’s relationship to the baby, unbeknown to her, was an avoidance one because of her adoption into Yolngu culture and her place in the structure. By picking up the baby she was breaking cultural practice.
In mainstream society, young men don’t want to know about their mother’s sexual relationships. There’s a clear avoidance there. So every cultural group have their avoidances. “You need to know what they are. It could be between a brother and sister, and when they’re in same classroom there shouldn’t be references to sexual issues or swearing or they will get up and walk away. It could be the way you’re acting or what you’re saying,” says Richard. “Definitely don’t try and organise where people sit – let students sit where they have communication control.”
By learning the avoidances and asking people to tell you where and how they happen, you will gain respect and understanding within Yolngu communities. And if you make a mistake, be prepared to say you’re sorry and people will forgive you and be prepared to move on.
Listen to Richard Trudgen’s Q&A no. 37 for more information.